a positivist genesis myth

[This is a very long post. I considered breaking it down into 2 but did not like the results so here it is. Having read the previous post would be helpful and acquaintance with some of the threads running through my blog may help this post be more understandable. Thanks in advance to anyone who reads to the end.]

What do you call a genesis myth without the supernatural? Au naturel, of course. And I use the term myth loosely, meaning an allegorical narrative symbolically capturing an explanation of nature that is, when objectively considered, unexplainable in its totality. Thus we have gods creating each other and the cosmos and humans. We also have the mystic apprehension of the unexplainable universe; one of the first and to my mind still one of the best is the Tao Te Ching (and I really love the translated rendition by sci-fi hero, Ursula K. LeGuin).

I have written here about the ocean of experience surrounding each of us, meaning that domain where the two great genetic watersheds (Solving World Problems (SWP) and Conspecific Relations (CR): see post 4/7/17 ) run to confluence and form an estuarine island of life and mind. A mystic stands on the shore, a being nakedly aware of the generational and temporal flow through to this moment, then this one, and oh, you know, and watches the weather, tides and the waters wave and glisten on the shore, content with just that apprehension, finding that experience a full one, and assured that the knowledge mirroring the experience is meaningful and insignificant. A genesis myth is valuable, even necessary for carrying that apprehension forward into meeting life’s probabilities and necessities.

Though a positivist genesis myth may be paradoxical, when we consider the scientific basis of our genesis presented below, I think that mythic aspect will be apparent because our understanding has come through increasingly sophisticated mathematics and information processing. Most of us cannot really comprehend how the numbers show their truths as the mathematically keen scientists do see them. In this sense scientists are like the seers, shaman and priests who created and developed the supernatural myths: only the initiated have access to the genesis esoterica as gleaned from either the mathematical domain or that learned through communication with the supernatural divine. Scientists talk with numbers and priests with angels. (I pass over the crucial differences in replication, falsifiability, and transferability between the two). We may not usually think of science in this way but in truth the majority of the people on Gaia evaluate positivistic myths and find them much less comprehensible than their religious mythology.   Conversely those of us initiated into this scientific world view, both the lay and the practitioners, can still find some truth about humanity in the old myths but little fact, certainly not enough to guide our pursuit of knowledge. Religious myths are at this point best seen from without, i.e., as data as we seek to understand our humanity.

In my last post I talked about Monod’s ethic of knowledge, and so to journey even further above my pay grade, this constitutes an epistemological effort that needs some supporting concepts about reality; about what is it we are learning? How did it come to pass and what is my relation with it? My bias is that any statement about the ultimate nature of reality, i.e., metaphysics, ultimately and necessarily given the scale and scope of our capabilities relies upon, revolves around and devolves intellectually into mystic apprehension. The question here is how from a cold, mechanical and valueless though lawful universe can life evolve with its values, as it has clearly done here with us on Gaia? That is, how to account for both our knowledge (true knowledge formed from an ethics of knowledge based upon empiricism) about the world and our values as both are clearly, as Monod demonstrated, sociobiological in origin. So again, what is it we know and value?

Human culture, though composed from both knowledge gained and values held, is a virtual world imagined among group members that helps to govern or to channel how each individual goes about life and supports the group. Over the past few thousand years, cultural parsing has held knowledge as more secular and values as coming from a supernatural divine. The ancient Greeks attributed some values, e.g., hospitality to strangers, respect for the dead, obedience to the king, acceptance of fate, to their gods, while they initiated a grand tradition of intellectual effort, i.e., philosophical and scientific knowing. The ancient Israelites certainly attributed their values to Yahweh and I believe follow a more secular and pragmatic approach to knowing. The Taoists stand on the shore and seek the Way. We don’t know about the people who painted the caves 40,000 years ago, much less about the earliest Hominids who buried their dead, but we do know that from them and since the advent of agriculture, civilized knowledge and values have grown to compose today’s cultural worlds.

