16 January 2012

Humanaturalism is Back

Well, that was a bust. So much for the term panaturalism, which did not catch on at all, and I probably lost what little readership I had here. So "Humanaturalism" is back to stay. Besides, I have been reading more humanist literature recently, notably Greg Epstein's "Good Without God" and it has persuaded me I am really more of a humanist than I ever thought previously. Epstein explains that "humanism" does not imply a total focus on humanity at the expense of life and the web of nature of which humans are a part. And he advocates a "big tent" openness to all "lifestances," both religious and secular.

More soon, I hope...

27 January 2011

Galloping Gaian Gonads!

 Paraphrasing one of Greg Bear's characters in his novel "The Forge of God": "Humans are the gonads of Gaia (mother Earth)." That is, we are her reproductive strategy. This may not be a huge insight, but I am tickled by his mode of expressing it! It resonates and echoes the heroism of those species who have spread life to the corners of the Earth, including the tiniest island habitats, by dint of clever efforts to transport themselves across vast expanses of ocean and atmosphere. Still, when it comes to interplanetary or even interstellar travel, among all the species on Earth, only humans have displayed the potential to accomplish such a feat of transportation.

This being the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident, it is thought provoking to think back on that in this context. I was working then at Marshall Space Flight Center, which was responsible for shuttle propulsion systems, including the boosters that failed disastrously. So our management was involved in the decision to push ahead on that icy morning in Florida. We scientists were practicing talks for a conference when the word came in. It completely broke up our meeting, and later our management team.

As aspiring Gaian gonads, we have on a few occasions seemed to be vying for Darwin awards, instead, perhaps calling to older minds Woody Allen's satire "Everything you always wanted to know about sex...". Space exploration is indeed deadly dangerous, but so is war. Yet the former is certainly a more productive application of testosterone and youthful drive. Given that that we strive instinctively to test our mettle against mortal dangers, the challenge of space travel promises a form of "glory" for our species and planet that is far beyond the sometimes petty national and religious rivalries that have plagued us. Wouldn't we prefer to live up to our role in Gaia's reproductive strategy, than to become passive or active agents of its destruction? That's a very real and compelling definition of good and evil. It seems defensible that all ethical and political issues should be decided on the basis of the sanctity, advancement, and propagation of life in the universe.

But, and it's a big BUT, there may still be a compelling need for war, even in pursuit of a cosmic destiny to protect and propagate life in the universe. Just as a prudent young couple defers child rearing until they are prepared to take on its responsibilities, so must nations defer the pursuit of space travel analogously. And one of those responsibilities is the creation of a stable home in which the serious business of nurturing can be pursued successfully. In addition to requiring the establishment of a viable economic activity, adequate to support the effort, this may at times also require defense of the household against attacks.

Attacks might come from any quarter, even including other competing life forms in the universe, as Greg Bear points out. The local attacks may be motivated by entirely different issues from this ultimate cosmic objective. But there is a distinct trade to be made in expending some life on Earth in defense of a stable and productive civilization capable of advancing life in the universe. Still, on balance, we may suspect that that trade has for too long favored local national issues rather than the long term future of life on our planet and beyond. And, in view of that suspicion it seems well worth considering that the zero sum allocation of human wealth expended upon space exploration could be greatly increased without substantially compromising the safety and stability of civilization.

22 January 2011

Free Will

Any discussion of science, religion, and politics eventually comes around to the issue of "free will." According to religious traditions, free will was given by God to humans, as a test of their commitment to good and rejection of evil. From a scientific viewpoint, all behavior is a matter of the neurophysics of the brain, and c0nsciousness, and no behavior is free of that. Naturalists disparage free will as a concept, and see all human behavior as determined by inevitable responses to the environment. Political life demands that individuals take responsibility for their actions, unless they are declared "insane," meaning unable to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong. Libertarians and rugged individualists or positivists often dismiss the naturalist doubts about free will and insist that everyone is fully responsible for their own condition in this world, in a free society. A recent discussion board debate in which I participated went on for hundreds of posts without much resolution, to the point where the following position questionnaire was suggested. I've entered my responses:

What do you understand by the expression "free will"?
Free will is the ability of a living agent to take actions that are not controlled by other agents who have studied that behavior and sought to influence it. Thus, will is free to the degree that it is subject only to the constraints imposed by Nature, which cannot in any case be escaped, and free of social constraints, that is, constraints imposed by other sentient agents.

Do humans have it or not?
To the degree that "others" are absent, or if present, refrain from taking controlling interest in our actions, humans exercise free will. Thus free will is a matter of degree, rather than an either-or proposition, and should perhaps be referred to as "freedom of will", a parameter that can range from unity (only natural influences exclusive of other sentient agents), to zero (behavior essentially prescribed by other sentient agents, for example in a prison). On such a scale, humans have progressed from near unity in pre-history, to very low values in feudal times, and more recently are making progress back toward unity.

