Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #153                                                 January 6, 2004
                 A Publication of The Nature Institute
           Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

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Quotes and Provocations
   Such a Worm as I
   Where Does the User End and PowerPoint Begin?

The Limits of Predictability (Stephen L. Talbott)
   Habits of the Technological Mind #3


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                         QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS

Such a Worm as I

The two nematodes, Caenorhabditis elegans and C. briggsae, are so
alike that only experts can distinguish them.  Microscopic in size and
transparent to light, the simple worms "have near-identical biology, even
down to the minutiae of developmental processes", according to a recent
report in Science (Nov. 27).

And yet, the report goes on to say, the genomes of the two worms turn out
to differ from each other on a scale that dwarfs the differences between
the human and mouse genomes.  That is, genomically speaking, a human being
and a mouse are much more alike than C. elegans and C.  briggsae.  For
example, the worms show about fifty differences in gene organization for
every one difference between human and mouse.  The same ratio holds for
changes in the structure of individual genes.

Another surprise is that the primitive and tiny C. elegans has at least
24,000, and possibly more than 25,000, genes.  With some recent estimates
for the human gene count hovering around 25 - 26,000, the lowly worm is
wonderfully close to outstripping us in genomic grandeur.

If, following the conventional wisdom, you take the genome as the
"blueprint" specifying the organism's construction, and if you reckon with
the extreme difference in scale and complexity between C. elegans and a
human being, then finding 24,000 genes in C. elegans is rather like
finding architectural drawings worthy of the Empire State Building -- but
intended for a one-room hut.  And further (with C.briggsae in mind), it
is as if you found a second but substantially altered set of intricate
drawings for the nearly identical hut next door.

Of course, if you were a sensible person, you would realize that these
genomes couldn't be blueprints at all, in any normal meaning of the term.
The real blueprint at work here is the far too rigid, mental one guiding
genomic researchers toward radically simplified metaphors -- "blueprint",
"code", "master program" -- that make the organism a product controlled by
its genes.

Related articles:

"Adrift in the Genome Without Instructions" in NF #150:

"Missing Weapons" and "Notes on Genetic Engineering" in NF #147:

"The Tyranny of the Gene" by Craig Holdrege in NF #80:

Where Does the User End and PowerPoint Begin?

While I was still working in the engineering organization of a computer
manufacturer, I once tried to write an essay not unlike some of the full-
length pieces I write for NetFuture.  I then gave the essay to a retired
executive for criticism.  He quickly advised me:  "Get it down to a single
page with bullets, then we'll have something to talk about".  That was the
end of my short-lived career as a corporate communicator.

You will doubtless have noted the current flap over presentation software.
"Does PowerPoint make us stupider?" is the question many are asking in the
wake of high-profile suggestions that the Microsoft program was implicated
in the Columbia shuttle disaster.  It's not a bad question to ask,
provided we don't dumb our answer down to the point where we could fit it
on a PowerPoint slide.

There is irony, after all, in the simplistic chorus of accusations against
PowerPoint.  A piece of presentation software forces us to communicate
without depth or subtlety?  Nonsense.  It is more fundamentally true to
say that the abuses of PowerPoint are an expression of the woodenly
inarticulate culture that has naturally preferred its use than to say that
PowerPoint is responsible for this culture.  My encounter with the bullet-
enamored executive occurred before programs like PowerPoint even existed.
Further, there are many people who can and do use PowerPoint worthily,
contrary to the prevailing culture.

So don't simply blame PowerPoint.  But the complementary truth is that
PowerPoint is an expression of the culture surrounding it, which is to
say that we have invested some of ourselves in it.  It embodies tendencies
of its creators and users, and every such expressive embodiment becomes,
an expressive force in its own right, just as our speech does once we
have released it into the world.  The rather degraded path of least
resistance in using this software helps to change the way society

This, then, is the double truth:  we are free to express our own
preferences, tendencies, and choices when using PowerPoint, which is
itself an expression of these choices; and, as a highly effective
expression of choices already made, PowerPoint can influence us "from
outside", nudging us further in certain unhealthy directions.

The crucial thing here lies in how we hold these truths together.  If we
merely say, "Okay, so both sides are right:  PowerPoint is just a tool we
can use in whatever way we want and it is not just a tool but an influence
determining us from the outside" -- then we have hardly made progress in
understanding.  It is, after all, no virtue merely to assert both sides of
an apparent contradiction.