Accept for a moment that all culture is learned and that we acquire culture through mirroring, empathy and symbolization. Assume even further that we can understand how we benefit from experience in such a way that cultural invariants form inter- and intra-personally that then guide how we relate, communicate symbolically, conceptualize with words, use metaphor, govern individual actions and relationships, organize socially, etc. Understand that early groups form on the basis of kinship which yields a natural historical narrative through their ancestry, while other groups form through social roles irrespective of kinship, and so must bond through constructing and sharing relevant narratives, some literal or empirically based, e.g., a flood, and some mythically based, e.g., the afterlife. All this to say that our philosophy as currently conceived results from a long history of cultural development (or is that evolution? Erwin Schrodinger, for one, wondered if humans were done evolving, i.e., we would stay in roughly the same biological form now into the future, sort of like sharks and insects have been the same for roughly 200 million years, so any further evolution for us would have to be cultural).

John Locke said the human infant was a tabula rasa, i.e., a blank slate, upon which experience writes its tale. Today we understand much more about what the child brings to the table and that there is no ontogenetic blank slate. But this idea covers only a very short time scale of one life. Monod from his scientific perspective seems to endorse John Locke’s tabula rasa, i.e., blank slate, but says the blank slate has been written on by the entire history of life, i.e., “the experiences accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species.” So our capabilities flow from incipient life some 3.5 billion years ago. Yeah, it was a blank slate then, but much has been written on it since and much has been edited, erased and replaced.

As I discussed in the previous post on Monod’s book, our evolutionary experience has led to two cultural facets from which mythic values seem to arise. One is an inborn fear of solitude; we are social animals and do not do well in isolation. Our contemplation of the cosmos along with our knowledge gleaned so arduously through empirical efforts indicates that our place in the universe is indeed lonely; we are warm-blooded strangers in a cold place, each conscious of our irrevocable solitude within our own MEMBRAIN, and constantly filling our mental void with all kinds of energies. The other facet derives from the first; we have, Monod says, a “need for a complete binding explanation” of our existence, and that includes the gaps before birth and after death. How have we come here now to stand on the beach of the ocean of experience? Both of these facets are inherent in life as it has developed on earth; they are inherent in Gaia’s character, i.e., they follow from life holding forth through negentropy amidst a universe flattening out in entropy. Each soma operates to replicate the passage of genes while mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance opportunities until its lapse into the final entropy of death.   This view of life is consistent with Susanne Langer’s idea that human consciousness arrived with the understanding that our life is one act that begins and ends and that within that frame each of us lives alone. Also consider Camus’s Absurd and the myth of Sisyphus and most especially Chris Hitchens’ proposal to separate the noumenal from the supernatural (see post 4/13/17).

It is as I have pondered Monod’s Chance and Necessity and sought its relations to other readings, e.g., Langer, Dawkins, James, Whitman, Hawking, etc., that I have developed a frail metaphysical myth to support this ethical epistemology, keeping consistent with my basic approach to the biological roots of our humanity and moving forward through a dialectic between positivism and mysticism (see posts beginning 11/15/15). To be clear, I believe any truth of which we are capable of apprehending is a gem with many facets, some more transparent and therefore practical or at least knowable than others; the goal is to see the gem whole even given our limited access to various facets. The metaphysical and epistemological answers to the questions of solitude and significance that used to be answered by animist myth with reference to the supernatural (and these serve us well for some purposes still, like artistic imagery or, as indicated, anthropology) are now superceded by positivist myths with reference to the natural world (and these can serve us better if we develop and use an ethics of knowledge to organize our culture and civilization). So to give an abstract rendition of a positivistic genesis myth:

  • Consider the big bang, or any theorized notion of this cosmic course through time, e.g., expansion and contraction, parallel universes, multiple dimensions beyond 4, etc.
  • These refer to the void beyond our comprehension and how the universe developed in ways we can comprehend.
  • A void filled by energy that illumines no forms =>
  • Higgs field appears whereby energetic matter gains mass (see delightful illustration at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/10/08/science/the-higgs-boson.html.)
  • Matter and mass, though we apprehend them through our senses on some macro level, actually operate on a micro level through quantum waves of probability =>
  • These waves swell, subside, interfere +/-, and break into present reality: this is the first level of chance and necessity, i.e., quantum probability reduces to a certainty, e.g., Schrodinger’s cat is either dead or alive but not both because that wave has crested and broken on the shore
  • Matter with mass coalesces and clumps even as the incipient energies undergo entropic dispersal
  • The clumps accrue in the spacetime continuum =>
  • Gravity is a manifestation we can discern of this negentropic building process, i.e., against or resisting entropy; the spacetime curves according to this history of amalgamation
  • Gravity assembles cosmic structures that become elemental forges, e.g., stars burn and synthesize heavier elements: this is a next level of chance and necessity in that cosmic structures, e.g., gas clouds, galaxies, stars, planets appear by chance and then follow a time line ruled by necessity
  • The next level still of chance and necessity is when some combination of the products of these elemental forges coalesce through a gravitational eddy to generate life, e.g., planet Earth becomes Gaia.
  • Once begun life evolves according to chance and necessity.

This would be our genesis story if it were constructed as an anthropomorphic narrative; it is more detailed than animist origin myths because it is empirical and dynamic; the big difference is, of course, that this genesis details a cold, mechanical, and valueless universe from which life evolves with its own sociobiological values. Religious people may find that a problem but those who pursue an ethics of knowledge do not, because we realize that any and all value appears through and from life. Consider these incipient values I find apparent in Gaia’s biosphere:

  • Of course the first value, though perhaps one of the last to be understood, is to understand the world through realistic means and action.
  • Life’s projection into the future through replication, e.g., procreation is good for many reasons
  • Generational replication via somas is quite conservative by necessity and its sensitivity to chance events allows evolution to proceed in two ways:
  • One, variant genes must fit coherently into the whole genome or they will not continue
  • Two, having done so these variants become invariant and must pass muster through environmental interaction by demonstrating the same or increased adaptability
  • Each and every soma operates to minimize exigencies and to exploit chance
  • Their capability to do so speaks to their evolutionary potential.
  • Somas with brains do better than those without, somas with strong social relationships, i.e., have MEMBRAINS, do the best.
  • All life is interconnected
  • All life is local and Gaia is the location; each soma participates in the ecological balance
  • We must respect Gaia, understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that our actions even if performed authentically with sound knowledge and conscious values have many intended and unintended consequences.
  • Our ignorance is greater than our knowledge, e.g., standard theory of physics about 10% of the universe and the rest dark
  • Finally, while we accrue our knowledge through scientific means, both empirical and theoretical, our values continually emerge from the ancestral history of our species. I hope to expound upon this more in later drafts.

With this first axiom of procreation (replication) and its two corollaries of mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance, our frail metaphysic grows strong enough to support a new domain of values instigated and developed through evolution with conspecific relationships. With our heightened empathy and symbolization, we become conscious of greater questions, that of our solitude and of our significance, that can find only partial answers through our ethics of knowledge and development of values.

We have no way of comprehending this richness of life on Gaia. We may work on constructing our ethics of knowledge based on a positivistic genesis myth for our metaphysics, which can lead to a knowledge of ethics and a better understanding of our values. That effort, for me, resolves to a dialectic between my biological mysticism and my intellectual pursuit of knowledge. If you have read all of this, I again thank you. Linger here if you like watching the ocean waters wave and glisten upon your shore or travel on the Way.

feeling crowded or communal?

Staying up late a few weeks ago and talking with friends (don’t get around that much these days), somehow I brought up the subject of the microbiome and the recent findings that each of us has as much non-self DNA as our own DNA from all the microbes that inhabit, mostly symbiotically, our bodies along with us. (Now you understand how exciting it is to rap with me late at night and why it might be important to have an open bottle of decent wine handy). One friend was aghast and felt creepy knowing that, while I rejoiced in being a community, but then I have always liked a bit of a mess and believed that the seeming chaos of an estuary is needed for creative fertility. I also think that life as it has evolved on Gaia is based on such symbiotically complex environments that include other life forms. I recently read a report that the most astounding variety of life forms is found in the turf of a meadow, which I happen to have out my front door.


Many life forms live under the surface of the meadow grasses and soil health depends upon this.

But back to humans. We have long known that the flora in our guts were important for efficient digestion and recent studies say what our gut friends influence whether we are fat or thin. Now I see a report in Science News (April 24, 2016) that researchers have found a link between mental health and our gut flora as they influence our mental states, e.g., the experience of depression. Indeed, when the flora from a depressed rat (don’t ask) were transplanted to a happier one, that one then showed signs of depression. Rats reared free of bacteria had different development of brain areas. Researchers are now working on the hypothesis that the flora affect the metabolism of hormones and neurotransmitters in the gut (where by the bye most of our dopamine is synthesized) and the flora also produce  neurotransmitters that we share. So it is important to eat and drink vital biotic foods such as live vinegar, fermented foods, yogurt, etc., and especially after a course of antibiotics.

This morning I was looking at Wikipedia about lichens, a true symbiosis between algae and fungus, that live a long time, grow steadily albeit slowly, can withstand harsh conditions, etc., and followed a reference to the word ‘holobiont.’ Like holograph, where a piece of the picture contains the whole of the image, holobiont refers to an organism as an integral community that evolves together. We and our microbiome comprise one hologenome with parts evolving differently and affecting our survival and contributing to the whole’s reproductive success. We and our microbiomes have evolved together and some of the positive traits we have are due to our little buddies. Now that is one delightful mess of chaos with direction. Yes, it takes a community to raise a child, and yes, it also appears to take a community to be a child. This seems so congruent, so in keeping with the nature of life here on Gaia and it affirms this old farmer-philosopher’s belief that we need to respect the organic world more and mistrust humanity’s rather ignorant efforts in the darkness to control our environment through chemical, especially genetic, manipulation, yet still enjoy our burgeoning knowledge of ourselves and Gaia.

So find some good wine made the old school way without additives and chemical manipulation, share a glass with friends (and all of their inhabitants), and together travel on.

Dialectical path 2.0: alpha-omega series

So in keeping with the spirit, at least, of the Dialectical Path, I want to meditate on beginnings and endings. I think modern humans have only a few boundaries of the unknowable. One is the experience of another’s subjectivity; this one will endure while humans exist. Another one is the alpha moment of the Big Bang, the creation of the universe and the rise of life within it. While we develop our conceptual understanding of this alpha based upon our positivistic efforts, and we can understand even the beginnings of life in this manner, we will not ever know the particular local circumstances and history of it. The third continues to be the omega moment of death, not the universe’s or earth’s or life on earth, but our own; none of us can know what happens after our death to our own self or the world around. These are important because beyond these boundaries, there is no continuance, and so there is no dialectic. Within these boundaries, however, we have myriad series of alpha-omega, whereby the omega becomes the new alpha and this then develops into the new omega. Pretty soon you have a real dialectic there and dialectics are important. Through them we improve our understanding over time. My guiding image throughout this series will come from my metaphor of the river delta, its estuarine living structure and function, as the brain, and I will now add another facet to the metaphor, the tidal wash, the ebb and flow, of some particular experiences we share through the biological roots of our humanity.

To start today with a basic one, consider our experience of Gaia. Yes, Gaia is both alpha and omega. Our world is, of course, a special place where life initiated or arrived and took hold and so began the history of our ecology and evolution. The end result of this, so far, is our awareness and understanding of Gaia’s existence. Yes, we created the concept but we did so based on our senses and comprehension of the world patterns and puzzles manifest there. So Gaia is an alpha moment at the origin of our world and life and it is an omega idea at the current terminus of our understanding. Now our vital understanding develops with the ongoing dialectic from the mystic sense that all life is related and the positivistic knowledge that, why yes, all life is connected through genetic flow, that the fabric of the universe can be studied at large and small scales of space and time, and that the end result, more an epistemological way station, is our positivistic rendering and explication of the old mystic song.   And so we travel on and on and on and on . . . . . with the tides of Gaia.

hie you to the NCMA

Yes, hasten to the North Carolina Museum of Art to see two temporary exhibits on M. C. Escher and Leonardo Da Vinci.  The first is one of the most complete exhibitions of Escher’s art and he had a long career.  I knew the Escher impossible space ones, but those seemed mundane next to his earlier ones exploring long and deep perspectives.  He produced phenomenal art from late teens to his death in 1972 at age 73.  Escher was especially inspired by Da Vinci because of their shared passion for geometries and mathematical patternings.


M. C. Escher

Da Vinci’s work is represented by a wonderful exhibition of the Codex Leister (now owned by Bill Gates and thank you, Bill), his journals, written in mirror writing, that concerned his scientific and engineering efforts to understand and control water, how fossils come to be at the mountaintops, how water which always runs downhill can emerge in mountain springs, how to measure water pressure, and well, I hope you get the idea.  Many pages written in a fine delicate hand with very precise drawings mostly on the margins.


Leonardo da Vinci

In a couple of passages in the Codex Leister da Vinci presents a view that the earth is like a body, the ocean its heart, its rivers the blood vessels, the mountains its bones, the vegetation its flesh.  So he knew about Gaia early on in the development of positivistic science; indeed he was one of the creators of science and engineering, both imaginal and practical, even as he was an artist of enormous range and power.  Talk about a hero, who first walked the dialectical path between mysticism and positivism showing us the way.

On a wall in the Escher exhibit was a quote from da Vinci in which he discussed how looking at a rock face one can see shapes and objects emerge or listening to chimes one can hear words and melodies.  This is from his Art of Painting.  And it also fits with the paleolithic cave art in Europe, where the beautiful paintings of animals take advantage of the natural contours of the walls (and who knows, the shadows from the torch or candle).


Altamira bison

So hie yourself to the NCMA if you can; it is well worth it.  And look for this guy wandering the dialectic.


da Vinci’s man in proportion


heads up

Please pardon this disjointed post–I have had several posts in my head the past few days and only time for one.  This Thursday, June 25 (or some places on 6/24), PBS premieres a new series, First Peoples, about our prehistoric ancestry.  I am looking forward to it.  For  various reasons I have been thinking about a powerful force in our humanity, the separation of others into in-group/out-group.    In prehistory this plays out in the amalgamation between Neandertals and Homo sapiens sapiens.  We know they interbred because of genetic studies and we know that Neandertals were in Europe thousands of years before modern humans arrived. How did these two groups approach each other?  Were two from each the original Romeo and Juliet?  Also, researchers are looking for evidence as to how agriculture spread.  Did hunter-gatherers wander upon farmers and see the virtues of agriculture?  Did farmers usurp land from the hunter-gatherer tribes?  Did they interbreed? (yes, to some extent).  Two periods of groups meeting other groups.  We know simians have similar in-group/out-group dynamics and they are not always nor even usually friendly.  How has this played out in our evolution?

I generally blog about the roots of humanity in a relatively affect-neutral manner, but now I must talk about our inhumanity, and it stems in part from this in-group/out-group dynamic.  A white youth went into an African-American church in Charleston and sat through an hour of their Wednesday prayer meeting before yelling racial epithets and murdering and wounding many.  He had some deluded notion that he was a member of the in-group and they, being of a different race (but really any excuse would do), were of an out-group that he felt were taking over.  Back when I was a clinical psychologist I worked with some youth like this young man, isolated, few strengths, perverted thinking, emotional control through addiction, and reliant upon aggression to solve problems. It was always ugly and I am always amazed that our culture and society has so many niches for these people to occupy until they violate the law and then they land in prison.  How is it that we, and I speak as an American here, permit our young to grow and act this way?

For an articulate howl of anguish over this, watch Jon Stewart’s monologue on the Daily Show before he interviews Malala Yousafzi about her championship of education and human rights.  For a different slant, watch Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unkown this past Sunday on Beirut and listen to a Syrian teacher in exile cry that the universe has no place for his people.

I want that teacher to know that the universe does have a place for his people, for all people, locally here on Earth, on our precious Gaia.  I hope that our heritage of in-group/out-group disappears under the enlightenment that we are all in this (on this) together and must treasure the places where all are welcome.  Such places do exist already–for proof look at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston which opened its doors again this past Sunday to everyone.  Let us carry that work forward and make it so.

Scale units of life?

I am reading Richard Dawson’s The Selfish Gene, a very curious book on several counts. In this new edition he offers some more recent thoughts about the title that are appreciated. “Selfish” here is used to convey how totally dedicated a gene is to replication. Would a gene bother generating its soma if it could replicate without one? Sort of like a virus which is just a bit of DNA encased in a rather simple membrane. What I just called ‘soma’ Dawkins calls ‘machine’; that is, he calls plant and animal bodies “replicating machines.” In this he is quite reductionistic or positivistic, both virtues here though not the only ones. Chemistry is chemistry, organic or non: reactions are rule bound. I like ‘soma’ better because it leaves some room organically for the mind. I understand and appreciate his sense of the biological machine, but I don’t call a battery a machine, though I guess it is one from this perspective. We are already close to building an artificial organic machine for some specific purpose, unlike the rest of us organic machines dedicated to gene replication, whether old school (sex) or engineered.  Still, I find the reductionism here a bit impoverished.


Dr. Dawkins also presents the conundrum of what is the unit of life to be replicated and so provide a basis for evolution. As I understand his argument, genes are not precisely defined and what is replicated over and over and over again are units of varying size. A level above called cistrons could also be considered the unit of replication, and above that, chromosomes are often considered to play that role. Genes are themselves composed of protein molecules and operate through a great variety of proteins. Scale of organization is evidently an important consideration here, because some genes have been around for billions of years (like the song-speech genes discussed in the blog on 12/14/14) and chromosomes for only a lifetime. And some evolutionary biologists still focus on the individual’s survival as the key to evolution.

Dawkins also cites the importance of context, whether the gene on its chromosome or the microbiome of our soma, the little machines contributing to the big machines and vice versa. Indeed, taking his gist a little further, the context would also seem to include our ecology because all life seems inter-dependent. Any organism’s ecological niche these days must include the organisms cohabiting and surrounding. Dawkins posits that life began out of “primordial soup” and it seems to follow that we are now part of a evolved soup, more bits and pieces differentiated amongst the broth. The picture developing here is of the earth covered, its surface infiltrated, with genetic material, some of which has been here a long time and some not so long. The earth, meaning dirt, is full of fungi, algae, bacteria and insects all over the earth, meaning the planet. This brings up the notion of Gaia, the idea that the earth is a living organism, or less expansive in conceptualization, that the earth is itself the replicating machine (a battery providing the energy) and the somas a reflection of the wondrously varied ecological niches therein.

As long as we are discussing context and scale I will add the consideration of the amino acids and other organic molecules found throughout the known universe. And what about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s speculation in the Cosmos series that life could be seeding or re-seeding multiple times as each solar system rotates through space around its galactic hub and asteroids over these galactic time scales traveling about bringing everyone life’s necessities. The earth does not replicate itself but it does provides the gene pool a lovely place for its continuance.

Now about mind? Yes, yes, mind resulting from some particular evolutionary stream of soma and its genes must confer (at least in the short run of a few million years) survival advantages, but what does it mean about genes, somas, and ecologies that mind is such a powerful (again, seemingly for now) adaptation? I hope to find out more about this when I get to the chapters on mind and memes (and this is the book wherein Dawkins coined the latter term) in The Selfish Gene.

For those who contemplate this approach to understanding our lives and begin to feel like a pretty small chemical cog in the universe, I offer this poem by one of our best, William Carlos Williams.

“El Hombre”

It’s a strange courage

you give me, ancient star:

shine alone in the sunrise

toward which you lend no part!

Image converted using ifftoany

So long for now from Gaia, our home. Merry Solstice and a Happy New Year.