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!

29 March 2010

Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions | Video on TED.com

Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions | Video on TED.com

We know and agree on the goals of human culture. We want collectively to survive and thrive and become all we can be; the same thing we want for our gardens and pastures. And just as horticulture is a scientific approach to gardening and animal husbandry, human culture could perfectly well be a scientific approach to getting what we want out of life. Neither specifies in detail how each plant or animal or human should behave. But it does specify how the gardener should behave in the face of threats to the health of the garden, and why, in each and every case. There is no reason to invoke the will of another in this; in the case of human culture, we do it for our own sakes and because we know how, and it’s time we admitted as much. This is what I believe Sam Harris is saying here.

24 March 2010

The Poetry of Reality

John Boswell's remix series continues with a new video that focuses on Science as a human activity and the most effective method for gaining knowledge known to humankind.

13 March 2010

The Unbroken Thread

So now there is a fourth "symphony of science" by John Boswell, this time with David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, with the poshumously peripatetic Carl Sagan. Here are some of the best lines:

"Those are some of the things that molecules do, given 4 billion years of evolution." [Sagan]
"Its a very wuzzy line and it's getting wuzzier all the time." [Goodall]
"Our planet is, as far as we know, unique in the universe; it contains life" [Attenborough]
"Its continued survival now rests in our hands." [Attenborough]

"There's an unbroken thread from those first cells to us." This is Sagan's line and it is taken as the theme of this symphony. That's what we've learned about the genetic code: that while it is ever changing, it is also eternal. It's as if a notebook was opened at the creation, and it has been gathering notes continuously ever since. The number of copies has expanded, seemingly without limit, though in practice there are of course limits, especially on each genomic variation. But overall, the notebook proliferates and each new note adds to the storehouse of information about what works and what does not work for life on this planet. And each individual has their own copy and makes contributions that are realized in new copies of the genome. Darwin may not have known about the molecular machinery, but he certainly grasped the essence of the situation when he wrote:

"There is grandeur in this view of life..as the Earth has gone on cycling... from so simple a beginning, endless forms most wonderful and beautiful have been, and are being evolved." -- Charles Darwin, 1872

08 March 2010

A Universal Golden Rule?

I came across the figure on a facebook UU page. It's from a poster that can be obtained in larger sizes, presumably large enough to be able to read the different translations of the golden rule in the various faiths and philosophies. Or you can get the texts here. But the idea is plain enough. To me it echoes the message of a bumper sticker I like and have on my car, showing several of these symbols in a row that spells out "Coexist". I used to have a bumper sticker that says "Slow for Tailgaters," but replaced it with this one when I found it.

The quality of the drivers in Maryland disappoints me greatly. This week at the first stop light I come to on my way to work, there were two cars in front of me. The first in line was timid about turning on red, because of oncoming traffic. The second in line beeped his horn at the first car several times. Finally, the driver of the first car opened his door and got out, stood up, and looked back at the second car driver reprovingly. Whereupon, the second car pulled to the left around the first car and then made the right turn on red that he so fervently wanted, getting some rubber as he sped off. The standing driver of the first car stood there and watched him drive off, perhaps making a gesture at him, though I'm a bit foggy about that detail. By this time I was getting antsy and considering whether some additional horn blowing was called for! But then we were off into the morning rush hour traffic with reconsidered priorities.

I guess I'm just offering this as an example of coarse behavior that could certainly benefit from a more universal adherence to the golden rule in everyday life. It is so easy for selfish behavior to turn into anger and retaliation, and worse. Clearly it is anything but instinctive for us to exercise golden rule consideration for others. We need to be taught and to learn the advantages of that approach. Most faiths teach it, but sadly few individuals can see the advantage to it when faced with bad behavior.