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Introduction: Lucy Weir

I'm writing to introduce myself and the reasons I wanted to join this forum. I'm in the last year (now, that's optimistic) of my PhD research, at the write up stage. Considering the nature of that research, and of this forum, there may be some wry smiles when I say that I am a philosopher, and the field I'm writing about is evolutionary science, Zen, and the environmental (although I call it 'ecological') crisis. The relevant aspect of research for this group is that I am interested in the idea that biodiversity is a system through which energy is dispersed, and the evolution of enriched diversity and complexity within systems has been a result of the pressures on the system to disperse energy and reduce the 'solar gradient'.

This, of course, rather parallels the ideas in Eastern philosophy, most obviously the ideas of Daoism, where according one's actions to the 'flow' allows one to live in a state of greater harmony with the world. Likewise, the ideas of Zen Buddhism indicate that in order to reduce suffering, one need only understand that attachment to desires, or the recreation of rigid patterns of responses, cannot allow the flow of energy to disperse itself so readily, whereas by meditating on the ways in which we become rigidly attached, or create rigid patterns of attachment (think of patterned, predictable reactions to situations that make us angry, scared or even happy, and then think too of the creation of plastics, which cannot then reenter a flow of energy dispersal through natural systems, being locked, for a long time at least, in a set pattern of form, or radioactive wastes created by human activity that decay so slowly as to be locked in patterns of energy redistribution that exclude them from systems for millenia) we can bring them to awareness and open up potential alternative feedback systems (choose to do it differently).

Now, you will have gathered from the language used above that I am well-versed neither in physics nor in maths. I've approached one physicist with this idea and been given a strange look. However, in The Edge (which, as you will know, produces a yearly publication in response to a question) there was, in 2006, a paleontologist, Scott Sampson, who wrote about this idea in response to 'what is your dangerous idea?' (I can quote him in a separate post or you can look him up yourself). I'm not sure how much respect he's going to garner here but he did suggest the idea needed further investigation. I don't need the idea to be proven - theories are only ever theories - but I want to be able to point to a few references that make it clear that the theory that a richer, more biodiverse system of living/non-living relationships on this planet has a) come about through evolutionary (i.e. natural) pressures and b) disperses more energy than a simpler, more impoverished system. Can anyone help? (My leap to Zen is my own problem).

Comments

  • 1.
    edited April 2013

    Hi,

    that biodiversity is a system through which energy is dispersed

    that I am well-versed neither in physics nor in maths

    but if you speak about energy (to physicists) you should know what's the meaning of energy for physicists. Otherwise, even if you have good ideas, you won't be able to communicate them.

    I don’t need the idea to be proven - theories are only ever theories

    well, there are theories that are approximations of reality and others that are way off. Maybe the latter are fun pastime, but the former are probably more fun ;-)

    My first reaction would be that energy is conserved. What do you mean with the solar gradient?

    Perhaps you could link biodiversity with the conversion of energy into heat, at successive stages, so the production of entropy by the existence of an ecosystem. Do you mean this with 'dispersion of energy'? One immediate problem would be that a simple power plant also produces entropy, so the question would be to distinguish between both. (Perhaps one could look which is less irreversible)

    Did you read Maximum Entropy and Ecology by John Harte? I don't know if it's helpful, but it's the first thing that comes to my mind to goes in this direction. (I have to read it still.)

    Comment Source:Hi, > that biodiversity is a system through which energy is dispersed > that I am well-versed neither in physics nor in maths but if you speak about energy (to physicists) you should know what's the meaning of energy for physicists. Otherwise, even if you have good ideas, you won't be able to communicate them. > I don’t need the idea to be proven - theories are only ever theories well, there are theories that are approximations of reality and others that are way off. Maybe the latter are fun pastime, but the former are probably more fun ;-) My first reaction would be that energy is conserved. What do you mean with the solar gradient? Perhaps you could link biodiversity with the conversion of energy into heat, at successive stages, so the production of entropy by the existence of an ecosystem. Do you mean this with 'dispersion of energy'? One immediate problem would be that a simple power plant also produces entropy, so the question would be to distinguish between both. (Perhaps one could look which is less irreversible) Did you read Maximum Entropy and Ecology by John Harte? I don't know if it's helpful, but it's the first thing that comes to my mind to goes in this direction. (I have to read it still.)
  • 2.
    edited April 2013

    Hi, Lucy! I think you may be interested in Ilya Prigogine's work on how systems can become more organized and generate complex structures when there's a constant flow of free energy through them... like how sunlight hits the Earth and gets reradiated in the form of infrared. I got the impression that's what you're talking about. This subject is called "nonequilibrium thermodynamics". Prigogine won a Nobel prize in physics for his work on this subject, but more recently he's written a number of popular books that explain the ideas without a whole lot of math. I think this one is good:

    The link is to Amazon, where you can read some reviews.