What's needed is to overcome that contradiction by living with one's
thought into the mutually penetrating and entangled character of the
"opposites" so as to recognize their organic unity.  The challenge is very
much like the one we face in understanding the relation between individual
and society, between organism and environment, and even between mind and

Where does the organism leave off and the environment begin?  When you
consider the bee in its hive or reflect on its role in the evolution of
flowers, and when you consider the ant in its landscape-altering mound,
the coral in its habitat-creating reef, the forest trees that modify the
temperature and moisture conditions of air and soil, the bison whose
grazing habits radically shape the prairie ecology, the giraffe whose
browsing habits stimulate the growth and modify the nutritional content of
acacia trees -- and if you think also of the continual exchange of
substances between organism and environment (in the continuum running from
my own blood gases to the air in my lungs to the surrounding atmosphere,
where exactly do I leave off and where does the outside world begin?) --
all these images help us to realize that the unparticipated externality of
the world, as we usually experience it, is illusory.

Users and their software are a unity in much the same way organisms and
their environment are a unity.  But the unity is a complex one that can be
grasped only with a certain flexible and organic style of thinking.  And
the most important thing about our high-tech tools today is that they
represent and encourage a thinking largely deprived of such a character in
favor of brittle logic.  We always need to work against this brittleness
in our efforts to achieve flexible thinking.  But, of course, this means
we need to think about PowerPoint itself in a less brittle way.

Yes, PowerPoint may lend itself more easily to a kind of superficial
organization of thought, but so do the various proverbs and maxims we
often sprinkle into our presentations.  And yet, such sayings can, when
skillfully employed, deepen a presentation rather than make it more

There will be contexts where we rightly worry that the downward pull of a
program like PowerPoint will be too much for its users to resist -- for
example, in the school classroom (and, I am tempted to say, in the typical
engineering meeting).  But there will be other contexts where the downward
pull is just the right stimulus for a superb talk that energetically
transcends its presentational tools in all the right ways.

Paradoxically, those who complain about PowerPoint in the most profound
and truthful manner may be those with the least right to complain.  Their
understanding of the software leaves them with no excuse for being dragged
down by it.

Incidentally, reflect upon those last two sentences for a while and try to
find any sort of fixed conclusion in them.  You will fail.  The sentences
illustrate the kind of formulation that leaves us with no stopping point,
no place of rest.  The mind is forced into continual movement in order to
preserve what it has hold of.  By this means alone it can embrace the
living, protean truth.  We embrace the truth not by capturing and freezing
it, but by dancing with it -- admittedly, not something we can easily
represent on a PowerPoint slide.

Related article:

"Where Do Organisms End?" by Craig Holdrege in In Context #3:


Goto table of contents


                       THE LIMITS OF PREDICTABILITY
                   Habits of the Technological Mind #3

                            Stephen L. Talbott

Predictability is comforting, and we humans seem to crave it.  This is why
superstition, with its promise of predictable control, has long bedeviled
our race.  Moreover, our desire for control has, in the mechanical sphere,
borne fruit.  The digital machines of our own era seem a genuine
fulfillment of the superstitious hope, designed as they are to accomplish
well-defined tasks with high reliability.

When I throw a rock at a tree trunk, I may or may not hit it; but when I
dial the number of a friend, I don't waste much energy worrying that an
incorrect phone will ring.  Instead of crossing myself three times before
dialing, I place well-justified trust in the predictable performance of
the technology.  (Users of Microsoft Windows software, however, may be
forgiven the occasional act of crossing themselves.)  It seems the nature
of a properly constructed machine always to do, at some level, precisely
what it was designed to do -- although, as I pointed out in NF #151,
perfect predictability is a feature of the machine's disincarnate
algorithm, not of the material device itself.  In any case, to build
machines with ever more sophisticated functions and ever greater
reliability remains a defining concern of our culture.

