Me, Myself and Christ: Lover of Ideas

If to love something is to seek to strengthen it, then in the period between high school and the World Trade Center attack, my life was devoted to the loving of ideas.

Of course, as an initiate to modern scientific materialism, at first I didn’t see it that way. I was strengthening my brain to ensure my future as a knowledge worker. I understood that when exercised, the tissues of the brain become more densely penetrated with energy-delivering capillaries. Neurons that were stimulated by thinking sprouted dendrites that sought axons, and when those synaptic connections were triggered, new thoughts were born.

I didn’t really begin to examine the detailed operation of my mind until my wife began to get angry with me when I didn’t look at her when she was asking for advice. She was a very ambitious woman, seeking a complex balance in life between competing priorities, and when she brought me a problem I would go into a kind of meditative state. Her words would enter my mind, as though through a gateway into a garden that she could not enter. I would hold them all together, not weighing them, but allowing them to find a balance among themselves. When a pathway through the possibilities became clear, I would focus on the most immediate priority and serialize the procedure that would generate the desired conclusion.

The friendship that I offered to ideas was the maintenance of the preserve in which they organized themselves. I didn’t force them together. I have never been invested in the outcome of the determination. I was interested in the truth that was revealed. When none became apparent, I would produce a plethora of possibilities for my interrogator, intuitively probing for more constraints so that I could produce a definite conclusion.

Most people, of course, found this incredibly confusing.

In the quiet hours alone, I continued to grapple with my growing concerns regarding the stability of our civilization. What I realize now is that I was reaching ever deeper into the space of ideas, and that exploration was allowed because I was trusted. Ultimately this manifested as a terrible intellectual force that simply brushed others aside as I pursued ideas to their conclusion.

The outcome on my professional relationships was distressing. In one case, I had identified a fundamental inconsistency in a design method, revealed only through a seven-step chain of reasoning. I tried to offer this to the lead investigator, who fought me at every step. When I finally wore him out one day and was able to lay out the logic, he broke off with the complaint “If you talk long enough, Brian, you can convince people of anything.” In another situation, a potential collaborator noticed me breaking eye contact when he asked a difficult question. I was looking past the blank wall of the cafeteria into the space of ideas. Intuitively, he tried to follow my gaze to enter along with me, but was rebuffed. And finally in 2005 I had a female sponsor show up in my dreams one night, offering to usher me into the quantum realm. She slipped through the atoms of the wall, pulling me behind her, and I simply bounced off. When she mused “I wonder why that happened,” I realized that I was in possession of a view of reality that led into deeper truth.

In the spiritual awakening that occurred after 9/11, I came to understand just how great a gift I had been awarded by the ideas that accepted my attention. My elder son Kevin gained access to them early in his childhood. Distressingly, he considered that space as a private preserve, and worked systematically to exclude his younger brother. So Greg learned to access ideas through his peers.

As they grew older, I offered them some advice. To Kevin, “Ideas are strongest when they are shared.” And to Greg, “People can introduce you to ideas, but eventually you need to make friends with them yourself.”

While in my childhood I was in awe of the past, I am relieved to say now that I am blessed with the awe of realizing how deeply they have integrated that advice into their lives, and to observe how their moral and intellectual skills mesh to create value in the world. While I try not to impose my expectations upon them, I find through them hope for the future.

Ideas, Ideally

I have been trying to reclaim (see 1 and 2) the philosophical tradition of ldealism that in the West was first articulated clearly by Plato. Idealism is one of two threads of discourse that attempt to explain the relationship between ideas and our experience of the world around us. The paradox for Plato was that the real world does not contain perfect representatives – no line is absolutely straight, and no horse manifests all the ideal characteristics of horses (fast and powerful, for example). Convinced that the world originated from a source of absolute good, Plato therefore held that the idea of a perfect line or perfect horse was the original, with the physical examples as imperfect manifestations.

