There was this writer from Argentina named Borges. He wrote poems and essays as well as some weird, mind-bending short stories. He said this once when asked about his personal beliefs:

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity.

Gnosis is a Greek word meaning knowledge. But it has always been applied to metaphysical or divine knowledge. So to be a-gnostic is to accept not-knowledge. That is, knowledge that cannot be tested or arrived at by reason alone. The mystic claims knowledge of god but the ways of the mystic are not necessarily accessible or repeatable. The experience of god, although universal, is still personal. Just because one guy can sit under a tree for 49 days to find god doesn’t mean it will work for you.

I used to call myself an atheist. I distrust dogma, and I particularly distrust theologies (or any -ologies) that rely on elaborate logical scaffolds. To me, a-theism is not a rejection of god, just a rejection of the bullshit people have constructed about god. (I tend to think we made Him in Our image, not the other way around.) But in the end the notion of god is merely unscientific, nothing else. The fact that something is unscientific does not mean it is untrue, merely that it is not amenable to analysis. God cannot be part of an experiment. You can’t prove or disprove the existence of an omnipotent being. You cannot write a testable hypothesis. Since you can’t do that you can’t do science on the subject.

It was Thomas Henry Huxley who coined the word agnostic but he of course did not invent the notion. Humans have wrestled with such questions for as long as there have been humans. I used to think an agnostic was a Hamlet-like fellow who could not make up his mind. Atheists seemed to be sure of themselves, agnostics seemed wishy-washy. I used to think being sure of yourself was a good thing. Now I’m not so sure!

Since science cannot provide answers to questions like “why are we here?” and “is there a god?” or “what happens to our souls when we die?” a guy like me with a scientific-rationalist bent tends to think such questions are irrelevant. And as far as my day-to-day life goes, they are. I don’t think, necessarily, that such questions are unanswerable. They just cannot be answered by human reason. Any answer obtained will be about subjective experiences, and in science you have to have repeatability. This is why popular things like astrology and psychic powers don’t survive scientific study—their claims can’t be reproduced.

An atheist says no and an agnostic says I don’t know. There is a big difference between the two. Theism is the belief in a deity or deities. I don’t believe in deities but I’m much less of an atheist these days. Here’s more from Borges:

The world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny.

I can see the appeal of that. I would counter that the picture of the world that science gives us is far stranger than anything people have imagined. And I’m talking about all the things people have imagined since the beginning of human knowledge. What science shows us about the universe is, in my view, way more bizarre than the ghosts, demons, and monsters of our pre-scientific past. I used to think that because this was so that all that nutty stuff was pointless.

But having such an opinion, that such-and-such is pointless and such-and-such is not is rather pointless, don’t you think? In other words, it’s just an opinion, and everybody has opinions. We pay some people to spout their opinions on TV every night and they don’t have anything to say, really, their opinion is no more truthful or valuable than anyone else’s. This is the problem with opinions. This is why I like science. Your opinion of a scientific result does not change the result! It’s a repeatable phenomenon whether you want it to be or not.

But that criterion, true for everybody all the time, is a tough one. Only a limited set of our knowledge can pass that test. I think that’s a good thing. There’s a lot of stuff out there and winnowing it down to stuff we can really work is to our benefit. It’s not so much about what DO we know but what CAN we know. What kind of knowledge can we be the most sure of?

Just because we can be sure of some things does not mean that the other things have less value. Take love for instance. There’s no certainty in human relationships, they are entirely an act of faith. We spend much of our lives living in this subjective world of hope and belief. Clearly things we cannot be sure of, in the scientific sense, are of great importance to us. I’m guessing there are more people in the world with religious faith and belief in god than there are not.