    Too bad the second author didn't point out that women have a dialogue with nature too.

    The book Maximum Entropy and Ecology by John Harte is probably not what you want: it's about using maximum entropy methods to guess the distribution of species in ecosystems. It's quite mathematical, and it doesn't really involve the considerations you seem to be interested in. I summarized that book, very tersely, here.

    I'm more into Taoism than Zen Buddhism, since ideas like 'sudden enlightenment' or being a samurai don't appeal to me.

    Comment Source:Hi, Lucy! I think you may be interested in Ilya Prigogine's work on how systems can become more organized and generate complex structures when there's a constant flow of free energy through them... like how sunlight hits the Earth and gets reradiated in the form of infrared. I got the impression that's what you're talking about. This subject is called "nonequilibrium thermodynamics". Prigogine won a Nobel prize in physics for his work on this subject, but more recently he's written a number of popular books that explain the ideas without a whole lot of math. I think this one is good: * Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, _[Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue With Nature](http://www.amazon.com/Order-out-chaos-dialogue-nature/dp/0553340824)_. The link is to Amazon, where you can read some reviews. Too bad the second author didn't point out that women have a dialogue with nature too. <img src = "http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/emoticons/tongue2.gif" alt = ""/> The book _Maximum Entropy and Ecology_ by John Harte is probably not what you want: it's about using maximum entropy methods to guess the distribution of species in ecosystems. It's quite mathematical, and it doesn't really involve the considerations you seem to be interested in. I summarized that book, very tersely, [here](http://johncarlosbaez.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/maximum-entropy-and-ecology/). I'm more into Taoism than Zen Buddhism, since ideas like 'sudden enlightenment' or being a samurai don't appeal to me.
  • 3.

    Welcome to Azimuth. A couple of quick comments:

    1. As you're probably gathering, the kind of idea you've got for the word "energy" doesn't match up with any hard scientists understanding. I'm not sure which scientific terms best applies to what you're thinking about, but it'll probably help you to talk to scientists to use one.

    2. You seem to be thinking of things in terms of a systematic "pushing" away of "vitality" (as a placeholder for a more precise term). A lot of scientists would view ecology as a systematic "pull in" of "vitality" to concentrate it. For example, sunlight is concentrated by phytoplankton which is concentrated by zoo plankton that is concentrated by krill, etc. I don't know if the view of entities as concentrators which nonetheless will be themselves part of something elses concentration can be fitted within the philosophical framework you're interested in.

    Comment Source:Welcome to Azimuth. A couple of quick comments: 1. As you're probably gathering, the kind of idea you've got for the word "energy" doesn't match up with any hard scientists understanding. I'm not sure which scientific terms best applies to what you're thinking about, but it'll probably help you to talk to scientists to use one. 2. You seem to be thinking of things in terms of a systematic "pushing" away of "vitality" (as a placeholder for a more precise term). A lot of scientists would view ecology as a systematic "pull in" of "vitality" to concentrate it. For example, sunlight is concentrated by phytoplankton which is concentrated by zoo plankton that is concentrated by krill, etc. I don't know if the view of entities as concentrators which nonetheless will be themselves part of something elses concentration can be fitted within the philosophical framework you're interested in.
  • 4.
    edited April 2013

    Many thanks to Frederik, John and David. I'm afraid this is rather a long answer (cue the Twain cliche: I didn't have time for brevity... in fact, I've had to divide this into two reponses...)

    You all rightly recognise that what I'm trying to do, in the field of philosophy, is explain my thesis so that it is comprehensible to non-scientists (philosophers, particularly in the field of comparative philosophy) but also scientifically accurate. OK. Frederik's first comment is, I need to understand what physicists mean by energy. That sounds reasonable. All I can do, however, is take a stab at what I think physicists mean and let you correct me. So here's my stab: Energy, from a physical perspective, is a relationship that includes informational exchange (this based on Poincare's, and later Ladyman's, idea of structural realism: all that exist in the universe are relationships, that can effectively be described with numbers - Amanda Gefter's response (Consultant, New Scientist)

    'The world isn't made of things, it's made of mathematical relationships, or structure.'

    Entropy is the end of all these relationships, when no more informational exchange can take place because the distance within the structure is too vast. Energy depends on the structural relationship that allows for informational exchange, therefore: the more informational exchange that is available, the more energy a system has. Always, however, according to the second law of thermodynamics, the informational exchange tends towards equilibrium, that is, towards entropy. I know it's a huge ask, but could a physicist offer something along the same descriptive terms, correcting the inaccuracy in that explanation? Or even rubbish it and start again? Thanks.

    Secondly, you ask what I mean by 'the solar gradient'. This is (I hope) a little easier to respond to than the energy question - but I'll attempt to describe what I mean using both my own words, and I refer you to the words of Scott Sampson. Within the solar system (almost?) all biosystems are driven by energy derived ultimately from the sun. We can call this 'solar energy'. The energy from the sun reaches the biosystems on this planet and drives all the processes within those systems. That energy comes to the planet through space as a result of very powerful nuclear reactions - it's high energy. If there was no life on this planet, physical energy systems would still be driven by that heat - water would warm, chemical reactions take place, and so on. But because there is life on this planet, far more energy is absorbed than would be the case if there was no life. So the gradient between the Sun and Earth is reduced when compared with, say, Mars, where the gradient is steeper (there are more extremes of temperature - I'm guessing! Taking into account other variables like size, distance from sun, etc - and so on). That's what is meant by 'the solar gradient'.

    Frederik responded to my flippant remark about 'theories' quite correctly by pointing out that some are wacky and some are good explanations. The explanation that the cosmos is 'turtles, all the way down' (from an example given by Richard Dawkins in The Ancestor's Tale) is a good example of a wacky explanation. The explanation that we are here as a result of having evolved, along with the rest of the biosystems on the planet, is a good explanation. It's falsifiable. It fits the evidence. So all I'm attempting here is to establish whether or not the theory about life being a complex form of energy dissipation is a reasonable theory or a wacky one. My research so far has given me hope that this theory is reasonable. What I want to do with it - extend it to include our understanding of our impact upon the planet and what we might be able to do about that - is, potentially, open to accusations of wackiness. I have to tread very carefully. Yet there's nothing inherently unreasonable about attempting to understand human activity within a natural, evolved context. The old, 'is-ought' fallacy is fairly easy to dismiss, when we understand the nature of agency (and morality) non-traditionally (this is another element of the thesis and not one I want to bore you with unless you explicitly request more detail).

    Without getting too bogged down with responding to every point, a 'simple power plant' is, in the context of the thesis I'm proposing, an extension of the natural activity of the human species (in the same way a beaver's dam is an extension of the activity of beavers). There's nothing particularly simple about it, therefore, because it took our evolution as the baseline before it could come into existence. But I take your point about entropy. The difference between (humanly created) mechanical systems and natural systems is enormous and yet we use mechanical metaphors for natural systems (the Harvard guy who did the software development for the wonderful video, the life of the cell in his TED speech, talked about the cell as a machine - this is the kind of loose talk that I despair of! A biosystem is not a mechanical process - that's the Cartesian hangover we have to detoxify from - because it has so many feedback processes that alter its trajectory according to the changes physical situation - and machines don't do that). Ultimately of course all the energy in the solar system will dissipate (but this is like your five, six or seven step response to AGW - we're all going to die anyhow and there's nothing we can do about it so there's no point in addressing it as a problem - only the time scales involved mean that in the context of our lives, and those of the next few generations, what we do now may well make a significant difference to the kind of world they inhabit). But biodiverse, relatively stable, metabolic cycles store chemical energy and dissipate it more gradually, creating (albeit temporarily) a homeostasis (that is, obviously, dynamic - the slowing down of matter cycling and energy flowing through biotic patterns - DNA, RNA and all the chemical reactions associated with their maintenance, reproduction and dissolution.