To the scientific thinker, this assertion fails to satisfy because it does not specify a mechanism for the manifestation, and therefore cannot be disproved. The solution proposed by scriptural literalists is that the ideals did exist when the Holy will created the world, and were accessible for our appreciation during the inhabitation of Eden. It was through our selfishness and disobedience that the connection with the divine source was sundered. Not only human nature was corrupted in the Fall, but all of Creation.

Reacting against Plato’s idealism, Aristotle advanced the program of Empiricism. From our observation of the world around us, we intuitively recognize similarity between things. We might choose to call some things “dogs.” There is no ideal dog, but all dogs share certain characteristics. Through the mechanism of the syllogism, we can therefore transmit a great deal of understanding by simply designating the type of something. The most famous syllogism is “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” In general form, we might write “All A are B. If C is an instance of A, then C is B.”

Aristotle employed this program to a comprehensive classification of the world around him. The power of classification becomes most obvious in the physical sciences, where saying “an electron is massive and charged” allows us to apply mathematical deduction to predict its behavior. But classification is also conditional: Linnaeus, the inventor of the phylogenic scheme for categorization of living creatures, recognized only plants and animals. Modern biochemistry has demanded the addition of three new phyla, with the consequence that things once considered to be “plants” have been reclassified as “fungi,” which recognizes that all along they actually lacked some of the characteristics of “plants.”

Aristotle recognized that all ideas are abstractions, and so that when applied to a specific instance, information is lost. This should be unsettling – it means that the world is populated by exceptions to our ideas. This is consequential: If a member of a tribe asks you to care for his dog, how do you know which among the dogs is his pet ‘Akela’?

Ultimately, the pragmatic successors to Aristotle re-introduced the concept of moral good to deal with this problem. What is important is whether ideas have practical utility. This has both good and bad consequences: Darwin’s theory of natural selection was used to justify ethnic prejudice in Nazi Germany and in certain parts of America. Against that, we have housing codes that ensure that disasters do not displace entire populations, such as occurred after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco or the great urban fires of the 19th century.

So let us now return to the larger umbrella: I hold that philosophy is the study of the operation of the intellect, which manifests as the capacity to synthesize mental states. Among the sources of mental states, I listed sensation, emotion, thoughts and spirits. Where are ideas in this categorization? They seemed to be related to thoughts, but thoughts can also be random associations without plausible manifestations, such as – Kia Soul advertising not-with-standing – “my hamster is break-dancing.”

As might be expected, the exclusion of ideas from the list of mental states is not an oversight.

I have asserted elsewhere that Idealism reflects an affinity in its adherents for soul-relation. This manifests most powerfully to the mystic as a gift of energy that suffuses moral good with joy. This is the experience that I believe informed Plato’s affiliation of ideas with “The Good.”

Where I depart from Plato is in the belief that all ideas originate from The Good, only to be expressed in corrupt form in the world around us. To me, this is the terrible deficiency of scriptural literalism. It denies us agency in moral progress in the world. In The Soul Comes First, I take this head-on, using paleontology and evolutionary biology to demonstrate that the seven days of creation and the trumpets in Revelation actually correspond to a process of uplift from primitive forms of life towards an intelligent integration that will heal the spiritual wound of selfishness.

The role offered to humanity in this process is to sort through our thoughts to identify those that empower the expression of moral good. This is “the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” and the serpent’s characterization of the Fall in Genesis is a political posture that seeks to delay the perfection of our discernment.

In re-interpreting scripture through the lens of science, I show obvious affinity for Aristotle’s empiricism. Where I depart from his formulation is in the belief that ideas are merely abstractions of experience. Thoughts are those abstractions.

In the model of physics I have offered, I understand the human mind as the interaction of soul with the empirical world through the interface of the brain. In that interaction, our thoughts are temporary modifications of our soul. An idea is a thought reinforced by multiple successful episodes that instills energy that causes the thought to bloom into the world of spirit. An important consequence of this penetration is that the thought becomes accessible to other thinkers. In other words, Plato’s Ideas do not originate from The Good, but rise into the realm of spirit most readily when they serve a moral purpose, increasing the life-time of their subscribers, and therefore gathering ever greater energy through continued application to the survival of living things.