So even though the probability of The Holy Trinity seems awfully low to me, I choose to believe in the possibility, no matter how remote. After all, I cannot say for sure, so to reject such a claim would be unscientific. I can put The Trinity on a mental back burner but it serves no purpose to dispose of the idea. It’s a powerful thing even if it is not part of my world view. I remember when I first learned of the Michelson-Morely experiment which was an attempt to find the so-called aether that people at the time believed filled empty space. The experiment did not verify the hypothesis. It showed that the aether was not necessary to the propagation of electromagnetic waves. It did not, as I first believed, show that the aether did not exist. It merely showed that such a description of empty space was not needed to account for what was known about nature. The aether may still be there, but it’s not what we once thought it was, so we put it on the back burner.

Here’s the last bit from Borges:

It makes me more tolerant.

I like that.

Hello, Darkness

We are afraid of the dark. We should be. There are a lot of scary things out there. Not that long ago we had to learn to use the moonlight to extend the day. We navigated by the bright stars you could see at twilight before any of the others appeared, the same ones that could still shine through a mist or haze. At some point we lit the world with fire, but it was a pitiful effort against the immensity of the night. Then we figured out artificial lighting.

We got a lot out of it. Safer streets, for one. Encouraging commerce and such. Allowing for travel. Spreading the wealth. All the benefits of progress. Artificial lighting might just be the very thing we need to define progress. How lit up is YOUR country? Ours is WAY lit up! We’ve all seen the satellite photos of our country over the decades and we’ve seen the spread of lighting. Even the vast rural West is lit. Not all of it, of course, there are plenty of places that are still dark. But the tentacles of urbanization and the flagella of interstate highways continue their inexorable march.

Millions of us no longer have darkness. We have to travel to see it. The darkness used to be everywhere. Even in cities lit by fire the darkness was nearby—too close for comfort, in fact. But we no longer think about it. At least most of us. A vanishingly small segment of our population lives in proximity to the darkness if not in the midst of it. When we find ourselves in a place where the sky is far from the sources of artificial light we are amazed. We forget how spectacular the night sky is when you can see the Milky Way in all its glory. There are so many stars that you get lost. Familiar constellations are hard to find. The stars have color and depth that you don’t get in light-affected areas. There is a faint starlight that allows you to see even without a moon. It’s a special and memorable experience.

Much of the spread of lighting is due to advancements in technology that have lowered the cost and increased the efficiency. The consequence of conservation is over-use. That is, we need so much less money and energy to light things up so we light more things up. A few smart folks have calculated that artificial lighting is growing about 2% per year.

That doesn’t seem like much. Two percent. If you had a mortgage at 2% you’d be happy. An investment, though, would be under-performing at a mere two percent. But 2% is not trivial. If you think in terms of doubling time, it seems rather ominous. Now a banker would tell you to use the Rule of 72 and divide 72 by two and get 36. That’s thirty-six years. Two percent growth means whatever you have will double in 36 years. Your algebra teacher would probably insist on using the natural logarithm of two, and dividing by 2% (0.02) which would give you 34.7 years give or take. Close enough.

So if the world is this lit up NOW, thirty-five years from now (when I’m 93) the world will be TWICE as lit up! That’s a lot less darkness. Seems like you have to have darkness. Lots of creatures need the darkness. And by creatures I mean everything from bats to bacteria. Maybe we need darkness, too, even if we are scared of it. I don’t know. It seems like this is one of those fixable things. We were really smart and we invented cool things that use less energy and were less polluting. But we didn’t gain anything because we just wanted more of the same thing. We can’t be THAT scared of the dark, can we?

Standing under the stars is one of those things that makes you humble. And you have to have humility, because without it there is no empathy. And without fellow-feeling towards our brethren there’s not much point in social intercourse. You don’t have to love your human neighbors but you depend on them nonetheless, just as the single ant depends on the colony. I know we aren’t ants, but we are certainly social. We all live in this tenuous web we call civilization, and we are all kept afloat by the ties that bind us together.

