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.

On observing

Some aspects of Buddhism are more scientific than religious. Consider this verse from the Blue Cliff Record, Case 39:

If you want to know the meaning of buddha-nature, you should observe times and seasons, causes and conditions.

— tr. Cleary and Cleary (1977, 240)

It is essential to your practice of observation that you be aware of its limitations. As Dogen put it in his ‘Genjokoan’:

Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach.

According to the glossary of this translation (Tanahashi 2010), ‘beyond conditions’ is ‘格 外 [kakugai], literally, outside frameworks.’ A psychologist might say “beyond conditioning”; in Turning Signs we may say beyond the cognitive bubble. Or we might say that Dogen’s point is the flip side of Peircean pragmatism.

Life

The stiff and unbending is the disciple of death. The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Tao Te Ching 76 (Feng/English)

Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.

— Samuel Butler, Note-Books

Life teaches us who we are.

— Salman Rushdie (quoted in Ledoux 2002)

My life has a superb cast but I can’t figure out the plot.

— Ashleigh Brilliant

All the charictures in the drame!

Finnegans Wake, 302

Who knows whether the present speaker is awake or dreaming?

Chuang-tzu 6 (Cleary)

How bootifull and how truetowife of her, when strengly forebidden, to steal our historic presents from the past postpropheticals so as will make us all lordyheirs and ladymaidesses of a pretty nice kettle of fruit. She is livving in our midst of debt and laffing through all plores for us (her birth is uncontrollable!), with a naperon made to mask and her sabboes hikkikking arias (so sair! so solly!) if yous ask me and I saack you. Hou! Hou! Gricks may rise and Troysirs fall (there being two sights for ever a picture) for in the byways of high improvidence that’s what makes lifework leaving and the world’s a cell for citters to cit in.

True science

Genuine science is the expression of a ‘will to learn’ driven by curiosity about how Nature works, and not by curiosity about how the newly gained knowledge will serve our practical purposes as presently conceived.

Some would say that inquiry is not “pragmatic” if we have no idea of the practical applications that might result from it.

Now to this, to be sure, one can reply that no curiosity is more disadvantageous to the expansion of our knowledge than that which would always know its utility in advance, before one has entered into the investigations, and before one could have the least concept of this utility even if it were placed before one’s eyes.

— Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B296-7

The deeper the inquiry, the more it may cause us to revise our concept of “utility.” As Peirce put it (CP 1.76), ‘True science is distinctively the study of useless things.’

Done

A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.

— Paul Valéry, “Recollection”, Collected Works, vol. 1 (1972), tr. David Paul

Higher than existence

The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places people reject and so is like the Tao.

Tao Te Ching 8 (Feng/English)

The same text translated by Red Pine:

The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing

A comment on this text by Wang Pi (included in Red Pine’s edition, p. 17):

The Tao does not exist, but water does. Hence, it only approaches the Tao.

Charles S. Peirce would agree that the highest good does not exist, although it is real. In this he differed from most Western philosophers of his time.

The modern philosophers — one and all, unless Schelling be an exception — recognize but one mode of being, the being of an individual thing or fact, the being which consists in the object’s crowding out a place for itself in the universe, so to speak, and reacting by brute force of fact, against all other things. I call that existence.

— Peirce, CP 1.21 (from the “Lowell Lectures of 1903,” Lecture IIIa)