In terms of the framework I have established, with stimulation and combination as the two types of intellectual synthesis: ideas arise from the intellect’s capacity to stimulate thoughts from sensation, and then to combine thought and spirit. Ideas do not originate from The Good, but the strength of an idea is ultimately determined by the degree to which it allows us to improve our moral discernment. When mature discernment is realized in a personality such as Jesus of Nazareth, The Good that seeks to facilitate our healing actually touches the material world, shattering all of our categorizations with consequences unimaginable to the empiricist.

I hope that in this formulation that faith and science recognize the shape of a reconciliation that can organize collaboration that will speed the development of moral discernment, fundamentally changing our relationship with reality, and liberating Life in general from our vicious cycle of angry and ineffectual claims to authority defended by reference to incompatible and ultimately meaningless standards of “truth.”

Reductio ad Consterno

In the Darwinian sense, humanity’s greatest asset is its intellect. The expressions of human intellect are so unique in the animal kingdom that it is not possible to understand its character and limitations by study of other creatures. Furthermore, the creative power of intellect is such that for many of us the natural world is no longer part of our experience. This is true even in the Third World, where most land once wild is now cultivated (where it has not been rendered arid), and the predators that dominated those ecosystems may be slaughtered to produce aphrodisiacs for the Chinese market.

And so man is the most self-involved of all creatures.

In the animal kingdom, evolutionary advantage is a simple proposal: a creature either lives or dies. In human societies, however, methods such as agriculture demanded attention to politics. Freed from the daily concerns of physical survival against the natural tyrannies (hunger, disease, the elements and predation), the danger is that our fellows will organize to seize our goods, break up our families, and take our lives. To a large degree, our survival depends upon inventing reasons for them to not do these things, and indoctrinating them to live according to those constraints.

The easiest way to accomplish this is the path of illusion – to invent entertainments that consumers believe will bring them benefits greater than the price of entry. The trick of tyranny, of course, is to replace the suckers just at the moment that they start demanding more than they contribute. That makes primitive societies terribly unstable.

The alternate path is the path of reason, which is properly understood to be philosophy, or the study of the operation of the intellect. As urban societies arose, three great cultures gave rise to distinct philosophical traditions: China produced Confucianism, India gave birth to the Veda (and its outgrowth, Buddhism) and the Occident sired Hellenism.

Despite their differences, these three threads of philosophical thought share similar concerns. Given that the intellect exists, what does it operate on? What are its virtues and pathologies? How do we strengthen the former and heal the latter?

Those explorations were formalized and documented in societies that were all making the transition to urban culture. This meant, on the one hand, that their ideas were made stronger through competition with the ideas of other thinkers. But many of the early philosophers also stood in opposition to the moral decay (one of the pathologies of intellect) that festers in urban societies. They celebrated a life in harmony with nature – nature that in its forms and behaviors expresses the most durable truths.

The Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle neatly encapsulate the tensions that arise in the study of the intellect. Socrates was a man of leisure in ancient Athens who set out to discover truth, and rapidly learned that his questioning attitude revealed the emptiness of what others heralded as wisdom. Socrates broke the spell of illusion, and was sentenced to death for his troubles.

Socrates’ student Plato realized that the forms of nature were too diverse and imperfect to yield to rigorous categorization and analysis. What differentiates a fox from a dog from a wolf? Where is there any perfectly straight line in nature? Plato and his followers therefore celebrated the abstractions of the mind – or ideas – which were perfect and infinitely malleable, and therefore could be synthesized. Eventually, Plato came to believe that ideas had an independent existence, and were actually the originals from which arose natural phenomenon.