The encroachment of artificial lighting into areas with dark skies is called light pollution. Over-lit areas, like big cities, are light-polluted. We need light, but we don’t need pollution. One of the groups most bothered by light pollution is astronomers. Observatories have to be on remote mountaintops, or in earth orbit, to escape the effects. They are a small bunch, overall, but they are like canaries in the mine. Darkness doesn’t seem like one of those natural resources you ought to conserve, but I think we ought to. Some things that are big and scary need to stay big and scary. Like the universe. And who says we can’t light up when we are scared? We just don’t have to be lit up ALL the time. We have to keep some darkness around for our own good.

Scary Monsters

I’m not talking about the stuff they come up with for horror movies and whatnot. Or aliens from outer space. We have plenty of real-life scary monsters here in the real world. There’s a fungus out there that inhabits the body of an ant and controls the creature’s movements. The fungus makes the ant climb up on the underside of a leaf and grab hold with its mouth. Then the ant dies and the fungus puts out its fruiting body and sends out its spores so it can infect another poor ant. They call it zombie ant fungus (Ophiocordyceps spp.).

Turns out the fungus secretes chemicals that over-ride the ant’s brain, thus enslaving it. A fungus doesn’t have a brain. An ant does. Brains are supposed to give a creature an advantage! Imagine if trees, for example, could infect you when you were picnicking in the park and make you do their bidding. Turn you into a seed storage vessel and make you go plant yourself and so give birth to the next generation of trees. Your demise does not have to be plotted, it just requires the right cocktail.

I find this a lot scarier than say an alligator, or a lion, or even Godzilla. It’s creepy. Insidious. The mindless churning of enzymes and proteins and organic acids and all of them oozing into thoroughly unsuspecting brains. At what point does your mind go? Would you be aware of your slow, inexorable end? Or would it be like a switch, one day sentient and one day not? I don’t know if an ant is sentient or not, but it is still a complex living thing. And I don’t think more complex brains are less vulnerable. I suspect much of the biochemistry is the same or pretty close.

Perhaps they’ll grow the fungi in labs and feed them ant brains and extract the mind-control goodies and sell them to evil governments. Or maybe they’ll get some good drugs out of it, and by that I mean therapeutic drugs to treat mental illnesses. Although it sounds ripe for recreational drugs as well, lots of such things lead to zombie-like states. The various fungi could evolve into bigger and more bad-ass versions of themselves and large mammals will suddenly become their targets. We’ll have to get inoculated against them and not stand too close to toadstools.

Is the mind just a by-product of the brain? Is the particular collection of structures and tissues and the chemicals that make them up responsible for producing our self-awareness? Or is the mind some transcendent phenomenon, that is, does it exist independently of its holding tank? One of the staples of sci-fi is this idea that consciousness is transferable, it can be extracted from its biological setting and infused into a computer memory bank or into another being. But maybe the conscious mind is just something that happens when there is sufficient cellular complexity. Its basis is entirely physical.

If so then these zombie fungi are the future. I used to think cockroaches would win the evolutionary battle and outlive all the other creatures. But now I’m not so sure they are the fittest. Fungi are chemical factories and no matter how sophisticated your brain is there are probably a few relatively simple chemicals out there that can render you helpless. I suppose it will behoove us to evolve internal chemical defenses against these things. Or fight the fungi with other fungi, evolve a commensal relationship with species that secrete the antidote to the zombifying chemicals. I think that might be tough on our own, we don’t reproduce fast enough, especially compared to the so-called lower species. Time to put the genetic engineers to work.

Plants of course are also masters of chemical warfare. Eat me and die. Or grow near me and I’ll poison you. Curare, for example, is an alkaloid found in tropical plants. Human hunters prepared it for use on darts or arrows to paralyze and kill their prey. It’s not toxic if ingested and doesn’t poison the meat, it has to enter the bloodstream. But it takes control of the poor creatures nonetheless and they die from asphyxiation as it relaxes respiratory muscles and prevents them from contracting.

Just because we are smarter than the plants and the fungi doesn’t mean they can’t kick our asses, brains or no brains. So stay alert out there, my friends, there are lots of scary monsters lurking.