What is your logic and your evidence for your position?
Behavioral science has shown that behavior can be predicted to the degree that it is influenced or controlled through the arrangement of "imposed" positive and negative reinforcement as consequences of behavior. When it is so controlled, it not fully free, and conversely when it is not so controlled. The most elemental form of Human Rights is the right to freedom of behavior, albeit within certain limits set by society, which can vary greatly, and of course the dictates of the natural world, which are immutable and apply to all.

What is the practical consequence of your position for welfare and social policy?
Democracy sets the goal that freedom of will is to be maximized through the minimal constraint by the state or government of the behavior of individuals. The list of discouraged or punished behaviors should then be minimized by restriction to those with important harmful effects on others, as judged by a majority of those whose behavior is to be affected.

On the other hand, government creation of positive incentives is widely accepted as an influence on behavior, so the method of influencing behavior seems important. Positive reinforcement is equivalent to a negative reinforcement of the inverse behavior, so that any form of behavior modification can be seen as reducing the freedom of will. Still, humans have come to a collective understanding, supported by behavior modification science, that reinforcement of desired behavior is far preferable to punishment of undesired behavior, as a foundation of civilization.

Controversy often stems from the reinforcement of undesired behaviors, for example welfare payments, or other benefits that are perceived as undeserved. The issue here is not freedom of will, but the wisdom of incentives that are divorced from desired behaviors.

A phenomenon or behavior may be fully deterministic, yet if sufficiently complex, there may be no way to fully control or direct it but to "run the universe" and let it unfold. To the degree that is true, only an entity which controls the entire universe can exercise total control of our behavior. Thus only God, or the universe itself (if different) can control our behavior in the absence of civilization and other humans. By the definition above, such behavior is free, or as free as it gets.

When we take individual or collective action to alter the structure of the universe, we exert controls on our own behavior, or that of others. So it seems that we share control of ourselves with the rest of the universe, and to some degree we thus enjoy a limited freedom of will. One could perhaps argue that the universe "makes" us take action to alter it, so when we think we are changing our behavior we are still doing what the universe directed us to do. That might be true of beavers, ants, bees, or other industrious social species that restructure their environments, but I think it is stretching things to claim that all of human behavior is programmed in advance by our genetic capabilities, interacting with the external environment.

On the other hand, it seems defensible to claim that our abilities to derive, store, manipulate, and reuse information, much more rapidly than genetic information is processed, constitute a new capability that is exclusively human. That "playground for creativity" is seemingly independent of nature's DNA playground, and pretty much under our control. So I think we humans get to take credit and blame for what we do with it, both as individuals and collectively, as appropriate.

28 December 2010

We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself

Carl Sagan put it so succinctly, it may seem like a tautology. Well of course we are part of the Cosmos and we are conscious. So what? Who cares? But when this meme first crossed my path it seemed like an epiphany. Someone once said "any most fundamental discoveries will soon seem obvious" or words to that effect. Where did this meme Sagan was spreading come from originally?

It first came to me in a pamphlet for a talk given by Alan Watts, circa 1968. At first glance, it appeared to be simply another of those many trendy themes that enjoyed currency in the 60s, something about Zen and meditation, and all that New Age stuff. But something about this particular item really grabbed at me. The lines that stuck in my head, and have stayed there through some transmutations for over 40 years, were:

"We are not egos in bags of skin, who come into the world. We come out of the world, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean 'waves', the universe 'peoples'... We are the universe, become conscious of itself."

The first three sentences come directly from Watts' book, just then appearing, entitled "The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are." The last sentence was there in the pamphlet I mentioned, but I cannot find it in that form anywhere in print, though Watts did write things like "we are the eyes and ears of the universe." But it is the most important part for me, and it left me with the conclusion that science was somehow more fundamental than engineering. I then would become a voyeur, rather than a creator, in part because Nature's creation was so much more impressive than the relatively simple and predictable creations of engineers.

I had been seduced by Alan Watt's (possibly drug-influenced) world view, as described in Wikipedia:

"In several of his later publications, especially Beyond Theology and The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Watts put forward a worldview, drawing on Hinduism, Chinese philosophy, pantheism, and modern science, in which he maintains that the whole universe consists of a cosmic self playing hide-and-seek (Lila), hiding from itself (Maya) by becoming all the living and non-living things in the universe, forgetting what it really is; the upshot being that we are all IT in disguise. In this worldview, Watts asserts that our conception of ourselves as "egos in a bag of skin" is a myth; the entities we call the separate "things" are merely processes of the whole."