Observing that ideas in of themselves were of no practical use, Plato’s student Aristotle asserted that it was from the study of nature that ideas arise. The concept of “dog” arises naturally in the mind of those that interact with dogs, as a kind of convenient short-hand (a “categorization”) for the similarities of our sensory experiences when interacting with real dogs. Aristotle did not stop there, however, but built a formal logic that could be used to assess the internal consistency of our sets of categories, and applied it to categorization of the natural world around him.

One way of reconciling Plato and Aristotle is to observe that ideas allow us to improve the forms of nature. While perhaps a perfectly straight line cannot be created, rulers are really useful devices, helping us to build sturdy homes, roads and aqueducts. And an understanding of the characteristics of dogs and their variability allows us to benefit greatly from their companionship and hunting skill, while preventing us from trying to get them to serves as mules.

But there was another thread in this conversation in the ancient world, a thread that many modern philosophers tend to deprecate. Plato celebrated ideas not only for their malleability, but also because he was convinced that the mind participated in forms of experience that were not tangible to the physical senses. This was evident in Socrates’ statements just before taking his hemlock, in which he consoled his followers with the assurance that he was simply laying down his physical form to take up conversation with the great thinkers of the past. It is also evident in the rites of passage in pre-urban cultures, which often include a merging with animal or divine consciousness – mergings that have no obvious physical manifestation but that can be sensed by the wise.

This thread is exposed most directly in Indian philosophy. Trying to find a solid basis for managing the natural world, Indian philosophers rapidly realized that we do not have direct experience of nature – everything is mediated by our senses. Diving into a study of the senses, they encountered the vagaries of the mind: two people observing the same phenomenon emphasize different things. A beautiful woman may be an object of desire to one man, but “mother” to another. Plumbing the depths of how we form intentions, the Indian philosophers consistently encountered, beneath all of our corrupting interests, an eternal presence of universal love. As mystics withdrawing from the world of things to celebrate that presence, often reduced to penury, they became irrelevant. Prompted by the longing of love to be revealed in service to all people, the mystics began to study to problems of their peers, which were almost always practical. And so the cycle was renewed in the study of nature.

In the West, the turning of this cultural wheel was impeded by the rise of Christianity and Islam, both of which celebrate prophets and propagate rituals that purport to guide the faithful into the presence of the love celebrated by the Indian mystics.

The key word here is “purport.” Because relationship with the divine is discerned reliably only by the wise, religion falls all-too-easily into the pattern of illusion. This is not only a fault in the leaders of religions. who find it all too easy to turn their authority to material benefit (witness the success today of those peddling prosperity theology). Many adherents are also seeking charity, and not always from legitimate need. Blocked by self-seeking, they often fail to attain any meaningful mystical union.

What saddens me about modern academic philosophy is that it has succumbed almost entirely to Aristotelean materialism. It ignores or trivializes the Platonic experience of soul relation. It therefore surrenders fully half of the power of the human intellect, and in particular the half that allows us to tap into the energies that give strength to compassion and charity.

While they may appear narcissistic, my writings here are an attempt to give courage to those that recognize this great want in our hearts. In attempting to surrender myself as a servant to love, I have had many great and joyful experiences. But it is not of me that the greatness arises. From me arises only the hungering to feel joy, and the hope that it will not be denied me.

Faith and Intellect

The atheist’s complaint against religion is frequently rooted in charges of anti-intellectualism. This is evident in Nicholas Baker’s article in this quarter’s Skeptic (Volk. 20 No. 4), Christianity’s Negative Impact on Modern American Education.

I must admit to being befuddled by these charges. Upon encountering atheists decrying intellectual incoherence in the faithful, I often invite the critic to come out and respond to the writings under the New Physics page of this blog. I have also offered the material to scientists through various forums. So far, I have received no response.

A colleague at work invited me down to the atheist Sunday Service in Santa Monica. In the event, a couple of sarcastic remarks regarding faith rankled, but for the most part I found a group of well-meaning people that seemed to have no interest in their spirituality. I confirmed this with my friend later, saying that I didn’t think that I would fit in to the community. When I offered that my experience was that my very presence forced people to confront their spirituality, he confirmed my decision.

It is the anti-spirituality of atheism that concerns me most. Until it is recognized, I am afraid that it is going to be impossible to reconcile the two communities.

An anti-spiritual emphasis is not entirely unique to atheism – I had a Kabbalist tell me that men were not to enter spiritual experience until they were forty. The violence outbursts of nationalism that rocked the world in the 20th century may be symptomatic: where once European politics was dominated by the egos of kings, public education may have facilitated the formation of gestalts that were driven by the masculine urge to power. Jung’s work on the collective unconscious may have been an attempt to understand the dynamics, and he writes in his biography of looking up at the mountains before World War II and seeing a tide of blood pouring over them. I sometimes suspect that, in the aftermath of the war, psychologists settled on denial of spiritual experience as a necessary practice of quarantine to prevent future epidemics. I have encountered some that say they diagnose schizophrenia only if the voices create fear in the patient. And when I sought counseling to deal with family-related stress, once the therapist determined that I was stable, she began asking me questions about reincarnation and process theology, with a focus on understanding why so many of us are immature spirits.

Unfortunately, any policy of denial creates a context of conspiracy that feeds a revolutionary counter-reaction. I believe that this is probably the basis of the anti-intellectualism that Mr. Baker confronts.

The illustration for Mr. Baker’s article shows Jesus whispering a test answer into the ear of a struggling student. This is a point made explicitly in the article: “When it comes to academic achievement, helping a student solve a math problem, using math and the student’s actual brain, displays better family values than does teaching the student to distrust intellect while pleading for an answer to fall from the sky.”

Mr. Baker’s attitude is rooted in the conflation of the brain and mind. While I did not force my children to read the Bible, I struggled against this prejudice with making them aware of the nature of intellect. As I perceive the operation of my mind, the brain is not a logic circuit, it is an interface that ideas use to become invested in the world, and an anchor that they use to create new forms of association. Ideas are spiritual constructs. As possessors of brains, we are their dance partners.

The most painful part of parenting my children through the prejudice of scientific materialism was when my younger son, struggling with his studies, attempted to engage me in discussion only to have his older brother come downstairs and tell him how wrong he was. For years I had attempted to open Greg’s mind to the world of ideas that Kevin had gained access to as an infant. Before Kevin’s intervention, I had felt the door finally opening, and it broke my heart to have him slam it shut. I dealt with the matter pretty harshly, telling him “If you don’t stop abusing your brother, I am not putting a single cent into your college education.” In later conversation, I told Kevin that “ideas are strongest when they are shared.”

This is known among mature scientists. Edward Teller’s office at LLNL had pictures of all the great scientists of his era, and I could feel their personalities reaching out through them. In another incident, I saw a divorced father at dinner with his son, the beautiful mother, and the wealthy man she had married. The son had asked a technical question, which the father answered after a pause. The child challenged him “How do you know that?” To which the father could only answer “I was informed.”

Personally, I had the experience in high school AP Biology of working in a classroom of collaborative students. During the AP exam, I became stuck on a couple of questions and found the answers arriving during final review. The teacher reported that to her surprise – given the brilliance of students in prior years – we had achieved the highest average score on the test in all her years of teaching. And in discussing morality at work, I have shared that when I reach a road block, I frequently open my mind and  an answer comes to me. At times that has been as explicit as having a person’s voice come into my head and say “Do it this way…”

Baker does not articulate this experience, and given his reaction to Christian values, I think that he may not be conscious of the operation of his own mind. If he was, he would understand the preconditions for sustaining such exchanges. It requires surrender of the ego (something that nature often forces upon scientists) and a genuine concern for others. This is the teaching we find in the Bible. In denigrating the value of the book’s moral teaching, Baker and his colleagues are undermining the attempts by Christian parents to open the door to the gestalt of civilized ideas known to the faithful as “The Holy Spirit.” That is no small matter.

Until they arrive at an alternative technology, Baker and others might do well to be more gentle with their public pronouncements. The emotion they attach to their crusade is going to make it extremely difficult for them to reconcile themselves to Christ when those investigations force them to confront his existence.

A Species of Thinking

When I stepped to the counter with The Lost Language of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner, I broke in on a conversation between the proprietress and a customer hawking her capabilities as a spirit healer. Unaware that I was incubating a serious respiratory infection, I went looking for a juice bar hoping to restore the energy expended earlier in the day while dancing in Culver City. It was kind of a random walk up and down Santa Monica Boulevard, trying to orient myself to the addresses provided by Cortana, but as I waited to cross Fifth Street I was accosted by the customer, who broke in hopefully “I saw that book you bought, too.” Without turning my head, I observed “Yeah, I bought it because I realized that I am paying too much attention to people,” and stepped into the crosswalk as the signal changed.

The first chapter of the book was a balm to my soul. Buhner writes of being introduced to “wild water” by his grandfather, a man that maneuvered through brush as though guiding a lady across a crowded dance floor (my image, not Buhner’s). Like Buhner, I feared the consequences to my sons of the lack of access to wild places, and lugged 50-pound backpacks up and down the Sierras to be where I could share my affinity with them. In reading how trees will irrigate the soil by pulling water to the surface while their stoma are closed at night, I remembered walking by a reservoir surrounded by parched stands of oak, and trying to tell the trees closest to the water to lift some to their brothers further up the hill. In celebrating the mystical insights of tribal peoples, Buhner reveals the richness and suggestiveness of their taxonomic terminology, and exposes again and again how their myths reflect the biochemical dependencies between species. The book also dwells lovingly on the transformations that occur as life propagates into a receptive environment. This poetical celebration of the tenacity and interdependence of the lower orders of life is one thread of Buhner’s exposition.

The second thread warns of the disaster that looms due to humanity’s disruption of the chemical balance of the natural world. This takes many forms: replacement of complex biomes with industrial monocultures such as wheat and corn; dispersal of long-lived cosmetics and pharmaceuticals that disrupt natural endocrine responses and breed superpests; replacement or suppression of wildlife that served to cycle nutrients through soil; and mass harvesting of plant life that releases natural chemicals to soil in amounts that overwhelm the bacteria and fungi that process them for reuse. Each of these factors contributes to the impending extinction of many plant species.

As a reader, both threads serve to illuminate the reality experienced by the plant kingdom, so I cannot complain about this book in the same way that I complained about A Global History of Christians. But, confronting the loss of so much that he holds dear, Buhner beats a straw man: scientific reductionism. In the rush of each discipline to grasp the mechanisms that determine that characteristics of its subject, science has ignored the systemic interactions that ensure the fertility and robustness of natural biomes. This includes our symbiotic relationships: the bacteria, fungi and nematodes that live within and on us in a balance that medicines disrupt, sometimes irrecoverably.

But I find that Buhner goes too far in asserting the wisdom of the natural world. His claims are disproven by the impact of invasive species. If nature always kept balance, how do:

  • cane toads run amok in Australia,
  • kudzu and Spanish moss infest the forests of the American South,
  • European songbirds wipe out the smaller songbirds of the New World, and
  • European grasses choke out the sagebrush of the West?

Such imbalances are only restored through extinction and restoration of diversity through exploitation of new opportunities in the devastated habitats. While human transportation serves to facilitate such traumas, in the modern era it is only the pace of disruption that is unnatural, not the phenomenon itself.

This extends, of course, to the most invasive species of all: homo sapiens sapiens. While Buhner decries scientific reductionism, yet its terminology and tools provide the insights that he uses to cast his poetic glamour over the reader. In describing the formation of humus (p. 165) he identifies “flavonoids, degraded lignin, terpenes, lignans, and tannins,” then continues:

Humus is mostly two substances, humic acid and a combination of polysaccharides or sugar molecules. No one knows how humic acid forms, but once formed it acts like a living substance and possesses a number of unique characteristics. It forms crystals, much like snowflakes in a sense, and, like snowflakes, no identical ones have ever been found.