    Comment Source:Many thanks to Frederik, John and David. I'm afraid this is rather a long answer (cue the Twain cliche: I didn't have time for brevity... in fact, I've had to divide this into two reponses...) You all rightly recognise that what I'm trying to do, in the field of philosophy, is explain my thesis so that it is comprehensible to non-scientists (philosophers, particularly in the field of comparative philosophy) but also scientifically accurate. OK. Frederik's first comment is, I need to understand what physicists mean by energy. That sounds reasonable. All I can do, however, is take a stab at what I think physicists mean and let you correct me. So here's my stab: Energy, from a physical perspective, is a relationship that includes informational exchange (this based on Poincare's, and later Ladyman's, idea of structural realism: all that exist in the universe are relationships, that can effectively be described with numbers - [Amanda Gefter](http://www.edge.org/responses/what-is-your-favorite-deep-elegant-or-beautiful-explanation)'s response (Consultant, New Scientist) 'The world isn't made of things, it's made of mathematical relationships, or structure.' Entropy is the end of all these relationships, when no more informational exchange can take place because the distance within the structure is too vast. Energy depends on the structural relationship that allows for informational exchange, therefore: the more informational exchange that is available, the more energy a system has. Always, however, according to the second law of thermodynamics, the informational exchange tends towards equilibrium, that is, towards entropy. I know it's a huge ask, but could a physicist offer something along the same descriptive terms, correcting the inaccuracy in that explanation? Or even rubbish it and start again? Thanks. Secondly, you ask what I mean by 'the solar gradient'. This is (I hope) a little easier to respond to than the energy question - but I'll attempt to describe what I mean using both my own words, and I refer you to the words of [Scott Sampson](http://edge.org/response-detail/10674). Within the solar system (almost?) all biosystems are driven by energy derived ultimately from the sun. We can call this 'solar energy'. The energy from the sun reaches the biosystems on this planet and drives all the processes within those systems. That energy comes to the planet through space as a result of very powerful nuclear reactions - it's high energy. If there was no life on this planet, physical energy systems would still be driven by that heat - water would warm, chemical reactions take place, and so on. But because there is life on this planet, far more energy is absorbed than would be the case if there was no life. So the gradient between the Sun and Earth is reduced when compared with, say, Mars, where the gradient is steeper (there are more extremes of temperature - I'm guessing! Taking into account other variables like size, distance from sun, etc - and so on). That's what is meant by 'the solar gradient'. Frederik responded to my flippant remark about 'theories' quite correctly by pointing out that some are wacky and some are good explanations. The explanation that the cosmos is 'turtles, all the way down' (from an example given by Richard Dawkins in The Ancestor's Tale) is a good example of a wacky explanation. The explanation that we are here as a result of having evolved, along with the rest of the biosystems on the planet, is a good explanation. It's falsifiable. It fits the evidence. So all I'm attempting here is to establish whether or not the theory about life being a complex form of energy dissipation is a reasonable theory or a wacky one. My research so far has given me hope that this theory is reasonable. What I want to do with it - extend it to include our understanding of our impact upon the planet and what we might be able to do about that - is, potentially, open to accusations of wackiness. I have to tread very carefully. Yet there's nothing inherently unreasonable about attempting to understand human activity within a natural, evolved context. The old, 'is-ought' fallacy is fairly easy to dismiss, when we understand the nature of agency (and morality) non-traditionally (this is another element of the thesis and not one I want to bore you with unless you explicitly request more detail). Without getting too bogged down with responding to every point, a 'simple power plant' is, in the context of the thesis I'm proposing, an extension of the natural activity of the human species (in the same way a beaver's dam is an extension of the activity of beavers). There's nothing particularly simple about it, therefore, because it took our evolution as the baseline before it could come into existence. But I take your point about entropy. The difference between (humanly created) mechanical systems and natural systems is enormous and yet we use mechanical metaphors for natural systems (the Harvard guy who did the software development for the wonderful video, [the life of the cell](http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKW4F0Nu-UY) in his TED speech, talked about the cell as a machine - this is the kind of loose talk that I despair of! A biosystem is not a mechanical process - that's the Cartesian hangover we have to detoxify from - because it has so many feedback processes that alter its trajectory according to the changes physical situation - and machines don't do that). Ultimately of course all the energy in the solar system will dissipate (but this is like your five, six or seven step response to AGW - we're all going to die anyhow and there's nothing we can do about it so there's no point in addressing it as a problem - only the time scales involved mean that in the context of our lives, and those of the next few generations, what we do now may well make a significant difference to the kind of world they inhabit). But biodiverse, relatively stable, metabolic cycles store chemical energy and dissipate it more gradually, creating (albeit temporarily) a homeostasis (that is, obviously, dynamic - the slowing down of matter cycling and energy flowing through biotic patterns - DNA, RNA and all the chemical reactions associated with their maintenance, reproduction and dissolution.
  • 5.
    edited April 2013