The World is an Obtuse Angle

My pal came up with that one. He was describing this blog. “You know,” he said, “when you’re writing that The-World-Is-An-Obtuse-Angle stuff.” I laughed. It’s a good description, I’m not sure I can say it better. I even thought about re-naming the blog, but TWIAOA is not as neat as HCN, even if it is closer to the mark.

I used to teach geometry, a beautiful subject, but one that school makes a mess of. Imagine learning about Beethoven and only having sheet music. No instruments, no recordings, just humming along (assuming you can read it) while the teacher talks about how beautiful it is. I’m sure you’ll feel it. Yup, you’ll be a fan of lovely, lovely Ludwig van all the rest of your days.

In geometry, an obtuse angle is greater than ninety degrees. An angle less than that is acute. In real life, obtuse means dense, and not in a good way like gold is dense, that is, substantial. No, dense in the sense of slow-witted, with acute being its antonym and meaning quick or clever. Partridge says obtuse is from a Latin verb meaning to beat against, to blunt or dull an edge for example, like on a weapon or other instrument.

And that suits me. I feel like I go through the world with a couple of oven mitts on. I don’t have the sharpest tools for making sense of things. I don’t know if it’s just me or if the rest of humanity is like this. I’m tempted to say that it’s the normal state of affairs for the entire race. My ham-fisted probing of the wonders of nature is on par with my fellow earthlings. We like to think we are clever, with our science and our technology, and we are, I can’t deny it, we are indeed clever. Electromagnetic theory alone, of all our inventions, will continue to keep us busy for generations. We are just like the sorcerer’s apprentice—we can tap into the magic and make it do groovy stuff but we really don’t have a fucking clue about why that shit is the way it is.

But who says you have to? Isn’t an operational definition enough? Why seek why? Isn’t how and what enough? That’s the best we can do, I imagine. We can bang away at the vast chthonic mess in front of us and figure a few things out. No need to get metaphysical about it all. Unless that helps, of course. But I’m suspicious of things that can’t be field-tested. I understand that people seem to need all sorts of celestial mumbo-jumbo to tie it all together and try to make it all mean something. Hey, whatever gets you through the night.

I’m too obtuse for that, though. The believing game is so much harder to play than the doubting game. It’s easy to poke holes. What’s hard is not seeing them in the first place. Maybe there’s a benefit to dulling the senses, one can overlook annoying details while looking for the big picture. It’s like brainstorming, when you ask for ideas from a group without any censoring or evaluation. Some people can’t do it. They say something and the objection comes tumbling out right after. Or they piggyback on another’s idea and shoot it down. It actually takes a lot of mental discipline to do it right, to be free and spontaneous, when it seems like it should be easier. It’s because we are trained to be critics, and the suspension of disbelief is equated with naivete or gullibility.

A critic’s job is not to criticize. It’s to point out something we are missing. Book and movie reviews are avenues for the critic to talk about their artistic criteria and whether or not said form lived up to it. Who cares? It’s just another goddamn opinion. I want a critic that says “hey, you haven’t heard/seen/read this, you ought to take a look, you are missing out on something you might like.” I don’t want “this thing stinks because blah-blah-blah.” I want to be led to something new that will enrich me. I don’t want to be steered away from things, I want to be invited toward them. Remember when you had a friend turn you on to some artist or music that you had no idea about? Remember how joyous that moment was when you got it and felt it and knew that creation would be part of your life? That’s what I want from a critic.

So you have to be sharp enough to avoid getting bamboozled, but dull enough to learn something new. Receptivity is the key, and that’s a function of the heart, not the head. You need a good head on your shoulders so you don’t fall victim to the world and all its asinine schemes. But you also have to embrace inconsistencies and contradictions and immerse yourself in the unknown, otherwise you’ll never be transformed. After all the world is a goddamn obtuse angle: broad, blunt, and hard to see around; you don’t know what you’ll need in your pocket for the next adventure.