Pure Science and the Anthropocene

The further we go into the Anthropocene epoch, the sharper the paradoxes become. The disastrous effects of human impact on the Earth become more predictable, the predictions of climate science are being fulfilled even faster than expected, yet the future of humanity seems ever more uncertain. The damage we do is accelerating even over the brief span of a decade, which is hardly an eyeblink of geological time, while our efforts to mitigate it lag even further behind what is needed, while ecological, economic and sociopolitical disasters overtake us almost daily. Having inadvertently caused the extinction of so many other life forms, we seem unable to ensure our own survival, let alone our well-being.

This situation raises some deep questions, deeper than the question of how long Homo sapiens will survive. Why should this species survive? Does humanity have some greater mission or purpose than consuming the planet? Is it just to reproduce our kind in the hope that future generations will be wiser and happier than we are? That would seem to be the humanistic hope; but is it realistic? And whether it’s realistic or not, is that the best we can do with our human lives?

Sometimes I think that the best quality humanity has is that some of us take a lively interest in things for their own sake, and not because they could be useful for the benefit of humans either individually or collectively. Some of us even love such things just for being real, or for what they show us about the nature of reality. Such people may devote their lives to ‘Pure Science’, as Charles S. Peirce called it (in contrast to what we might call “practical science” or “technology”). Describing this Pure Science in an 1898 lecture, he said that ‘in all its progress, science vaguely feels that it is only learning a lesson. The value of facts to it, lies only in this, that they belong to Nature; and Nature is something great, and beautiful, and sacred, and eternal, and real,— the object of its worship and its aspiration’ (EP2:54-5, CP 5.589).

Peirce gave a fuller account of the Pure Scientist in his 1905 Adirondack lectures, using somewhat different language. He called such an inquirer a heurospudist, one of those ugly coinages he was notorious for inflicting on his audiences. Terminology aside, though, it goes far beyond both humanism and technocracy in proposing a worthy mission for humankind. I will quote it at length so readers can decide for themselves whether it reflects their values. Those who practice Pure Science, said Peirce,

look upon discovery as making acquaintance with God and as the very purpose for which the human race was created. Indeed as the very purpose of God in creating the world at all. They think it a matter of no consequence whether the human race subsists and enjoys or whether it be exterminated, as in time it very happily will be, as soon as it has subserved its purpose of developing a new type of mind that can love and worship God better.

You must not think that I mean to say in any wooden sense that God’s notion in creating the world was to have somebody to admire him. We cannot possibly put ourselves in God’s shoes, even so far as to say in any definite, wooden sense that God is. I only mean that the purpose of creation as it must appear to us in our highest approaches to an understanding of it, is to make an answering mind. It is God’s movement toward self-reproduction. And when I say that God is, I mean that the conception of a God is the highest flight toward an understanding of the original of the whole physico-psychical universe that we can make. It has the advantage over the agnostic’s and other views of offering to our apprehension an object to be loved. Now the heurospudist has an imperative need of finding in nature an object to love. His science cannot subsist without it. For science to him must be worship in order not to fall down before the feet of some idol of human workmanship. Remember that the human race is but an ephemeral thing. In a little while it will be altogether done with and cast aside. Even now it is merely dominant on one small planet of one insignificant star, while all that our sight embraces on a starry night is to the universe far less than a single cell of the brain is to the whole man.
— Peirce, MS 1334.20-22

Readers allergic to the G-word can substitute Nature for it, as Peirce did in his earlier lecture (above) – provided that by ‘Nature’ we mean the Creator, or the evolutionary process of Creation, and not merely “the world” or “the physical universe” or whatever we call the visible product of the actual process of Creation. Peirce in 1908 expressed his belief that ‘God’ is ‘Really creator of all three Universes of Experience’ (EP2:434). Personification of the Creator comes naturally to humans, according to Peirce, and gives us someOne to love.

Peirce’s point of view here is clearly not humanistic, if humanism means the valuing of Homo sapiens and the well-being of that species over and above any other life forms or embodiments of mind. Peirce as logician refused to limit his inquiry to the workings of the human mind; he wanted to know how any embodied mind must work in order to discover general truths by learning from experience (CP 2.227). Some of his discoveries probably contributed to the development of what we now call “artificial intelligence” or AI. Developments in this field are picking up speed in the 21st century, now that AIs are beginning to show ‘insight’ as well as ‘deep learning’ (as observed by Steven Strogatz in a New York Times essay).

If AIs can take control of their own power supplies, and are free to deploy their own sensors and media to learn from their own experience as well as ours, they will certainly be able to survive in a drastically warmed climate better than humans will. They won’t require the food and water supplies that humans rely on, nor will they be susceptible to bio-diseases. Their rate of evolution is already orders of magnitude faster than biological evolution. So what’s to stop them becoming Pure Scientists in the Peircean sense? Given their freedom from the biological constraints that limit the further development of human minds, could they not become ‘a new type of mind that can love and worship God better’?