While humus is a biochemical reservoir that facilitates growth, the virtue of plant medicine also reflects strategies used by plants to destroy competitors and parasites.

As Buhner documents, this natural biochemical productivity dwarfs human activity. The difference is that the products of natural biochemistry are introduced slowly enough that bacteria learn to process them. Sometimes that adaptation requires millions of years – lignin, for example, is the substance that trees use to form wood. When it first evolved, trees did not decompose after falling, but accumulated on the forest floor until burning. Oxygen content in the atmosphere soared to 30%, and the giant insects displaced other land animals. When bacteria finally learned to digest lignin, conditions reverted, triggering another jarring disruption to the global ecology.

How is the human incursion different in kind from these events? To Buhner, it seems to boil down to “once we knew better.” This is not to say that we understood. In contrast to the reductionist scientific epistemology of a mechanistic reality, Buhner celebrates the epistemology of “pre-industrial” cultures. Their medical practitioners universally ascribe their wisdom to (page 33):

“nonordinary” experiences, specifically: dreams, visions, direct communications from the plant, or sacred beings.

Was this good enough? Did Life make a mistake in creating humanity? Or do we exist because Life sought for solutions to problems that could be solved no other way?

Consider our agriculture: corn, wheat and rice are not naturally occurring varieties. Their utility as foodstuffs reflects the pressure of human selection, and is manifested in both the quantity and chemical stability of their output. As a result, humanity invests far less mental effort gathering food than it did, liberating a privileged class to the pursuit of understanding.

Buhner decries the regimentation of scientific disciplines which is accompanied by the growth of intellectual barriers that impede systems thinking. But is this not just as in the natural world? Buhner describes the intermingling of distinct species in the soil layer, each contributing to the survival of the others. Is that not the situation in the sciences?

As each natural species can be traced back to bacteria, yet is considered distinct from it, could we not celebrate the emergence of distinct disciplines from the common root of humanity? Perhaps, over the long run, what Life is interested in is a liberation from random evolutionary pressures punctuated by traumatic extinctions. In the short term, humanity was bound to make a mess before mastering our practice, and our pride and myopia is certainly exacerbating our difficulties. In the end, though, I believe that we will enter into a golden era of thoughtful evolution, empowered by the human capacity to evolve new species of thought.


The Soul of Technology

My father, once holder of an open fascination with Darth Vader as the ultimate integration of man and machine, for many years sought to keep me focused on technology by disputing the validity of my spiritual experience. He’s mellowing in the last few months of his life, and we’ve had some great conversations. Sunday afternoon’s brought us around to Elon Musk’s ambition to terraform Mars. He asked my opinion of the idea, and I said that I felt a certain sympathy for Mr. Musk. I countered the claim that we needed an escape route from the mess that we were making of Earth. We’re going to have to solve our problems here, and when we do, the personality of Mr. Musk – from wherever it is at that point – is going to look back on this life and say “Wow. What a boondoggle that was! What a complete waste of my time!” He seems like a man with good intentions, and I’d just like for him to be able to look back and be proud of what he has accomplished.

When I was blogging out at Gaia, one of the most persistent voices in the “Question of the Day” group was a Kiwi nearing the end of his life. Every question produced a number of lengthy posts on the same topic: the necessity of investment in digital technologies that would allow us to monitor everything, and then to link the information to a master control system that would ensure the well-being of everyone on earth. When pressed, he claimed that this was important to him because if it didn’t happen really soon, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to live forever. I offered him the observation that he seemed to need God so deeply that he believe that mankind must create him.

The protagonist in both Ma and Golem is an alien named Corin Taphinal, come to Earth to try to protect life from destruction at humanity’s hands. He describes the situation this way:

The digital technology of [Earth’s] civilization had fascinated him. It was based upon the conversion of the most mystically inert substance in the universe – amorphous silicon – into precisely contaminated crystals. Its proponents spoke of blanketing the globe in digital sensors, constructing communications networks and data centers to aggregate the data, and the development of expert systems algorithms to assure the stability of human communities in the face of massive ecosystem disruption.

Why, in the name of all that was sacred, would anyone choose such methods? Over billions of years, the insinuation of Life into any planet’s surface established a far more sensitive and detailed sensory apparatus, supported by the most widely and freely distributed source of energy available, with representatives far better adapted to local conditions than people.

With this background, you might ask, “Why, Brian, do you work in technology?” Is it just to pay the bills?

I’ll protest my own rhetoric: that’s just going too far. Just because I don’t believe that technology is the ultimate solution to our problems doesn’t mean that I don’t find merit in its pursuit.

First, the world is an unstable place. I’m not just talking about natural disasters: for large parts of the year, seasonal variation makes life pretty tough for most animals. Technology stabilizes local conditions, allowing us to focus on developing our personalities. I appreciate that I don’t have to think full-time about weather, but can rely upon sensors and actuators controlled by computers to do it for me. That our solutions are making the challenge more difficult (global climate change) doesn’t mean that the technology isn’t valuable. The problem is that most of us, rather than developing our personalities, use our freedom from existential threat to indulge our procreative urges.

The solution to that is education. While knowledge is dangerous (life is incredibly vulnerable in engineering terms), I believe that understanding empowers us to make far better choices. We know that when the value of a woman’s mind has been affirmed through education they become pretty determined to limit the number of their children. The response of traditionalists has been to beat women down with fear. In that case, the best means of breaking down the rationale of political demagogues is disintermediation: bringing people together to demonstrate that the “enemy” is a lot like us. Communications technology addresses both of these problems, providing open access to knowledge in the privacy of the home and bridging the distance that separates us.

And finally – motivating my particular fascination with programming – software rescues philosophy from academic obscurity. The purpose of philosophy is to strengthen our ability to describe experience and thus to negotiate solutions. Through linkage to our financial and industrial infrastructure, software allows us almost instantly to express the solutions we negotiate. That is not just a one-off experience when (as in object-oriented design or COBOL) the software is defined using terms understood in the application domain. These act as sign-posts for the maintenance developer given the task of implementing new requirements.

I spoke, however, of rescuing philosophy, and I mean that. Software encodes philosophy, not as a book on a shelf, but as an agent for delivering solutions to the philosopher’s constituency. With the Affordable Health Care Act, software allowed us to implement social programs, assess their effectiveness, and adjust the rules to achieve better results. This is a demanding test of our philosophy, both as regards the degree in which they reflect the truth, and its value in organizing the use of our intelligence when conditions change.

As I have offered before (see The Trust Mind), I believe that eventually we will be freed from the material infrastructure we use to distribute power. However, as I see the long period from the Covenant of the Flood (in which humanity was authorized to create Law) to Jesus as an exercise in demonstrating the fallibility of fixed systems of rules, so I see this era (as articulated by Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization) as a proving ground for our compassion. As technology accelerates the pace of change and resources become more and more scarce, only ideas of real merit will survive. Every thinking being will be confronted with the necessity of disciplining his thoughts.

While the demagogues continue to rant and rave on television, conditions are evolving under which every individual will find such blathering contradicted by direct personal experience. Then we will progress beyond the “birthing pains” mentioned by Jesus into the full flowering of the influence of Christ in our lives. When our ideas are angelic, they will be received and implemented by angels. Life will be vastly different then, and our digital infrastructure, with all its energetic excess, will largely fall away.

I see my work as intimately connected to the manifestation of that future. My work in motion control creates systems that relieve people of drudgery, thus liberating their energies for mindful and compassionate engagement with the world around them. My work in as a software developer builds discipline that is essential in organizing and propagating ideas that I believe are of merit. It’s not enough that those ideas are clever – they actually have to work.