This machinery in turn shapes our thinking, encouraging us to view the
natural world as if it, too, were, in its ultimate workings, a predictable
mechanism.  From this preoccupation with mechanistic predictability the
whole problem of determinism versus freedom has arisen in its modern

The preoccupation, unfortunately, is no less ridden with delusion than are
the superstitions of the gullible.  We can recognize the delusion in the
failure to acknowledge a simple distinction.  I mean, roughly, the
distinction between predicting some precise aspect of an event or
phenomenon, and predicting the event or phenomenon itself.  It's one thing
to say that, whatever a series of events may be, it will respect certain
laws, and quite another to predict the actual course of the events.

If I walk through a city obeying every traffic light and observing all the
other city ordinances, then you could say I am acting wholly in accord
with law.  Nothing in me is violating the law.  Yet the laws, while
qualifying my trip, neither cause it nor explain it nor predict it.

Something similar holds for physical laws.  In fact, every material domain
we think of as in any way lawful presents us consistently with this truth:
an event may without exception conform to law, so that nothing in it is a
violation of law, yet this lawfulness fails to give us unqualified powers
of explanation or prediction.

You may, of course, choose to believe that, if only we knew all the
different varieties of law bearing on a phenomenon, and if only we knew
all the initial conditions circumscribing it, then the laws would fully
explain and predict what happens subsequently.  This, we will eventually
see, is a gross misunderstanding of the world's lawful order -- and the
misunderstanding goes far beyond such issues as quantum indeterminacy and
chaotic unpredictability.  But for the moment my intention is more modest:
I wish only to illustrate some of the ways we continually overestimate the
explanatory and predictive powers of our current knowledge of law.

Knowledge in a Vacuum

It is easy to forget how hard it is, practically speaking, to impose
rigorous predictability upon the world.  Predictability is something we
achieve, not something that is "just there".  When we need things to
happen in a more or less precisely choreographed way, we expend a great
deal of effort in order to attain the desired approximation within a
carefully restricted context.  In the case of sophisticated facilities
such as a particle accelerator -- or a chip fabrication plant, with its
purification systems, clean-room suits, and all the rest -- the effort to
secure repeatable results may cost many millions of dollars.

The idea in general is to construct a carefully designed, closed system
that will enable us reliably to produce particular results with the least
possible interference from outside.  But, of course, there are no truly
closed systems, either in nature or among our artifacts.  Moreover,
insofar as we are successful in this exercise, the whole point of the
closed system is to narrow down what we mean by "event", greatly
impoverishing the reality we put on predictable display.  That is, our
increased predictive powers may come at the expense of our broader
knowledge of the phenomenon we are predicting.

A simple illustration may help to explain the trade-off.

If I pick a broad leaf from a tree and hold it in one hand, and grasp a
rock in the other hand, I can drop them at the same instant and watch them
fall to the ground.  The rock will descend faster and strike the ground
first.  Both fall under the influence of gravity, but the leaf's behavior
within the earthly field of gravity is radically different from the rock's
-- a profound fact that lived much more vividly in the imagination of the
ancients than in our own scientific imaginations today.

However, we know something today that they did not.  We can build a
special chamber, evacuate almost all the air from it, and then arrange for
the leaf and rock to be dropped inside the chamber.  The two now appear to
fall at the same rate.  In this way we can discover a law of gravity that,
as far as we can determine, is universal.  With the right sort of analysis
we can recognize this law unchanged even in the whirling, floating,
oscillating leaf that slowly descends from the tree on an autumn day.

It's a remarkable achievement, but it comes at a cost.  What appeals about
the evacuated chamber is that it makes the entire event appear to be
almost nothing but a predictable manifestation of the law of gravity.
This is what the apparatus has been designed to do.  But it achieves this
by putting the leaf largely out of sight.  It removes the leaf from its
natural context and excludes from view most of what we would normally
expect to see as leafy behavior.  The leaf, you could say, must be
prevented from leafing in order to show off just a single aspect of the
lawfulness it always respects.  We highlight the single aspect by training
ourselves to ignore what it is an aspect of.

So in this case we get a phenomenon as the more or less pure
exemplification of a law by narrowing down, through artifice, what we mean
by "phenomenon".  We no longer have the leaf in its own habitat, doing any
of the things that leaves do.  As far as possible we allow expression only
to that aspect of the thing that embodies what we are looking for.  Taken
as a whole, the phenomenon in the evacuated chamber is actually false to
the reality of leaves, which never behave that way in nature.  We discover
something valid in the experiment by obscuring the larger reality we
originally set out to understand.

Our experiment, then, gives us both a penetrating truth and a powerful
invitation to false thinking.  The scientific method, as usually
articulated, systematizes and perfects our drive toward this abstract and
partial truth, but offers little guidance for countering the systematic
potentials of the falsehood.  Scientists themselves have been so enamored
of the truth that they have ignored the toxic effects of the falsehood.
Many no longer even ask how they might recover an understanding of the
phenomenon they began with, as opposed to identifying various laws
implicit in it.  We may reasonably wonder to what degree the poison has
infiltrated and subtly altered the main body of scientific understanding

Digital Reductions

We have learned with consummate skill to construct activities that we can
assess by reducing complex qualitative realities to simple numerical
terms.  In a basketball game we give paramount attention to a single
consideration:  does the ball pass through the hoop or not?  Never mind
that shots of wildly differing accuracy and grace, resulting from
beautiful teamwork in some cases and brute selfishness in others, superbly
defended or else sloppily conceded, all count the same when, perhaps after
several caroms, the ball drops through the metal ring.

We would be hard put if we had to evaluate the full reality of the game.
But there is no need.  The scoring, both individual and collective, is
what goes down in the record books.  However much we may appreciate the
artistry of the game, the scoring is the "hard truth" that remains to
history, giving us all we need to "explain" why one team is the champion
and another is an also-ran1.  It is perfectly reasonable to cultivate such
an abstract representation of the game (or of the world); what is not
reasonable is to lose sight of the reality behind the representation, or
to assume that nothing beside the numbers is required in order for us to
understand the actual events.

I am not suggesting that laws of nature are like the scoring of
basketball.  I am only pointing out that, just as we may let the reductive
numbers substitute for and explain the events of the game they were
abstracted from, forgetting that the game is what explains the numbers, so
also we may let the mathematically formulated laws of physics explain
reality, forgetting that the reality -- an immeasurably richer reality
than is captured in the selected mathematical relationships -- is what
explains the laws.

Whether dealing with subatomic particles or planets, the student of
physics quickly learns to reconceive a group of objects as idealized,
dimensionless point-masses, isolated from all outside influences in a
perfectly closed system -- never mind that there are no point-masses in
the world, and there are no objects bereft of relationship to all the rest
of the universe.  The resulting equations, when graphed, give the student
a concrete picture he is bound to start conceiving as a little piece of
the world.  The world begins to appear as nothing more than a reification
of its "governing" equations, with the purely imaginal point-mass standing
in for real objects.

The deception here is both subtle and earth-shaking -- and it receives no
attention whatever in the student's education.  But the fact remains that
his theoretical concepts do not present him with a little piece of the
observable world.  When he looks at a real mass, his equation describes
one element of lawfulness implicit in that little (and somewhat falsely
isolated) piece of the world.  This mathematical lawfulness no more gives
him a tiny event or phenomenon than a player's score of two points gives
us one small part of the the player's drive or the flight of the ball --
as opposed to a highly abstract condition that must be met by whatever the
observable phenomenon may have been.  In other words, there is something
about the occurrence -- the approach to the basket, the muscular leap, the
graceful contortion, the ball in flight, the rattling of the hoop, the
final descent -- truly captured in the score of two points, but it's a
long way from this abstract something to any actual event.

The Inertia of Thought

To mistake laws for the phenomena embodying them is to be forever
overreaching with our "explanations".  It is to mistake the predictability
of inherent laws for the predictability and understandability of the
events in which they inhere.  We are then beguiled into the conviction
that we have a solid grip on the nature of things, when in fact we
have in many respects retreated from the things, refusing to see them for
what they are.  Take, for example, Newton's first law of motion:

   Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a
   straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces
   impressed on it.

The formulation itself already suggests that it is somehow in the nature
of bodies to move in straight lines.  The factors that compel them
out of this course are impressed upon them from the outside, as if
these factors were foreign to the nature of the things themselves.  But if
we bother to observe real things -- things not isolated in carefully
designed closed systems, things which are, at least in part, their
relatedness -- we discover that the nature of just about everything in the
universe, from the arms of the vastest galaxies to the smallest trickles
of water, is to find a center they can spiral around.

It is, after all, not merely accidental that in the world from which
Newton abstracted his laws, "external" and "compelling" forces always just
happen to be there.  Nor is it an accident that the very meaning of
"external" has been blurred by modern physics, so that no particle can,
even in principle, be isolated and defined apart from its interactions
with every other particle in existence.  And it is no accident that even
those archetypically straight shafts of light we occasionally see
streaming through the clouds -- if only we can achieve their vantage
point, their scale of action, their natural habitat -- are found to be
pursuing great and sinuous circles touching the rim of the known universe.

How easy it is to mistake the laws we tease out of things for an adequate
declaration of their nature!  And how easy it is to overlook the truth
that what we abstract from a phenomenon may tell us very little about the
nature of the phenomenon.  An object moving in a circle, as the student of
calculus learns, may be said to traverse an infinite set of infinitesimal
straight lines -- an assumption that wonderfully serves the purposes of
calculation.  But we had better not tell the dancer (who will in any case
not believe us) that movement in a circle has the character of movement in
straight lines.

Truth and Calculation

When we say (as Newton's severe abstraction has tempted us to say) that
the nature of material objects "left to themselves" is to move in straight
lines, we forget that, left to itself, the object is no longer there as
that particular object.  On the other hand, what we do find there, in all
its insistence upon existing through relatedness, clearly prefers movement
along curved paths.  Only when actual phenomena have fallen from view,
leaving us to contemplate the disincarnate and partial motions we have
abstracted from them, can we accept the change of viewpoint hailed by
philosopher Daniel Dennett:

   Central to Newton's great perspective shift was the idea that ...
   rectilinear motion did not require explanation; only deviations from it
   did.  (Dennett 1995, p. 364)

But if we're trying to understand the actual world rather than the
detached logic of our equations, then surely any object in strict,
rectilinear motion would require explanation, just as a leaf falling like
a stone requires the explanation of our evacuated chamber.  After all,
strict, rectilinear motion in nature is all but impossible.  Rather than
saying it does not require explanation, Dennett should have said it does
not require special calculation.  In wholeheartedly accepting Newton's
"great perspective shift", he has mistaken the abstracted, idealized
quantities of scientific calculation for things themselves.

It is a great and useful feat to achieve the calculation and the implicit
truths it points to.  We really do recognize mathematical regularities in
phenomena, and these regularities can be correlated with various forces.
But it is wrong to think of forces as pure causes operating externally on,
and thereby explaining and predicting, the behavior of passively receptive
"things".  We think this way only when we imagine forces in relation to
matter much as we imagine equations in relation to graphs conceived as the
paths of idealized point-masses.  The graphs give us beautifully exact
pictures of cause and effect, except for the minor problem that there is
neither cause nor effect in the mathematics or the graph.  And when we do
consider real things, we can hardly believe that forces make them do what
they do in any simplistic sense -- if only because the forces are
themselves being done by the things.2

Heavenly Order

The entire phenomenal universe is gloriously ordered and patterned.  But
we will scarcely grasp its order if we bring to it a mentality that says,
"laws make things happen" -- a mentality that imagines a law to govern
events in the way an equation governs its graphical representation.

We can get a healthier grip upon the world's order by considering what we
learn from our own possibilities of action.  Meaningful activity,
originating from ourselves, would not be possible in a universe lacking
lawful order.  How could we act coherently and meaningfully if there were
no ordered relations between act and consequence -- if we could say
nothing predictable at all about the results of our actions?

But neither could we act meaningfully if there were an iron, spirit-
crushing necessity in this order.  The world supports us by offering a
certain resistance to mere arbitrariness, but in doing so presents us with
coherent possibilities for acting -- that is, for creating new realities.
These realities do not violate the lawful structure of their context, but
neither are they determined by this structure.  To fail to take either
side of this truth seriously is to abandon the truth of our own existence.

By analogy:  grammar imposes a certain order upon our speech.  But even if
I speak in perfect "obedience" to the rules of grammar, I do not thereby
foreclose my possibilities for free expression.  We cannot imagine
meaningful speech without some grammatical ordering principles, but
neither can we imagine meaningful speech if those ordering principles
fully explain and predict what I will say.  Very clearly they don't.