One of those processes is seeing and comprehending what is seen, so that life lessons can be learned and survival fitness can be improved, but also just for the sheer enjoyment of reality and the appreciation of the magnificance of the universe. And that is where we come in as at least one of the sources of sensations and information that the universe compiles about itself. That information has, up until we humans arrived on the scene, been compiled in the form of DNA codes. Now we are augmenting that with all of human culture and its documentation, some of which may conceivably be as durable as DNA is.

Wikipedia notes that Watts was influenced by pantheism, the universe as supreme being, as was Carl Sagan. In his 1980's TV series, Cosmos, Sagan distilled it all into the bumper sticker title of this post. When Carl talked about the universe, you knew clearly that he was talking about "all that is or was or ever will be." Now that is almost by definition (barring a supernatural parallel universe) the greatest possible deity, of which all others can only be a part. And we are Its senses and memory, along with Its knowledge processing and storage system.

24 December 2010

18 October 2010

Panaturalist Epiphany

How about a new 'blog title? Pan-naturalism came about during a discussion on the "Naturalism" facebook page, during which Cliff Andrew of the Annapolis UU church group asked the question: "If naturalism is your worldview, what do you call yourself." After a few iterations, it came to me as: "pan-naturalists" or panaturalists, that is, all-one-nature-ists. As interpreted by Tom Clark, that comes down to "nature is everything. I like it"

Compared with pantheism, we get rid of the theistic baggage. Compared with humanism, we spread the wings to embrace all of nature, living and inanimate, sentient or just heliotropic. And compared with simple naturalism, we make a clear distinction from the traditional nudist use of the term. 

What do you think? Anyone?

02 May 2010

Pro-Informed Choice

This post is motivated by  Kathleen Parker's linked Op-Ed from the Washington Post. She's a self-declared conservative columnist, who recently received a Pulitzer prize for her thought-provoking work, which is characterized by great sensitivity to both sides of divisive issues. Abortion must be the most agonizingly vexing ethical question any woman or couple will ever face. In my view the responsibility for this choice should not fall solely on the woman or even the couple involved. It seems to me there should be an ethical support system, to assist in the decision, in a civilized society. There is a deep ethical issue involved, which does not fall solely within the realm of individual or couples rights but involves society and its values as well. The big issue concerns the fair treatment of all interests in the decision.

The current wisdom is that this decision is between the individual woman and her doctor. The reproductive partner is included in the decision at the woman's option. It seems to me that an ethics adviser should also be involved, as a representative of society at large and a voice for ethics. This is especially true if the abortion will be performed by publicly funded health care facilities and personnel.

I agree that any woman who determines that she wants an abortion should be qualified for one. By declaring as much, she has declared her disinterest in raising the child, which may be reason enough not to give birth to one. And yet, we don't always know what we want and may need help determining what that is, or understanding other options that may be available. Getting an ethics counselor involved would help everyone to decide what they really want before they go through with an irrevocable act. However, this approach is subject to the criticism that it often turns into coercion that influences the decision.

Now some states are taking up this matter and proposing or requiring in some cases that women be fully informed about their fetuses before making a decision. That is, they are in some cases being required to view an ultrasound diagnostic of their fetus's condition and state, and receive a physician's assessment on the specific matter of their fetus, before having an abortion. Kathleen Parker's linked Op-Ed covers the details well. The new approach of requiring that the simple facts of the situation be determined prior to an abortion seems like a promising way to reach the "common ground" that President Obama has suggested is possible. It is consistent with my sense of ethics on this issue, and seems like the right thing to do. It satisfies my sense that some reflection on the facts of the matter is essential when facing a huge decision point in three or more lives.

05 April 2010


Preparing for our recent Robert Frost Dinner (26 March was his birthday), I found the following Frost poem in my 1967 anthology, a gift from my mother. Though written back at about the time I was born, this poem is a whimsical meditation that is just as germane to our current infatuation with information technologies and consumption of ethereal media such as music and cinema. Frost clearly dreams of being free of his physical body, the better to compose abstract verse. But he likens that state of freedom from the flesh to "evolution's opposite extreme", the jellyfish.

I like his use of the word "ethereal." To me it signifies something that is distinct from material reality; something in the realm of ideas, concepts, explanations, models of reality; that is, information. There's nothing supernatural about this meaning of ethereal. But it's a part of reality that is unique to living things with DNA that takes notes, and humans with their own kinds of notes, including poetry.


A theory if you hold it hard enough
And long enough gets rated as a creed:
Such as that flesh is something we can slough
So that the mind can be entirely freed.

Then when the arms and legs have atrophied,
And brain is all that's left of mortal stuff,
We can lie on the beach with the seaweed
And take our daily tide baths smooth and rough.

There once we lay as blobs of jellyfish
At evolution's opposite extreme.
But now as blobs of brain we'll lie and dream,
With only one vestigial creature wish:

Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry!