Wednesday, July 01, 2015

The Dream of the Machine

As I type these words, it looks as though the wheels are coming off the global economy. Greece and Puerto Rico have both suspended payments on their debts, and China’s stock market, which spent the last year in a classic speculative bubble, is now in the middle of a classic speculative bust. Those of my readers who’ve read John Kenneth Galbraith’s lively history The Great Crash 1929 already know all about the Chinese situation, including the outcome—and since vast amounts of money from all over the world went into Chinese stocks, and most of that money is in the process of turning into twinkle dust, the impact of the crash will inevitably proliferate through the global economy.

So, in all probability, will the Greek and Puerto Rican defaults. In today’s bizarre financial world, the kind of bad debts that used to send investors backing away in a hurry attract speculators in droves, and so it turns out that some big New York hedge funds are in trouble as a result of the Greek default, and some of the same firms that got into trouble with mortgage-backed securities in the recent housing bubble are in the same kind of trouble over Puerto Rico’s unpayable debts. How far will the contagion spread? It’s anybody’s guess.

Oh, and on another front, nearly half a million acres of Alaska burned up in a single day last week—yes, the fires are still going—while ice sheets in Greenland are collapsing so frequently and forcefully that the resulting earthquakes are rattling seismographs thousands of miles away. These and other signals of a biosphere in crisis make good reminders of the fact that the current economic mess isn’t happening in a vacuum. As Ugo Bardi pointed out in a thoughtful blog post, finance is the flotsam on the surface of the ocean of real exchanges of real goods and services, and the current drumbeat of financial crises are symptomatic of the real crisis—the arrival of the limits to growth that so many people have been discussing, and so many more have been trying to ignore, for the last half century or so.

A great many people in the doomward end of the blogosphere are talking about what’s going on in the global economy and what’s likely to blow up next. Around the time the next round of financial explosions start shaking the world’s windows, a great many of those same people will likely be talking about what to do about it all.  I don’t plan on joining them in that discussion. As blog posts here have pointed out more than once, time has to be considered when getting ready for a crisis. The industrial world would have had to start backpedaling away from the abyss decades ago in order to forestall the crisis we’re now in, and the same principle applies to individuals.  The slogan “collapse now and avoid the rush!” loses most of its point, after all, when the rush is already under way.

Any of my readers who are still pinning their hopes on survival ecovillages and rural doomsteads they haven’t gotten around to buying or building yet, in other words, are very likely out of luck. They, like the rest of us, will be meeting this where they are, with what they have right now. This is ironic, in that ideas that might have been worth adopting three or four years ago are just starting to get traction now. I’m thinking here particularly of a recent article on how to use permaculture to prepare for a difficult future, which describes the difficult future in terms that will be highly familiar to readers of this blog. More broadly, there’s a remarkable amount of common ground between that article and the themes of my book Green Wizardry. The awkward fact remains that when the global banking industry shows every sign of freezing up the way it did in 2008, putting credit for land purchases out of reach of most people for years to come, the article’s advice may have come rather too late.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that my readers ought to crawl under their beds and wait for death. What we’re facing, after all, isn’t the end of the world—though it may feel like that for those who are too deeply invested, in any sense of that last word you care to use, in the existing order of industrial society. As Visigothic mommas used to remind their impatient sons, Rome wasn’t sacked in a day. The crisis ahead of us marks the end of what I’ve called abundance industrialism and the transition to scarcity industrialism, as well as the end of America’s global hegemony and the emergence of a new international order whose main beneficiary hasn’t been settled yet. Those paired transformations will most likely unfold across several decades of economic chaos, political turmoil, environmental disasters, and widespread warfare. Plenty of people got through the equivalent cataclysms of the first half of the twentieth century with their skins intact, even if the crisis caught them unawares, and no doubt plenty of people will get through the mess that’s approaching us in much the same condition.

Thus I don’t have any additional practical advice, beyond what I’ve already covered in my books and blog posts, to offer my readers just now. Those who’ve already collapsed and gotten ahead of the rush can break out the popcorn and watch what promises to be a truly colorful show.  Those who didn’t—well, you might as well get some popcorn going and try to enjoy the show anyway. If you come out the other side of it all, schoolchildren who aren’t even born yet may eventually come around to ask you awed questions about what happened when the markets crashed in ‘15.

In the meantime, while the popcorn is popping and the sidewalks of Wall Street await their traditional tithe of plummeting stockbrokers, I’d like to return to the theme of last week’s post and talk about the way that the myth of the machine—if you prefer, the widespread mental habit of thinking about the world in mechanistic terms—pervades and cripples the modern mind.

Of all the responses that last week’s post fielded, those I found most amusing, and also most revealing, were those that insisted that of course the universe is a machine, so is everything and everybody in it, and that’s that. That’s amusing because most of the authors of these comments made it very clear that they embraced the sort of scientific-materialist atheism that rejects any suggestion that the universe has a creator or a purpose. A machine, though, is by definition a purposive artifact—that is, it’s made by someone to do something. If the universe is a machine, then, it has a creator and a purpose, and if it doesn’t have a creator and a purpose, logically speaking, it can’t be a machine.

That sort of unintentional comedy inevitably pops up whenever people don’t think through the implications of their favorite metaphors. Still, chase that habit further along its giddy path and you’ll find a deeper absurdity at work. When people say “the universe is a machine,” unless they mean that statement as a poetic simile, they’re engaging in a very dubious sort of logic. As Alfred Korzybski pointed out a good many years ago, pretty much any time you say “this is that,” unless you implicitly or explicitly qualify what you mean in very careful terms, you’ve just babbled nonsense.

The difficulty lies in that seemingly innocuous word “is.” What Korzybski called the “is of identity”—the use of the word “is” to represent  =, the sign of equality—makes sense only in a very narrow range of uses.  You can use the “is of identity” with good results in categorical definitions; when I commented above that a machine is a purposive artifact, that’s what I was doing. Here is a concept, “machine;” here are two other concepts, “purposive” and “artifact;” the concept “machine” logically includes the concepts “purposive” and “artifact,” so anything that can be described by the words “a machine” can also be described as “purposive” and “an artifact.” That’s how categorical definitions work.

Let’s consider a second example, though: “a machine is a purple dinosaur.” That utterance uses the same structure as the one we’ve just considered.  I hope I don’t have to prove to my readers, though, that the concept “machine” doesn’t include the concepts “purple” and “dinosaur” in any but the most whimsical of senses.  There are plenty of things that can be described by the label “machine,” in other words, that can’t be described by the labels “purple” or “dinosaur.” The fact that some machines—say, electronic Barney dolls—can in fact be described as purple dinosaurs doesn’t make the definition any less silly; it simply means that the statement “no machine is a purple dinosaur” can’t be justified either.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the statement “the universe is a machine.” As pointed out earlier, the concept “machine” implies the concepts “purposive” and “artifact,” so if the universe is a machine, somebody made it to carry out some purpose. Those of my readers who happen to belong to Christianity, Islam, or another religion that envisions the universe as the creation of one or more deities—not all religions make this claim, by the way—will find this conclusion wholly unproblematic. My atheist readers will disagree, of course, and their reaction is the one I want to discuss here. (Notice how “is” functions in the sentence just uttered: “the reaction of the atheists” equals “the reaction I want to discuss.” This is one of the few other uses of “is” that doesn’t tend to generate nonsense.)

In my experience, at least, atheists faced with the argument about the meaning of the word “machine” I’ve presented here pretty reliably respond with something like “It’s not a machine in that sense.” That response takes us straight to the heart of the logical problems with the “is of identity.” In what sense is the universe a machine? Pursue the argument far enough, and unless the atheist storms off in a huff—which admittedly tends to happen more often than not—what you’ll get amounts to “the universe and a machine share certain characteristics in common.” Go further still—and at this point the atheist will almost certainly storm off in a huff—and you’ll discover that the characteristics that the universe is supposed to share with a machine are all things we can’t actually prove one way or another about the universe, such as whether it has a creator or a purpose.

The statement “the universe is a machine,” in other words, doesn’t do what it appears to do. It appears to state a categorical identity; it actually states an unsupported generalization in absolute terms. It takes a mental model abstracted from one corner of human experience and applies it to something unrelated.  In this case, for polemic reasons, it does so in a predictably one-sided way: deductions approved by the person making the statement (“the universe is a machine, therefore it lacks life and consciousness”) are acceptable, while deductions the person making the statement doesn’t like (“the universe is a machine, therefore it was made by someone for some purpose”) get the dismissive response noted above.

This sort of doublethink appears all through the landscape of contemporary nonconversation and nondebate, to be sure, but the problems with the “is of identity” don’t stop with its polemic abuse. Any time you say “this is that,” and mean something other than “this has some features in common with that,” you’ve just fallen into one of the corel boobytraps hardwired into the structure of human thought.

Human beings think in categories. That’s what made ancient Greek logic, which takes categories as its basic element, so massive a revolution in the history of human thinking: by watching the way that one category includes or excludes another, which is what the Greek logicians did, you can squelch a very large fraction of human stupidities before they get a foothold. What Alfred Korzybski pointed out, in effect, is that there’s a metalogic that the ancient Greeks didn’t get to, and logical theorists since their time haven’t really tackled either: the extremely murky relationship between the categories we think with and the things we experience, which don’t come with category labels spraypainted on them.

Here is a green plant with a woody stem. Is it a tree or a shrub? That depends on exactly where you draw the line between those two categories, and as any botanist can tell you, that’s neither an easy nor an obvious thing. As long as you remember that categories exist within the human mind as convenient handles for us to think with, you can navigate around the difficulties, but when you slip into thinking that the categories are more real than the things they describe, you’re in deep, deep trouble.

It’s not at all surprising that human thought should have such problems built into it. If, as I do, you accept the Darwinian thesis that human beings evolved out of prehuman primates by the normal workings of the laws of evolution, it follows logically that our nervous systems and cognitive structures didn’t evolve for the purpose of understanding the truth about the cosmos; they evolved to assist us in getting food, attracting mates, fending off predators, and a range of similar, intellectually undemanding tasks. If, as many of my theist readers do, you believe that human beings were created by a deity, the yawning chasm between creator and created, between an infinite and a finite intelligence, stands in the way of any claim that human beings can know the unvarnished truth about the cosmos. Neither viewpoint supports the claim that a category created by the human mind is anything but a convenience that helps our very modest mental powers grapple with an ultimately incomprehensible cosmos.

Any time human beings try to make sense of the universe or any part of it, in turn, they have to choose from among the available categories in an attempt to make the object of inquiry fit the capacities of their minds. That’s what the founders of the scientific revolution did in the seventeenth century, by taking the category of “machine” and applying it to the universe to see how well it would fit. That was a perfectly rational choice from within their cultural and intellectual standpoint. The founders of the scientific revolution were Christians to a man, and some of them (for example, Isaac Newton) were devout even by the standards of the time; the idea that the universe had been made by someone for some purpose, after all, wasn’t problematic in the least to people who took it as given that the universe was made by God for the purpose of human salvation. It was also a useful choice in practical terms, because it allowed certain features of the universe—specifically, the behavior of masses in motion—to be accounted for and modeled with a clarity that previous categories hadn’t managed to achieve.

The fact that one narrowly defined aspect of the universe seems to behave like a machine, though, does not prove that the universe is a machine, any more than the fact that one machine happens to look like a purple dinosaur proves that all machines are purple dinosaurs. The success of mechanistic models in explaining the behavior of masses in motion proved that mechanical metaphors are good at fitting some of the observed phenomena of physics into a shape that’s simple enough for human cognition to grasp, and that’s all it proved. To go from that modest fact to the claim that the universe and everything in it are machines involves an intellectual leap of pretty spectacular scale. Part of the reason that leap was taken in the seventeenth century was the religious frame of scientific inquiry at that time, as already mentioned, but there was another factor, too.

It’s a curious fact that mechanistic models of the universe appeared in western European cultures, and become wildly popular there, well before the machines did. In the early seventeenth century, machines played a very modest role in the life of most Europeans; most tasks were done using hand tools powered by human and animal muscle, the way they had been done since the dawn of the agricultural revolution eight millennia or so before. The most complex devices available at the time were pendulum clocks, printing presses, handlooms, and the like—you know, the sort of thing that people these days use instead of machines when they want to get away from technology.

For reasons that historians of ideas are still trying to puzzle out, though, western European thinkers during these same years were obsessed with machines, and with mechanical explanations for the universe. Those latter ranged from the plausible to the frankly preposterous—René Descartes, for example, proposed a theory of gravity in which little corkscrew-shaped particles went zooming up from the earth to screw themselves into pieces of matter and yank them down. Until Isaac Newton, furthermore, theories of nature based on mechanical models didn’t actually explain that much, and until the cascade of inventive adaptations of steam power that ended with James Watt’s epochal steam engine nearly a century after Newton, the idea that machines could elbow aside craftspeople using hand tools and animals pulling carts was an unproven hypothesis. Yet a great many people in western Europe believed in the power of the machine as devoutly as their ancestors had believed in the power of the bones of the local saints.

A habit of thought very widespread in today’s culture assumes that technological change happens first and the world of ideas changes in response to it. The facts simply won’t support that claim, though. As the history of mechanistic ideas in science shows clearly, the ideas come first and the technologies follow—and there’s good reason why this should be so. Technologies don’t invent themselves, after all. Somebody has to put in the work to invent them, and then other people have to invest the resources to take them out of the laboratory and give them a role in everyday life. The decisions that drive invention and investment, in turn, are powerfully shaped by cultural forces, and these in turn are by no means as rational as the people influenced by them generally like to think.

People in western Europe and a few of its colonies dreamed of machines, and then created them. They dreamed of a universe reduced to the status of a machine, a universe made totally transparent to the human mind and totally subservient to the human will, and then set out to create it. That latter attempt hasn’t worked out so well, for a variety of reasons, and the rising tide of disasters sketched out in the first part of this week’s post unfold in large part from the failure of that misbegotten dream. In the next few posts, I want to talk about why that failure was inevitable, and where we might go from here.


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Wizard of Tas said...

The wheels are certainly coming off. Not only the economy, but also the great not-made-by-humans outdoors. From my wife's reporting of poss on her FB groups, of flowers and animals doing the Spring thing in what is the height of our winter, to the FIRST ever July cyclone recorded by Queensland Meteorology (cyclone season usually finishes end of April).

Yep, the wheels are coming off this wagon suficient to induce flashbacks of wagon scenes in old episodes of F Troop.

Angus Wallace said...


I think of it as intellectual sloppiness instead of inherent contradiction. Similar to the way Copernicus said (words to the effect that) "of course the Earth is at the centre of creation, but the maths is much simpler if we pretend that the sun is at the centre", scientific materialists will say "let's treat the universe as a machine -- it's been helpful in the past and likely will be in the future". You're right that some of these materialists are also atheists who then get carried away with their metaphors...

I guess it's a bit like the painting: "c'est n'est pas un pipe" -- it's always important to remember that a representation (or perception!) of a thing is not the thing!

Cheers, Angus

Derv said...


It's a bit surreal to see Greece actually, finally ending the game. It's been going for so many years, and with some new (and inevitably pointless) can kicking at every turn, that the end of it all seems bizarre. It almost felt like it would never really happen to me, even though I knew it would, and so I can understand a little bit the shock that the financiers must be feeling right now. It's just over. Perhaps all of Europe (and maybe even the rest of the world too) may be about to face reality. And I can't help but think that a hundred new tricks will be thrown out by the central banks of the world to try and close pandora's box; who knows if it'll be successful this time?

As for me and my own, we now live in a house with a cistern, near a river, railroad tracks, and a grain elevator. My wife has a few good years of real gardening under her belt, and I have a job that we can rely on for at least a while longer. Once I can secure some minor power generation, we should be well set, thanks in no little part to you. So thank you for that. If this is finally the Big One, I can at least hope to weather the storm better than most.

And as for the mechanical universe, the more I've learned about the reality of our scientific knowledge base, the more shocking becomes the hubris of those who have unshakable faith in it. We know so much less than is generally believed. This is still a world of mystery, and will remain so until kingdom come.

Tim Horan said...

"As Visigothic mommas used to remind their impatient sons, Rome wasn’t sacked in a day."

I should not have been drinking my coffee over the keyboard while reading The Archdruid Report this morning. Mr. Greer, if you need to supplement your work of Archdruid and writer as the The Long Descent unfolds, you could do a lot worse than stand up comedy.

On another note, I just finished reading The Great Crash 1929 and now feel vaccinated against the irrational exuberance that is underway in the Sydney, Australia property market (where I reside).

Jay Meltesen said...

Complex machines were made during Roman times, but they were playthings of the rich for the most part. The archimedian screw is an example of a mechanical device that was exploited to a certain extent in the ancient world. The worship of technology and its downfall when energy becomes too expensive will be interesting to see among the hand held computer device wielding contemporary generation.

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

I’m reminded of Thomist philosopher Edward Feser, who is a strong critic of intelligent design theorists, precisely because they posit the universe as a kind of machine and then basically try to argue that since it's a machine it must have a creator. So they end up making the same mistake as the mechanistic Darwinists.

You've also got me thinking now about the difference between arguments for the existence of a creator and arguments for the existence of a ground of being from which everything else emanated. Get past superficial similarities and there's a difference between saying that the world exists because of a primal being's choice — whether the choice was to make a machine, as in ID, or an organism, as in Thomism — and the world existing as a consequence of something more basic existing.

The latter would seem to imply that, true to its name, Nature as a whole is truly something born, not a machine made by anything else.

Quos Ego said...

Dear JMG,

I can honestly say you are the only writer of the collapse sphere I still read these days, having lost interest in the increasingly shrill discourse about sudden collapse that seems to be prevalent. I took a peak at Ron Patterson's blog the other day and saw insults, plenty of insults, being hurled across keyboards full of deplorable spite and pride.
I feel the insanity has reached even those people I once considered the sanest.

So, in these difficult times, thanks again for keeping this place civil and level-headed. Even though I'm not entirely convinced the wheels will come off the economy this year (I'm with Jeremy Grantham on this, and I bet on 2016), there's an odd feeling in the air.

fudoshindotcom said...


While reading your post it occurred to me that people sometimes apply the same thinking in reverse. Rather than attribute mechanistic behaviors to natural phenomenon, they credit machines with behavior similar to natural phenomenon.

The example that came to mind were those securities traders who utilize the Fibonacci sequence as a method for charting market fluctuations.

As far as I've read this hasn't proven particularly successful. The failure seems the inevitable result of applying a pattern (of numbers or percentages) observed to repeat in Nature to mechanistic market behavior.

In other words, "This is not that."

donalfagan said...

I'm not sure if the wheels are coming off, but it wouldn't surprise me to be laid off this summer. I've been mentally prepared since the recession. They keep me around because I know how to put a building together, but when times are really tough they keep the marketing types to get new work, and the young guys who don't earn as much.

There was a tv show, How William Shatner Changed the World, which was precisely about how young people saw communicators and tricorders on Star Trek, then grew up and invented cell phones and other analogous technology.

Ray Wharton said...

Well I am fairly well collapsed, camped out on a biodynamic farm, volunteering in the fields enough to support my basic needs. I should try to use some of my currency I have saved now to get the rest of things in order for the coming winter, cashes usefulness could become inconsistent. Wish I had about another year to practice being collapse before the test. Just being able to take care of all the little things in life is the real tricky part. Perseverance in the small. Still, I am very far ahead of many, and I think that I do my best with a fire toasting my backside, so I might be grateful for something to push all the pieces I have diligently gathered together. No doubt you remember the young hobbits from TLotR mentioning how much they hated the waiting, seeing characters from the mind of a man who knew WWI directly utter that feeling has been good for me.

I hope this wakes up some of my friends a little bit, I fear some will by despair be consumed when they can no longer consume. I am thinking of some lovely folks, but careless from prosperity, a kind of carelessness that wounds me. We are not islands, each one of us need human relationships to thrive. Must vividly for the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual stimulation, but also for help in the practical matter. I am a bit fried today from working in the sun, my best buddy lay in the shade the whole time, he wasn't counting his beers the night before; the sun and weeds were less sympathetic than I was, so the gardening still needed to happen, one man or two. I prepared well enough to be secure for my self, but it has cost so much of myself trying to work with others to be prepared together. Good people I emphasize, but they have no experience to ground their ideology to "do this now, for winter is long and beans get boring." with out experience of something toughening the finest souls are not fully manifest enough to stoutly hold a line. Eh, I will feel better as the evening cools.

I should sit down and list some of the little chores it will take to batten down the hatches.

MayHawk said...

JMG: Another great post. I have just finished liquidating my Deferred Comp account which I did over the last 12 months. Maybe just in the nick of time. Wish I could could have done the same thing with my Retirement account but alas.

Your "Dream of the Machine" is right to the point. First we dream of the machine and then we create it. I think it is time to start a different Dream.

I am looking forward to next weeks post as it may give me some clue as to where and what to do with all those bits of paper and ink stuffed into my safety deposit box.

I've missed reading your responses to the many thoughtful comments to your recent post. I suspect that as things come apart at the seams you have ever more demands on your attention. As Jesse Stone says "You can only do what you can do". (Actually I can't imagine how you do all that you do.)

John Roth said...

A lot of raw meat in this one.

There’s another way in which “is” works well: the “is of state.” Consider the sentence “The grass is green.” Clearly grass is not identical with the sensory category of “green,” but the statement is perfectly understandable and uncontroversial. Grass has a series of states, from seed, to seedling, to growing, to dead and decaying. “The grass is green,” picks out one of those states. This is the failure of classical logic: in its simplest form it does not handle state transitions very well.

Rev. Dodson (better known as Lewis Carroll) was working on this problem in volume 2 of his work “Symbolic Logic,” which was still unpublished at his death. It was resurrected and published several decades ago. From that volume we have a syllogism called Raw Meat.

Major premise: What I buy in the market I eat that night.
Minor premise: I bought raw meat in the market.
Conclusion: I ate raw meet tonight.

Clearly there’s something wrong with this. What’s wrong is that there’s an implicit state model behind it that doesn’t show up in the syllogism.

Isaac Newton is sometimes called the last magician; one of the major impediments to having his ideas accepted was that he didn’t have a mechanical model of how gravity worked. The intellectual climate of the time did not really accept the idea of action at a distance, which is where the “magician” came from.

As a student of the Michael Teaching, the answer to the perplex you pose is fairly clear: the exploration of how to work with the physical universe was intended, culminating in the Industrial Revolution. As part of that, most of the people who incarnated to work on it accepted a set of blinders that prevented them from seeing the wider picture.

MayHawk said...

Also; Looks to me like we are on the cusp of the Era of Impact.

Five8Charlie said...

Thank you for pointing out the problems with misusing the identity word 'is'. For your readers who would like to go a bit further with this issue, I recommend "To be or not" by David Bourland. I keep my copy next to my Strunk & White.

RPC said...

Hmmm. I think you're trying to set off some fireworks for Independence Day!

Ray Wharton said...

The Machine Universe is to Creation as the Mechanical Reductionist is to the Theologian.

I remember blog posts here about progress being a secularized version of salvation. Also about the Angry Atheists and the Fundamentalists being both subclasses of 'true believers'. Hmm and hmm, its starting too look like the Machine Universe is Creation emptied of living will, emptied of a spiritual living principle. In fact the Machine Universe is very very VERY similar to the Universe as prescripted by God, that whole idea of God as all knowing. Its not even like the idea of God is not implicit, as you point out the vestigial throne in your post, it is more like he is dead. The thrown is still there, waiting for the Overman to take it; grabbing the control board of this great Machine. Universe reduced from God's just kingdom to God's nice car left with the key's in the ignition waiting for humanities legs to grow long enough to, ha, reach the gas. It really seems like the biggest difference in the idea that humans can wield the Machine; while the Kingdom of God's Creation is too full of life and richness to ever be mastered.

"The Universe is a Machine, therefore it lacks life and consciousness" is the key point because this is the move that differentualtes the Machine universe from Divine creation. "Creation" has life and consciousness. One is tempted to ask, of course, if the universe (that is to say aproximently "all that is") lacks life and consciousness, then how could those words mean anything and how could you mean anything by making that claim? If the universe lacks those things completely they are with out referent or example. Why the denial of Life, and the denial of Consciousness (that most critical aspect of freedom)? I think that this could be the spiritual exhaustion said to be common of late peoples. That spiritual exhaustion coinciding with the flourishing of these mental technologies risen out of a thousand years of diligent refinement of mental technologies reappropriated from the Classical civilization, it leaves the mental technology ungoverned. Extrahuman forces such as the lust for air felt by the long buried dead, never let to recycle into lives cycle, likely turned this cultures quirk into the rather staggering frack job we are left with today. With out that we might have had a civilization of whimsical clockwork gadgets, and even then perhaps humans toward the end wound up like spring loaded trinkets by the end, but not the staggering difference in economic magnitude.

NickelthroweR said...


I've been reading your blog now for about a month and I find it to be insightful and relevant. With that said, I would like to comment on the atheism and the nature of the Universe. Atheists tend to pride themselves on rational thinking but the micro/macro physics and construction of the Universe, at least with regards to how modern science define them, leave us with a bit of cognitive dissonance.

I'm convinced that the Universe is an electrical device. After all, atoms are clearly electrical devices held together with magnetism. Frankly, they are more of an idea than an actually physical structure. If that is the basic building block of the macro Universe then the Universe, itself, must be an electrical device.

Well, devices do not create themselves - as an inventor, I know this first-hand. What I can not do is connect that knowledge to any of the 1000 or more deities that mankind has invented to explain creation. That makes me an atheist.

The Apollo rocket was not created by a single person but by over 400,000 people, most of whom had no contact with any of the other 400,000 people toiling towards the same goal yet create it they did. Perhaps our Universe was created the same way.

I look forward to your next post.

Bruno B. L. said...

JMG, I wonder...the great problem that the current vision of mankind, "Man as Conqueror of Nature", has is the fact that we are running out of concentrated forms of energy (mostly, oil). Had humanity, however, developed a new form of energy - for example, fusion - which was more concentrated and easy to use than oil, and inexhaustible (in practical terms), wouldn't this vision of mankind perhaps be immortal? Wouldn't we actually go to the stars and expand forever, conquering world after world? The way I see it, there are no false nor true visions of mankind, only adaptive and maladaptive ones. And the vision of mankind as a Conqueror of Nature was very adaptive when we had these abundant source of energy at our disposal; and became extremely maladaptive once these began to run out. Following the same line of thought, one can suppose that, if we had a new source of abundant and concentrated energy, that particular vision of mankind would still be alive and kicking. What do you think?

AA said...

"They dreamed of a universe reduced to the status of a machine"

I'm not sure that's accurate. That dream -- if existed -- was a popular and debased idea of what working scientists such as Newton, Leibniz, Lagrange, and Hamilton were doing at the time. The idea behind classical mechanics is that given a set of initial conditions -- say position and momentum -- it's possible to work out the subsequent trajectory in simple cases. For example, if I throw something into the air with a certain initial velocity, I can predict how high it will go, how far it will go horizintally, and how long it will take. The same with respect to the orbits of planets around the sun. In this sense classical mechanics was a huge success. In the decades and centuries to come the math that made classical mechanics possible -- ordinary and then partial differential equations -- shed light on aspects of the physical universe (electrodynamics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, quantum theory, relativity) But I doubt that Newton -- a working alchemist -- would see the world as an inanimate mechanism.

John Michael Greer said...

Wizard, the competence of the self-proclaimed masters of the universe bears close comparison with F Troop, so I think you've got a workable metaphor there.

Angus, I encourage you to get into a debate with a bunch of internet atheist trolls sometime. Before you know it, they'll be insisting at the top of their lungs that it is too a pipe!

Derv, oh, I know. That's the thing about this sort of crisis; what exactly will come of it is anyone's guess.

Tim, just one of the services I offer. ;-)

Jay, of course -- but you'll note that the Romans didn't make machines central to their image of the universe.

James, good. An astonishing number of people don't seem to get that distinction.

Quos Ego, you're welcome and thank you. I have zero interest in the kind of online forums where everything dissolves into lowest-common-denominator insult slinging, so decided to try something different here. As for when the wheels will come off, well, remember that it has a lot of wheels -- we may both be right.

Fudoshin, oh, granted. Human beings basically aren't very smart, and so tend to use simplistic categories for thinking because that's all they can manage. For beings of such limited intellectual capacities, all things considered, I think we've done pretty well, but still...

Donalfagan, that'll be happening to a lot of people; I hope you're practically as well as mentally prepared.

Ray, no question, it's going to be rough. I hope your friends can get a clue in time.

MayHawk, I try to respond to the first few days of comments, but can't always do more than that just now -- I've got two large writing projects to get done in a hurry.

John, I'll have to remember the raw meat syllogism -- that's good. As for Isaac Newton, the only people who think he was the last magician are those who haven't noticed that magicians are still very much around!

MayHawk, well, I did say I thought that was imminent!

Charlie, thanks for the recommendation!

RPC, nah, this is just applause. The real fireworks are set to go off in the global economy and the biosphere.

Pinku-Sensei said...

Happy Canada Day to all your Canadian readers and for all the American ones, an early happy 4th of July!

"René Descartes, for example, proposed a theory of gravity in which little corkscrew-shaped particles went zooming up from the earth to screw themselves into pieces of matter and yank them down."

I find that hysterically funny, not only for the inherent ludicrousness, but also because it ties into a conversation over at your other blog that you imported into your previous post here about the troubles of String Theory. That's one form of unified theory of everything in physics that postulates that gravity is like all the other three fundamental forces of the universe that physicists recognize, which means it's mediated by particles. Now I can't get that image of how gravitons might behave out of my head.

"People in western Europe and a few of its colonies dreamed of machines, and then created them. They dreamed of a universe reduced to the status of a machine, a universe made totally transparent to the human mind and totally subservient to the human will, and then set out to create it."

That also ties together this blog with your others. You define magic as a change in consciousness caused by will. In this case, the change of consciousness came first, and then it was made manifest in the world by science and technology. So the change we need to survive in the world to come will be another act of magic, whether the people doing the conjuring realize it or not.

The idea of magic expressed through religion seems to be a subject even the science fiction on television is exploring. Two shows I follow, Defiance and Falling Skies, both looked at the power of religion to control people through changing their consciousness. Both also compared it to the power of totalitarian ideology and tactics and found religion to be more effective. Must be something in the ether.

Grebulocities said...

Just a comment on the financial crisis - I am actually sort of impressed with the global financial system's ability to kick the can down the road and sustain the unsustainable. Ever since the "recovery" began, I've been expecting the wheels would fall off and the global economy would go back into a tailspin, but each time the powers that be have managed to glue or duct tape the wheels back on and keep going as though they'd actually fixed the problem.

Take, for instance, the fracking bubble. It's obviously a bubble of the same sort that was chronicled in Zweig's fantastic book Belly Up: The Collapse of the Penn Square Bank, but on a much grander scale. Yet despite an oil price collapse seven months ago, it has still yet to unravel or even result in decreasing oil production, at least as of yet. The main difference I'm seeing is the radically different interest rate situation; in the early 1980s the Volcker Shock pushed interest rates to nearly 20%, whereas we've been at zero for nearly seven years now. The resulting bubble in nearly everything (fracking being just one example) has been quite long-lived, and it's not impossible it could keep going a while longer.

Greece is another interesting case. I predict it will cave quickly and accept austerity conditions, either by a 'yes' vote in the upcoming referendum or by Tsipras accepting the deal with a few minor changes, which he's already trying to do despite the referendum. That doesn't change the fact that it's completely insolvent and has to be bailed out in order to pay back its loans from the previous bailout, but the Greeks seem to have been scared enough by the default, bank holiday, and capital controls that they'll probably go back despite the fact that their creditors were forcing them into an economic depression rivaling the Great Depression.

I'm not claiming that this time really is different in any meaningful way. At the end of the day, the world economic system is a house of cards, and sooner or later something will send it back to earth. But I bet if you polled the denizens of, say, The Oil Drum in late 2009 and asked how long they thought the "recovery" charade could be kept up, very few would have guessed it would still be going. And it just might keep on rolling...

Moshe Braner said...

Well I guess I'll go ahead and do what you said some of us will do: say that "the universe is a machine but not in THAT sense". When I took high school physics the thing that made a big impression on me (even though I was raised to that point by a physicist father) was the realization that material things behaved in ways that could be COMPUTED. Not only does a rock thrown into a well proceed to fall down to the bottom, but if you measure the time to the splash, you can compute the depth of the water level. Wow. The wider implication is that material objects behave in predictable, deterministic ways, down to the last details. I think this is what atheists mean when they say that the universe is a machine: determinism.

Even the most devoutly religious still rely on such determinism in everyday material life. The remaining arguments include:

* To what extent can deterministic phenomena be UNpredictable? That's where "chaos theory" comes in. Some very simple deterministic rules, let alone real-world systems such as weather, can indeed produce behavior which cannot be usefully predicted for very long into the future.

* To what extent do we understand the mechanisms (not machines!) of the universe. Those with enough hubris think that more technology will solve the problems created by some technology. Others think we should be more cautious - but that does not imply a belief in a non-mechanistic universe.

* Are there things in the universe that are NOT deterministic? This is where the atheists split from others. They say: we havn't seen anything that is convincingly exempt from deterministic behavior. Yes there is a large fraction of humans who say that they've had religious experiences, but that is no enough to convince those who have not had such experiences, or who attribute those experiences to the chaotic behaviors of a deterministic brain.

Note that we do not have to fully "understand" everything about the universe to notice that it, or at least much of it, behaves mechanistically. Just like Newton stumbled upon the simple mathematical rule that the motion of massive bodies in empty space follows, even though he did not have an explanation for WHY or HOW this "gravity" force operates, especially at a distance. And guess what: we STILL don't have a good explanation for it, even though by now we've refined those rules of motion to include relativity etc. Because we are willing to accept the mechanistic behavior without, er, a mechanism to explain it, it is natural for us to assume that everything else in the universe has similarly deterministic behavior, even if we havn't yet even observed it. This assumption is unproven, but, from my perspective, neither is any competing assumption.

Nick A said...

Long time reader, second, maybe third time commenter?

I agree with JMG's premise that people 2, 5, 10, 100 years from now will view the last 6 months of 2015 and the first 6 months of 2016 as a turning point (it seems like nothing ever happens in the summer). Barring a bunch of serious black swans that cause a massive global supply chain shutdown, I also am mostly confident that 2015 and 2016 will be more serious repeats of 2008 and 2009 - we will not be murdering each other with sporting equipment for the last cans of spam.

I also agree with JMG's premise that we can't really know what exactly the next 20-40 years of scarcity industrialism will look like. Complex systems do not change without external stressors. Sometimes they change for the better. I think there is tremendous spare capacity to adapt to what is coming, and I think that the seriousness of peak oil and climate change being popularly acknowledged will unleash serious changes. I think the final years of the internet as we know it will be its finest hour, the dissemination of information on a global scale will be very useful in distributing mostly-lost skills.

onething said...

I don't recall seeing comments last week to the effect that the universe is a machine.

Carolyn said...

Reading your first few paragraphs, my internal monologue was going something like "Dammit dammit dammit dammit I'm getting married in two weeks and having a baby in three months and we're all set to buy our own house but what if all this financial f***ery means we won't be able to get a mortgage loan and I'm the sole income earner but what if my job goes away and and and arrrrghhhhh" Thanks for the much-needed reminder that people have survived crises much like these relatively intact. Maybe just knowing that this is coming so I'm not blindsided by it will help. I talk about it a lot to my partner, so he knows I'm expecting hard times and want to be positioned so as to be able to roll with the punches, but I think most of the rest of our families are pretty oblivious. I don't know how to talk about this sort of thing with "normal" people without sounding like a crazy doomsday street-corner preacher, so I mostly don't. Any advice along those lines?

John D. Wheeler said...

Regarding the word "is", I find it interesting that in French, you don't say, "I am hungry", you say, "I have hunger." And in Spanish, they have two forms of the verb, one for temporary conditions, the other for permanent ones; so, for example, you would say "The corn is-now ripe" but "Corn is-always a member of the grass family".

And regarding trees versus bushes, the simplest distinction I've heard is that a tree is tall with a single trunk whereas a bush is short with multiple stems. Then you have something like mesquite, which if you cut down the tall, single trunk, will regrow as something short with multiple stems.

fudoshindotcom said...

I hadn't meant that as generalized commentary on human intellectual capacity, but to illustrate a specific instance in which a perceived, yet non-existent, correlation led to an illogical expectation.

My personal belief is that humans are intelligent enough, but that we don't employ our intelligence correctly in attempting to overcome our difficulties.

I'm also of the opinion that we have an unproductive tendency to "overthink" things and that a liberal application of Occam's razor would clear away some needless complexity.

Unknown said...

"The most complex devices available at the time were pendulum clocks, printing presses, handlooms, and the like—you know, the sort of thing that people these days use instead of machines when they want to get away from technology."

I had to laugh. I have friends who flint knap and make atlatls to "get away from technology". More like "gimme that ol'time technology".

Between the limitations of our primate sensorium and the limitations of our primate cognition, we really know very little about the world around us... too bad we don't act like it.

“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so"

Mark Rice said...

The universe as a machine reminds me of the collection of short stories by Stanislaw Lem called The Cyberiad. All the characters are machines who create other machines. There is the quote in one of the stories:

"for it is written that All is Machine, from atom to Galaxy, and the machine is one and eternal, and thou shalt have no other things before thee."

But does the mechanism need to have an intended purpose in order to be a machine. The sun is a mechanism to produce light using an ongoing fusion reaction and gravity to contain the reaction. The sun is what it is regardless of the intent of a creator. Though I guess that depends on what your definition of is is.

On a more serious note though -- back in the day when I was an athiest, I had the belief that my mind could understand everything. I also prided myself on being a realist. When I finally accepted my finiteness I had the thought that maybe my brain just isn't wired to understand everything. I got to the point where I realised me understanding God is like my dog understanding space travel.

Myosotis said...

I haven't dropped everything to prepare for an economic collapse, but I feel good about some of the relationships I've invested in. Not as much as would be ideal, its lonely in your 20s but maybe it'll be enough to help. I can't think of what would realistically be more useful than people who think of me fondly and know that I'm at least helpful.

John Michael Greer said...

Ray, exactly. I think it was Victor Frankl who pointed out that these days, nihilism isn't about nothingness; it's about nothing-but-ness.

Nickelthrower, you've already admitted that an electron is more an idea than an electrical object. Why not take the next step and consider the possibility that the universe is a structure of ideas rather than a machine, electrical or otherwise? As for gods, your Apollo metaphor would make perfect sense to a polytheist, you know.

Bruno, the difficulty there is that energy is only one of the things we're running out of in a hurry, and unless this new form of energy you're postulating is capable of limitless expansion -- which is true of no form of energy in the cosmos, for reasons ultimately linked to the laws of conservation -- we'd be back in the same fix we're in now, and in fairly short order, exponential growth being what it is.

AA, you've missed my point, which is that the dream of a mechanical universe -- however popular and debased it might have been -- was on the scene before Newton et al., and arguably inspired and guided both their researches and the enthusiasm with which their conclusions were adopted by Western societies.

Pinku-sensei, very good indeed; that gets you tonight's gold star. Exactly; change in consciousness comes first, and leads to changes in technologies and the like -- and that, of course, is precisely what I've been trying to kickstart into motion on this blog and elsewhere for the last nine years.

Grebulocities, it's possible, but at this point so many things are coming apart so enthusiastically that I think we've passed a boundary of sorts. Stil, we'll see.

Moshe, from my perspective, you're starting from the claim that a few things in the universe are deterministic, and making a wild leap of fantasy to get to the claim that the whole universe is deterministic. Since "deterministic" in this sense means no more than "our quantitative models can reliably predict things in certain cases" -- we don't actually know if those models correspond to "laws of nature," of course -- that seems to me like an astonishingly vast claim to make on astonishingly little evidence.

Nick, nicely summarized. I hope you're right about the internet.

Onething, that's because they were sufficiently belligerent that I deleted them, of course.

Carolyn, I don't recommend trying to talk about the end of the industrial age with people who still believe in the religion of progress; they won't, and indeed can't hear what you're saying. I wish I had another answer, but that's what I've seen, over and over again.

John Michael Greer said...

John, oh, no question, English is an incredibly clumsy language to think in, and it's almost impossible to avoid the "is of identity" when using it. I hope our descendants work out something better to speak and think with.

Fudoshin, granted, but I consider the specific instance an example of a much broader phenomenon.

Unknown, and of course the thing is, your friends have a point. If they're like most people into retro tech, they want to use technologies simple and concrete enough that they make some kind of sense on the human scale -- and that's a very reasonable choice just now.

Mark, of course the sun is what it is; I simply question that the category "machine" makes any sort of sense of what it is. A better case could be made, I think, that it's a very simple organism that metabolizes hydrogen and excretes electromagnetic radiation! As for your dog and space travel, though, very good indeed; to my mind the flaw with atheism is precisely that it presumes to know something that is arguably beyond humanity's capacity for knowledge.

Myosotis, you're far better prepared than a great many others!

Scotlyn said...

"Begotten, not made"

This is how the Creed describes the relation of Christ, the Son, to God the Father. But these words have been resonating for a year or more as a way to reach the third path leading away from the binary that is creationism v "mechanistic-ism" - as those two sets of ideologues grapple over whether a "made" universe has a "maker" I've been considering the implications of being part of a universe which is "begotten" and NOT "made" - no maker, no making, but an organic unfolding, of the kind life displays.

Chloe said...

Am I sensing a little hostility towards atheists? From the sounds of it, you've run into the worst sort: the kind who're as certain in what they call "rationalism" and the non-supernatural nature of the universe as any religious evangelical is in their own faith, and replace gods and paradises with twisted conceptions of science and dreams of the Singularity. God is dead; all hail rational thinking!

But this is not what atheism means. At its core, atheism says nothing about *knowing* whether there are gods or forces beyond our ken. That falls to agnosticism - the assertion that we cannot know the answer to a question. Atheism simply refers to a lack of *belief*. I've seen nothing to convince me of the existence of anything beyond the physical world, but I don't presume to *know* (as any science undergrad worth their salt could tell you: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence), so I would describe myself as both - agnostic, and atheist.

Those who say "the universe is a machine" have simply fallen prey to a lack of rigour in their use of English language. They haven't considered or recognised at any point that a machine must have purpose; the contradiction is therefore inherent in the language but not necessarily in the thinking. "Mechanistic" or "deterministic" are better terms. Whether or not the principle is right - again, I've never seen anything to contradict it; every new insight in the sciences (from the basic principles of chemistry to research in modern meteorology and neuroscience) finds that its subject matter follows basic principles or rules and improves our ability to predict its behaviour. Just as natural selection can be accepted without producing evidence of its workings in every single organism, so the principle of determinism can be taken as a working hypothesis until something comes along to suggest otherwise, without needing to apply it to every single bit of the universe. This doesn't mean it's "proven", and it never will be, regardless of the fact that science does not deal in self-reflection (i.e. scientific principles cannot be used to determine whether science is applicable). Nothing is ever proven.

Whether or not the principle is right also, in one sense, doesn't matter. The complexity of the universe is such that we can never hope to understand more than a fraction of its workings. Some (often the "rationalists" again) hold that we can break down the universe into its constituent parts and so understand it, but the task is ultimately futile and perhaps self-defeating even if it were not. On a sub-atomic level, perhaps we have deterministic brains, but on a human level, we are people. Personally, I'd rather keep being a person – so I'm not going to start bleating about our lack of free will, regardless of the intellectual arguments. On the other hand, while there’s a logical jump in the argument that “universe functioning according to natural laws with no conscious creator or purpose = universe humans can control”, we must be careful not to make the same jump backwards: the truth of one says nothing about the truth of the other.

Gods and the supernatural fall beyond our comprehension, yes, and unlike some who call themselves atheists I’m not going to claim to *know* anything in that regard. However, it must be remembered that the potential for such things to exist does not mean they actually do.

As for intellect: our brains evolved to find mates, navigate complex social systems, extract resources and develop technology in ways that are highly intellectually demanding by the usual standards of primates, though admittedly not philosophy or quantum physics.

Stars do have many of the properties of living organisms, though they’re missing one critical aspect of life as usually defined, which is that they don’t actively reproduce themselves. At least, as far as we know. But then, we don’t know anything, do we?

Caryn said...

John D. Wheeler:
" Spanish, they have two forms of the verb, one for temporary conditions, the other for permanent ones; so, for example, you would say "The corn is-now ripe" but "Corn is-always a member of the grass family"."

It's similar in Cantonese, two completely different verbs, (characters -conjugations). What I find most interesting about studying another language is how it subtly shows a very different thought process to our own, even in something so fundamental like "being", "is".

I also caught that: "The most complex devices available at the time were pendulum clocks, printing presses, handlooms, and the like—you know, the sort of thing that people these days use instead of machines when they want to get away from technology."
But I was thinking "Too right! I don't WANT to give up on the good things we've gotten from mod-cons / mechanicals, (Ya know how many hours of work are saved by a loom or a sewing machine!?) - just looking for something sustainable when the electricity is cut off for good. If oldy-Timey steampunk mechanisms fit the bill, then, for as long as they last, I'm all for them!

Carolyn - Many congratulations on your impending nuptials and baby!

And JGM: Thank You for your answer to Carolyn, as I was pondering the exact same thing, (what to say to BAU friends and family without sounding like a crazy-zombie-apocalypes-prepper?). Although, having said that, I do find there seems to be something in the air; an unease, a mistrust, a feeling that things are about to change drastically. Having spent much of my adult career in costume and fashion design, being well acquainted with clothing history, I can say with certainty that there is always a REASON when ideas are 'trending'. Without calling it 'Green Wizardry', all manner of Green Wizardry, (gardening, crafting, herbal remedies, etc.) is definitely trending now.

Just made my first successful batch of soap, shampoo and laundry soap and I'm feeling a little less crazy every day.

Caryn said...

JGM: Thank You again.

Have you updated your security here or are the Google-Gods messin' with me? Is this machine I'm working with, (I call her Pinky) having a jolly running me all over the internet to try and post? Very temperamental this thing. ;)

das monde said...

If this discussion claims pure logic standards, there is something unsatisfactory in the historical confusion how machines originally influenced the Western mechanical understanding of the universe. Perhaps "created" and "purposeful" were not the key categorical labels to "machinery" at all originally. Metaphors are not used to extrapolate every implication. As Korzybski said, a map is not the territory. The JMG point seems to me like bickering about a map.

There is also some incongruity in basically viewing rationalists, atheists as predictable, usable for fun machines :-) By the way, how mechanical (or not) is the expectation of a civilization collapse or a definite decline?

Denys said...

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast called You Are Not So Smart, the episode on narratives.

A professor from UNC was being interviewed about her studies in people's ability to change their minds after they heard a persuasive narrative that impacted them. Study after study the researchers found that once the story is implanted, nothing they could say or do could change the effect of the story. Even when the narrative was false and they told the subjects that the story they were going to be told was false, people still believed it because of its emotional impact on them. Hearing about this research was confirmation of the power of the media over people, and even the power of the stories we tell ourselves about our personal histories.

It sounds like from that research there is no way to free someone's mind by another person, unless I guess another more emotionally powerful narrative would cover up the old narrative. I suppose too there are those that free themselves. For myself, I still feel the tug of certain narratives about our culture and country and have to pause to reset my brain.

Thank you JMG for providing a different narrative of events that I can use to better prepare and plan for the future. And to throw an "is" statement in for fun - "knowledge is power".

Justin W. McCarthy said...

I am collapsing in place...
ha, my "place" has been a life of constant travel and moving around since childhood. Hope I can keep it rolling!

Great post, JMG. Thanks!

Another data point, there have been no less than 7 shark attacks in the past three weeks in the beaches of North Carolina, where my stone is currently rolling. For context, US gets about 15 on average per year. Why are the sharks so hungry to be attacking people? Thing is, its all different kinds of sharks, so its not like one or two man eaters.

Lawfish1964 said...

Excellent post! I have struggled with organized religion since being paddled for having my hair too long in fourth grade at a southern Baptist Christian school. The amount of hate and intolerance I experienced at an early age pretty much turned me off of Christianity in particular and organized religion in general.

Since that time, I have pondered the existence of "God." Years of soul-searching and scientific study have caused me to conclude that people trying to explain God is like dogs trying to explain algebra. The concept of the creator of the universe, its purpose in creating, and our purpose for existing are simply beyond the grasp of the human mind.

I do not attend church and do not belong to any organized religion, so to most of my Christian friends, I am considered an atheist. Since I long ago eschewed discussing religion, I simply let them think what they will. But if they ever eat dinner at my house, they will experience the thanks we acknowledge to the creator for the fact that an animal had to die so that we could eat. Life is not possible without death, a fact that so many people, even those of a religious bent, seem to gloss over. I see God as nature, so I suppose I am somewhat along the lines of a druid, although I know nothing of druidry, other than what I have read here. But because it seems to fit so well with my line of thinking, I will keep returning to learn more.

Looking forward to next week's post!

Odin's Raven said...

I've completed a couple of short stories and hope that one of them will be acceptable for the competition.

King's Quest depicts a future where a tool of consciousness is more sought and better understood than a mechanical prosthesis.

New Yorkers is a short humorous view of a future where archaeology may still be puzzled by the relics of a misunderstood past and where unconventional views continue to be popular.

Cherokee Organics said...


Computer gremlins took me off the Internet air today - completely. What a time eater and now it is almost bedtime...

Problems aside (and I have to make this very brief rather than my usual long winded but hopefully interesting comments. hehe! ;-)!), I've been meditating on your reply from last week: "what thou doest to the least of these, thou doest unto Me."

One interpretation leapt to the forefront of my mind today and that is that the reply and original source comment suggests an alternative perspective which is that perhaps the universe is indeed one aspect of the creator or God or whatever you want to call it? Dunno, but I've been pondering the connectedness of things recently and it seems that if magic is a part of nature then why not nature being a part of the creator (or whatever you want to call such a thing). What an awesome thought as the universe really could be a huge organism like thing.