    To John Baez: I haven't read or heard of this book (Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue With Nature) but I'll look it up. It looks like it's a mathematical angle on what Lynn Margulis and others have done on systems theory from a biological viewpoint. Scott Sampson points out that Edwin Schrodinger gave a lecture series (in Dublin, coincidentally) on 'What is Life?' in which he set out some of the precursors to ideas about life as a system of energy dissipation. Thanks for the suggestion. As I'm sure you're aware, it's hard to know when to stop reading but this element of my thesis (to the chagrin of my supervisor) is rather pivotal so I do need to ensure that I strengthen up my arguments here and this might well be what I'm looking for.

    I can't resist responding to the Tao/Zen comment (very unZen of me, I'm sure): the beauty of Dogen's Soto Zen system is the realization that it's not 'for' anything (what's all this about 'freedom from suffering', then? It's co-incidental!) Buddha means awareness, and Zen means meditation, and the act of seeing oneself see is the only freedom we have, the ultimate liberation from cause and effect because it opens up new layers of biofeedback processes:

    'To see yourself see is to give yourself the possibility of responding differently in the future.' (Beau Lotto)

    The paradox is that Zen is an anti-meme: it's one of those ideas that, by the very nature of the idea, cannot be proseletysed. In a way, therefore, it's an anti-idea since meditation is the act of seeing ideas as extensions of experience while continuously stepping back from the strings of thought associations or other ideas that emerge under observation - and it's certainly both anti-idealistic and anti-ideological. Yet by paying attention to what is happening (including not forcefully excluding intention or discrimination but being aware of these as aspects of the energy flow) we can instantly realize a motivation to respond - as agents - in the context of all our relationships. So we save the planet by seeing ourselves in context? Pretty much: this doesn't mean quietude but it means action without expectation, without anger or blame or fear. Just acting to work on relationships between this dynamic agent and this dynamic context. There. I've said too much and will be mocked. Not for the first time. Over to you.

    Comment Source:To John Baez: I haven't read or heard of this book (Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue With Nature) but I'll look it up. It looks like it's a mathematical angle on what Lynn Margulis and others have done on systems theory from a biological viewpoint. Scott Sampson points out that Edwin Schrodinger gave a lecture series (in Dublin, coincidentally) on 'What is Life?' in which he set out some of the precursors to ideas about life as a system of energy dissipation. Thanks for the suggestion. As I'm sure you're aware, it's hard to know when to stop reading but this element of my thesis (to the chagrin of my supervisor) is rather pivotal so I do need to ensure that I strengthen up my arguments here and this might well be what I'm looking for. I can't resist responding to the Tao/Zen comment (very unZen of me, I'm sure): the beauty of Dogen's Soto Zen system is the realization that it's not 'for' anything (what's all this about 'freedom from suffering', then? It's co-incidental!) Buddha means awareness, and Zen means meditation, and the act of seeing oneself see is the only freedom we have, the ultimate liberation from cause and effect because it opens up new layers of biofeedback processes: 'To see yourself see is to give yourself the possibility of responding differently in the future.' (Beau Lotto) The paradox is that Zen is an anti-meme: it's one of those ideas that, by the very nature of the idea, cannot be proseletysed. In a way, therefore, it's an anti-idea since meditation is the act of seeing ideas as extensions of experience while continuously stepping back from the strings of thought associations or other ideas that emerge under observation - and it's certainly both anti-idealistic and anti-ideological. Yet by paying attention to what is happening (including not forcefully excluding intention or discrimination but being aware of these as aspects of the energy flow) we can instantly realize a motivation to respond - as agents - in the context of all our relationships. So we save the planet by seeing ourselves in context? Pretty much: this doesn't mean quietude but it means action without expectation, without anger or blame or fear. Just acting to work on relationships between this dynamic agent and this dynamic context. There. I've said too much and will be mocked. Not for the first time. Over to you.
  • 6.

    Just a quick comment on

    because there is life on this planet, far more energy is absorbed than would be the case if there was no life.

    I have seen that type of argument made elsewhere, but I don't think the numbers work. Air, rocks, and oceans 'use' far more solar energy than life. ('use' means convert light to heat, roughly speaking).