Historically, the serene and regular motions of the heavens have tutored
us in the apprehension of lawful order.  But it's a long way from the
personal, contextual, fate-driven order of the Egyptians, Babylonians, and
Greeks to the isolated Newtonian object whose supposed "nature" is to move
in a straight line.  As brilliant and necessary as the latter abstraction
was, it all too easily invites us to lose sight of truths those earlier
civilizations effortlessly apprehended.

Unexpected Discoveries

This loss of sight may help to account for some of the miscalculations of
modern astronomers.  Seduced by the timeless verities of their clean
formulas of motion, they could not help projecting a certain timelessness
upon the various bodies of the solar system.  So they imagined these to
have been pursuing their largely undisturbed motions for millions of

It came, then, as an unwelcome shock when one after another of our
billion-year-old, "cold, inert, and dead" neighbors, from Venus to the
moons of Jupiter, were revealed during the age of space exploration to
have warm cores and to be geologically active.  It requires powerful
interactions to warm a planet, and apparently a lot more has been going on
in relatively recent times throughout the vast, "desert"-reaches of space
than we moderns ever dreamed of.

The second half of the twentieth century brought countless other
surprises, ranging from the solar wind to the violently carved canyons of
Mars, from the Van Allen radiation belt to the unforeseen break-up, in the
year 2000, of Comet Linear.  And, as astronomers now turn to the
investigation of other solar systems, the jolts to expectation have
already been extreme, with orbits turning up at baffling distances from
suns, and with planets of the "wrong" size occupying those orbits.

All this points to a broad truth of science:  when we extend our
observational reach to embrace new phenomena, we typically find the
phenomena quite unexpected, even though they may only rarely require
revision of previously formulated laws.  Those distant planets may have
been found in districts of ill repute, but we can be quite sure that, in
their gravitational and other relations, they remain respectable citizens
of a lawful cosmos.

Someone reading this text in the future, perhaps the near future, will
probably reply, "What do you mean, planets in the 'wrong' orbits?  We now
have a theory that perfectly accounts for those orbits".  Yes, and this
theory probably will not require any revision of fundamental laws.  This
illustrates my point, which is only that the new observations came
initially as a surprise, and the laws now "predicting" them had to be
orchestrated in such a way as to save the observations and achieve the
prediction.  That's the way an observation-based science is supposed to
work:  even assuming that the currently formulated laws need no revision,
we are continually forced to fit them to unique phenomena -- and the
phenomenal surprises we encounter along the way show no sign of lessening
with our growing knowledge of the various domains of scientific law.

Martian Puzzle

If anything has clinched our errant conviction that mathematically
formulated laws "make" things happen, or at least explain why
things happen, it is the astronomer's success in predicting eclipses with
the aid of Newton's equations.  In this we recognize one manifestation of
that celestial order we depend upon to define the rhythms -- the days,
months, and seasons -- that still regulate much of life on earth.

As I said above, without regularity our existence would be chaos.  But
we are not justified in interpreting such regularity as the unalloyed,
mathematical necessity of events, as opposed to the necessity of a
lawfulness implicit in those events.  When we predict and verify an
eclipse, we are not only acting as mathematicians; we are also acting
as observers discovering what is actually happening, and we can never
discount the possibility for new and unexpected observations.  This
is why, for example, there are serious preparations afoot within the
scientific community for dealing with the possible approach of an
earth-destroying asteroid.

But I fear this kind of possibility is too remote to underscore my point
in any vivid way.  Allow me to pick an item out of the current news for
brief comment.

Until recently, scientists assumed that what we find on Mars today must be
essentially the same (barring a crater or two here and there) as what we
would have found a thousand, a hundred thousand, or even millions of years
ago.  The uniformitarian conviction that things don't change much -- that
we can safely project known processes forward and backward in time, rather
as we extrapolate the graph of an equation -- reigned in astronomy just as
it did in many other scientific disciplines.  Unfortunately, the history
of space exploration has tended to explode this conviction on one front
after another.

In the case of Mars, an article in the New Scientist (Chandler
2003) reviews a series of "profoundly mysterious landforms that have left
geologists scratching their heads .... All point to amazingly fast
processes taking place on the surface.  Mars has changed considerably in
the past few thousand years -- in some places even the past two years.
Yet nobody knows why.  Unraveling the mystery will require a radical leap
in theoretical thinking...."

At the planet's south pole the alternate layers of ice and dust are
"vanishing before our eyes", with three meters or more being eroded each
year between 1999 and 2001.  At the current rate, one entire layer will
disappear in twenty years, increasing the Martian atmosphere's thickness
by one percent.  "The magnitude of the changes implies an enormous amount
of energy is being pumped into the ice to melt and vaporize it".

Clearly this process cannot be projected forward or backward for very
long!  Expressing "shock" at the data, one researcher notes that "all the
visible ice, all the carbon dioxide that we see in this 'permanent' ice
cap, could be eroded in less than a century".

Other recently discovered features are equally startling.

   For example, huge fields of granular dunes preserve detailed features
   that show that they once marched across the landscape like sand dunes
   on Earth, blown by the wind.  Yet these dunes are frozen in place,
   without a trace of motion over a two-year interval.

   The only plausible explanation is, again, climate change.  If the
   atmosphere was much thicker in the recent past, its winds may have been
   able to push along dunes that today's winds can no longer even ruffle.

And, again, the pattern of crater impacts on the floor of a 3.5 kilometer-
deep canyon indicates that it is less than a million years old.  "But if
it is that young, [one researcher] asks, 'how did it get exposed from
under three and a half kilometers of material'.  So far, there is no

Well, there are some proposed answers, and they include the previously
unthinkable suggestion that Mars has participated in major celestial
catastrophes within the span of recorded history.  Nor is Mars our only
companion in the solar system to provoke such speculation.3

Ancient Fears

I am not suggesting anything at all about the likely outcome of the
current Martian investigations.  I am merely using these to point out the
obvious:  if we encounter a certain uniformity in a particular field of
phenomena for a given period of time, this is in part a discovery of
observation, not something we could have predicted with any absolute
certainty.  As a doctrine, uniformitarianism is either the simple
statement that we have found observational evidence for such-and-such
limited uniformities over specific time spans, or else a silly declaration
of universal faith.  If lunar and solar eclipses have been wonderfully
regular in recent historical times, we can be thankful for the stability,
but we cannot know, on the basis of current evidences, that they were
equally regular as recently as a few thousand years ago or that they will
be regular over the next decade.

Actually, if we were to attend seriously to the fearful preoccupation of
the ancients with the sky, we might raise serious questions in this
regard.  More and more astronomers are in fact asking such questions, and
over the past several decades catastrophist thinking has progressively, if
slowly and against great resistance, invaded the various astronomical

It was, of course, easiest to accept the idea of a celestial "invader"
when we could locate the event many millions of years ago, with dinosaurs
as the victims.  But once the irrational prejudice against heaven-sent
disruptions was (at least partially) overcome, our earthly "closed system"
came to seem increasingly vulnerable to outside influences.  Astronomer
Mark Bailey suggests that "human societies may have been witness to a
somewhat more active celestial environment during past millennia".  In
fact, he sees evidence for "a once powerful extraterrestrial source with
the capacity to cause both local and global destruction and trigger a
common social response".4

Similarly, the astronomer, Bill Napier, reminds us that "modern
astronomical evidence does not support the common supposition that the
night sky has been unchanging for 5000 years".  And another astronomer,
Duncan Steel, refers to the "limitation" of previous work in
archaeoastronomy, which was "the assumption that the phenomena seen in the
sky by the ancients were the same as those which we now see".  He goes on
to state more explicitly that "the celestial phenomena which ancient man
would have been most concerned with -- objects which moved around the sky
relative to the background of stars -- may have been quite different to
those observed now".

If, from the start, researchers had been as attuned to the possibilities
of historical evidence as to the "causal" neatness of their lawful
formulations, they might have addressed these issues much earlier.  And
they might even have asked whether they themselves, with their modern
civilization and uniformitarian convictions, are the products of a period
of uncommon celestial stability following upon more fearsome times.  The
ancients, with their insistence that civilization was a gift of the
heavens, may not have been all that far from the mark.  When we casually
reject the ancient views wholesale as nothing but superstition, our much-
too-easy and observationally untested judgment reflects only our own

Knowledge of mathematically precise law becomes an illicit faith whenever
it tempts us to forget how much fuller every phenomenon is than the
lawfulness it respects, and how much we depend upon historical and
observational evidence to know what actually happened.