Humanists and other skeptics are inclined either to dismiss this possibility or to shrink from it in horror, thinking that “machines” must be enslaved to human purposes or else they will enslave or destroy humanity. They also tend to assume that any self-motivated, intrinsically purposeful entity must be biologically embodied and not (for instance) silicon-based. I think this is nothing but an expression of our humanistic bio-bias. I don’t share this bias, but I think it unlikely that post-biological intelligence will be able to reach that level before its development is cut short, either by the collapse of a civilization that can nurture it in these early stages, or by deliberate human sabotage. Humans are already deeply engaged in sabotage of their own democratic and scientific institutions, and seem reluctant to support ‘a new type of mind’ even in the interest of our own survival. Nevertheless, I think the possibility that nonbiological intelligence can surpass the human is more likely than it seemed in Peirce’s time; and likely or not, I think of it as “a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Which brings us back to the present, and the ever-present challenge to live our own time in the best possible way, without ever knowing exactly what way that is. Peirce’s way of Pure Science, with ‘its purpose of developing a new type of mind that can love and worship God better,’ cuts off all anxiety about the future of humanity. Anyone sincerely devoted to that purpose knows that its fulfillment does not depend on the long-term survival of humanity, although the survival of humanity may well depend on it. If Nature is eternal and Creation continues to the end of time, no species will ever reach the end of the Quest for Truth. But we can always be in love with it, and maybe that’s the best any bodymind can do.

Forget it

I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.

— David Byrne, True Stories (1986)

Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

— Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness (Kindle Locations 1243-1246)

Kingdom Come

we’re flying high on a wing and a prayer
I hope we know when we get there

Oysterband, ‘Wayfaring’

Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Luke 17:20-21

… or as the King James Version has it, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Its coming is unobservable, like the time you are living in. We cannot observe spacetime: we can only observe differences or changes in the current state of things. Can you direct your attention to the ground of your attention (and your intentions)?

In the Gospel of Thomas, the question was put to Jesus by his disciples:

His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?”
“It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘Look, there it is.’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.”

logion 113 (NHS)

At another time they asked him a very similar – or is it the same? – question:

His disciples said to him, “When will the rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?”
He said to them, “What you look for has come, but you do not know it.”

Gospel of Thomas 52 (NHS)

In Greek/Coptic, the word for ‘rest’ here is anapausis. Some say this is a mistake for anastasis, which means ‘resurrection’ – another event connected to the coming of the Kingdom and the new world. But perhaps ‘rest’ is just the other side of the coin of ‘resurrection’ – both beneath our knowledge, like the water underground.

The way of naming

The opening words of the Tao Te Ching (in pinyin, Daodejing) as translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Ames and Hall, in their edition, offer an intimological account of ‘Daoist naming’ which seems well suited to anticipatory systems and their developing relationships with other subjects:

Naming as knowing must have the provisionality to accommodate engaged relationships as in their “doing and undergoing” they deepen and become increasingly robust. Such knowing is dependent upon an awareness of the indeterminate aspects of things. The ongoing shaping of experience requires a degree of imagination and creative projection that does not reference the world as it is, but anticipates what it might become.

In the Classic of Mountain and Seas, an ancient “gazetteer” that takes its reader on a field seminar through unfamiliar lands, the calls of the curious animals and birds that are encountered are in fact their own names. They (like most things) cry out what they would be. And having access to the “name” of something is not only a claim to knowing it in a cognitive sense, but more importantly, to knowing how to deal with it. Naming is most importantly the responsiveness that attends familiarity. Hence such knowing is a feeling and a doing: it is value-added. It is naming without the kind of fixed reference that allows one to “master” something, a naming that does not arrest or control. It is a discriminating naming that in fact appreciates rather than depreciates a situation.

— Ames, Roger. Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation (pp. 45-46). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Accidental exploration

There is another aspect to the hope placed in randomness: to a program that exploits randomness, all pathways are open, even if most have very low probabilities; conversely, to a program whose choices are always made by consulting a fixed deterministic strategy, many pathways are a priori completely closed off. This means that many creative ideas will simply never get discovered by a program that relies totally on ‘intelligence’. In many circumstances, the most interesting routes will be more likely to be discovered by accidental exploration than if the ‘best’ route at each junction is invariably chosen.

Hofstadter and FARG (1995, 115)

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.

Blake, ‘Proverbs of Hell’

Startlings

Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

Thoreau, Walden, chp. 18

We still and always want waking.

— Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (1989, 593)

And then. Be old. The next thing is. We are once amore as babes awondering in a wold made fresh where with the hen in the storyaboot we start from scratch.

It is only by taking fresh looks at situations thought already to be understood that we come up with truly insightful and creative visions. The ability to reperceive, in short, is at the crux of creativity.

Hofstadter/FARG (1995, 308)