Thursday, August 9, 2012


According to Gallup, "Forty-six percent of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." Apparently the respondents didn't study much paleontology.

Many people seem to be unwilling to face the consequences of Stephen Jay Gould's work. Evolution doesn't converge on us, or anything else. There's no top or bottom, no good or bad, just a seemingly endless parade of organisms more or less fit for ever-changing conditions. If we make earth an unsuitable environment for ourselves, we and many other organisms will suffer more, and go extinct sooner than we otherwise might have, but slime will inherit earth regardless. This is just one of the many disturbing truths science reveals to humanity. I'm capable of facing it, so others must be capable of facing it too. Facing the pointlessness of existence squarely should be taken as a sign of mental health. What psychological distress I do experience is mostly due to being surrounded by deluded people who believe they're going to heaven. I wish they would hurry up and leave.

The pictures from the Hubble telescope are clear enough. There's no meaning to be found out there. Meaning can only be constructed socially, and this implies cooperation. People could conceivably construct a meaning for themselves that allowed them to coexist in a reasonably steady state over a long period of geologic time. But is there any reason to believe this is likely? What precedents do we have? Ants normally exhibit extraordinary cooperation and altruism, but they also periodically fight wars of extermination, even against colonies of their own species. Aboriginal societies were sometimes stable compared to modern civilization, but only at vastly lower population densities.

The hard problems are all ethical, not scientific. Why should people embrace disturbing truths instead of convenient fictions? Why shouldn't the rich live soft lives and be waited on hand and foot if they can get away with it? Why shouldn't the ruling class use force to take whatever it wants? Why should people make sacrifices for the benefit of future generations? Why should individual humans care what happens after they're dead?

These and similar questions were seriously considered in the wake of WWII. There was some consensus in the West that people needed to be pacified and weaned away from nationalism. At the time, socializing people to embrace individualism and consumerism seemed a logical alternative to repeating WWII with hydrogen weapons. Very few were concerned about the consequences of further industrialization. Pollution wasn't seriously addressed for decades. Climate change was almost totally unanticipated. In the 1950s if you'd told Americans that they shouldn't build suburbs because automobiles would accelerate climate change, they would have given you a lobotomy.

We're caught in a cascade of side effects, and increasingly our reality is spinning out of control. Older people wish for a reversal, back to the relatively pristine conditions they enjoyed in their youth, but this is pure fantasy. Even if we stopped producing CO2 today, the warming and sea level rise already in the pipeline are enough to ensure drastic physical and social changes. On our current course we're facing chaos and disruption on the scale of WWII or worse, something most people alive today can scarcely imagine.

Genetics sheds much light on cancer, but it doesn't seem to cure people of believing that the only possible solution to their problems is unlimited growth. I wish more people would watch Albert Bartlett's famous lecture, "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy."

"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."
-Albert Bartlett


When I said that the hard problems are ethical, I didn't mean to belittle the difficulties faced by scientists. What I meant is that ethical problems aren't necessarily solvable in the scientific sense of the word. Ethical assertions are social constructions and don't have to be rooted in objective reality at all. For example the U.S. Supreme Court can assert that corporations should have the same rights as people, and there's no easy way to refute it, because it's just a reflection of our society's current power structure. Imagine how different it would be if the same court asserted that ten is a prime number, or that the moon is made of cheese. Many ethical assertions are similarly absurd, but since they're normalized by the culture in which they occur, the absurdities are hard to see except in retrospect. White man's burden may be transparently offensive now, but it was a respected ethical position throughout the nineteenth century.

Humans could turn out to be great at science but lousy at ethics. This would partly explain why we aren't reacting to climate change quickly enough. Dan Miller's "A Really Inconvenient Truth" makes this same point in an amusing way: 

"Imagine that you read in the newspaper tomorrow... that all the excess CO2 in the world is being released by al-Qaeda. Think about that. Would we react? Of course we would. We would spend any amount of money ... to fight that. We would spend a trillion dollars, which we just did."

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