I am not here arguing for or against recently unsettled heavens, and
nothing in my discussion hinges on the outcome of the question.  But I
am saying that the question cannot be answered solely through an
appeal to physical law and the predictability of phenomena -- as far too
many astronomers wanted to conclude a few decades ago.  While the final
answer must certainly cohere with physical law, the essential
investigation will be the historical one.  It is remarkable how long
astronomers have managed to ignore this truth by letting their minds
contemplate phenomena in the same way they are in the habit of
contemplating the comforting and predictable clarity of quantitatively
formulated law.

At Home in the Universe

One final note.  The temptation to mistake our understanding of
mathematical law for an adequate understanding of phenomena is born of our
desire to find ourselves at home in a universe warmly receptive to our
existence.  Reassurance on this score, I'm convinced, is a primary
function of mechanistic thinking.  It may seem otherwise when someone like
the astronomer Allan Sandage says,

   What's it like out there?  I don't know what it's like out there.  It's
   cold, it's impersonal.  It is the machine, if you like to put it that
   way, that has created you.  (Quoted in Ferris undated.)

This hardly sounds like reassurance!  But the matter appears very
differently when you look beyond the barren content of such mechanistic
thinking and consider its function.  You can get a hint of the function
by noting the evident smugness with which pronouncements like Sandage's
are often spoken.  The smugness reflects, among other, less savory things,
the satisfaction of "getting it" -- which is not in itself a bad sort of
satisfaction to feel.

Perhaps nothing more poignantly expresses our need for belonging to the
universe, or our conviction that we must belong, than our legitimate and
deep-felt urge to comprehend things -- to bring about a faithful "marriage
of sense and thought" within the intimacy and universality of our own
consciousness.  In comprehending the objective world, we assimilate its
existence to our own in a unity of truth, thereby proving our kinship with
it.  We shape our minds to things themselves, which is only possible
because the things themselves are mind-shaped.

The problem with the mechanistic thinker is not that he is driven by this
urge to find himself at home in the universe (which is at the same time to
find a home for the universe within himself), but rather that he yields to
a simplistic understanding of the material universe based on our limited
human experience in building machines from pre-existing matter.  Little
thought is given to the differences between the predictable algorithmic
lawfulness we try our best to impose upon our constructions, and the dark,
unplumbed, material depths of reality from which they are constructed.
The mirage of perfect, mechanical predictability, while it seems to make
the world knowable, does so by projecting a single domain of (partly
wishful) human experience upon the world.  Another word for such
projection is "superstition".  It would be far better to discover what the
world, in all its fullness, is prepared to reveal of itself.

We require neither superstition nor the reassuring predictabilities of
mechanistic thinking in order to know ourselves at home in the universe.
If we were willing to withhold our projections and open ourselves to the
Eternal Surprise of the universe, its biggest surprise might be the
knowledge that we truly do belong -- and that our belonging doesn't depend
on simplistic, machine-influenced thinking.


1. Here we see the central principle of the digital machine, which is to take
all qualitative differences and, at one level, re-present them in terms of
simple, binary differences.  Either the basketball goes through the hoop
or it doesn't.  Did it or didn't it?  Yes or no?  One or zero?

2. I will have much more to say about this in a subsequent article.

3. For some highly unconventional views by a plasma physicist, see

4. The quotations from Bailey and the following quotations from Napier and Steel are among many gathered by Marinus Anthony van der Sluijs at a web site entitled "Myth and Celestial Catastrophe": Apart from the convenience of the collected quotations, however, there is not much I can recommend about this web site. Related articles: ----------------- Part 1 of this series, "Intelligence and Its Artifacts" in NF #148.
Part 2 of this series, "The Vanishing World-Machine", in NF #151. Bibliography ------------ Chandler, David L. (2003). "All Eyes on Mars", New Scientist 179, no. 2409 (Aug. 23), p. 40. Dennett, Daniel C. (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster. Ferris, Timothy (undated). "The Creation of the Universe", a PBS television special. Goto table of contents ========================================================================== ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER Copyright 2004 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached. NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see . Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web: To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture: This issue of NetFuture: Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #153 :: January 6, 2004

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