Creationists and atheists have such a human centric point of view that they leave me feeling cold - the universe can be so much bigger and full of total awesomeness!

PS: All that physics talk in the comments does my head in…



PS: I'd like to add a quick link to this week’s blog titled: How to dig a hole. The blog is actually about digging holes for the super strong steel chicken fortress which is currently under construction. It is good stuff and it will be a pleasant and stimulating place for the chickens. Also for those interested in what life looks like when all you have to rely on is the sun for electricity and it’s the depths of winter - then take a peek (don't be scared – it won’t bite because it doesn’t have enough energy too!). Also lots of house construction stuff and cool photos.

Graeme Bushell said...

Hi Moshe Braner,

(sorry if this is a dumplicate)

Example of something that isn't deterministic? Quantum events, ie the stuff that everything else is built from. The most common interpretation of the mathematics is that its really fundamentally not deterministic. At least, that's my understanding of it. There are some pretty interesting consequences, regardless of which interpretation you take. Some random ramblings about this at my rather uninteresting blog.


William Meisheid said...

Re: " If the universe is a machine, then, it has a creator and a purpose, and if it doesn’t have a creator and a purpose, logically speaking, it can’t be a machine."

This is the most significant thing of your I have read (at least from my perspective). We live in an era of oxymoronic thinking.


Andy Brown said...

Humans have evolved two distinct means of dealing with the world. One you might call the mechanistic model – in which effects follow causes and physical limits exist. You push something and it moves. That ditch is too wide to jump over – try it and you’ll fall in. The other is the model of the mind. We are social animals enmeshed in a social world, and some of our most sophisticated abilities rest in our ability to model and predict other minds and the social relationships that link them. Maintaining some sanity, power and autonomy in the real world requires managing both of these realms.

I agree that the obsession with a mechanistic orientation – and the apparent effort to edit out or eliminate the role of other minds in the equation - which you’ve been diagnosing in the past two essays, does have to do with confusing these two approaches, but I wouldn’t put it down to the machine-implies-a-maker point.

I would say that what we are seeing is the culmination of a long process of moving more and more human relationships from the social-psychological model to the mechanistic model. Long ago analysts noted that bureaucratization and urban living involved interacting with people not as full, fellow human beings, but as simplified, roll-specific mechanoids. You can hand over the change to the clerk the same as you would a vending machine.

As long as we had rich social lives – as long as our personal economic and social positions relied on our ability to manage social relationships and understand the psychological states of the people around us – the fiction that the clerk was a vending machine didn’t really do most of us any harm. But do we still have those rich social lives? Does it really matter to the corporate drone what his supervisor is thinking and whether or not she likes him or not? The philosophies that guide (and reward) elite thinking – like economics and management – are entirely devoted to making the case that humans are best understood and manipulated in mechanistic terms.

So we have a kind of cultural insanity, and it is intensified among the most powerful among us. And it is an approach that is turning out to be entirely ineffectual when it comes to managing human and other complex systems – which respond as though they have agendas of their own.

Rashakor said...

This is another wonderful illustration and wider application of the adage " Do not confuse the map for the territory".
Mental models are useful to understand our surroundings but it is of primordial importance to keep in mind (pun intended!) that they are just that; mental constructs.

Regarding languages: these are also powerful mental contructs that shape thoughts more reliably that many other factors in education. English is a language that offers concise, action-oriented grammatical structures much more so than french or spanish. More and more I can glimpse the magick differences that exists between the 3 and how you can arrive at different conclusions just by phrasing the same sentence in all 3 languages... Lost in translation is more than just a catchy phrase. It can modify the map inside our brain more reliably than many things...

Ed Ryan, CPA said...

The Ptolemaic model of the cosmos seems to me the archetype of the Universe as a machine. That didn't hold up. I think that ultimately the nature of whatever all this is, is beyond knowing. Depending on what the meaning of the word is, is! Which is not an unreasonable question. Which Bill Clinton was raked over the coals for by the MSM, just as much as Rumsfeld was castigated for talking about the things we don't know that we don't know and there are plenty of those.

RPC said...

Moshe Brauner's comment inspires me to point out that the model can be built completely backwards. That is, the universe could just as easily be modeled as a collection of random processes. I don't know when a particular atom of radium is going to collapse into an atom of radon and some radiation, but give me a lump of the stuff and I can tell you when half of it will have done so, and the bigger the lump, the more accurately I can tell you. It's possible that what we call "determinism" is simply rules for predicting the behaviors of large enough collections of random events.

Nick A said...

I have some more thoughts.

JMG, I think you're correct that it's unlikely to be feasible for the vast majority of people to prepare for collapse to the extent of moving to some sort of doomstead or ecovillage if they have not already done so. Land, resources and the money to obtain them are a significant constraint for most.

I'm 26, dependent-free and am an engineer at a defense contractor, which is hopefully a secure position for a few more years - probably longer, war is almost certainly going to be a growth industry. I realize that most people can't do this, but my preference is to stay mobile. I generally subscribe to the Club of Rome view that developed countries will gradually start to look more like third world countries - vast slums and no opportunity for most, with the remaining wealthy in gated communities. My goal is not really to get myself a spot in one of those islands of wealth and privilege, but rather to maximize my opportunities in as many different futures as possible. My main priorities are physical fitness and skill development, I do not think that settling down is a good move if you have a somewhat secure place in the money economy. Knowledge and skills cannot be taken away from you or destroyed by climate change, the government or criminals. But maybe I'll be proven wrong, and die as a result, but that's basically the normal state of human existence, so it really shouldn't bother me.

Regarding the Internet, I generally agree with the premise that there will be some form of the Internet in 2065, but probably not generally accessible and used by governments, militaries and those few corporations still engaged in international trade. However, in the short term, meaning the next decade, I would imagine that the Internet will continue to exist more or less as it does today, just likely with more balkanization and censorship.

I think that one of the NSA and allied-alphabet-soup-agencies purposes will be to create an imperceptible soft censorship of the Internet, where "this page is blocked" will be a fairly rare sight, but control of what people see on the various online fora that suck up so much of our time is subtly shaped to attempt to mold people's perceptions of reality in a way that those throwing the switches want, which relates to your idea about a mechanistic view of the universe. After all, if you can model human activity in an accurate enough way, and then control the input to the human machines, you can control the output if your model was accurate enough. Or so the theory goes. So I think for a lot of reasons, maintenance of something very like the Internet of today as well as the manufacturing and distribution of devices to access it will have a lot of our dwindling resources allocated to it. I remain hopeful that there will still be room for realistic discussion of the present situation on the Internet, which is why I am optimistic that the Internet will drive a lot of positive change, because I think that the project of soft censorship won't actually block dissenting thought on the internet, it will just keep it hard-to-see on social media.

Brian said...

I suppose people must be reminded from time to time that metaphors are not reality, but a way of apprehending aspects of reality. I would have thought Korzybski's "the map is not the territory" had made that obvious for all time. Yet we all fall into the trap of forgetting the existence of the map. Translating from one language to another teaches one immediately that practically every word in one's language is, one way or another, a metaphor that must then be deciphered in order to figure out how to express the same concept in the target language. Most English speakers, especially Americans, rarely learn other languages (since English is for the moment the "world language"), so they don't have it thrust in their faces daily.

This is why I believe no completely "logical" language can ever be created that is capable of expressing all human communication and thought, despite the efforts of so many (Lojban, Esperanto, Ido, etc.). Because human beings, while capable of logic (with great effort) are not inherently logical beings. Logic is not a natural way of thinking; actually, "thinking," in the sense we're using here, isn't all that natural either. Most human action is dictated by habit, reaction, and emotion. We presume we're thinking, but it's just words running emptily and repetitiously through our skulls. That's why logic wasn't invented as a discipline until quite recently, and why we all putter along doing what we've always done, even though we "know" that what we're doing is likely to lead to real discomfort at some point.

Thanks for the link to the article on Greenland glacial earthquakes. I hadn't seen that, though I should have expected it. Imagine what will happen when all that earth starts rebounding as the glacial weight goes!

Bruce E said...

The bigger problem with the machine metaphor is that a machine is a machine, except of course when it is not, at least in the senses of "artifact" and "purpose." When you press theist ID folks on their intuitions, you find they have no idea how it is that technologies actually get invented. As someone who has been a part of invention and design of new technologies, it is clear to me that in many ways technologies actually do invent themselves, and the conscious control of a singular inventor (or perhaps at most a handful of people all in-synch intellectually in such an endeavor) is always overestimated. "Purpose," in this sense, comes after the fact of invention, something assigned to a technology after people have had a chance to play with it and see what it can do. If you go back in time to before that particular tech was invented, those you now identity as inventors usually had no idea that the tech would be used in the way it is now used, and the process by which a new tech comes about feels like (from the perspective of the inventor) being swept up in the momentum of the process rather than diligently orchestrating that same process.

Bottom line is that, at least since Descartes, conscious control of the "self" has been grossly overestimated and irrational/unconscious/uncontrolled actions have been equally underestimated. It is more accurate, in my experience, to say that tech invents itself -- inventors are taken along for the ride.

sgage said...

@ JMG:

"John, oh, no question, English is an incredibly clumsy language to think in, and it's almost impossible to avoid the "is of identity" when using it. I hope our descendants work out something better to speak and think with."

Well, there's always E-prime - there's a good entry in Wikipedia about it:

"E-Prime (short for English-Prime, sometimes denoted É or E′), a prescriptive version of the English language, excludes all forms of the verb to be. E-Prime does not allow the conjugations of to be—be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being—the archaic forms of to be (e.g. art, wast, wert), or the contractions of to be—'m, 's, 're (e.g. I'm, he's, she's, they're).

Some scholars advocate using E-Prime as a device to clarify thinking and strengthen writing.[1] For example, the sentence "the film was good" could not be expressed under the rules of E-Prime, and the speaker might instead say "I liked the film" or "the film made me laugh". The E-Prime versions communicate the speaker's experience rather than judgment, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact.

Kellogg and Bourland use the term "Deity mode of speech" to refer to misuse of the verb to be, which "allows even the most ignorant to transform their opinions magically into god-like pronouncements on the nature of things".[2]

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Top of mind reactions:

Leaving aside, of course, the use of "is" (actual or implied), when constructing simile or metaphor, for in those two uses, the likeness is more associative than categorical (and correlative rather than causative, c.f. Keats' objective correlative). Out of metaphor arises a larger understanding of meaning, a different project entirely than categorical definition. (As a side note, I think that is part of the argument between those that take the bible literally and those that interpret it philosophically or literarily, which doesn't diminish its value, of course, contrary to fundamentalist thought. In my opinion.)

To me, poetry and botany (and study of ecosystems generally: ecology?) have more in common than one might think, and less in common with a mechanistic view. Botanical categories are more like collections of shared tendencies than mathematical or logical categories, I find, and fuzzy at best. I have heard two ecologists discuss whether a particular landmark oak is a bur oak or white oak based on perceived characteristics. If you ask anyone dealing with plants, whether gardener, botanist or ecologist a question, often the answer begins with "It depends..."

Which leads one over time to holistic or systems thinking as a habit and a very different view of how the world and universe function. And then when dealing with living beings, whether plant, animal or viral, consciousness, will and volition begin to occur, along with communication (plants communicate chemically, it is beginning to be discovered): well, time for some new models, is all I have to say.

Speaking of which: what models are we entertaining now that will be born out in the future? That are already changing our culture, our entire frame of reference? What are we dreaming of that we perhaps don't perhaps yet realize we are dreaming?

I only just learned that one reason agriculture has been so successful in the Central Valley is that it can be managed as a factory is managed: completely predictable weather, and with irrigation and synthetic inputs, completely predictable crops. Of course, now that there's a water problem...

OK, I'm rambling. Best wishes to all.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

James and JMG

James said, "Get past superficial similarities and there's a difference between saying that the world exists because of a primal being's choice — whether the choice was to make a machine, as in ID, or an organism, as in Thomism — and the world existing as a consequence of something more basic existing.

The latter would seem to imply that, true to its name, Nature as a whole is truly something born, not a machine made by anything else."

So Nature had a momma? ;-)

redoak said...

When digging for the roots of the mechanistic world view it is hard to underestimate the influence and importance of Machiavelli. Though his overt field was political philosophy, his revolution there cascaded into the rest of western thinking. For example, one need only consider Bacon's references to Machiavelli to grasp how deep the that revolution struck into the western mind. His revolution targeted a thousand years of theocracy and so sought to undermine every column supporting that structure including God, classical metaphysics, virtue ethics, natural law, rationality, immortality of the soul, etc. A good amount of that was over-reaction! Though these ideas existed long before Machiavelli (consider classical hedonist world views), the politicization of them was novel and gave them a chance for broader social adoption.

Cathy McGuire said...

A synchronistic post - I've been reading about Kurt Godel, who used logic to prove that (simplified)the arithmetic system that had been built up since the Greeks could have a theorem that was both true and unprovable (think about that for a minute and realize the contradiction). His bio - "Incompleteness" by Rebecca Goldstein, is well worth a read, if you admire logic at all, because it talks about the struggle to define and describe with clarity our thinking of the world. Anyway, because my head is swimming with "if P then Q" right now, it wasn't too hard to follow you. Reminds me of the Venn diagrams, which we learned in 2nd grade("new math")and so are well engrained. You did a good job of smashing the machine/Universe "equality", and you could also do it thus: "the Universe by definition contains all (the set of the Universe contains all sets)" and "I am not a machine" thus "the Universe is a machine" is incorrect because not everything in the Universe is a machine. Thus their argument also contains a poor definition of "Universe", which would be obvious if they were questioned a bit.

I've also been reading Jacob Riis' "How the Other Half Lives" (with photos), which gives a shocking reminder of how bad it could get (how bad it's been) in the US when social safety nets don't exist.

I've also been watching as some poorer neighbors go "under water" economically, and have been helping some with systems paperwork (my social services background helps here) - the wheels have already come off for many, many people and the overturned cart is an ugly, ugly sight. The worst is the frantic confusion as they try to grasp the new reality with media-conditioned perceptions: "they can't do that to us, can they? We're Americans!"

Nathan Donaldson said...

When the Greek banks closed and the Chinese stock crashed on Monday my thought was: we've got months left, not years. This is disappointing for me because I was hoping to get a personal project of mine finished before the next leg down. And I think we both agree what the result will be: the implicit force that the State has been gathering (surveillance, militarized police) over the past decade will be made explicit.

It's now time to leave to somewhere safer if you can.

On the the subject of the Machine, I think the best example of this mind set going horribly wrong in the real world has been the transition from Agriculture to Agribusiness. Most fruits and vegetables are now grown in deserts in the US because the variables can be easily controlled there, that is until the water runs out completely. And the way livestock is raised industrially is a disgrace to life itself.

Yupped said...

I agree that we are in the early to mid stages of the next series of impactful events, but I don't think we will all agree on it until next year. The thing about crises is that you don't really know you are in one until you are closer to the end of the process, at which point it seems rather obvious. The last financial crisis really started in 2004/2005, with the peaking of the US property market and conventional oil production and the start of the oil price ramp. Financial market liquidity problems began in 2007 and the credit bubble popped properly in 2008. The last place to get the memo was the stock market, which bottomed out in 2009. So this crisis, which everyone now acknowledges as a real crisis, unfolded over several years. Even in late 2007 most people were pretty oblivious to it.

Goodness knows there are enough crisis triggers in play now - fracking bubble bursting, QE fading, Greece flailing, California drying up, Alaska burning, etc, etc. But my guess is that the story that "all is well" will hold until next year when the political revolving doors start to spin with the election cycle and the narrative falters. And then we'll have another bunch of political hope-and-change-jockeys telling us that all will be fixed if certain buttons are pressed and levers are pulled. So, yes, 2015 is where it really gets going, but 2016 will be where it all gets acknowledged and 2017 will be where it bottoms out and gets explained.

But, we'll see. Meanwhile life is lived every day and the popcorn is always at the ready. I'm also half-way through reading "After Progress" which my dear wife bought for my 54th birthday. The fact that this is now considered perfectly normal gifting and reading material in our household is some indication of how far we've come!

Michael Stephenson said...

People's Liberation Army tasked with protecting 'overseas interests' under new China security law

Looks like with all this financial mayhem going on at the moment the scenario laid out in "How it could happen", could happen, a lot sooner than anticipated in your essay.

It all certainly seems to be coming to a head.

Jeanette DeMain said...

I'm thinking now of a scene from the 1951 version of "A Christmas Carol." (This exchange does not appear in the book, but I think it's completely true to the story and characters.)

Fezziwig: "It's not just for money alone that one spends a lifetime building up a business, Mr. Jorkin. . . . It's to preserve a way of life that one knew and loved. No, I can't see my way to selling out to the new vested interests, Mr. Jorkin. I'll have to be loyal to the old ways and die out with them if needs must."

Scrooge: "I think I know what Mr. Fezziwig means, sir."

Jorkin: "Oh, you hate progress and money, too, do you?"

Scrooge: "I don't hate them, sir, but perhaps the machines aren't such a good thing for mankind, after all."

one gun said...


As usual you took the concept of a machine in a totally different direction as I expected. I love it.

Your introduction of the machine last week, combined with many of your commenters apparent depression got me thinking about how we hold onto labels and how we shed them.

With the Catholic Church trying to position itself to catch those persons ready for a resurgence of religion and our continued downward arch I could see not only a return of the middle ages but a return of the Church in charge of the leftovers again.

Perhaps at this late date a simple suggestion of resilience could go farther than buying a house in the woods? Being mentally flexible in our internal dialog will be quite necessary to not only survive but to thrive as citizens of the poor world and not as citizens of Rome, I mean the States.

Michael said...

So...Bill Clinton was right?

shhh said...

I really enjoyed this one. Not so long ago I was of the mind that the universe was simply mechanistic, as opposed to "a machine" (singular). Accordingly, I was out of ideas, largely depressed and waiting for a pointless end to a pointless existence.

I happened to meet a woman with a mind as lovely as her face who has been graciously enlightening my perspective. First, with an introduction to Qaballah as an alternate model of manifestation, and continuously with careful exploration of the flawed "logic" that underpins the religion of science.

Fortunately I've always been a skeptic of "science" as some sort of accepted wisdom meted out to good capitalist as they ingest ever more pharmacopeia, rather than as simply a method of inquiry. I still love to break the balls of the legions of science acolytes who petulantly insist that is it explains anything. (I'll leave alone the fatal constraint inherent in the reductionist bias of scientific inquiry). This is not to dismiss the obvious, prolific and often delightful and amazing feats clever hominids can achieve through the magic of mathematics. One should not conflate those tricks with either meaning or insight into the "meaning of life, the universe and everything." I submit that if there is a unified theory of everything, "god" is just as good a term for it as "string theory" or Taoism.

Anyway, it's great to hear discussion on this level because it is of the utmost importance to recognize that belief constitutes the greater portion of reality. Choose wisely - if that's even possible for the meat suit to is after all a fairly limited machine.

Robo said...

My personal concept of our place in the universe is that humans and other sentient beings scattered throughout creation serve in aggregate as the sentient 'brain cells' of the greater whole... a distributed intelligence.

Just as most organisms apparently survive just fine without much self-awareness, so does the universe go about its normal business with little regard for whether or not the conscious brain cells are completely in agreement. Humans in particular must be the parts of the whole that have evolved specifically to generate nonsensical, amusing and puzzling mental games for the universal One to contemplate.

over the hill and down the other side said...

I have been reading Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances. He takes the position that descriptions of the deep past (such as the "Big Bang" or "the world of dinosaurs") are always made from the assumption that observers with the current mindset were there. That these conclusions are confused with the "Truth" rather than being acknowledged as imaginative constructions done from a consciousness based on a radical separation between subject and object…

Determinism seems natural to this separation. Active subject, passive object.

Here I confess that mechanistic explanations have always bored me--I cannot get excited by knowing that I can tell the depth of the well water by some calculation…I can't understand others' enthusiasm around such calculations. Surely, there are many ways to find the depth of the well water…and why is the depth of the well water important?

heather said...

In mulling over the proposition, “The universe is a machine,” the definition of ‘is’ certainly matters, but so does ‘machine’. JMG has posited “a purposive artifact” as a partial definition, thus implying the necessity of a creator. I wondered if that definition for a machine should be taken as shared. The first definition that comes up when I type the word in Google is a “device that transmits or modifies force or motion.” Hmm. A weak definition, to be sure, but creator required? I guess that depends on what ‘device’ means- we’ve circled around. For ‘machine’, Oxford gives us “an apparatus using or applying mechanical power and having several parts, each with a definite function and together performing a particular task”. There’s ‘apparatus’ again, similar to ‘device’. Definitions of each of these wiggle back and forth, sometimes implying purpose, sometimes just saying “required for a particular task”. If we can agree that those words are just placeholders, because dictionaries find it undignified to say “thingy”, we can look at the rest of Oxford’s definition and think about the necessity for a creator. To me the relevant bits are “function” and “task”- do those imply an intention? Not necessarily; if we’re looking at any sort of cycle and just describing its parts, we can analyze it as a series of functions or tasks without implying that some consciousness is directing it, e.g. photosynthesis or the water cycle. (Whether some consciousness might direct those is another whole ball of wax…) The definition of machine could thus be neutered into “a more or less complicated thingy by which something is done ”, completely sidestepping who might want or not want the task in question to be done and describing only the process and mechanism. So we are in some sense back to last week’s description of a machine as “a subset of the universe deprived of the capacity to learn”- just a description of one unchanging task accomplishment.

Now, to me the model of the universe as a machine which meets this definition 1. is incredibly limited and misses the entire experience of existence, and 2. does not exclude a creator, or many creators, or some indescribable force of creation. However, if we are using this limited definition, I can accept the argument that the universe is in some sense a machine which dissipates concentrated energy, and that this definition does not require a creator. I don’t share the view of materialist atheists who use this metaphor/model “the universe is a machine” to describe their whole understanding of the universe, but I also don’t think it necessarily self-contradicts their understanding. What you mean by “machine” matters just as much as your definition of “is”. It’s a wonder humans can ever communicate about anything!
--Heather in CA

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

"English is an incredibly clumsy language to thing in... I hope our descendants work out something better to speak and think with."

Better at what? You can optimize for somethings, but at the expense of others. The narrower your focus is the bigger your blinders are. English is ideal for some things and fracking horrible for others. What is the target functionality of a 'good' language?


winingwizzard said...


I think things will decline in fits and starts - because of sheer inertia and the size of BAU and because many people have no alternative, so they will do anything to avoid change. The issues right in front of us are mostly financial tomfoolery amongst the big boys, not hard assets. Contrary to popular law, corporations are not people - they can die and the people move on. Commerce will continue to try to drag globalism forward in spite of whatever happens in the finance sector, because the local isn't there to take up the slack (yet).

Yes, it COULD all melt down in a year. But looking at Rome, it wasn't so, and we are sort of a hypercomplex Rome. Many of us have been aware of this for decades, hoping for an opportunity change as a nation - didn't happen and wasn't really expectation - just hope. Many, simultaneously, decided to collapse - in older parlance, drop out - and find alternative means. I make a decent living, yet by .gov I am counted as long term unemployed because I have no "tax-type-form" filed, not in 10 years.

I think your sense of "something wicked this way comes" is accurate - astrology-wise there are portents, and things are lining up for some fireworks in many areas. But I don't think it will all happen in a rush - inertia is sort of 'there' no matter the field of study, right? I think whatever it is, it is "slouching towards" our Gomorrah - and slouching isn't very speedy. It will be seen as rapid, because BAU has been pervasive for such a long time.

It isn't too late to collapse or as I prefer, drop out. It just means you do with less and have to adapt more. But ahead, everybody will be tested in their coping and adaptive abilities...

Daergi said...

Years ago I used to take volunteers into the woods on weeklong camping excursions to teach them trail maintenance. For some, it was their first time out in nature. One evening, we were watching a particularly majestic sunset in a perfectly clouded sky from a rock outcropping with a pastoral valley laid out below. One of the volunteers exclaimed at the grandness of the setting, of all the colors on the horizon; how it was almost as nice as a painting she once saw in a museum.

The order in which we experience things seems to matter. We see many sunsets. Then we see the painter's painting, trying to communicate an idea about a common experience through the canvas. Or. We grow up in a city where the horizon is obscured and sunsets happen on TV. On a school trip, one time, we see a canvas that captures our attention for a moment and it becomes memorable. Years later, we are reminded of that school trip by a random place.

In one instance the original event is the anchor. The canvas takes a person back to it. In the other, the canvas representation is the original event. The actual sunset takes a person back in memory to a day once spent in a museum located in a bustling city.

In a National Geographic special a tribal woman is tossing foraged grain into the air from a hand carved bowl. The chaff and dust blow away in the breeze. The grain is then poured onto a flat rock and is ground by rubbing a rounded stone repeatedly over the kernels. The flour to make a flat bread is created by the grinding action of the two rocks. If, on another day, this woman were a guest in another's house and she were offered bread it would remind her of her own experiences of gathering grain and processing it into a meal.

Later, wind or water turns a wheel and grain is ground between two large stones that are parts of the machine that is the mill. The farmer takes his harvest by cart to the mill and enough flour to last months is ground in just a few hours. His bread reminds him of long hours planting and tending and harvesting.

Later still, we go to the supermarket and buy a loaf of bread or a bag of bleached, fortified flour and it stirs nothing in us in terms of its origin, or the machinery used to make it, unless, perhaps, we've been to a pioneer museum. In which case, a particularly nice loaf of bread might make us remember a day we spent in a museum in a small rural town where we learned that flour used to be ground at a mill by a creek nearby.

Machines arise out of our interaction with the world. Early devices to keep track of time mimicked observations of the movement of the planets. Those people knew the sky and when they looked at their devices for keeping time (the rotation of the earth, the seasonal journey around the sun...) those devices reminded them of the original. A digital watch today reminds us of?

When many people experience nature today those experiences are processed by minds whose first experiences are of machines. Nature is interpreted to fit into that known world; the world of machines, concrete, steel and food from a can or a box. The harm done to nature is largely unobserved. If it is, in any event, what is happening in nature is only relevant in its relation to people's primary experiences nested in the modern. How do you get someone to see that life isn't imitating art? After all, everything seems to be zipping along all tickity-boo in the machine world of the cities; barring a few, negligible hiccups.

anton mett said...

I would propose a Marxist answer to your question on the early appeal of universe=machine idea. The great thinkers of the Victorian age were either well-to-do or wished to be so, thus they were likely to be impressed by the toys of the wealthy and likely to frame their ideas in a way that would be appealing to the upper class.
Most of our own country has fallen into the same type of class worship and this makes it difficult to pay attention to "free" or "cheap" things like nature. I believe you've made note of this when you point out that much of the "green revolution" happens to focus on the most expensive hi-tech (high brow?) merchandise rather than low-tech (low class?) methods that we know work.

Unknown said...

I was at an environmental conference about stream/river management this week in Ohio. They made the statement that a stream or river is a machine for transport of sediment and that for most management situations you have to understand the sediment flow as much or more than the simple water flow. That is, the temptation is to think of water volume per time passing a point is all that matters for understanding creeks/streams/rivers when, in fact, the actual velocity matters a very great deal for sediment transport and deposition and "moving" of the stream channel and erosion etc. Very little was said about why we have sediment to transport in the streams and rivers which seems to be a serious flaw in their approach to management. But with finite human intelligence, it is hard to consider infinitely many variables. I also thought it rather odd that no mention of chaos theory was made in regard to the movement of streams i.e. the movement being limited by boundaries to a degree but not terribly predictable very far into the future due to the complexity of the situation/dependence on initial conditions. All in all a very interesting workshop with many diverse people/interests represented from across the region/watershed. Nature as machine is a common mode of thinking.

Dammerung said...

Always good to see somebody take the clockwork fantasy of the universe to task. Nothing about the universe looks like a clockwork unless you're particularly disposed to see it that way. What it looks like is an evolving organism. It's incredible how the popular imagination hasn't yet come to grips with the discoveries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Another thing that kills me is that logical positivism is still the main approach to metaphysics in mainstream academic and social philosophy, when it didn't even manage to get out of the gate before tripping over its own primeval axiom, that is, nothing is true unless empirically verifiable as true. Okay, prove it.

The power of these erroneous metaphysics and ontologies to go on, long after they've been discredited by any serious examination, never ceases to astound me. And of course even the Christian fundamentalists, the self-proclaimed vanguard against scientism run amok, accepts the limitless power of logical analysis with the same fervor as their supposed opponents.

One imagines a god of irony with a perverse grin on his face.

Foo Bar said...

Ahem. I suppose it always was twinkle dust to begin with. But the dust didn't disappear - it changed hands. A smart person sold one type of dust to a dumb person for another type of dust. I suppose the smart person is chortling over his big pile of dust that he tricked everyone else into giving him.

Everyone is so infatuated with the dust that they always forget that if you can exchange the dust for anything else, then who cares about the dust?

Seaweed Shark said...

The exchange above about the sun, in the context of your insightful essay, reminded me of William Blake's excellent quote from 'The Last Judgement':

"Error is created. Truth is eternal. Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, & then, & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear. It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it. I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance & not Action; it is as the dirt upon my feet, No part of Me. 'What,' it will be Question'd, 'When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?' O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.' I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative eye any more than I would Question a window concerning a Sight. I look through it & not with it."

Coboarts said...

"from the failure of that misbegotten dream..." and "the empire never ended." Perhaps as a crazed fantasy our world was created by a malevolent or confused being dreaming of dominance, the ultimate elixir. The intention of the original creation an evil spell built out of the stuff of the imagining mind and brought into form by its loving mother. And in ecstasy we touch the potential path imagining our way through to that source of dreaming power, unlimited, unstoppable and deeply forbidden. Yeah.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

JMG, your analogy between the Sun and a living organism is fun. The Sun is self-regulating, though admittedly not as elaborately self-regulating as a bacterium is. If the rate of nuclear fusion in the solar core increases, outward radiation pressure at the core increases, reducing the net pressure at the core (since the net pressure is the algebraic sum of inward gravitational pressure and outward radiation pressure). This reduces the rate of nuclear fusion. If, on the other hand, the rate of nuclear fusion in the core decreases, outward radiation pressure at the core decreases, increasing the net pressure at the core as gravitation makes the Sun contract. This increases the rate of nuclear fusion. Consequently, the Sun keeps itself in a rather steady equilibrium, at any rate as long as it has its supply of solar-core hydrogen.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
(Catholic hermit-wannabe (lay hermit, NOT under Canon 603) near Toronto)

www dot metascientia dot com

PS: I'd like to thank also you and others for various further things. (1) JMG, it was good that you mentioned a few weeks ago, when you wrote on Napoleon and FDR, and I queried about Theodoric, that Theodoric was just one of a sequence of Napoleon-or-FDR figures in Roman history, each of them (in your analysis) releasing some temporary institutional vigour by reorganizing their enfeebled society. I will have to think more about this. Questions like the following suggest themselves: Compare and contrast with FDR, (a) Constantine, and (b) Diocletian. (2) Cathy McGuire: Thanks so much for sending me papermail this spring, as you assembled papermail contacts for ADR readers by way of a precaution against possible eventual loss of the Internet. (3) Thanks, JMG and Derv, for interesting thoughts on machines last week. Noteworthy were not only JMG's initial thoughts on machines, but Derv's response regarding the decay of decision-making elites. As JMG pointed out a bit before last week, the British political elite of the 1920s and 1930s seem to have taken better decisions than the USA political elite of the post-2001 era. The British were soaked in a machine culture in the 1920s and 1930s, just as contemporary Americans are, so why the difference? One might suggest here that our contemporary machines are opaque to inspection, being magical or slave-like (as a genie-from-a-bottle is a slave): you click on the icon, and some nice thing happens, for reasons you cannot explain unless you are a computer hardware architect, versed both in software and in the physics of semiconductors. In the 1920s and 1930s, a machine was something whose inner workings you as a non-specialist had some hope of inspecting and comprehending - as with the case of the slide rule, to which JMG has now and again referred. - Of course one MIGHT also make the more banal suggestion that elites emerge from elitist educational systems, and that the old British system, with its stress on rigorous studies of classics for members of the ruling class, was superior to what we have now. - Or one might darkly suggest (I myself make much of this) that the root cause for the difference between Britain then and the USA now is a spiritual decline - already underway in the 1920s and 1930s, and yet now reaching a more advanced and debilitating state. (4) JMG, thanks for mentioning the new encyclical last week. I would urge people to read it - there is a lot there, and not just about climate change. (Francis for instance stresses the need for intergenerational solidarity, in the teeth of the current temptation to burden our successors with environmental degradation or financial debt. He also stresses the need to develop a notion of ecology-of-human-socities, intertwined with the more familiar notion of ecology-of-biotopes.)

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

An addendum to my posting a few minutes ago: One hopes that someday the professionals (the astrophysics professors) will write something about the Sun-as-organism and related biology points. It might be that some reference can be made to a concept already of general astrophysical interest, namely entropy. I do note that in the Univ of Toronto library, possibly in the physics section. we have a promising-looking volume (I ought to re-read it some day), entitled Entropy for Biologists.

A further addendum (this time to some of the "PS" material in posting from a few minutes ago): The thesis that a cause for the difference between interwar Britain and the contemporary USA is a spiritual decline perhaps gets some corroboration from the more happy example of Judaism. That the Jewish nation has clung to spiritual disciplines from the Babylonian exile onward has meant that it has kept its culture alive in a way not achieved by Babylon, Egypt, Assyria, etc. I would indeed suggest that if Jewish spiritual disciplines stay in place, we will see the menorah and the prayer shawl and fresh Hebrew-language literary production surviving somewhere centuries from now - even though, admittedly, the Jewish state, as a sovereign political entity wedged between Lebanon and Egypt, may in the coming centuries be obliterated.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo

www dot metascientia dot com

Ursachi Alexandru said...

JMG, I hope you are not generalizing when it comes to atheists. I, for one, agree with you that there will always be things that are beyond human comprehension. People like me are athiest in the agnostic sense, since we don't claim certainty in our (lack of) belief. We are all agnostic in the sense that none of as can claim certainty in our beliefs or lack thereof.

Grey said...

Hmmm..... Interesting post from you Mr. Greer, in that you posit a major collapse like event in the near future in one breath and then in the next point out how 'universe as a machine' doesn't necessarily hold.
I think that deterministicly our global civilization should have already "collapsed" as so many 'doomers' predict.
But the mathematical chaos in the determination of the collapse of global civilization is a human one, people in general, and especially people in charge and manipulating the written rules and paper resources, do not want to see a collapse yet.
Sure it is growing harder and harder for T.P.T.B. to keep everything running right, but they are keeping everything (mostly) running with increasing determination and inventiveness.
I think the collapse could accelerate to 'doomer' prediction levels almost instantly if they (those people running things), or enough of the rest of the population, decide a collapse would be more profitable or pleasant for them than our current situation.
I also think the recent growth in dystopian and apocalyptic fictions in our society shows an ongoing culture wide thought experiment down those lines.
But until it happens that profit or enjoyment (even if just 'schadenfreude' (sp?)) can be felt I feel that things will continue their slow but increasing crumble and patch situation.
So no, if people move promptly they are not necessarily stuck where they are with what they have, but yes it WILL come that they eventually will be, and until then every day it will get a little harder and a little more expensive in time energy and money to get to a desired stable sustainable situation.

Pantagruel7 said...

Mr Greer; I confess to being the buyer and reader of an ever-growing number of your books. Do you have a favorite among your intellectual children?

Sven Eriksen said...

I was totally unaware that the machine myth existed prior to the invention of the objects that reflect it, but now I see it makes perfect sense. Thanks for pointing it out. I've been trying a little thought experiment these last few days, after last weeks post and comments (had to sit down couple of nights ago a reread all 250 + comments because they were so good), and it goes something like this: If I were to outline the basics of the western industrial world's worldview to someone who were unfamiliar with it (lucky them...) and I didn't have machines to make use of as a conceptual metaphor, how would I go about it? Short version: Can't be done. That is, you can try, but it would simply immediatley reveal itself as the inane babble it quite arguably is...

As for the English language being awkward for use in real thinking, you guys have no idea how lucky you are. You ought to try a Scandinavian language. The dysfunctional belief systems we're so eagerly taking apart here are so built into the very structure of Scandinavian composition that it's hardly possible to express disidentification with them through the use of language at all...

Ed-M said...


Yes, it does look like the wheels are coming off the Global Economy bus. The first collapse of the Long Descent that I've been waiting for ever since I listened to Matt Savinar as a guest on the Art Bell program back in 2003.

And this morning I saw a leftover copy of Tuesday's edition of USA Today with the banner headline, "Greece jars global markets; Dow drop worst in 2 years", and I was like, cool!

Odin's Raven said...

Americans who survive the next step of decline may find themselves a lot closer to China than they used to be if there's anything in this report:
China to take US land That may give them an opportunity to speak a language other than English or Spanish.

Rumighoul said...

Hello JMG and everyone,

Regarding your "collapsed or not" question, surely there must be plenty of us who feel that we are in-between, or with a foot going in each direction. Perhaps I'm taking your phrasing too literally, but following your Druidic interrogation of binaries, there's got to be a spectrum of preparedness between and on either side of the two "states", and one's place on it is determined by so many factors.

OK I'm surely stating the obvious and taking things too literally...but I gotta admit I'm just made anxious by the starkness of your phrasing. You've done so much in your blogs and books to make "Green Wizardry" clear in all it's multi-facetedness and variable applicability, so when you then hit us with "collapsed or not collapsed" I feel I don't really know where to place myself and family other than "not nearly collapsed enough, I think", hence the anxiety...

I've a job and a very young family; Green Wizardry-wise I've been devoting as much free time as I could the last year and a half to learning to grow food on our allotment (we're in the UK), and besides that my partner and I are by nature very frugal, good at saving money/food, and are increasingly attempting to learn to make our own stuff and buy less. I would say she is far more naturally in tune with the LESS strategy, but I am the one who reads the Archdruid. Earning a living is the definite weak point for us...if you ask me will I have my job in 6 months time, I just can't answer, and what specifically will I do if it goes away suddenly...I don't know. So are we collapsed? I suppose not...but I feel, my pride feels, that it surely could be worse.

Myriad said...

I believe it's possible for some machinery (and thus, a mechanical universe or a material ecosystem) to have life and consciousness. Perhaps that underscores what you said about categories.

My understanding (which may be wrong) of European thinkers at the time in question is that they were not necessarily trying to reduce the universe to the status of a machine. I doubt that many of them could have conceived, for example, that the remarkable properties of living tissue (sensing, healing, moving on mental command) could possibly be accounted for by any kind of machinery. Isn't that why Victorian ghosts were shaped like the outlines of people, because in the living, the spirit had to be coextensive with the body, in order to sense, heal, and push the limbs around when the will or soul commanded?

I think instead that what they were trying to do was understand the mechanical well enough to establish the limits on what part of nature is machinery, because once that's accomplished, what remains falls undeniably into the realm of the spiritual. The shape of the "ground" of the spiritual would be revealed by the outlines or voids of the "figure" of the mechanical. It was not unreasonable to anticipate, for instance, that mechanistic reasons for the sun remaining hot or embryos growing into their form in the womb might not only not be found but be ruled out, resulting in objective proof (and eventually, greater understanding) of the miraculous; that is, the ongoing actions of God or other spiritual forces active in the world.

Nature eventually threw them (and us) a curve, by appearing mechanistic if not "all the way down" then at least as far down as we can comprehend so far. In life sciences, metabolism, sensation, locomotion, disease processes, inheritance, growth and development, all in their turn exhibited mechanistic explanations; currently, the frontier of that still-ongoing process is in cognitive neuroscience. That doesn't prove that the universe is entirely materialistic or deterministic, but it does mean that the endeavor to understand the spiritual as the gaps of the mechanistic has been unsuccessful. This could be because the universe is mechanical after all, but I think it's because the dichotomy between the materialistic "figure" and the spiritual "ground" has been a false one from the outset.

That would make those European thinkers' error not that the universe is mechanical a priori, but that the divine can be isolated or circumscribed.

I guess we'll see, as this series continues, whether or not this represents a substantial disagreement with your views.

Myriad said...

Regarding current events: does anyone else remember the summer of 2001, when the news media in the U.S. were obsessed with shark attacks and church fires? (Both occur routinely; most of the latter turn out to be accidental, though can usually only be proven so long after the juicy possibility of any given one being a hate crime has been fully exploited by the media.) In fact, I distinctly recall, after 9/11, reporters looking back on the shark attack and church fire stories from the previous summer and pretending deep soul-searching regret over having been so distracted by such trivial topics.

The repetition is eerie.

We know what proverbially happens to those who don't learn from history. Now I also know what happens to those who do: they get nervous!

RPC said...

It occurs to me that since the dawn of the computer age a new meaning has been added to the word "is": assignment. For example in the computer language C the expression


(which we could read as "c is a plus b") replaces whatever value c had before with the result of adding a and b. So when your proverbial mechanistic atheist says "The universe is a machine" he may be attempting to overwrite the previous value of the term "universe" with the value of the term "machine."

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Yes, I agree, there is a mechanistic view of nature management that prevails in certain disciplines.

Very interesting about water and sediment. Yes, so many engineers view water as a transport problem, as in transporting it "away." I recently heard someone from the Illinois DNR say that grant applicants that approach water issues in that way will not receive awards from her office, since they've missed the larger point of whole systems water management. Why we have sediment: exactly!javascript:void(0)

On the other hand new Illinois guidelines for farmers with regard to hydrology and nutrient flow incorporate multi-species cover crops, native species buffers, and wetlands, amazingly enough.

Andropos Nebulus said...

Very thought-provoking post. As for the 17th c Europeans beginning to think in terms of mechanistic explanations for things, well as a science-y undergraduate I was deeply amused and perplexed by Descartes' idea that the human body was controlled, joystick-like, by the pituitary gland, which, he hypothesized, moved around in its chamber opening and closing valves to direct flows of pressurized hydraulic fluid into the body's muscles, causing contraction and relaxation. In the mid 1600's! What a theory!

Thinking more as I've gotten older, I've come to see a specific block in current thought about the history of science: more general historians tend to be ignorant (and apathetic) of the science, and historians of science tend to be ignorant of all other history, and view development of thought as completely independent of all else: for them science just develops, and social conditions come in only insofar as authorities of orthodoxy periodically step in to squash its nobility, which, triumphantly, they always fail to do.

As a result, we the (reasonably informed) public tend to have two histories in our heads, which we almost never connect with one another: historical events like wars, revolutions, etc on the one hand, and development of thought (Aristotle, Galileo, Kant, etc) on the other. In what JMG is bring to our attention, very few seem to consider there may have been a broader social-historical reasons people fled from animistic or divine theories of the world into the prosaics of grinding gears, hydraulics, and mechanical functioning of dead matter.

As examples, I've been shocked by how few people know Copernicus was a monk, or that his book was read widely even in Church circles and wasn't considered particularly troublesome until decades after his death.

How many people know the terrible social backdrop of Descartes' time (toward the end of ~100 years of warfare and social disintegration)? That he was an artillery officer and military engineer with the Catholic League in the 30 Years War? That many of his mathematical achievements (the Cartesian plane) came partly out of his more practical work computing trajectories of cannonade fire?

How many know Isaac Newton was raised during and in the aftermath of the English Civil War? That he survived the Great Plague of London as a young man? Or what a bitter, friendless adult he became? That he considered his greatest works to be on eschatology and alchemy? How many realize Einstein, a professor in Germany, developed and published the Field Equations (100 years ago, in 1915) surrounded by the tumult and privation of WWI?

There are many such examples. I do actually have some views on *why* the mechanical narrative may have came to the fore---maybe worth something, maybe not. You all, and JMG, can let me know. (View described it second part.... sorry for length.... hope this gets through anyway.)

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


I am sorry to hear about your bad experiences as a child. It is odd (at the least) that so many religious denominations based on the teachings of someone who embodied love at the heart of things/nature have managed to so twist his message in their practice.

Re druidry, our host's book The Druidry Handbook:Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth is a good place to start.

@Cherokee Organics,
Re the universe, to my way of thinking, you've hit on a wonderful possibility.

Since others are mentioning their relevant blog posts, here is mine, somewhat relevant:
Earthcare, Literally Speaking

It's also at

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

I might remark further, as a supplementary comment on JMG's analogy between living organisms and the Sun, that the Sun is in a sense not too well understood. The basic model of solar-core fusion reactions survived the challenge of the neutrino-deficit problem a few years ago, so that part is okay. But I gather from a modest read of Sky and Telescope news columns that something pretty basic, elsewhere in the overall solar-physics picture, has in the last couple of years had to be revised: whereas it used to thought that there was only one layer of pole-versus-equator circulation below the photosphere, strong reasons have now emerged for positing two layers. This apparently changes the conception of how magnetic fields get moved around in the solar interior, as the 22-year solar magnetic cycle runs its course. While one does not want to attribute to the Sun the baffling intricacy of a bacterium (with all that scary information technology going on at the level of DNA and RNA - some megabytes of information, I think, being transcribed during mitosis, and impressively large numbers of bits being transcribed even in protein synthesis), the Sun does not look simple. A thoughtful pagan would be inclined to worship the Sun: so vast, so ancient, so stable in its self-regulation! so cunning in deforming the local geometry of spacetime, causing local stellar constellation patterns to get measurably distorted during total eclipse; with such a wonderfully slow and dignified spin, the spin rate varying elegantly from latitude to latitude; with a baffling temperature transition as you ascend from photosphere into corona; with magnetohydrodynamics obstinately resisting the attempts of professors, armed with supercomputing clusters, to create observation-conformant models; and so musical, being (literally, not metaphorically) full of propagating sounds, of so many varied frequencies!

The Sun is sort of the Huge Ringing Thing, humming in decorous polyphony in the company of its many colleagues in our galactic arm.

Although the picture of the heavens as mechanical, with the Sun as a rather inert orrery globe, was natural in the paucity of Newton-era observational astronomy, it is not the picture which would now first suggest itself to the lively naive child. A lively five-year-old, seeing spots in solar projection, and being shown some films of the conjectured underlying bulk-matter movements, and hearing a short account of temperature distributions and sound waves, might be instead inclined to reach for biological similes and metaphors.

Equally, or even more, unsatisfactory is mechanical language when we turn from the sun to the wider vistas of stellar and galactic astronomy, and cosmology.

One has some sympathy for the ancient Finns, according to whom the universe hatched (the Kalevala apparently talks about "monat", "eggs" - "munad" in Estonian; I don't really speak Finnish).

Mechanical language somehow deadens things, emptying them of their truth.


www dot metascientia dot com

Andropos Nebulus said...

(Second part, sorry for length). I thought I'd try to give a view on the intelligentsia's flight from animism.

The revolution in thought JMG brings up was roughly during and just after the very peak of warfare, witch/heretic burnings, and political chaos of the Wars of Religion and the 30 Years War.

I see three things bringing about the thought-change: the previously un-heard of power and material devastation of roughly 100 years of warfare, which including depopulation of central Europe by a third to a half. By proportionality to population levels, etc, this period was far worse than WWI and WWII combined, and left Europe shell-shocked and deeply awed by the power of material reality---an awe that in previous ages was given to the divine....or the demonic.

Second, the revolution in politics, and the definitive subordination of religion to secular power, slammed face-first into the prior worldview where that subordination was reversed.

Third, the deep rending of almost all old moral certainties, including the irreparable destruction of the (perceived) unity of Christendom that came with the Reformation. Also came the marriage (or maybe exploitation) of Christian ideals with material power and the devastation warfare, which left many people not just apathetic to, but disgusted with anything smacking of high ideals or even a divine presence in the world.

A few lines of evidence: Read the letters of Galileo. They are dripping with disgust for everything around him, most particularly purveyors of any kind of political or religious authority. In my reading, immersing himself in the simple, predictable workings of non-human things (like the moons of Jupiter) appeared to be about his only joy.

Or look at the art of Rembrandt (roughly contemporaneous with Descartes, Galileo, Kepler). In contrast to the older Renaissance Jesus----high in the clouds, majestically clothed, with a perfect body----Rembrandt's Jesus is a simple man. The expression is of deep troubles, or deep compassion, or maybe deep love, and he appears to be a man of passivity. The color tone is dark, and the point of view is head on, not looking up. This is a Jesus of the common world, not a Jesus of divine mystery.

And then think of the presentation of the scientific works. The original engraving on Copernicus' de Revolutionabus (several generations earlier) had both scientific and religious imagery, depicted so to clearly show the proper place of science within the world system, which is organized on a divine principle. So, eg, the tools of the scientist (ruler, sextant, etc) are somewhat lower and to the left of the symbols of divinity (cross, bible, etc), and all underneath the brilliant sun (divinity itself).

Then look at Kepler's Astronomia Nova, about a century later, in the time period we're discussing. Strikingly, the image engravings are PURELY SECULAR. No sun, no tiara, no cross, no bible. Just math and science symbols.

Yeah. So something big happened to the social mood in the century between Copernicus and Kepler. I believe it was the traumatic (not to mention physically violent) rending of the western mind from religion, and a consequent reaction of disgust, that caused a sizeable fraction of the intelligentia to cling tightly, tightly, tightly to a purely material, mechanistic worldview.

This worldview had the advantage of being apolitical and areligious, so had the chance to separate individuals from the social realities of power, politics, and religion------burnings, executions, emerging new orders of politics/religion, social chaos, and the dizzying, wrenching removal of old moral certainties.

Dale said...

Caryn said:

" What I find most interesting about studying another language is how it subtly shows a very different thought process to our own, even in something so fundamental like "being", "is"."

Something else interesting is that many languages do not have the verb to be, also know as a copula. Their way of thinking and their world view is almost alien to Indo-European based speakers. The lack of "is" makes for a very fluid view of the world, dare I say magical?

Ares Olympus said...

A good topic, language is always trouble. I happened upon a parallel claim about the human brain being a computer. And my reply (below) almost fits here as well, with a quote from Schumacher and his taking up the ancient idea of a hierarchy of being, more categories, but at least they demand a little more respect than a single idea.

Or as another great author once said "Knowing many stories is wisdom. Knowing no stories is ignorance. Knowing only one story is death." The Category of the Machine might imply the existence of something that isn't a machine, except for that pesty "is" that overgeneralizes.

But back to Schumacher, its a useful idea to wonder if "free will" only exists for humanity in our highest level of self-awareness, where consciousness coils back on itself into something that self-consumes. So we might try "The Universe is a self-consuming machine", so again as some reflective metaphor, although you might still take it literally and not go too far off.


Bill Clinton was right - "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is."
Schumacher expresses the idea of levels of being, and what's unclear is whether the higher levels are built on the lower as evolution might propose, or if there is a hidden structure of higher than prods matter and life towards itself.
Schumacher points out that there are a number of progressions that take place between the levels. The most striking he believes is the movement from passivity to activity, there is a change in the origination of movement between each level:
* Cause (Mineral kingdom)
* Stimulus (Plant kingdom)
* Motive (Animal kingdom)
* Will (Man)

One consequence of this progression is that each level of being becomes increasingly unpredictable, and it is in this sense that man can be said to have free will.

casamurphy said...

A Catholic seminary student once asked me to explain Buddhism to him "in a nutshell". I responded with a series of questions to which I provide answers in order to lead him down a logical path to the Buddhist "conclusion". The question/answer series went like this:

Question: Where was the universe before God created it?
Answer: It "existed" as a potential of God.

Question: When God destroys the universe does he also destroy time?
Answer: Of course -- without subject object relationships time cannot exist.

Question: Is God eternal?
Answer: Yes, by definition.

Question: Does God's potential to create the universe also eternally exist within God?
Answer: Yes.

Question: Then doesn't it logically follow that the "moment" God destroys the universe that he must also re-create it (since in the "interim" time does not exist)?
Answer: Yes, I suppose so...but what are you getting at...?

Question: Wouldn't also you agree then that from the perspective of man's view of time, the universe is eternal?
Answer: Well, if you put it that way...I suppose so...

Question: And that God could therefore be interpreted as an unchanging eternal law regulating all the change around us?
Answer: Yes...

Question: And that you are a manifestation of that law?
Answer: You could say that.

Question: As a manifestation of this law, then, could you accept that maybe the most responsible and direct way for you to know God would be to, as the ancient philosopher said,” Know Thyself!" ?
Answer: Yes.

Question: Then would a practice which does not personify God, but which does hold remarkable promise in terms of knowing thyself be considered a path to know God?
Answer: Theist--Well...yes and a Theist I have to can one find God and deny God at the same time?...hmmmm.
Atheist--Well...yes and an Atheist, how can you deny God and yet find something one interprets as God at the same time?...hmmmm.

Question: Can we at least agree that the issue of creation doesn't really matter either way?
Answer: Well from the perspective of God's eternal nature and man's total powerlessness to define what God may and may not do, then yes, we can agree.

Conclusion: Good, then lets pursue the scientific truth the best we can...trying not to allowing any philosophical or religious bias to skew our results.

D.M. said...

Well it looks like it has happened, only in the Chinese version of Wall Street, one of my friends has just informed me that Chinese investors are jumping out of high buildings due to their stock market tanking.

Moshe Braner said...

Hi Graeme. I'm not hung up on the "deterministic" vs "random" issue. And as somebody else commented here, a lot of known physics revolves around the statistical behavior of a large number of random events. Thanks to the "law of large numbers" the macroscopic behavior is NOT random. But in any case, the thing that grabs me is that the observed behavior of so many things seems to follow fairly simple mathematical rules. Like that stone falling into the well - it's not that there aren't other ways to measure the depth of the well, it's that the stone accelerates according to a simple equation. This type of behavior of the world around us, to my mind, excludes any "supernatural" influence. If there was such, with so many motivated influencers, the orderly behavior would vanish. Also to my mind living beings are not outside this realm of natural law, just more complicated.

It also brings up the question of the connection of abstract math, and logic in general, to "the real world" - why is human logic applicable to nature? On that, my guess is that our brains and their built-in logic evolved to make sense of the phenomena around us. Thus it is not surprising that in realms that are far from the human scale, either very small (sub-atomic level), or very large (astronomical), the needed math or logic gets farther and farther from what our brains consider reasonable. Thus the role of probability in quantum mechanics, relativity with its curved space and flexible time, and so forth.

Jason Fligger said...

From what I have seen of the universe (not really very much), it seems to exhibit a certain nestedness in that it seems to repeat its order at a variety of scales. Or perhaps it the order that exists at the tiniest scales that is evident a larger scales. I think that we are part of the universe. We are not a separate being within it. Our being may be some sort of disruption of space. Kind of like an eddy or other organized disruption of the larger current of a stream. Viewed this way, it would become impossible to draw distinctions between ourselves and other beings or objects. All would have this simple property of being a local distortion in the larger pool of space.

John Michael Greer said...

Scotlyn, combine that with the opening chapter of the Gospel of John and you might end up with a really interesting Christology! More generally, of course, you're quite right; as e.e. cummings pointed out a good long time ago, "a world of made is not a world of born"...

Chloe, hostility? Not at all; wry amusement. By the way, the notion that atheism can be described as simply an abstract attitude toward claims about the existence of one or more deities is generally called "dictionary atheism," and the vast differences between it and atheism as actually practiced in the Anglo-American world -- European atheism is a rather different kettle of fish -- has been the subject of lively discussion for several years now.

Caryn, congrats on the soap et al.! You're not the only one who's mentioned a feeling of unease in the air; we'll see if it leads anywhere. The Google devils (I refuse to grant them the dignity of gods) must be messing with you -- I haven't changed the security here.

Das Monde, good heavens, no -- what's the point of teasing a machine? As for the decline of civilizations, no, that's a biological thing; machines run until they break down, while living things, civilizations among them, go through predictable life cycles.

Denys, exactly. The only way to replace a dysfunctional narrative in somebody's mind is to present a functional narrative that's more appealing. That's one of the basic skills of magic, by the way.

Justin, I've been wondering about those sharks myself. It's really rather odd.

Lawfish, you might be a Druid -- or you might be something else; there are, thank the gods, many more options besides Southern Baptist and atheist, after all!

Raven, got 'em, and you're in the contest. I probably should post a reminder to everyone: you've got two months to go to get your stories finished and submitted; the deadline, and it's a firm one, is August 30.

Cherokee, a lot of mystics have experienced the universe as a single vast organism, so you're following a well-trodden path there!

William, I'm not sure if today's thinking is oxymoronic or the regular unoxygenated kind, but either way, it amounts to the same thing. ;-) Glad you liked that bit.

Andy, human beings have created dozens of different ways of dealing with the world. One of the reasons we're so clumsy at dealing with the world in the modern US is that we've limited ourselves to just the two ways you've described.

Rashakor, oh, I know! I'm currently working with a co-translator on a new translation of Eliphas Levi's Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, and the challenges of getting his ideas from French to English intact are not small.

John Michael Greer said...

Ed, oh, granted -- the US media always lands as hard as possible on anything that might encourage people to think, rather than just reacting.

RPC, excellent! In point of fact, once quantum indeterminacy was proved, the entire philosophy of determinism crashed to the ground. I should probably do a post on that one of these days; it's highly relevant.

Nick, given your situation, that seems entirely reasonable.

Brian, good. If a perfectly logical language could be created, it would by definition be very poorly suited to express most human thoughts and experiences, since logic embraces so very small a fraction of the whole range of human existence.

Bruce, interesting. I haven't taken part in the invention of any technologies, and my background as a writer leads me to see the creative process as one in which the author does have a very active role, though it's often as much a matter of discovery of possibilities as it is one of creating things from scratch.

Sgage, I rather like "deity mode of speech" -- in Hebrew, as I recall from such Cabala as I absorbed, the true name of the Deity is a form of the verb "to be." A case might be made that only deities have the right to use that verb!

Adrian, I have some very specific models in mind for the future, as I'm sure you'll have noticed! As for nature's momma, well, yes -- most religions assign nature a mother, though the Abrahamic ones tend to fall short there.

Redoak, that's an excellent point. I probably need to read up on current scholarship on the spread of Machiavelli's ideas in early modern Europe. I recall that Elizabethan English authors used to like to write his name Machevil, which has its own charms.

Cathy, the confusion is difficult but it's essential. It's when people grasp that it doesn't matter that they're Americans, all those things are still being done to them anyway, that a potential window for change opens. (Of course what climbs through the window could be somebody in jackboots and an armband -- that's one of the risks of times like these.)

Nathan, no, actually, we don't agree. I think it's considerably more likely that the federal government will be no more competent at exerting force here in the US than it was in Iraq, and a repeat of the same modes of failure here will more than likely bring the whole structure crashing down. We live in a prerevolutionary society. Nor is anywhere else noticeably safer, especially for American expats.

Yupped, well, we'll see! Happy birthday, btw -- I hope you enjoy the book.

Michael, no question there. One Chinese news source is claiming that the PLA might be deployed against Islamic State -- not impossible, if the PLA wants to get some live combat experience, and is interested in squashing any attempt to get a similar insurgency going in Chinese Turkestan.

Jeannette, fascinating. No, it's not in the book, and it's fascinating to see so forthright a challenge to the "you must hate progress" thoughtstopper. Many thanks for sharing it.

One Gun, true enough; any of my readers who haven't yet gotten the idea that flexibility, resilience, and a willingness to be poor are good ideas, though, are probably beyond my help at this point.

John Michael Greer said...

Michael, I prefer to say that the media was wrong. ;-)

Shhh, you're a very fortunate man. I think the incarnate human -- I prefer that phrasing to "meat suit" since there's far more than meat going into the whole system of the bodymind -- is capable of making, if not wise, then at least wiser judgments; certainly it's capable of making stupider ones!

Robo, that's one viewpoint, but from my perspective it's rather too anthropocentric -- as though the dust mites on your skin were to consider themselves crucial to the well-being of your body. I'm with H.P. Lovecraft on this one: "We live on a placid isle of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far."

Over the Hill, true enough -- Barfield's got a crucial point there. The act of observation always presupposes a given sensorium, nervous system, and cultural and personal patterns of configuring raw sensation into meaningful patterns, and so the scientific notion of the passive observer seeing "what's there" is quite simply nonsense from start to finish.

Heather, oh, granted! And we could have just as much fun taking apart the concept of "universe," which is far from simple, and has plenty of implicit presuppositions hardwired into it as well.

Tim, I'll consider a post on the vices of English one of these days; it would take that to show why I think English is more problematic than most other languages, and why the things it does well probably shouldn't be done at all.

Wizzard, er, where did you get the idea that I think it's all going to melt down in a year? My first book, remember, wasn't called The Short Descent.

Daergi, true enough, and the points you've made all feed into the machine-mindedness of the modern world. What a digital watch makes me think of is how much less annoying it would be if crunched underneath a bootheel, but then I suppose I'm just crabby. ;-)

Anton, er, we're not talking about the Victorian age; we're talking about a good two centuries earlier, when the rich showed their status by how many servants they had and mechanical toys were associated with people who had to work with their hands. Please check your facts!

Unknown, now if they'd just said "a river is a flow of sediment as well as flow of water," and avoided the unjustified teleology embodied in the label "machine," they'd have had something useful to say!

Dammerung, very good indeed. You get tonight's gold star for pointing and laughing at one of the least attractive unclothed emperors in the palace of contemporary thought. I have no idea why anyone takes logical positivism seriously; as you point out, its own basic axioms fail the test they themselves impose.

Foo Bar, and when the market sneezes and a lot of dust goes away in a hurry, you discover the other reason why the value of twinkle dust is less than meets the eye...

Chloe said...


I'm not certain what part of the divide between "Anglo-American" and "European" you mean to place Britain on (though I might guess the former) but I certainly know a lot of people whose attitudes to religion in practice are far closer to "dictionary atheism" than the pseudo-religious, belligerent atheism of people like Richard Dawkins. I'm sure they exist across the pond too, only they tend to get drowned out. (I just looked up the term. It was... not pretty. Or polite. Or *right*.)

John Michael Greer said...

Shark, classic Blake! I suppose it would be pettifogging to point out that the outward reality also has a place in the whole system of being.

Coboarts, the Gnostics were there two thousand years ago.

Toomas, I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to argue that the sun is actually an organism -- the is of identity has its problems there too -- but it does seem to have many more things in common with organisms than with machines.

Ursachi, oh, granted. Anglo-American atheism is by and large a very different thing from the European version -- it tends to be much angrier, more dogmatic, and more intolerant -- and even so, I've encountered plenty of pleasant, thoughtful atheists in the US and Britain who aren't obsessed with the idea that it's their duty to destroy religion once and for all.

Grey, as noted earlier, living things are far more predictable in certain ways than machines are; you don't know when a machine is going to break down, but you can figure out fairly well when the different stages of a life cycle are going to come into play. "Mechanistic" and "chaotic" aren't the only two options, you know!

Pantagruel, not a single favorite, but a handful. Of my novels, Star's Reach; of my occult books, Inside a Magical Lodge, with The Celtic Golden Dawn a close runner-up; of my collapse-related books, After Progress.

Sven, fascinating. I've never studied any of the Scandinavian languages, so wasn't aware of that.

Ed-M, with me, it's been more like "Okay, here we go..."

Raven, given the source, I suspect it's propaganda rather than news -- but as propaganda, it's interesting.

Rumighoul, of course there's a spectrum of collapsed-ness. There are people who are living off grid, outside the money economy, who are much further along than I am, for example. Still, the point I wanted to make is that the closer we get to the oncoming crises, the less room there'll be for the more grandiose (and more expensive) options, which so many people tend to treat as the only game in town.

Myriad, actually, the idea that the properties of living tissue were strictly mechanical was in circulation in the seventeenth century; some of the major figures of the scientific revolution of that era, Descartes among them, proclaimed that as necessary truth, even though it took medical science centuries to catch up. Thus I have to disagree with your argument: the founders of the scientific revolution started with an image of the universe as a machine of dead matter in which God and human souls were the ghosts in the machine, and proceeded to build their sciences on that presupposition.

As for shark attacks and church fires -- hmm. That's fascinating.

John Michael Greer said...

RPC, well, yes, that's exactly what they're trying to do!

Andropos, excellent. Exactly; the tendency to rip the history of ideas, and especially of science and technology, out of its proper context in the history of everything else is a huge barrier to understanding. I don't see that as an accident; unless you do that, the whole mythology of progress falls apart and you're left with just a story of how people in one set of societies chose to think about, and act on, the universe.

Toomas, thank you for this! Clearly it's been too long since I've read up on the solar sciences.

Andropos, I think that was a very large part of it. At the same time, there are important continuities between the religious currents of the centuries before the scientific revolution and the revolution itself -- the devaluing of concrete experience, dating back to the Greek philosophers, the rise of Nominalism, and so on. It's a complex picture.

Ares, funny you should mention that last point. I field a couple of comments a week insisting, usually in the language of dogmatism, that free will doesn't exist and that the idea of free will has to be expunged. That's amusingly contradictory as it stands -- if free will doesn't exist, people who believe in free will have no choice but to do so, and so there's no point trying to change their minds -- but it seems to me that there's something profoundly poisonous underlying the entire crusade against free will, and I always delete such comments out of hand. After all, if they're right, I can't choose otherwise, and so they have no cause for complaint! ;-)

Casamurphy, good heavens. I had no idea that seminary students these days were so poorly trained in the philosophical underpinnings of their faith that they can't tell the difference between a personal Creator and an impersonal law!

DM, I'm sorry to hear that.

Jason, plenty of mystics would agree with you.

John Michael Greer said...

Chloe, that's interesting to hear. I can promise you that the description of atheist behavior in the post is based on an extensive fund of personal experience; as a religious person, not to mention a practitioner of a variety of things the "angry atheists" of the world find utterly intolerable, I field their diatribes quite often -- and though it does happen from time to time, I don't hear people on your side of the atheist spectrum criticizing them all that often.

Andropos Nebulus said...

Ok, correction, I was wrong about Copernicus being a monk. Apparently that legend began with Galileo himself, where I guess I read it. Here's what I found out (in case anyone's interested, maybe no one is---from the book "Copernicus and his Successors").

He was definitely a "canon," which could mean a kind of non-ordained sub-cleric, but could also mean a full priest or monk. But most circumstantial evidence points to his never being fully ordained. Still, he was a man of faith, and during certain stretches of his life being a "canon" actually appears to have been his full-time job. It appears he was once considered for a bishopric, which certainly would have required an ordination. But that never materialized.

His "de Revolutionibus" was reasonably well read in the highest intellectual circuits. We have pamphlets both praising and condemning it, and records of its being taught in universities, all dating to the decades after its 1543 publication. At first the most strident faith-based condemnations came from protestant areas---though of course those tended to be the most violent and troubled areas just then.

Some of the early criticisms actually seem very rational! Eg. Copernicus couldn't actually get his mathematical model to work in any usefully predictive way, and he used a variety of ad hoc fixes, including heavy borrowing from Ptolemaic mathematical models. This lead some to say it wasn't even a coherent system, and so should be abandoned. Honestly, if I were there, that may have sounded reasonable.

The Catholic Church's banning was in 1616, during the first Galileo affair, 73 years after its publication.

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

I just ran across an old Garfield comic that I think relates nicely to this week's discussion:

In it, Garfield is outside in the sun, then he gets caught in a storm, and in the final panel he's dripping wet and scowling at Jon, thinking, "Did you forget to pay the nature bill?"

Michael Stephenson said...

I think the ultimate warning sign to watch out for, is people talking up World War 3 as just the right sort of kick up the arse humanity needs to focus technological progress on solving humanity's big problems.

You hear no end of how much technological progress was made during WW2, yet I can't really think of a truly useful technology to come out of it, perhaps rocketry is the best example, but largely space travel is all speculative bubble nonsense that can only survive by being a subsidy dumptser.

Yet I do predict before long we will start hearing people talking up how a bit of WW3 blood letting might bring about fusion reactors after it's glorious conclusion.

Phil Harris said...

The ADR commentariat seem to be girding themselves and making shift; whatever. Good stuff; I learn much – but I pick out Toomas’ wonderful piece on the ‘thing’ we call the polyphonic sun. And the historical shift from the time of Copernicus to Kepler that we see in the engravings (tip of hat to Andropos N).

I will add a footnote both to Dammerung and JMG’s reply concerning Logical Positivism. I was for a while in a position to witness good minds (and I mean that) wrestling with Risk Assessments on questions of regulatory policy regarding genetic engineering. Irrespective of wider views, it was very difficult for scientists to do risk assessment. They could always ‘prove’ that they did not know enough. I put it down perhaps wrongly to their having been brought up in contagion with LP. Nearer the frontline where some were peering with intense interest into what they did not know, risky or not, the assessments seemed to get easier.

But L’d help us (emphasis); if we took a walk in the forest with our ancestors we would have been instructed in every glimpse or rumour of risk as a matter of course. And, in retrospect, whoever got married and could claim they knew enough about themselves or one another?

Back to the theme and making shift in what we dream up in the coming time, I guess some of us get a glimpse of ‘truth’ and it holds true for a lifetime and further; otherwise it is not ill spent to study among the moons of Jupiter.

“Awake music, for a last joke,
If there is to be an end for a long story
Then like a small bird’s song
Claim for audience the Universe
And hear applauding hands beat on invisible shores.”

Phil H

Brian Kaller said...


I’ve been mulling over this thesis, that the dream came first and then the machines, and I’d have quite a few questions about it. For one thing, didn’t Greeks and Romans like Democritus or Lucretius reduce the world to a set of physical pieces that ran together along rules, in a machine-like fashion? They created the first machines as well, like the first steam engine (by Hero of Alexandra). What was different about what Enlightenment-era scholars were doing?

Also, you began by proposing that global superpowers were behaving a certain way because they were treating the world like a machine; do you think machine-thinkers have always been doing this? Foolishness seems to me as old as the hills, and the specific foolishness you cite seem very recent; neither seems to date to the Enlightenment. Do you think it’s an over-abundance of machines in our lives that causes this phenomenon, or the absence of anything more organic? Let me know if I’m misunderstanding your thesis.

A related question: What is the difference between scientific thinking and machine thinking? This is rather important to me, for I've always found science in its many senses (the pursuit of knowledge, the logical system of investigation, and the wonders we’ve discovered) to bring out the best in humanity. I never saw it as a threat to my religion, as fundamentalist Christians do, nor as a religion itself, as fundamentalist atheists do, but as a vital part of intellectual life and a complement to spiritual enlightenment.

I hope you don’t mind my piling on arguments and questions – I know you like food for thought. Apologies, also, if you've answered this above and I missed it. I’m not expecting a comprehensive answer to all these in your next comment. :-)

Ursachi Alexandru said...

JMG, let's just call it "atheism lite." :)

Tyler August said...

This sentence is problematic, I think, if not taken in jest:
"The most complex devices available at the time were pendulum clocks, printing presses, handlooms, and the like—you know, the sort of thing that people these days use instead of machines when they want to get away from technology. "

The clock is the prototypical technology, archetype for all that came after. It is self-regulating, self-operating, and self-contained (beyond, of course, the inputs of winding and ensuring it is set). It premiered, not in the Early Modern 17th century, but the Medieval 13th.

Newton and his contemporaries did not, to my knowledge, write about a 'machine universe' or a 'mechanistic universe' -- their metaphor (and I do take it as metaphor) was a 'clockwork universe'. The humble clock, centuries old, was their model. Not an abstract 'machine'.

Now, perhaps you want to say that the idea of the machine was needed for the invention of the clock, and that thinking in Faustian Civilization was mechanistic back into the 13th century. I am not sure I'd argue that point; Princess Anna Komnene, if I recall, certainly found 11th century Franks gadget-obsessed during the First Crusade.

If we're tracing the roots of this mode of thinking, though, I do think we need to go much, much further back than Sir Issac and his Principia Mathematica, and from the comments I'm not sure that's fully appreciated by all here.

Brilliant imagery, thank you! Your description of the sun god reminded me of some of the wonder that sent me to get an astronomy degree in the first place. Pity my career collapsed before the rush...

Nathan Donaldson said...

JMG, I still think we agree. The government will have to use force this time if the outcome of the next crisis is empty WalMart shelves, no gas, & closed banks. I don't think it will work either, but they've been preparing and they'll try. Or mobilize us for WWIII.

I've been traveling the US extensively the past couple years and some places have got to be better bets than others. I should have been more clear on the word "escape." Areas that have high real estate prices now, such as the Bay Area, are to be avoided at all cost. Leaving the country makes sense only if it's to a friendly rural place, not another city like Sydney Australia.

Yupped said...

I had a liberal arts education, studying history and social sciences in college. Then for various reasons found employment in the computer industry. I remember how drawn to programming I was in those early years. Whereas with writing history essays I was encouraged to intellectualize and explore ideas and argue this or that theory, with computer programming the logic either worked or it didn't. It was relatively clear-cut, and problems could be resolved and finalized in ways that intellectual inquiry could not be, at least not fully. Sitting at my computer, writing code to manage databases and perform calculations and spit out reports, I had a temporary sense of being able to control my environment, to play by fixed rules, to get to a resolution. It was quite illusory, of course. As IT got going in the 80s and 90s, the sector generated very large scale automation projects which often went badly wrong, as soon as they ran into all the usual uncertainties of life (vague goals, unclear requirements, mismatched interfaces, changing personalities, poorly calculated budgets, etc). I don't know if this sheds any light on the subject, but I've always considered my own early attraction to computers to be linked to my desire for logical clarity and control.

barthys said...

I wonder if there's a correlation between disbelief in free will and propensity to blame or litigate. After all, if free will doesn't exist, then I can't possibly be at fault for my "own" actions, since those actions were never really "my own" to begin with - they were predestined and guaranteed by the summation of all prior actions of all prior entities stretching back all the way to the Big Bang. Therefore someone else must be at fault, and I might potentially be able to benefit financially at their expense.

Of course, they seldom quite realize the irony of trying to blame someone else (or a group of "someone elses") for their problems, when that someone else they are blaming is, according to the predestination theory, equally as helpless with regards to [i]their[/i] "own" actions.

August Johnson said...

JMG - I think it's just as unfair to judge all atheists by the behavior of the "angry atheists" as it is to judge all Christians by the behavior of the "Christian Fundamentalists" or to judge all Muslims by the behavior of the "Islamic Fundamentalists".

I suspect that you'd find that the average atheist remains unseen to most, you'd never have a clue about their views unless you specifically got into a discussion about the subject and then it would just be an interesting discussion, not a source of conflict.

"I don't hear people on your side of the atheist spectrum criticizing them all that often."

Wow, this brings to mind the demands from the far right that every Muslim vociferously condemn every act of terrorism perpetrated by every militant Islamic Terrorist. Maybe not as extreme, but in the same vein. Why aren't all the inoffensive Christians criticizing their fundamentalists counterparts all that often? Maybe it's that they are so far apart that they don't even consider themselves to be distantly related? Could it be the same with atheists?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Thanks, JMG, for taking the time and effort to read and answer so many comments, especially when busy with your own large writing projects.

Re models, oh yes, I have noticed some of what you have in mind, I think. I wonder, were the ideas about inanimate, mechanistic universe at large in the culture and picked up on by thinkers and natural philosophers, or first circulated among the natural philosophers and thinkers and then, once created, did they move among other parts of society? Or was it more pervasive process, so you couldn't say which parts of the culture they arose from first?

And so the models you are thinking of--are they becoming evident? Where? What will be the tipping points?

Thus, today, say the new model underpinning the culture emerging through collapse is universe as evolving, conscious organism, with plenty of room for or embodying the divine in various manifestations--what revolutions will that bring about?

You don't have to try to give a short answer; I'm not expecting answers, really, just thinking, pondering "aloud."

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Thanks for writing about the sun. I had no idea, and am so happy to hear it "sings." The music of the spheres...

Doctor Westchester said...


Could the ancestors of those wealthy Victorians that Anton Mett speaks of be the grubby men playing with their mechanical toys two centuries back? That could help explain how these ideas (literally) took over in our culture.

D.M. said...

Well so far, none of the ones that have jumped are anyone that I know personally.

Bill Blondeau said...

JMG, have you seen this?

Nicole Foss, of the Automatic Earth, describes the EU destruction of Greece as symptomatic of the kind of imperial collapse that you have delineated many times, and then clinches matters by meaningfully using the term "catabolic collapse".

I can't help but feel that this is fairly hopeful. Perhaps even a harbinger of a "change in consciousness" working its way through the more clueful regions of the blogosphere.

Phil Harris said...

JMG & William
Machine Creator
Another William (W Paley, 1802) famously compared seeing a stone on his walk and then finding a pocket watch. The latter he would assume had "artificers" and had been dropped by the owner. The stone could have been there forever. Apparently the example of the watch (the machine) as an analogy with intricate creatures and plants had been well used before he published his argument. Not surprisingly, as we know, Dawkins took up the argument in his 'Blind Watchmaker' and tries to make the most of the analogy for his purpose.

This is all history, and a fair bit of it is documented as JMG makes us aware. And the idea of 'the Creator' had been around for much longer of course than science or the dominant machines of our invention. I suppose hypothetically it was easier historically to get the idea of one Creator rather than lots of candidate or contending ones. But I guess many (most?) cultures did not think about existence in this way; that is in terms of Genesis? Thus, the whole tradition formed round conjecturing the 'mind' of a Creator is very much 'our' legacy? I would be interested to know whether the Hebrew were first into the field.

Incidentally, the logic of 'creation' has a certain potency to this day; we are still not clear whether there has been parallel life creation here or elsewhere. Earth life is all very closely related and looks like one spreading lineage, despite the diversity.

If none of the disembodied entitities - in the case that any culture sees and acknowledges them as such - are Creators, then we don't see a 'Machine'? Query? It feels to me that in modern times knowledge of what looks like our single biological lineage (Life-singular, and the reasonable guesses as to the date of conception), sends us back to old contentions and modes of thought from our cultural legacy. And the disembodied entities aren't telling, and probably do not understand the question? Smile.

Phil H

Myriad said...

JMG wrote: Thus I have to disagree with your argument: the founders of the scientific revolution started with an image of the universe as a machine of dead matter in which God and human souls were the ghosts in the machine, and proceeded to build their sciences on that presupposition.

Okay, fair enough. But as long as the ghosts in the machine are believed to act upon the machine as was generally accepted and that Descartes didn't deny (e.g. that free will exists and God acts), the universe cannot be entirely mechanical. Odd that they would miss that. Unless by universe they meant the universe apart from human beings and God.

If so, that's a more fundamental problem. The ineffable aside, "the universe apart from human beings" is hardly a coherent concept, as humans and the world interact constantly and shape one another deeply. (This remains true even if by humans one means immaterial human souls, as long as self-evident free will resides therein.) That strikes me as the point I made in comments last week—that the most likely blind spot in ones systems thinking is oneself—writ very large.

@Chloe: There is evidence that stars do "reproduce," in a sense, sometimes. (Lots of qualifiers there but still...) Shock fronts from supernovas can apparently trigger star formation in nearby gas clouds. Here's one paper:

The other Tom said...

This morning I was taping drywall as I mulled over the post and comments. As usual, the conversation follows multiple, parallel paths and I'm struggling to coalesce my thoughts.
(JMG and commentators, you are all amazing. I always learn so much from you.)
Any activity that is quiet, rhythmic, moderately physical but not too strenuous seems best for ruminating. As our economy unravels I guess one advantage will be that more of us will do the quiet, physical work and fewer will do the multitasking, distracted work. It will be a more fertile ground for thinking.
Words, metaphors, maps are not the thing itself, but useful in pointing the way, to communicate and remember what we know through the senses. Everyone at ADR already understands this.
I think our cultural psychosis comes from not making our own stories; we consume someone else's stories whether or not they have anything to do with us. This is very recent, at least to the extent that it includes almost everyone in the West except those on the fringes. I have been in so many conversations when an interesting topic comes up and then somebody diverts the conversation to a TV show they think is relevant. This drives me up the wall. I eagerly anticipated someone's real experiences, and then I all I get is a TV show! As Denys commented: "once the story is implanted, nothing they could say or do could change the effect of the story."
Another comment that really struck me from Daergi: "The order in which we experience things seems to matter."
I grew up with TV and it's frightening to think that my worldview was originally framed by 60s sitcoms before I actually got out in the world.
I'm not saying that all mass marketed stories are wretched drivel. There are movies and novels that speak to my experience and expand it. But we live in a culture that discourages people from making their own stories. When we are convinced that this is a waste of time, that we should be too busy for this, we all go crazy.
We go crazy because of an unmet, primeval need to directly know the world. Wherever people are together without distraction, once they relax, the stories begin. "Shooting the bull" is absolutely not a waste of time. One can imagine the previous 150,000 years around the campfire. Before language or cave art, we knew things through the senses alone. Our economic decline gives us a chance to reconnect with the other 99% of our collective experience.
The wind in the trees, the crisp smell of autumn leaves, the soft crepuscular light of a forest, these are things I "know." A destiny in the stars, or the Singularity, or some other nonsense provides no context for us, nothing to be lived. These are empty abstractions.
I always liked Jack Kerouac's definition of literature: That which is written for no other reason than companionship. "

MawKernewek said...

@Michael Stephenson - like inventing warp drive and thereby attracting some friendly aliens to sort out our planet?

Stars are often anthropomorphised in explanations of astrophysics. The life and death of a very massive star, which lives fast and dies young, involves it fusing progressively less productive fuels that keep the core going for shorter and shorter periods of time, until it reaches iron, beyond which fusion actually loses energy. At this point it suffers a core collapse and a Type II supernova.

To what extent does language shape thought, or does it go the other way with the grammatical structure of language changing as a result of the changes to thought?

Ruben said...


Seriously now JMG, this has left me giggling with joy.

I have been pretty busy around the urban farm this week, so it took me unusually long to read this week's post. The first part seemed like you were phoning it in so you could knock off early for a beer by the old millpond. And then you kicked out the blocks for a tour de force regarding the verb tense "is" and the whole thing unfolded like a lotus. Absolutely one of my favourites.

The quote I am going to wear into the ground: "As the Visigoths said, Rome wasn't sacked in a day."

Phew. Scorched earth over here. What grows well in ashes?

avalterra said...

I thought I smelled a whiff of Lovecraft in this post.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

@Andropos Nebulus: Thanks for informative briefings on early modern astronomy in its sociological and diplomatic setting. I'm thinking here that you might also have some views on what really went on when Kepler's mum got hauled up for witchcraft. (WHAT a mess: Your own mum gets hauled up, not for reckless driving or being late with income tax, but for witchcraft... If this got put into a Hollywood screenplay, with actors in Renaissance costume, the film critics would say, "How contrived a plot, how cheesy." Life outdoes fiction.)

finding both the JMG and the commentariat postings gripping,


Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Gee wiz - fourteen-month sentence, sez .
Andropos, any views?


Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

oops, sorry, i think not 14 month SENTENCE, but just 14 months in the Big House as pre-trial....

seems her genius son then got her off...

(thinking of Crowbar Hotel in that remote era; wonder what the food was like)

Steve from Lakewood said...

There are well known "self organizing systems" today, and it is an active area of scientific research. I doubt if you could rebut an atheist assertion that the universe is a self organizing system whose evolution is indistinguishable from the evolution of a machine. I believe the resolution to this is to understand that there is a formal logical structure in quantum mechanics, for instance, which we may take as the foundation of science for the sake of argument. One form of this logical structure is found in causality, the notion that causes must precede effects, as an illustration. This would correspond to only one of the 5 bases of knowledge in the classification popular in ancient Greece. Magic and miracles would fall under pistis, one of the other classes of knowledge. Certainly it is not fashionable to talk about knowledge based on well reasoned analysis of experience--after all the medieval scholastics would have probably burned at the stake had they talked about alternatives to knowing God outside the auspices of the Medieval Church. My point is that any formal logical understanding of any Deity/deities is simply not possible, and your knowledge of the same must come from other sources, with all the pitfalls that entails. For instance, to subject the Judeo-Christian God to the limits of ordinary causality would reduce him to the status of simply a technologically advanced ET, something that would not fly well at the local church or synagogue! If quantum mechanics describes nature, then magic and miracles must be called supernatural (or your deities are reduced to the equivalent of little green men in flying saucers from Zeta Reticuli.)

If your life experiences and thinking them over lead you to draw conclusions that there are things outside of time (i.e., acausal, outside ordinary limits of causality), then you are dealing with the supernatural, something that transcends the ordinary laws of nature.

Candace said...

RE: Shark attacks - the usual explanation is that the food is depleted in their usual foraging range and they are going into less productive and occasionally human ocvupied areas. It would be interesting to look at the types of species of sharks, it would probably reveal more information about the stress the ocean hbitat is under due to pollutuion and overfishing.

RE: Atheism -- there have been several discussions about this topic in the comments in the past. It would be helpsul if the current crop of new readers would go check those out rather than rehashing the same old discussion. There was a spike in rather vituperative atheist sentiment around the time JMG started publishing his other blog, the Well of Galabies.

Florifulgurator said...

Reminds me to read Heidegger's "Identität und Differenz". Mechanistic thinking is actually not only a sickness of the late western mind:

A Buddhist nun tells the devil: "Just as there is the word 'chariot' for a set of parts, so when the skandhas exist, there is the convention 'a living being'." (Samyutta Nikaya 5.10)

heather said...

Good Heavens, JMG, I'm still busy chewing on the concept of 'machine as purposive artifact'. Does this mean works of art are machines? How about the algorithm for long division? Where are the category boundaries- how do we know something is definitely Not a machine? (I'm beginning to understand your tree/shrub example here...) I'm quite possibly over thinking, or just slow, but I'm nowhere near ready to move on to unpacking the concept of "universe" yet. (That one may be above my pay grade anyway.) Your writing and the wonderful comments are so idea-dense that I'm always surprised when it's Wednesday again already, and time to move on to a new chapter...
--Heather in CA

onething said...


Actually, I did know some of those things about the scientists, but not about the historical context. But wasn't it true that Copernicus only allowed his book to be published upon his death?

How could that period of warfare have equaled the world wars, without bombs, planes, chemicals?
In your narrative, you gloss over the transition from religious to secular power. How do you think it happened? Did it have anything to do with the way the church in the west became so powerful that kings were afraid of it? This might sound silly, but I think that the current baiting and encircling of Russia as well as the several past such attempts in history by European nations has a lot to do with religion, the way that the Eastern Orthodox countries (but the small ones are less offensive) are quietly Christian but outside the fray, just saying "no thanks." I can't help but note that you said the perceived unity of Christendom ended with the Reformation. But there was unity from around the time of Constantine until 1054, when the churches of the east separated themselves from the papacy. It's not like they are small. Numerically, they comprise the second largest Christian denomination after the Roman. And interestingly, of the 5 original "Holy Sees" of the ancient world, 4 are still Eastern Orthodox. The one which is not, of course, is Rome. Somehow, the very existence of the Orthodox east is almost erased or forgotten. And perhaps that is to be expected, since they had so few wars and no reformation or Inquisitions or witch burnings. What's to write about?

+Toomas - what's this about the sun making music/sound? I suppose it must, if you could only get close enough...tell me more!

+JMG - what do you mean about the devaluing of concrete experience?

+Sven - My daughter moved to Sweden several years ago and speaks fluently. I'll have to ask her her impression about that.

winingwizzard said...


I haven't read your books. It was just the phraseology or word order when I read it. Maybe something about popcorn? I am tired from finishing a huge tin roof @ farm today. Glad it was my reading take and not what you meant.

But I do disagree that time is too short to collapse intentionally. Collapsing in a controlled fashion can be done relatively quickly - everyone will do it if the situational bits align so that it just happens. Having lived through several home/personally destructive hurricanes and floods - collapse can happen real quick. Adapting is forced, and most people either bend or break, the majority adapting and bending as required. Most importantly, people usually band together, unless they are terribly rich.

I hope everyone enjoys the holiday - I am off to make 50 gallons of Faerie Tea wine tomorrow!

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

@onething: You ask for more details on the ringing Sun. You would have to be inside the Sun's gases to actually hear anything. (My GUESS here is that you would indeed have to be not even in the corona or the chromosphere, but either in the photosphere or below it.The photosphere is where the solar gases first become dense enough, on our downward journey, to be opaque: it is what we would be tempted to call the Sun's "surface", were we to forget that even the photosphere is gaseous, as opposed to solid or liquid.) When still outside the Sun's gases on our imagined downward journey, we are in the (near-) vacuum of solar-system space. So the right picture here is one in which you have a big sphere of liquid water, sitting in free space, say in the deep interstellar void (we posit angels or demons to keep the water temperature above freezing), with something in or on the water making sound - storms on the surface of the water blob would do the trick, as would a duly submerged opera singer. To the observer outside the blob, all would be silent. For an observer donning scuba gear and swimming on or below the surface of the blob, on the other hand, much would be heard - as indeed we know from common childhood experience under water. (The underwater realm as explored in childhood can be QUITE noisy: rocks struck together make a satisfyingly loud click, for instance, since sound propagates well in dense liquids. Clicking rocks together under water makes a click, when you have your ears under water, pleasantly louder than the banal sound of rocks clicking together in air.)

It does have to be added that the sounds propagating in the Sun are not necessarily of frequencies familiar from terrestrial music. We can hear down to 50 Hz or 20 Hz or 15 Hz, as the organist presses the absolute lowest keys when accompanying that "sparkling basso profundo from Novosibirsk". I think sound in the Sun is of FAR lower frequencies (not 15 Hz, i.e., 15 cycles-per-second, but maybe just a few cycles per hour). Admittedly, I don't have the number for a typical solar note. This lowness of note, as Bertrand Russell remarked in some different context, is a mere medical matter, devoid of conceptual import.

One further surprising fact might be noted. Solar matter is in an exotic way dense as you go down deep - far denser than water, and in fact some many tens or low hundreds of times denser than lead or tungsten. (Maw Kerniak, maybe you can give us some numbers??) And yet - this is the surprising fact - even at these exotic densities, we do **NOT** get an exotic state of matter: the Sun obeys the Ideal Gas Law, Pv = nRT, all the way down, just as the column of air in the humble high school Boyle-demonstration manometer does.

Finally, I note that a hasty Google on

sound waves in the sun

brings results. Two Web pages that upon a brief glance look promising are


Molto allegro,

Tom www dot metascientia dot com

Glenn said...

Shark Attacks;

Not sure about this particular summer, but some general patterns. Sharks, like humans and Orcas are fairly cosmopolitan, and found world wide in all latitudes and climates. The largest I've seen was a Great White in Cold Bay, Alaska which took a Sea Otter between our ship and our RHIB; it was longer than the boat, which was 20 ft (6M) long. But people only tend to swim in warm water, so tropical and sub-tropical regions report the most attacks. I'd guess, without other information, that this year's hot summer has more people in the water in the U.S. southeast.

Locally, we've been swimming in Mystery Bay (latitude 48 degrees 3 minutes 30 seconds North Latitude) a month earlier than usual. A few days ago, an all time heat record of 120 degrees F was reported in Eastern Washington.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Ahaaa---I GOT enough from the Web to work out the pitch of a typical solar note.
Typical is a period of around 300 seconds, corresponding to a frequency of
(1/300) Hz, or around 0.003 Hz. Middle C is around 256 Hz. Every time you halve
that frequency you go down one octave. Since 1 Hz is (256 Hz)(1/2)(1/2)(1/2)(1/2)(1/2)(1/2)(1/2)(1/2), i.e., is 256 Hz halved 8 times, 1 Hz is 8 octaves below Middle C. (Even Boris Shtokolov could not reach THAT note. But apparently if you put a human in the vicinity of a hi-fi woofer, or some similar gear, sounding that dismally low note, the human will not hear anything, and yet will feel strangely uneasy, as a marked emotional reaction occurs for some neurological reason: thus we might be able to fool the credulous into thinking that our living room is haunted by "numinous presences from Beyond", as we charge big bucks for our seance.) Well, in pondering the Sun we have to reach not even 1 Hz, i.e., one oscillation per second, but 0.003 Hz, i.e., one oscillation per 300 seconds. This is easily computed - 0.003 Hz is approx equal to 1 Hz halved a further eight or nine times. So a typical solar note is 8+8 or 8+9 or so octaves below Middle C, i.e., is 16 or 17 octaves below Middle C.

For Boris Shtokolov, cf, video by
khankonchak uploaded 2008-01-20. Shtokolov here sings of "evening bells" - I conjecture
as heard from the fields outside a monastery, in whatever would be the Eastern
equivalent of Vespers sung near sunset in Western monasticism.


John Michael Greer said...

Andropos, if I recall correctly, a canon is a priest who lives a semi-monastic life, complete with monastic rule, usually in connection to a cathedral or other large church. (Catholic readers will doubtless correct me if I'm wrong.) Thus it's not entirely inaccurate to call Copernicus a monk.

James, funny.

Michael, I wouldn't be the least surprised. My guess is that people will chase every imaginable excuse to avoid giving up on the myth of progress.

Phil, scientists aren't trained to think in terms of having to make a decision; quite the contrary, their training leads them to put off a final call whenever they're not confident -- which is good in research, and unworkable when it comes down to having to say whether a technology is safe to deploy or not.

Brian, good! All those are solid questions, and each one of them would probably require a post of its own to answer adequately. I'll see what I can do.

Ursachi, fair enough!

Tyler, good. Notice, however, that the idea that the universe could be a gigantic clock didn't catch the European imagination until the 17th century. Until then, the clock was simply one clever device produced by a culture that was no better at clever devices than, say, China, even if it was better at them than Byzantium. Clearly, as the intellectual history of the Middle Ages shows, you can have clocks without thinking of the universe as a clock -- just as you can have windmills without thinking of the universe as a windmill. It might have been interesting if that, rather than the clock, had been the technology that gave the founders of the scientific revolution their model for the cosmos!

Nathan, but I don't expect empty shelves and the rest of it, for reasons I've discussed here many times. I think the model you're using is far too simplistic, and doesn't take into account the abundant evidence from history of how these things unfold -- and if you say "but it's different this time!" I'm going to laugh myself into hiccups. I'd encourage you to have a look at this post to get a clearer sense of the sort of future I expect.

Yupped, interesting. That may be why I shied away from computers early and often, and adopted them only as a necessity of the way I earn my living; control doesn't interest me.

Barthys, that's an interesting speculation. I fielded another small flurry of anti-free will screeds today; the funniest of them insisted that people have to admit that free will doesn't exist, because otherwise big corporations will keep on manipulating them. I'm honestly not sure the person who wrote that has any real idea what the words "free will" actually mean; he may be trying to say that human thinking can be manipulated -- which I think everyone else already knows -- and just not have an adequate vocabulary or something.

John Michael Greer said...

August, I think it's entirely appropriate to expect Christian and Muslim religious leaders to publicly distance themselves from extremists of their respective faiths, to show the rest of the world that they don't share privately the opinions that the extremists are acting out publicly. Do you recall the Muslim leaders who did just that in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings? That was dignified, impressive -- and appropriate; I don't think it's at all improper to ask atheists to do the same thing. Should the same rule apply to Druids? Of course; just at the moment we have a shortage of extremists, but if and when we get some, you can bet that I'll be ready to step forward publicly and reject them and all their works.

Adrian, those are fascinating questions, to which I don't yet have answers.

Doctor W., that would be a perfectly fascinating subject for a doctoral dissertation, but as far as I know nobody has written it yet.

DM, well, that's something.

Bill, thanks for the heads up! No, I hadn't seen that; I'm glad to see those concepts getting some traction.

Phil, well, you'll have to ask them, of course!

Myriad, excellent. Of course that was always the fly in the ointment; imagining the universe as though human consciousness didn't exist, and then pursuing a method of investigation that attempted to eliminate all subjective factors, was guaranteed from the beginning to produce a model of the universe that never quite worked, like a sandwich with no bread.

Other Tom, hmm! I could see that -- the inner crisis of our time as the result of our surrendering our ability to make our own stories. I'll have to think about that.

Ruben, funny. I may have to do a grammar class one of these days. BTW, when I say that any attempt to bring up a topic will be deleted out of hand, I do mean that, you know.

Avalterra, the thing is, I agree heartily with Lovecraft's facts but I don't share any of his values. Is the cosmos utterly indifferent to humanity's existence, much less its self-important fantasies? Sure. Is the fact that we're not the darlings of the cosmos a reason to hide under the bed in gibbering terror? Not to me; to me it feels like being set free from a preposterous burden of delusion and megalomania, so we can remember what we are -- just one more species of social primates -- and enjoy the time we've got on this small, fragile, and beautiful planet.

Steve, sure, that's the popular view of those questions just now, and so long as you don't ask any inconvenient questions about the assumptions and presuppositions that underlie it, it seems to make sense.

Candace, I've long since given up expecting people to go back and read the archives, or even search them with a one-word search string like "atheism." I appreciate the few who've done so anyway!

Florifulgurator, was mechanical thinking as central to medieval Hindu thought as it is to, say. modern American thought? That's central to my point, you know.

John Michael Greer said...

Heather, you just fell into a different logical trap. If the concept "machine" includes the concepts "purposive" and "artifact," that doesn't mean that (a) these two are the only concepts included in the concept "machine," or that anything that includes those two concepts must be a machine. The concept "crow" includes the concept "black" and "bird." Is every black bird a crow? Not hardly.

Onething, it was a central theme of Greek philosophy, and has been very common (though not universal) in western thought since then, to see actual existing things -- say, the mug full of tea on my desk right now -- as somehow less real than the more abstract realities that supposedly underlay those things. To Plato, the idea of the cup was more real than the cup; to a modern scientist, the quantum particles that have been invented as theoretical constructs to explain the behavior of the matter forming the cup are more real than the cup. One of the major points of William James and his fellow Pragmatists, among other modern philosophers, was to point out that the cup is all we've got and everything else is an abstraction from it -- but that's still not a popular viewpoint.

Wizzard, oh, I think it might be possible for some people to scramble to get ahead of the rush even now. Once again, it's the overelaborate fantasies of doomsteads and survival ecovillages I meant to critique.

Glenn, thanks for the shark details. I don't think I'd be enthusiastic about ocean swimming just now, for whatever that's worth...

nuku said...

@The Other Tom
Re other people’s stories: I would add the insane cult of the “celebrity” in which ordinary people seem to live their lives through “social” media, following and identifying with every move and inane thought of people they have never met.
Of course this kind of “hero worship” behavior has always been with us, but methinks not in such pervasive form.

KL Cooke said...

Poor dogs. They're just happy to be there. Yet they keep getting a bad rap for their inability to comprehend mathematics and rocket science. How about something closer to home; say, monkeys trying to understand economics?

KL Cooke said...

"Does it really matter to the corporate drone what his supervisor is thinking and whether or not she likes him or not?"

As a former corporate drone, I can tell you that what your supervisor thinks definitely does matter. If he or she is thinking unpleasant thoughts about you, there's a good chance you'll be gone.

Cherokee Organics said...


Good to hear! It is nice to wander on a well trod path as the trail blazer is often consumed by the odd lion or three! Hehe! I have a candid dialogue with you and these are the thoughts that pop unbidden into my head as they occur.

By the way, I had to look up the definition of the meaning of the word "mystic" because I wasn't actually sure what you meant by that word. And after a bit of reading, I'm still unsure of what a mystic actually is. The Greek origin of the word appears to mean: "To conceal" and I'm unsure whether I'm actually comfortable with that concept as it is counter to my day to day existence. The word appears to have many current definitions or interpretations too, so I'm merely confused.

On an interesting and perhaps related side note, I've always noted that there is a Theosophical bookshop in the big smoke, but it has always for some strange reason looked a little bit sad and unloved for me to venture into.

Best wishes for both you and your readers over in the US for the 4th of July celebrations!



Cherokee Organics said...


Yes, the sharks - and it is various species too - are attacking surfers down under with alarming regularity. If I had to posit a theory on the matter, I would point to over fishing and that surfers often look remarkably like seals. Just sayin.

It is quite sad that a surf culture that likes to pretend that it gets up close and personal and also communes with the mother ocean, doesn't seem to understand that plenty of sharks swim in that mother ocean too and they are hungry.

When I have to move a log or fallen tree, I have to worry about whether there is a snake residing under there - and they only happen to be the second deadliest in the world - and that is a real risk.

No need to reply to this point of view.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Adrian,

Many thanks for both your comment and the link to your wonderful blog.

PS: Excuse my ignorance, but what is all about?



Caryn said...

Blogger Michael Stephenson said...
People's Liberation Army tasked with protecting 'overseas interests' under new China security law

Looks like with all this financial mayhem going on at the moment the scenario laid out in "How it could happen", could happen, a lot sooner than anticipated in your essay.

It all certainly seems to be coming to a head.

Michael: The PLA have already deployed some 7,000 troops to the Sudan and various parts of unstable African countries where China has not only oil and mining, concerns, but Chinese citizens, expat workers living there.
Am I dreaming? Or did I get this link from here at ADR?

They're not ready to invade California just yet.

Although they do seem to be bound and determined to make every single e-ff-up of 'Empire' and hegemony the US and Western countries have done before them in record time for their brief moment in the sun.
With the right hand sending in PLA troops to protect Chinese workers and assets from war and strife, the left hand is selling small arms, (handguns and rifles) to the local Govt.s and police which inevitably ends up in the hands of bandits and rebels and perpetuates the war and strife, necessitating more PLA troops.

China stocks continue fall despite Beijing easing efforts ...

Sorry, I can't log onto SCMP again to link for you, until I clean my cache. The thing that stuck out to me was that this relaxing of regulation would ease the pain now, but pretty much guarantee far worse pain down the road, as, well, it's a bubble.

Yeah, Collapse will be happening on this side of the world too, probably a lot sooner than I'd anticipated. :(

Denys said...

My copy of Green Wizardry arrived yesterday!! I didn't realize it was written in doable chunks with actionable work and exercises. I will be going through this book with my teenagers starting this weekend and having them do the exercises.

I was thinking it would make a great meet-up too. My permaculture design course was 8 months long meeting once a month, and the herbal medicine courses I did were 9 months long. That length of course allowed me time to work the material and use it. That length of course also provided me very personalized instruction by the end; inevitably 3/4 of the class would drop out along the way claiming to be "too busy". The remaining people in the course became good friends of mine.

Would you mind if I ran it as a meet-up? I have no idea if it would fly here or how many I would get. I might call the meet-up something along "permaculture meets homesteading". I would have people buy your book. It's on Amazon so very easy to get for now.


donalfagan said...

@ Candace & Sharks

Anecdotal, but we vacationed on a Carolina beach last summer and the summer before. The beach seemed dirtier in only one year. In the low tide surf there was a lot of trash and what appeared to be clear, decomposed plastic foam. We didn’t see any live crabs in the surf. And the local seafood outlet had a lot less of a selection.

So I've been wondering whether maybe the sharks are a bit desperate for food.

Caryn said...

Sorry: This is the podcast on PLA troops in Africa for anyone interested:

jean-vivien said...

"Putin tells Obama he wants dialogue based on equality and respect"

06:35 AM EDT

Funny, that article on the Onion... oh wait it is making the headlines on Reuters instead ?

winingwizzard said...

The wine bits are mixed and stewing in their own juices, so what's really about to happen is that more people are going to be forced to wake up, as the crazy financial shenanigans become more and more apparent. Greece failing will not end the world, nor any other country - but will they get smarter and go their own way or stay in the same vortex of idiocy? My bet is minimal change, to hang on to BAU and a silly government, so things just ratchet downward another notch.

In this country, there is a certain area or two (a wide strip from VA to NY comes to mind) where everything is illusory. I mean most everything is truly illusory and people have little direct contact with each other even living next door. Outside of that zone, things are better, but still the metropolitan areas across the country are replicas of this 'zone of illusion'. The remaining areas are much less illusory, where people interact personally day to day, know things about what is happening in the neighborhood and enjoy life at a slower pace. We don't worry about things like Smartmeters, because there is no pervasive wifi or even cable television.

Funny, the world was great when I was in my 30's, and internet was text only, cell phones were in a bag and not ubiquitous, and cars got 30 MPG or close to it. My 1984 Accord got 45 MPG with all amenities - so no progress there, even with digital assistance. Collapse and less tech is not only survivable but more enjoyable and likely safer overall. The entire digital scramble is not even 40 years old - it's delicacy and complexity is showing.

My kids turned on the attic fan this morning in the 2-story we have been building. They were shocked that it was very comfortable and even chilly near the windows inside, when the temp outside was almost 90 degrees and humidity 90%... Southerners lived down here for a long time before there was air conditioning - collapse is quite a ways off when viewing just this one instance of current tech versus older tech.

A combo of ancient, older and new tech will work out pretty well as things ratchet down, and just by reducing the "instant gratification" thing and letting things take more time, the 'frantic factor' will slowly recede, I hope.

PRiZM said...

A bit off topic but some connections, with machines and with the overall theme of this blog..

American stories, specifically the tall tales, have definitely expressed on a level the conquering of nature. I am thinking of how Paul Bunyan and Babe wrestling resulted in the formation of the Great Lakes, how Paul Bunyan dragging his axe created a large river or two, Pecos Bill lassoing a tornado, and Paul Henry played a huge role in developing the Transcontinental railroad.

But I think these stories also showed the depth and determination of the human spirit and body. All of these stories represented men who used their physical strength, (using axe and ox lumberjacking, using the entire body horse riding, and driving stakes) along with a bit of wit, to overcome their obstacles. Paul Henry's challenge in particular was against a machine.

These stories were real important for me growing up. I think they help to represent, and probably developed to some extent, the American psyche.

Does anyone think it is possible to rework the stories now to help inspire the American people to overcome, and perhaps even enjoy the hardships? I know JMG will suggest I can do it ... If I were to tackle such a task though, I would like to get others input.

Dagnarus said...

My first thought when reading the post was. "The universe is a machine" should be interpreted as "The universe is in the set of machines", the universe being equivalent to a machine just seems strange. But that is completely unimportant.

The second would be that whether or not the universe is or is not of the machine family, it can be extremely difficult to reason about machines. For example when given a model representing a set of machines working together it can be extremely difficult to determine whether or not the rules which you use to govern there behavior will ensure that they will never smash into each other or get into a situation where they all block each others progress, this is before you take into account all the real world things which you never knew about or otherwise abstracted from the model. To drone on a bit, this problem turns out to be NP-Hard. It should also be pointed out that generally human machines are designed in a modular way which makes reasoning about them easier. Anyway my point would be that even if the Universe were taken to be one big machine that wouldn't necessarily mean that the Universe could be fully understood. No I do not believe that the Universe is a machine.

Thirdly, not directly referenced in your post. My suspicion is that as far as intelligence (if not wisdom) possessed by a singular centralized physical being goes, humans likely are in the upper ranges of what is practical there. My suspicion is that higher levels of intelligence require decentralization. I base this upon the fact that most of the better algorithms for dealing with complex problems are based upon simulating multiple agents acting independently, but with limited communication between the agents in order to enable collaboration, an example of this would be evolutionary algorithms.

Also I'm not certain whether this is relevant or not but are you aware of the case described in this article, in which an intelligent designer used evolution in order to create a logic circuit he himself did not understand how worked.

William Zeitler said...

As someone who has been a software engineer for decades (Microsoft, IBM, etc.) there is a feature of machines which IMHO doesn't get the attention that I believe it deserves. (By machine I mean a fully determined system -- whether mechanical, symbolic (math), software, etc.). And that is that a sufficiently complex machine's behavior can no longer be determined/predicted by humans. And it doesn't take a very complex computer program at all such that the person who wrote it can't predict what it will do given a certain set of inputs. So in THEORY it's deterministic, but in PRACTICE it's not -- because our intelligence is so profoundly finite. I've worked on software projects with millions of lines of code -- who can grasp that?

This is part of the history you describe: the Enlightenment started out with relatively simple cognitive machines -- Newton's physics, even with calculus, is within the reach of high school students; Einstein's general relativity not at all, and quantum physics is vastly worse.

So we have our wonderful machines (cognitive and physical) -- the economy, medicine (the body is just a machine), Gaia is just a machine -- and now we're at the point between choosing between machines we can understand but they don't work because they're too simplistic, or machines that work better but we no longer understand them (or at least their implications!).

Hubris is a fundamental problem of our age. We think we're smart enough to construct these enormous cognitive machines that will work, and we're not. And we all know what happens to folks with Hubris in the ancient Greek plays -- Zeus zaps 'em with lightning bolts.

BTW, I'm minded of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem (1931 – a landmark proof of the 20th century with quite a story behind it): that given any non-trivial formal system (e.g. 'machine') there will be states/statements that can neither be demonstrated true/possible nor false/impossible – thus every formal system/machine is 'incomplete'. Its corollary is that no such system can demonstrate its own self-consistency -- indeed Gödel shows that if a system asserts that, that is prima facie evidence that it is INconsistent! The point is that even given a pure 'machine' like mathematics (unbounded by any practical considerations) and unbounded intelligence to contemplate it, there will ever be unknowable realms. So if the dream of the machine is not even possible in the realm of the Ideal, then how much less so when we try to construct them in our 'real' world. (BTW, one of the main reasons Einstein chose to go to the Institute of Advanced Studies was because Gödel was there. They went on daily walks together. The mind boggles at what those conversations must have been like.)

So Humility in general when facing the World is profoundly needed. I'm afraid as a species we're in for a well-deserved whupping. (The "Dream of the Machine" is turning into a nightmare!)

One last thought: one of Einstein's great insights is that even though we have two different words 'space' and 'time', he realized that they were really two different sides of the same coin and coined the term 'space-time'. Having separate words for things doesn't necessarily mean they are separate. I was recently reading some Robert Sardello, and he proposed the term 'human-world' for the same reason. It is a profound error of our age that humans and the natural world are two 'separate' things – when we aren’t.

Nature always has the last word -- she has billions of years at her disposal and we humans don't.

عبد المنعم المشايخي said...

Believe and believe not are the opposites that keep the world of the human functions. There is a layout and in this layout we conduct our affairs. There will always be deniers and believers and this the purpose of creation, to know who will come out of the trail in this team or in that team irrespective of the shade of each.Faith is not a debatable issue, because no one knows the secret of the heart and that is why the prophets are assured not to get disheartened when belied for there are some are pron to belie.

J Thomas said...

I read about a group of people who saw that WWII was coming. They saw it would include all industrial nations and it would be horrible, and they wanted no part in it. So they all got their appendixes removed and got full dentures, to take care of appendicitis and toothache, and they collected all the tools and supplies they would need to take care ofo themselves in a small south-sea paradise named Guadalcanal.

There is no personal solution. If you find a way to make a living for yourself in the midst of the catastrophe, somebody stronger will take it away from you.

To succeed, you must look too insignificant to bother to rob. And that's pretty insignificant!

August Johnson said...

JMG - OK, when you put it that way I agree, the leaders should definitely publicly distance themselves from the extremists. I took it that you were saying that all atheists should be out there doing that. I do find it odd to think there are "leaders" of those who don't believe in something. I guess it's not so much not believing in God but rather believing there is no God. So far I haven't met any atheists that are anywhere near as offensive as some "Christians" I've met, but I haven't personally met Dawkins or any of his ilk either. There was one family member, now passed on, who took every opportunity to reassure me that I was going to Burn in Hell because I accepted evolution...

onething said...


"Does anyone think it is possible to rework the stories now to help inspire the American people to overcome, and perhaps even enjoy the hardships? I know JMG will suggest I can do it ... If I were to tackle such a task though, I would like to get others input."

I am instantaneously struck with the rightness of this idea.

+William Z--

You seem to be calling pretty much every system a machine, which begins to lose any meaning, for me.
It seems to me that just because a system may have machine-like properties, taken as a whole, it is not a machine. Certainly the body has a stunning array of algorithmic processes; maintaining bodily pH and its options for trying to return to homeostasis in the event there is a problem, for one small example among, no doubt, hundreds of thousands. But I have two, perhaps related, points. First, because what goes into the successful running of a human body is vast beyond our comprehension, it is probably premature and hubristic to be labeling what it is. It may very well be that something like the subconscious mind is required to run a body.

Second, we are looking at processes of life such as the body or Gaia, and we see that they are alive (jury being still out on Gaia) and we see that they have many fairly determined and chemically dependent processes, and conclude that life works like a machine. But life, a consciousness, can inhabit a suitable body yet it is not the body. I am not my body, or I am not me solely because of my body, although it has a fair amount to do with who I am. Or even, regardless to what extent one considers the mind/body to be a unity, it is still my point that it is not the atoms and molecules and the algorithms by which they run that make up the criterion by which we determine if I am a machine.

Well, I am the owner of several machines, by which I mean a human-designed artifact which does a task for me, and in some ways my body, my heart beat, is like that, but because there is a mind, a consciousness within it, it cannot be considered a machine.

It's not just complexity. Which is why I am skeptical any machine we design could become conscious. The only way it could is if a disembodied entity found it suitable and moved in and who knows if that is even possible. In biology as we know it, life comes from prior life, always.

It seems to me that in asking whether the body, planet or universe is a machine, we are basically asking whether life is real. Spirit.

+ JMG-
Speaking of real, I must confess to being a bit of a Platonist. But I dislike exclusionary thinking. Nirvana is samsara and the other way around. Of course the cup is real and also the most accessible aspect we can work with, at least in ordinary states of consciousness. In my worldview, material things are less real in that they are more contingent and dissolve more readily than ideas or pure consciousness. That is, its current form is less stable, further down the chain of being.

John Roth said...

Re: Katherine Kepler’s trial for witchcraft: You might find this edifying:


Most stars vibrate to some extent. This isn’t just the Sun, it’s been measured in a fair number of nearer and brighter stars. The extreme case is the periodic variables, such as the Cephid variables. To call this “sound” is rather poetic.

John Michael Greer said...

KL, I envy the dogs; nobody expects them to spend their time at mathematics and rocket science, and so they can pay attention to things that matter considerably more, such as their affections and a warm place to sleep in the sun.

Cherokee, by "mystic" I mean a person who seeks direct personal experience of spiritual realities. Some of them do get devoured by lions, though it rarely takes three of the big cats to do it.

Caryn, you and my other readers in and around China -- if you haven't done so already -- need to get copies of Galbraith's The Great Crash 1929 and read that puppy immediately, if not sooner. The Chinese stock market is doing an absolutely classic 1929 bubble-and-bust, and the government is sticking precisely to Herbert Hoover's script as well.

Denys, I wouldn't mind at all -- quite the contrary, I'd be delighted. The whole point of writing that book was to encourage people to do things with it.

Jean-Vivien, just wait for Putin to start talking about Hope and Change...

Wizzard, equally, the world was great when the internet hadn't been invented in the first place. Technology doesn't actually make that much difference in how great the world is.

Prizm, yes, I think it would be a great idea, and I'm glad to hear that you'll be getting to work on it at once. ;-)

Dagnarus, that's fascinating. Do you realize that you may have just come up with a really original argument in favor of polytheism as opposed to monotheism? It's hard to think of a better example of decentralized divinity than a good old-fashioned polytheist pantheon, after all, with different aspects of existence assigned to different gods. Also, "the universe is in the set of machines" is a far clearer and more meaningful statement than "the universe is a machine" -- equally incorrect, but much clearer.

Wiliam, that's equally fascinating. What you seem to be suggesting -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- is that those who say "the universe is a machine" have a false idea of what machines are like, and are actually saying "the universe is like my mistaken notion of a machine: simple, predictable, subject to rigid laws, etc." That definitely deserves thought.

(Name I can't read), I suppose that's one way to look at it. From my perspective, belief is only one of many possible activities of the human mind, and no more important than the others.

J Thomas, I read about a bunch of people who figured out that World War II was coming. They sold all their possessions, left their homelands and moved to a distant country. They were European Jews, and they moved to the United States; as a result, they didn't get shipped to concentration camps, and their descendants are around today. Sometimes there is indeed a personal solution.

August, yes, there's a real difference between those who don't happen to believe in any gods, and those who fervently, passionately, devoutly believe that no gods exist and are offended by the fact that people disagree with that claim. It's unfortunate that the same moniker gets applied to both. If you'd like to meet atheists who are just as abusive, self-righteous, and dogmatic as any religious fundamentalist, I encourage you to try being the public head of a Druid order sometime; I can assure you that you'll get quite the show.

Onething, yes, I'd figured you were a bit of a Platonist; most Western mystics are. Nearly all my training as an occultist and mage had Neoplatonist ideas all through it, and I'm doing a lot of floundering just now as I try to make sense of things from what I suppose you'd have to call a post-Platonist worldview.

WW said...

@mawkernewak- "To what extent does language shape thought, or does it go the other way with the grammatical structure of language changing as a result of the changes to thought?"

While it's ostensibly science fiction and not a scholarly study, let me be the first to commend to you Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao. I can never pass up an opportunity to recommend Jack Vance, and it's also on point.

Peter said...

An interesting topic that I have wondered about. Our understanding of the universe is limited by the models that we can compare it to. For example, take the question of "how does the heart work?" In antiquity they thought it like a furnace, then in more recent times it was a 'simple pump'. Later with the discovery of signalling we get ideas such as the heart being a coordinated set of muscles sometimes with deliberately chaotic modes. As our selection of models increases we apply them to things to get greater insight.

But the Universe itself is different. Trying to understand the universe ends up in you asking things like, "where did the laws of nature come from?" And we can talk about it being mechanistic here and there, but that does not mean it is a machine. A game board is mechanistic due to its rules but we don't say that the Universe is a game. The Universe has some features of a machine, then so does my hand, but living systems are vastly more complicated. The Universe itself is likely vastly more complicated than the mechanistic method of logical inference we can apply to it. The problem with assuming a mechanistic solution is that the real world is more subtle and we will be excluding whole categories of behaviour because it does not match our view. So, a civilisation is collapsing ... like a building, no it can be in stages, or have reversals, or have surprising communal resurgences, then arrive gently or abruptly at a new level, then forget its past so it can reinvent itself. Or all of the above.

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

JMG: I'm doing a lot of floundering just now as I try to make sense of things from what I suppose you'd have to call a post-Platonist worldview.

May I ask what inspired this change of view?

My own intellectual journey has been largely non-Platonic. I started out Mormon (which is pretty far on the non-Platonic end of Christianity) and have spent the most time afterward as either a Rorty-esque pragmatist or a neo-Aristotelian. Ironically it was your book Monsters that started me thinking about more neo-Platonic lines in the last couple of years since Aristotle's system has difficulties accommodating non-physical beings — Thomas Aquinas has it that angels and disembodied human souls exist only by direct intervention by God.

Ivan Lukic said...

I feel that default in various Western countries is necessary at this moment because it erases and rectifies injustice. When default comes, the people that loose the most are the people that profited the most from financial manipulation. Of course, those of us who are not rich will suffer too, but that’s the price we have to pay so that the order can be restored.

When I was young I learned in school about Hinduism and about ancient epics Ramayana and Bhagavadgita. I paid little attention to it because India is so far from Serbia. But it suddenly came to me the other day that default is some kind of Kalkin Avatar. In Bhagavadgita Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: "Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and rise of unrighteousness then I send forth Myself. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked, and for the establishment of righteousness, I come into being from age to age." This is better approximation of reality than offered by the Christian religion. In Christianity the restoration of order is delayed for some unspecified date in the future – The Judgement Day (Armagedon). In Hinduism the order is restored in continuity over and over again.

Denys said...

The Chinese question.....I found the premise in the novel 2030 by Albert Brooks very plausible.

"The big one" hits Southern California and most of the area is in ruins. Millions die because the earthquake repsonse by the federal government is so weak because it has no money to respond. The Chinese offer to help and move in hundreds of thousands of workers to provide medical assistance, clear he rubble and rebuild. The Chinese never leave. And just like that a third of California is essentially China.

A people can be more effectively subdued with kindness than guns; they will rarely turn on the hand that feeds them. i thought this was common knowledge of those in power, but U.S. Foreign policy shows its not.

Phil Harris said...

“Phil, scientists aren't trained to think in terms of having to make a decision; quite the contrary, their training leads them to put off a final call whenever they're not confident -- which is good in research, and unworkable when it comes down to having to say whether a technology is safe to deploy or not.”

The cases where I was close to the discussion were for the deployment of genetically engineered organisms when the explicit default position was that deployment of the organism could proceed unless we could discern any ‘good reason’ why not. The ‘precautionary principle’ was in effect ‘disallowed’. (OK; that’s all in the interest of facilitating ‘trade’ and ‘Progress’ i.e. ‘benefit’.) In the case of work where deployment was not expected – genetically engineered viruses for example – the risk assessment was on the likely effectiveness of ‘containment’, where the ‘precautionary principle’ tended to be assumed.

I take it that Logical Positivism, (or nowadays post-LP thinking?) if we can cut it down to a sentence, is about not accepting conjectures (figurations) of the world as ‘real’ unless they have been shown to be ‘real’ by inspection of evidence measured in line with standards of logical proof. In the case of genetically engineered crops, the assumption was that deployment was expected unless there was ‘knowledge’ that would restrict deployment. Thus any merely ‘plausible’ reason for disallowing deployment was not good enough.

Take another example of some LP in action (in admittedly a perhaps less stringent post-LP world), that is applied to decision-taking. Most modern medical guidance documents on assessment of risks from a disease condition itself on the one hand, and of efficacy of treatments on the other (for instance in cardiovascular disease), commonly stratify recommendations according to the ‘quality of evidence’ – the balance of contradictory evidence and so on, and ‘net-benefit’. This is always uncomfortable for an individual patient on the receiving end of Applied Statistics obtained from observing populations. Sub-dividing populations on the basis of ‘likeness’ always runs into ‘limits’ because the smaller the study population, the less sufficiently ‘powered’ it is to discriminate a ‘causal’ relationship. (Prof TC Campbell attempts an accessible explanation of this and related conundrums in his book ‘Whole’.)

There is a case IMHO that in Applied Science we run into limits of diminishing relevance. “The more you know, the less you understand” and such like jokes?

Phil H

Ivan Lukic said...

The universe is some kind of multidimensional hologram image that contains all questions and all solutions simultaneously. The human brain is deliberately formed in such way to filter sensations, because if we could „see“ the hologram in full, we would be so overwhelmed with sensations that we could easily loose our mind. Our brain protects us from this potentialy destructive knowledge. Only God can look at the hologram in continuity – God is hologram itself.

There are two ways we could gain knowledge.

1. Traditional way is to follow the line of causalities, like in Western science, using mathematical models. This is EXTREMELY inefficient way.
2. The other way is what Carl Japsers called desultory thinking. We „jump“ from the question directly to answer – this is mystical knowledge.

Mystical knowledge is when, under some special circumstances, we can have a glimpse into the hologram and directly approach solution to some question. (That’s how Nikola Tesla’s inventions came into being – he saw completed machines in his mind). In order to be able to see specific solution we are interested in, our consciousness must be altered either by some psychoactive substance, or by some unusual experience or by some serious life threatening illness (like our host JMG experienced in his youth). We (humans) are able to sustain our presence in the hologram for only a moment, but that is enough to gain mystical knowledge! (Orthodox Christian monks at Mount Athos are trying to see „Tavor light“ for just a moment – that’s isychasm).

Prof. Dejan Rakovich, from Belgrade University, claims that ancient Hindu chakras in our bodies are antenna system for connection to hologram that we do not know how to use.

Iuval Clejan said...

I've suspected the connection between Calvinist predetermination/lack of free will (which seems to follow logically from an omniscient God) and the rise of mechanistic/reductionistic science for a while. Catholicism or other religions that believe in free will would not have led to deterministic science. It is also interesting that Newton was also into Alchemy which is a non-deterministic sort of "science". Many of his collaborators in this were Catholic as far as I know though I have not checked up on Neal Stephenson who is my source for this information(Quicksilver--part one of the Baroque Cycle).

There are quite a few Neo-Platonists in physics today such as me, Penrose and Ellis, but I think Penrose and Ellis might be dubious of free will and still see the universe as a partially non-material machine. I've toyed around with the idea that if the basic equations of physics (such as the Schrodinger or Dirac equations) were non linear in the time derivative they would have multiple solutions and determinism (even quantum probabilistic determinism) would be undermined. Another possible way to undermine determinism is to postulate (and experimentally find!) places where time ceases to exist or where spacetime has certain singularities so that all equations break down. Two such candidates are centers of black holes and signature changing surfaces (the latter might be quite common around some brains).

The other Tom said...

@J Thomas
"To succeed, you must look too insignificant to bother to rob. And that's pretty insignificant."

Unless your plan is to hoard supplies or ammunition, I would respectfully disagree. If your wealth is in knowledge, skills and good health, your wealth cannot be stolen. In fact, it may protect you from some people by making you too useful to kill.
Many years ago I met a German guy who had been a young man in WW2. He survived because he was an excellent mechanic, too useful to be sacrificed at the front.

Andropos Nebulus said...

Hi Toomas.... As for Kepler's mom, I could only speculate. I love history, but I'm just an amateur. I do know that that area of southwest Germany was affected badly by the 30 years war.

Ok, I did a little checking and here's some background. With the insurrection of Bohemia in 1618, the religious divisions in the Baden-Wurttemburg area became political, with loyalist Catholics choosing union, and anti-Emperor protestants selecting for themselves a rival leader. With the very Elector of Palatine being chosen as head of the Protestant Union in 1619, this part of the country (the whole Wurttemburg area) came directly into the bulls-eye of the larger powers.

It looks like Kepler's mom was tried for sorcery in 1616, certainly before things got really out of hand. But she got away for some reason (it looks like she was found innocent! (chuckles)) and fled with her son. But then she apparently chose to return Wurttemberg and was imprisoned again in 1620. This was the same year Wurttemburg was invaded by the powerful Spanish army, which lived off the land and won the region siege-by-siege. Clearly both the leadership and the population were under considerable stress.

With a backdrop of this level of chaos and insecurity, I can only guess at the specific motivations of the people involved. But I'll say that witch-burnings, reaching a crescendo in Europe just then, was both a popular madness (fear reaction) and a tool of political terror.

One can surmise that Kepler himself would have had a powerful emotional reaction to the whole affair. But, alas, I'm not familiar with the specifics.

By the way, I really enjoyed your description of the sun! I haven't been keeping up with solar science lately, but I'll surely be doing some reading about it now. Thanks!

Andropos Nebulus said...

Hi onething.... Thanks for the comments, and thanks for reading my long posts! Let me try to take up a few things you said.

As for how things could be as bad as WWI + WWII, well certainly this can be debated, but let me try to make my case. For a first approximation I would measure it by raw depopulation. In about 100 years of religious/political warfare, central Europe was depopulated by a third to a half or more (look this up for yourself!). Obviously not all of that was direct murder or war casualties; a lot of it would have been indirect effects of huge armies destroying cities and towns, living off the land (in those days, think of what that meant!), as well as trade disruptions of all sorts: trade centers were destroyed, farmers would withhold crops not even knowing who to sell crops to, or if they sold them to the wrong people whether they'd be killed or not, etc etc. Just think for yourself what a 16th c. refugee crisis would look like, as an army (which were getting much bigger by then) cut a swathe through the land, stealing, eating or burning everything that couldn't be taken away.

In WWI + WWII, of course the total number of deaths was much higher, but remember I said "proportional to population levels, etc". In the worst-hit areas in WWII, anywhere from 8-15% of the population was killed. That is horrible, but it is not the 30-50% of 1618-1648.

As for primitive warfare not achieving devastation like modern warfare.... I would agree it is harder for pikes, arquebuses, and canon to wreak the destruction of phosgene gas, machine guns, and incendiaries, but regardless of tools, I would say there is basically no upper limit to human destructiveness given sufficient commitment on the part of the perpetrators. Look at the Rwandan genocide: using mostly machetes and with a dysfunctional, inept leadership, they achieved an efficiency of ethnic slaughter roughly on par with the Nazis.

Not to mention other examples. Read about what Hulagu did in Mesopotamia in 1258. Or what Genghis did at Zhongdu in 1215, when this advanced city and its suburbs had a million people.

As to your third (I think?) point, indeed I said "perceived" for some of the very reasons you state. Of course I was talking specifically about the cultural background of the Kepler, Galileo, etc. Keep in mind that the world was far, far bigger in those days, and, for the most part, the belief systems present in Byzantium or among the Rus might have been on the moon as far north-west Europe was concerned.

I would agree that Church involvement in power politics was a huge factor, but also keep in mind that the Popes, though they tried, controlled much of European religion but never fully controlled European politics. It looks to me that the proximate causes of the Reformation can be traced to the Avignon Papacy, where a broad perception grew that the Pope was serving the French crown instead of God and the people. This lead the ideologically devastating Great Schism (starting 1378). With Popes excommunicating Popes and European powers choosing sides, the Pope literally became a joke throughout Europe and the Church's prestige was damaged and never repaired.

Almost immediately after this came the Renaissance Popes. I am not Catholic, but a Catholic priest once told me that just about the best argument for the divinity of the Catholic Church that it wasn't completely destroyed by the Renaissance Popes. I thought that was interesting.

Andropos Nebulus said...

Last comment in reply to onething....

I've heard two basic narratives concerning Copernicus' publication choices. The first (and seemingly dominant right now) is that he kept his ideas secret for many years out of fear of persecution, and had to smuggle a manuscript out of Catholic Poland to get it secretly published in protestant northern Germany, because Catholic authorities would outright prohibit it, and likely punish---or kill!---Copernicus himself.

The second narrative is that Copernicus, a scholar and expert in the highly mathematical Ptolemaic theory and much else besides, was certainly aware of (with most of the intelligentia of Europe) the Heliocentric model, which had existed since antiquity.

As a full-time canon and part-time scientist----and not particularly being in a rush until he found out that certain rivals were also developing heliocentric mathematical models----it simply took a long time to develop his theory, especially since he tried (and failed) many times to get the very sophisticated mathematics to work out. He looked around for a publisher in Poland, but couldn't find a satisfactory arrangement---the printing press being just a few decades old by then, quality was low and costs were high. When some students returned from a trip to Germany with books from German publication houses, he was very impressed with the quality, and decided to publish there instead of in Poland. Being quite old (almost 70!) and not being able/willing to leave his other duties and personally travel to Germany, he sent the manuscript with some of his students to Germany to get it published.

Perhaps tellingly, the famous unauthorized "preface" that some use to argue that religious censorship occurred, was written by a protestant, not by any Catholic authority figure.

Also, it would be quite reasonable to be impressed with German printing. We have Gutenberg bibles that are in good shape and can be leafed through even today---whereas I have books from my undergraduate days that have brittle pages and instantly-cracking bindings.

So I'm not going to tell you I know the truth for sure, but I'll say this. As a college student in a scientific field, I was raised with (indoctrinated into?) the first narrative. Later I read more on my own, and I've come think the second narrative makes a lot more sense, even though it certainly still leaves me with some questions. Of course my little narratives here are bare-boned sketches, so please look into it for yourself and make up your own mind!

olivier64 said...

@JMG "[have you] consider[ed] the possibility that the universe is a structure of ideas rather than a machine, electrical or otherwise?"

I think this is hitting the nail on the head. Modern science (from Newton onwards) is not concerned with mechanistic explanations: on the contrary Newton disparaged Descartes' mechanistic pictures as a bunch of just-so stories and cast them out of the scientific realm on the ground that they could not be used to predict anything. It is true (which confuses many laymen) that scientists sometimes resort to mechanistic descriptions to help themselves formulate their theories, as Maxwell famously did when he envisioned an ether full of wires and pulleys, but this is merely a scaffolding, discarded as soon as it has played its role, i.e., as soon as it has suggested equations. Hence Newton's famous "hypotheses non fingo". Absolutely nobody today thinks of the vacuum in the way Maxwell did yet his equations endure: they, not his mechanical just-so stories, are his contribution to science.

The essence of modern science is the ability to compute and make quantitative predictions, not to describe, and it takes the form of equations: those are your "structure of ideas". A computable universe must be subject to immutable rules but whether it is a machine is neither here nor there. Thus I don't buy your argument that science is just a manifestation of the mechanistic outlook that gripped Europe from the XVIIth century onwards. As the Maywell example shows, the two can sit comnfortably together but are nonetheless distinct: the equations of Maxwell in and of themselves do not presuppose or describe any machine while conversely the little machines of Descartes were not science as we (since Newton and Leibniz) understand it.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for the explanation and that makes sense. Incidentally, I approve of a "hands on" approach to events and circumstances!

Back to the topic of machines though, I listened recently to a podcast of yourself and Chris Martenson (of the Peak Prosperity website) and wanted to thank both of you for taking the time to have those sorts of discussions and then also make them available.

There was an interesting discussion in the podcast though surrounding the "iphone" moment which was a stumbling block for Chris in his discussions with groups surrounding the issues of technology, energy and progress.

Now in and of itself, that is hardly a surprising stumbling block (as a disclaimer I do have and use a mobile phone as no landline is available here and it is also a "dumb" flip phone used to make phone calls). As I was listening to that discussion, which I had to then go back and carefully listen to again, I was mildly astounded because I had a mental image of Denethor, the Ruling Steward of Gondor from the Lord of the Rings trilogy grasping tightly to the Palantir (or seeing stone) whilst he lay upon his pre-emptive funeral pyre. The interesting thing for me in that memory was that Denethor was not being directly manipulated by Sauron, but the inference in the book was that Sauron was carefully and subtly mediating the images that Denethor could see in the stone and the ultimate outcome from those images was a sort of hopeless despair for the situation which finally cost him his life.

I reckon that there is a good metaphor in there about technology and machines. It is also useful to remember the words of Gandalf relating to Saruman's use of the Palantir (seeing stones): "But alone it could do nothing but see small images of things far off and days remote. Very useful, no doubt, that was to Saruman; yet it seems that he was not content. Further and further abroad he gazed, until he cast his gaze upon Barad-dûr. Then he was caught!"

It makes you wonder how could Tolkien have known that that would be the outcome given the years and technology that the book was written? Very prescient.



winingwizzard said...

@ JMG - was just tossing that out there for the tech-addicted, which includes one of my daughters. They will have to pry her phone out of her cold, dead fingers...LOL But agree 110% that sans digital and a good chunk of the last century, people got on fine. I would dearly love to hang on to recent medical developments to limit suffering...

heather said...

JMG- yup, I spotted that mistake in thinking I was making while I was walking out to feed the animals the other night. I enjoy having such good stuff to think about while my body is otherwise engaged. I'll just keep grinding my way through the logical fallacies, one at a time, and hope to end up somewhere useful at the end. Thanks.
--Heather in CA

Ray Wharton said...

I just finished browsing the news, and I now agree that the economy is showing signs of extreme vulnerability and it is likely that the coming months could see a lot of people rushing to collapse. At this point it might be a bit late to avoid the rush, but anybody who is willing to do the difficult parts proactively can still collapse with some degree of grace.

I think that the most important thing, and the thing that has frustrated me most often, is humility. Be humble and ready to learn, even (especially) from people that barely can keep their stuff together and seem wrong headed or ignorant of important matters. This is something that with years of intentional cultivation still does not come easy to me, for I can tend to be a ornery smarty pants, and have several times this year planned based on an inflated idea of my own capacity. Looking back my greatest triumphs are, almost always, associated with times of humility and my failures have every one been fertilized with pride. Being humble does not require beating oneself up, but that can also be a natural part of the process of humiliation. Accept humiliation as an opportunity to learn. I have trouble imagining a humble person who is earnest in their good will who would not encounter many folks eager to work with them in a normal day, making a connection is another thing, but I have no clear words on what might guide that.

Also important is to not give into depression. I have had hard times collapsing and being accidentally and intentionally homeless and such. None of the worst have been physical shortages. Those are very often not deadly, and almost as often make for great stories eventually! Depression is the hard thing, it makes one vulnerable to many other dangers, especially addiction, which goes far beyond drugs, it has many forms. I do not know the answer to this one and get depressed from time to time, but here are some thoughts. When I NOTICE my self being depressed I try to do something productive, in my experience work that requires tenderness has been the most beneficial. Tenderly caring is extremely powerful, the tenderness I want to emphasize. Do not look for relief from inaction or distraction, though rest and recreation can be helpful and are often free or cheap. The other thing that tends to best prevent depression is gratitude, because we are alive and that is wondrous there is always much to be grateful for, but I have lost that shield to resentment from contemplating the unjust too often, for this reason I try to find the examples of people doing good things for the good of it when I feel my gratitude choked.

The advice I have given has been the best I have been able to learn in the last three years, but I have only learned it well by ignoring it so often, even many times over after having been persuaded of it.

If the wheels are coming off the cart remember that there will be alot of people having a rough time, each person has a remarkable amount of power through tenderness and gratitude to make it less bad in the circle which they stride that it would otherwise have to be, if they choose to use that power.

Learning to choose is the most worthy thing to try learning. That plus worm castings, sewing, mycology, gardening, bike repair, and jankey solar thermal. This reminds me of the last big thing I have noticed, in pride I have tried learning too many things at once, I am now saying this to myself as much as to the blog, it is better to focus more narrowly on something to try mastering, if trying to master too many things there will be too little room for spontaneity which teaches too well to dare ignore.

Dagnarus said...

First, what William said.

Second, too follow up on the polytheism argument. First I would point out that as far as I can tell, if monotheism means that there is only one god/spiritual entity, I don't think that there are any monotheistic religions. Most of them have a Satan figure, Angels, Saints, So on so forth. Unless I am mistaken if such entities were considered from a polytheistic frame, they themselves would be considered as being gods in there own right, correct? Based upon this I have come to the conclusion that what distinguishes a monotheistic system from a polytheistic one is not the existence of only a single deity, but rather the existence of, for want of a better term, one single truth which all right thinking being must follow. For example in most of mainstream Christianity there is a trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some people look at this and say this smacks of "Polytheism" ha ha. But I would say this misses the point, that regardless of whether these are individual gods or not, biblical doctrine makes clear that they all have the basically the same will, where they all agree with each other, and they all work together for there own collective Goal, which is the only correct Goal. Furthermore all the angels are either evil rebellious louts, or they are perfectly obedient to this one correct divine will. Again unless I am mistaken this is different to Polytheism where, at least based upon Greek myth there are multiple gods, which while there might be a head God Zeus, nonetheless each individual god has their own will, which might run counter to Zeus's, and they very well might act upon it. Furthermore just because one individual spiritual entity doesn't follow Zeus to the letter, that does not mean that the entity is the fount of all evil. Or to put it another way there are multiple ways of looking at the world all of which might come into conflict with each other, but that doesn't mean that any of them are necessarily all right, or all wrong. You are doubtless much more knowledgeable about these issues than I am, so I stand to be corrected. Anyway now that that is out of the way, it seems quite conceivable to me that a world could exist in which is ruled over by a distributed God entity, made up of multiple smaller component entities, let's say angels, have a degree of autonomy in carrying out overall reasoning duties, all the entities are locked together in by one single will. Lets call this the ant colony God. I would consider such a God to be while to some degree decentralized still in the balance one single God.

Following on from that I would also like to point if it were the case that the universe is filled with multiple gods, all of which seek for universal truths individually yet are also influenced by the search of others, it probably would not be a good idea to single out one of these entities and saying "This is the one true god, he has the one truth, and all other other gods/truths are inferior/evil". It might be that taking such a stance would lead to a somewhat insular worldview that when confronted by new circumstances which that god isn't fully equipped to handle, then that god might end up failing where a more humble god would be capable of examining/asking for help from other gods which have certain tools which might help.

KL Cooke said...

"you don't know when a machine is going to break down"

These days it's usually shortly after the warrant expires. In a couple of my recent experiences, it was the day after.

Wizard of Tas said...

The theism in monotheism refers to god/s. Even a religion like Christianity which ties itself in logical knots trying to prove the trinity is one god, has multiple conflicting core doctrines. Example, some say salvation is only via god's grace; other say a combo of grace and our own efforts. Some say Jesus is divine, some say purely human, some say both.

They may be viewed as polytheist by a polytheist, but since they don't share divinity with other spiritual beings, they get to view themselves as monotheist.

As a polytheist-animist, i view them as islands of monotheism in a very populated polytheist ocean.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Regarding the European wars of the seventeenth century, I remember a reproduction of a painting by a northern European of the period, I think Pieter Breughel. It is a vast landscape littered with corpses, some executed and some lying on the ground, and various groups of Spanish soldiers committing atrocities in the foreground and the middle distance. All of this is painted in perspective, and near the top of the painting, against the horizon, is a far away detail, three crosses with bodies hanging from them. The crucifixion of Christ, a barely noticeable event on a bad day. I don't know why this painting isn't as famous as Picasso's Guernica; maybe because what it says is more complicated.

Phil Harris said...

An interesting comparison here between Puerto Rico (USA) and Greece (EU/Eurozone). Relationship between 'periphery' and 'metropole'? Or about those being driven into poverty on home turf by the 'wealth pumps'?

Phil H

Denys said...

Monday morning and I now have confirmation that the Greek loan default is a huge deal - NPR news avoided it this morning. They mentioned it at the top of the hour and then immediately went to stories on 1) robots taking over our jobs, 2) dynamic pricing on airline seats, 3) gluten-intolerance.

Nothing to see here people! Keep thinking about yourself and your self-interests!

Caryn said...

@Ray Wharton:

Thanks for sharing that. It was beautifully written and very helpful to remember.

Patricia Mathews said...

@Ray - a quarter of a century ago, shortly after I fled a bad marriage that left my view of my ability to either cope, or to be accepted by people, in tatters, I was feeling particularly low one day and thought muzzily that at least I could clean off one ledge in my tiny apartment. Then, at least, I'd have one tiny task out of the way.

That thought changed, forever, the way I have dealt with being down, and for the better. One can always neaten a ledge, patch the crazy quilt, make a pot of vegetable soup, etc, and when you're done, at least you have that - and for me, the labor also broke up the dank cloud of helplessness and hopelessness at the time. And has ever since. Or at least lightened it.

Amusingly enough, this was about the period that there was a popular song "Sisters Are Doing it For Themselves." Not to mention Queen's "We Are the Champions," which my track-running daughter took as her anthem. Though to release anger, there is nothing like a good mental soundtrack of Civil War songs. The militant ones, like "Marching Through Georgia."

Just my $0.02 and hope this helps.,


The other Tom said...

@Ray Wharton
You are an unusually honest, introspective writer. Thank you.
Depression seems like an appropriate issue for any discussion of collapse. I'm seeing a lot of people afflicted with a kind paralysis or sadness due to economic insecurity. Maybe they suspect it's not just a cycle this time.
I experienced depression only once in my life. Strangely enough, it seemed to inoculate me from a recurrence. I remember the sensation of falling into a black hole as distinctly as a muscle memory that once learned, gives me the balance to stay out of that hole. Several years ago I got some terrible news and the following week it was my experience that kept me out of the muck of inactivity. I don't know if this works for anyone else or if it even makes sense. Also, it seems obvious that meditation and/or activities that allow introspection help in observing one's toxic thoughts before it's too late.
Avoiding depression seems like a skill everyone will need in an era of diminished resources.
Do any health care people have a take on this?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Cherokee Organics,

Hi Chris,

FYI, used to be Energy Bulletin, somewhat more narrowly focused on peak oil and other energy issues, but always with room for articles about what we should do to weather the coming collapse. I first read our host's blog posts there. It is under the auspices of the Post Carbon Institute. A few years ago they changed to a more colorful format and broadened the scope, but it still serves as a portal for news and opinion regarding many of the topics discussed in this forum. It's always been a mix of articles from a wide variety of writers, both professional and amateur. When they changed over, some long-time readers complained about losing the earlier format, but they did attract a lot of new readership.

Also, thanks very much for visiting my blog. I enjoy yours as well.

Iuval Clejan said...

I meant "predestination", not "predetermination"...

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

JMG, you said,

Nearly all my training as an occultist and mage had Neoplatonist ideas all through it, and I'm doing a lot of floundering just now as I try to make sense of things from what I suppose you'd have to call a post-Platonist worldview.

That is surprising to hear, in that I imagine a huge shift, or maybe deconstructing and re-assembling going on at a very deep level, both personal and intellectual. And in terms of your magic and understanding thereof, among other things. And druidry? For me, a shift of this nature would require a reorientation to pretty much everything--I say this from my own experience.

Of course it could be nothing of the sort, could be more easy and gentle with an "oh of course" sort of feel to it, or even a "glad I'm done with all that" sigh of relief. It will be interesting to read what constitutes a post-Platonist worldview, should you come to write about it.

For some reason I'm reminded of Dabrosky's theory of positive disintegration, but don't wish to press that too hard.

Vic Postnikov said...

Dear JMG,

It’s been a real pleasure to read your latest posts.
(Couldn’t withstand not to translate them into Russian).
Again, you have come up with a topic that has always been painfully vital for me. My gradual alienation from science and technology has begun many years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union that I relate to ecological disasters and catastrophes (Chernobyl, etc). The obsession with machines has not been the sole privilege of the west. The Soviet Union borrowed that logic from Marx, I presume, and then Lenin, who were very fond of machinistic means of production. But the rub is that the Russians, in contrast to, say, Germans, are not so disciplined and diligent people (Marx suspected this). The floppiness that flowered under Socialism eventually brought down the System.
I think the same could be said about the Greece. I mean, the southern Europeans are not very keen on technological advances. Theyre ok with their natural resources. Therefore their economies can’t be likened to those of northern countries (where technology does matter).
Just a few thoughts.
Sometimes I don’t know whether I should translate yours or write mine instead. ;-)
Thanks again, and I'm looking forward to your posts.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Ray,

I've been thinking of you the last few days, because I have started mentoring a young urban sustainable ag student. The first lesson: Get yourself a hat and this is how to use a hoe to chop weeds. The second, today: this is how to tell a tomato plant from Peruvian daisy--and in this case, it's easier and safer (for the tomatoes) to pull the Peruvian daisies, not hoe.

I really appreciate what you wrote about work that requires tenderness as a help for depression. It seems like the tenderness part is key, and to me relates directly to humility, since you can't be tender or do work requiring tenderness when in a state of pride or arrogance. Tenderness implies care taking. IMHO.

brian lloyd said...

I want to carry the discussion a little farther down the path that Adrian Ayres Fisher opened up in her first comment (7/2). She wondered if holistic/systems/ecological modes of understanding might be preferable to the categorical definitions of a mechanistic science.

In that spirit, let’s begin with an ecological rather than a mechanistic metaphor - “the universe is a tree” – and see where that takes us. Those who want to draw out this comparison will not start talking about creators, origins, and purposes but rather about biotic relationships - how one thing fits into a larger community of things. The meaning of a tree is not exhausted by what humans might say about it. A tree is also a being for beetles and squirrels and lichens. A full understanding of a tree could only come from making whatever inferences might follow from consideration of its interactions with every being in the neighborhood. Should we want to address the tree’s origins and purposes, our account of them will be identical to the one we would give about ourselves and, indeed, every other living entity in the universe - it evolved from something else over a long stretch of time and strives to live well and long and leave others of its kind behind. Any further investigation of that process will proceed most fruitfully if it stays in the ecological, rather than the mechanistic, realm.

Humans might still want to measure a tree, delineate its chemical properties, and calculate the velocity of whatever might fall out of it, but notice that those ways of engaging with the tree only become important if you want to subordinate it to human purposes - convert it into lumber, paper, or a food producer. That kind of knowledge is helpful to have, but it has been a mistake - a huge one, it turns out, and one that we continue to make on a massive scale - to treat it as if it is the only valuable or reliable information that our encounter with a tree might generate. We made that mistake as beings who decided - arrogantly, foolishly, and usually while in the thrall of one vision of progress or another - that our purposes alone mattered in the world. Had we cherished as we should have the smell or feel of a tree, had we ever climbed to the top on one and swayed with it in the midst of a rain storm (John Muir did this), had we not disregarded what it was to beetles, squirrels, and lichens - then we would not have found it so easy either to destroy whole communities of them or to remain so blissfully ignorant of the perils that we now face for having done so.

For a tree to serve as a metaphor for the universe, it will have to be the poet’s tree. The scientist’s tree is machine-ready - it has no value outside the process that kills it, saws it up, and puts a price tag on it. Individual botanists might entertain other kinds of feelings about trees, but those feelings are on a par with moral strictures like “thou shalt not kill” - noble sentiments with no purchase in a world run by real estate developers and four-star generals. The universe appears machine-like because we have made it so. If we are to make it more tree-like, we will do so as poets and ecologists.

Brian Lloyd

Adam A Thompson said...

Also, on the subject of the rise of the mechanistic frame of reference, I am reminded of the book Caliban and the Witch from AK Press. Have you read it?


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Ray,

Yeah, as a useful suggestion, drop the smarty pants act. I met someone on Saturday at a farmers market that knew me however distantly - I saw the recognition in them. And then they proceeded to put on the smarty pants act, until they started to seek confirmation of the genius of their humour. At that point I told them that I just chose to ignore it. Seriously, it leaves a poor impression. As you say, humility is a much wiser approach and I applaud your efforts in that direction. Intellectual prowess is a crutch that many people use to feel better about their situation - whatever that situation may be, but in and of itself it should be remembered that it does not put food on the table.

No matter where you go in life, there will always be people who are smarter, faster, stronger, wealthier, better looking etc. That's life. Your best bet is to work on yourself and your acknowledgement of the necessity for humility is a great step in that direction.



Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Patricia Mathews--In honor of Independence Day, I give you the third verse of the Star-Spangled Banner, scoring at least an eight on the militant war song meter.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,

That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion

A home and a Country should leave us no more?

Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Like the first verse, it starts with a question, but it doesn't end with one.

Given our current dependence on mercenaries and drone strikes, it's probably just as well that the service academies don't sing this verse any more.

Ray Wharton said...


Thanks for that, intelligence is a great thing, and in truth I am proud of what kinds of thinking I can do well, because I worked hard to develop those skills also I am always eager to use those skills; but mental skills are not intrinsically better than other skills. It is frustrating that intelligence was so strangely over valued, mis valued, it casts a antagonism over thinking and reasoning together with people.

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