    Comment Source:Just a quick comment on > because there is life on this planet, far more energy is absorbed than would be the case if there was no life. I have seen that type of argument made elsewhere, but I don't think the numbers work. Air, rocks, and oceans 'use' far more solar energy than life. ('use' means convert light to heat, roughly speaking).
  • 7.

    Near the end of his book The Variety of Life the author turns to the philosophy. Eg:

    Still, though, the central question seem unanswered. Why should we make sacrifices? If golf courses really are more profitable than mangroves (and provide more fun for more people), then why save mangroves? If common and robust species are just as pleasing to the eye as the rarer and more delicate ones, why bother with the latter?

    He cannot provide a `rational' answer. It would be nice if your thesis did! I am skeptical that it is possible though.

    Comment Source:Near the end of his book [The Variety of Life](http://www.azimuthproject.org/azimuth/show/Recommended+reading#the_variety_of_life_15) the author turns to the philosophy. Eg: > Still, though, the central question seem unanswered. Why should we make sacrifices? If golf courses really are more profitable than mangroves (and provide more fun for more people), then why save mangroves? If common and robust species are just as pleasing to the eye as the rarer and more delicate ones, why bother with the latter? He cannot provide a `rational' answer. It would be nice if your thesis did! I am skeptical that it is possible though.
  • 8.
    edited April 2013

    Hi Lucy,

    I think some Azimuth members apart from me would like to find time to discuss the project's strategy. I don't think there's much yet on the forum Strategy page.

    I'm sure any close reading, rigorous analysis and critique of what Azimuth has been and should be doing would be welcome.

    FWIW Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' is a long-time favourite of my systems and cybernetics gang.

    Cheers

    PS. OT. I really enjoyed the first sentence of 'The Management Secrets of Atilla the Hun' (US Naval Academy) which made the rest of the book redundant. The secret was that:

    ~"He ruled by a policy of relentless persuasion and the fear of instant death".

    :)

    Comment Source:Hi Lucy, I think some Azimuth members apart from me would like to find time to discuss the project's strategy. I don't think there's much yet on the forum [[Strategy]] page. I'm sure any close reading, rigorous analysis and critique of what Azimuth has been and should be doing would be welcome. FWIW Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' is a long-time favourite of my systems and cybernetics gang. Cheers PS. OT. I really enjoyed the first sentence of 'The Management Secrets of Atilla the Hun' (US Naval Academy) which made the rest of the book redundant. The secret was that: ~"He ruled by a policy of relentless persuasion and the fear of instant death". :)
  • 9.

    Graham:

    Air, rocks, and oceans ’use’ far more solar energy than life. (’use’ means convert light to heat, roughly speaking).

    I wonder if you mean that, relative to the amount of energy 'used' by life, rocks, etc, use more (and I'd certainly accept that, intuitively): but if you do mean that, if the biomass adds anything, then it is reducing, however fractionally, the solar gradient (of course, obversely, if you mean that the biomass actually reduces the amount of available heat that can be converted to light by non-living material, this argument is annoyingly but comprehensively floored - but I would very much appreciate it if you could point me towards some figures, if this is the case).

    You then talk of philosophy and, being philosophically inclined, I have to take each point in turn:

    Why should we make sacrifices?

    Why should we make the effort to resist eating chocolate or (and naturally enough, being a philosopher, this is my weakness) drinking excessive quantities of wine? Well, what if the sacrifices were in our interests, when viewed from a larger scale? Human history is peppered with examples of restraint - think of the cultivation of crops, of taboos around sex, of manners, mores and morals - for a (sometimes, admittedly, disappointing) deferred benefit. If we can realise the relative merits of preserving mangroves and moorlands, we at least have an incentive to sacrifice the (dubious) pleasures of a round of golf. Of course, future pleasure is never certain - we've built great myths (religions, even) around the promises of a paradisical afterlife. But we can at least imagine, with a bit of effort, the sort of influence we have as a population, now, on the potential trajectory that the species takes. It's small. There are a lot of variables. It may not work. It's Pascal's Wager: I could get run over by a bus. But by drinking less than I'd really like to, I at least reduce the risk of an embolism. (And the probability is higher that our present restraint will have an impact than that all my praying will get me into heaven...).

    If golf courses really are more profitable than mangroves (and provide more fun for more people), then why save mangroves?

    Profitability is one measure of our interests but there are many others and we have, if you'll excuse the slightly socialist-sounding turn of phrase, placed rather excessive emphasis on (financial) profit at the cost of many other measures of human, but particularly ecological, well-being. Lynn White said, 'I have not discovered anyone who publicly advocates pollution.' The problem seems to be that other interests take priority - and human interests take priority over natural interests in nearly every scenario humans imagine themselves in. The only way to uproot the human-nature dualism is to fundamentally shift our attitude and activity affecting the ecology and this requires that we perceive our activity within an ecological context, not as separate from it.

    If common and robust species are just as pleasing to the eye as the rarer and more delicate ones, why bother with the latter?

    I think this parallels discussions of art: if I, with an untrained eye, cannot appreciate a Rembrandt or a Goya, who are you, with all your technical aesthetic training, to tell me that I'm wrong? I think the answer is that there is a discernible difference between the appreciation that can be shown for something by someone with understanding, compared with the appreciation shown by someone who is ignorant of the intricacies of the situation (and this probably applies across many fields). Thus appreciation of beauty, 'patterned-ness', harmony, and so on, is more deeply manifest to the trained eye. One person’s idea of a ‘beautiful’ landscape can be an ecologist’s idea of a ‘disaster area’ – a landscape overrun with invasive species and so on; similarly, one person’s idea of an ugly or uninteresting landscape – like a mangrove swamp – can be an ecologist’s idea of a precious ‘wetland.’ (Warwick Fox wrote about this: 118). In terms of appreciation, Paul Crowther (a philosopher) has argued that there is in fact an objectively real 'beauty' out there, based on a knowledge of relationships. So a wetland is actually more beautiful than a garden (or a golf course) with its non-native flowers and lack of evolved relationships.

    Jim: I'll have a look at the Strategy page later on this evening. The swallows have just arrived - very late this year! - and there's gardening to be done. I do love The Art of War and your quote from The Management Secrets is wonderful. It reminds me of Dogen's advice, although that's a little more obvious, perhaps: that we should practice (Zen, but I suppose this might apply to anything worth practicing) with the same kind of urgency as though we were having to put out a fire our heads. Persuasion, of course, is for Sophists - for me, philosophy is better embodied by the likes of Diogenes. Walk your talk, don't attempt to impose a point of view. Elicitation is the only way. That 'aha' moment. And critical mass: it's a numbers game.

    Comment Source:Graham: >Air, rocks, and oceans ’use’ far more solar energy than life. (’use’ means convert light to heat, roughly speaking). I wonder if you mean that, relative to the amount of energy 'used' by life, rocks, etc, use more (and I'd certainly accept that, intuitively): but if you do mean that, if the biomass adds anything, then it is reducing, however fractionally, the solar gradient (of course, obversely, if you mean that the biomass actually reduces the amount of available heat that can be converted to light by non-living material, this argument is annoyingly but comprehensively floored - but I would very much appreciate it if you could point me towards some figures, if this is the case). You then talk of philosophy and, being philosophically inclined, I have to take each point in turn: >Why should we make sacrifices? Why should we make the effort to resist eating chocolate or (and naturally enough, being a philosopher, this is my weakness) drinking excessive quantities of wine? Well, what if the sacrifices were in our interests, when viewed from a larger scale? Human history is peppered with examples of restraint - think of the cultivation of crops, of taboos around sex, of manners, mores and morals - for a (sometimes, admittedly, disappointing) deferred benefit. If we can realise the relative merits of preserving mangroves and moorlands, we at least have an incentive to sacrifice the (dubious) pleasures of a round of golf. Of course, future pleasure is never certain - we've built great myths (religions, even) around the promises of a paradisical afterlife. But we can at least imagine, with a bit of effort, the sort of influence we have as a population, now, on the potential trajectory that the species takes. It's small. There are a lot of variables. It may not work. It's Pascal's Wager: I could get run over by a bus. But by drinking less than I'd really like to, I at least reduce the risk of an embolism. (And the probability is higher that our present restraint will have an impact than that all my praying will get me into heaven...). > If golf courses really are more profitable than mangroves (and provide more fun for more people), then why save mangroves? Profitability is one measure of our interests but there are many others and we have, if you'll excuse the slightly socialist-sounding turn of phrase, placed rather excessive emphasis on (financial) profit at the cost of many other measures of human, but particularly ecological, well-being. Lynn White said, 'I have not discovered anyone who publicly advocates pollution.' The problem seems to be that other interests take priority - and human interests take priority over natural interests in nearly every scenario humans imagine themselves in. The only way to uproot the human-nature dualism is to fundamentally shift our attitude and activity affecting the ecology and this requires that we perceive our activity within an ecological context, not as separate from it. >If common and robust species are just as pleasing to the eye as the rarer and more delicate ones, why bother with the latter? I think this parallels discussions of art: if I, with an untrained eye, cannot appreciate a Rembrandt or a Goya, who are you, with all your technical aesthetic training, to tell me that I'm wrong? I think the answer is that there is a discernible difference between the appreciation that can be shown for something by someone with understanding, compared with the appreciation shown by someone who is ignorant of the intricacies of the situation (and this probably applies across many fields). Thus appreciation of beauty, 'patterned-ness', harmony, and so on, is more deeply manifest to the trained eye. One person’s idea of a ‘beautiful’ landscape can be an ecologist’s idea of a ‘disaster area’ – a landscape overrun with invasive species and so on; similarly, one person’s idea of an ugly or uninteresting landscape – like a mangrove swamp – can be an ecologist’s idea of a precious ‘wetland.’ (Warwick Fox wrote about this: 118). In terms of appreciation, Paul Crowther (a philosopher) has argued that there is in fact an objectively real 'beauty' out there, based on a knowledge of relationships. So a wetland is actually more beautiful than a garden (or a golf course) with its non-native flowers and lack of evolved relationships. Jim: I'll have a look at the Strategy page later on this evening. The swallows have just arrived - very late this year! - and there's gardening to be done. I do love The Art of War and your quote from The Management Secrets is wonderful. It reminds me of Dogen's advice, although that's a little more obvious, perhaps: that we should practice (Zen, but I suppose this might apply to anything worth practicing) with the same kind of urgency as though we were having to put out a fire our heads. Persuasion, of course, is for Sophists - for me, philosophy is better embodied by the likes of Diogenes. Walk your talk, don't attempt to impose a point of view. Elicitation is the only way. That 'aha' moment. And critical mass: it's a numbers game.
  • 10.

    Lucy wrote:

    I wonder if you mean that, relative to the amount of energy ’used’ by life, rocks, etc, use more (and I’d certainly accept that, intuitively): but if you do mean that, if the biomass adds anything, then it is reducing, however fractionally, the solar gradient

    I have looked at Scott Sampson's essay but I am still confused about what the solar gradient is. One possibility is that it refers to the temperature difference between the Sun and the Earth. So if the Earth warms up, the solar gradient would be reduced. Another is that the solar gradient refers to temperature gradients on Earth. (In this case the Sun should be ignored in the calculation, and the word solar only signifies that the Sun produces the temperature gradients.)

    And then I am not sure how to compare an Earth with life with one without. One option is to ask: what would the Earth be like if life had never begun? Another is to ask: would the Earth be like if life was suddenly whisked away?

    So there's 4 possible questions:

    1. If the Earth had always been lifeless, would it be warmer or cooler?
    2. If the Earth had always been lifeless, would there be more or less temperature variations from place to place?
    3. If life was whisked away from the Earth, would it be warmer or cooler?
    4. If life was whisked away from the Earth, would there be more or less temperature variations from place to place?

    You might get answers to those questions here. I could only answer (1) with any confidence. But I am worried that you want an answer to question 5!

    I am not going to tangle with you on philosophy ;-)

    Comment Source:Lucy wrote: > I wonder if you mean that, relative to the amount of energy ’used’ by life, rocks, etc, use more (and I’d certainly accept that, intuitively): but if you do mean that, if the biomass adds anything, then it is reducing, however fractionally, the solar gradient I have looked at Scott Sampson's essay but I am still confused about what the solar gradient is. One possibility is that it refers to the temperature difference between the Sun and the Earth. So if the Earth warms up, the solar gradient would be reduced. Another is that the solar gradient refers to temperature gradients on Earth. (In this case the Sun should be ignored in the calculation, and the word solar only signifies that the Sun produces the temperature gradients.) And then I am not sure how to compare an Earth with life with one without. One option is to ask: what would the Earth be like if life had never begun? Another is to ask: would the Earth be like if life was suddenly whisked away? So there's 4 possible questions: 1. If the Earth had always been lifeless, would it be warmer or cooler? 2. If the Earth had always been lifeless, would there be more or less temperature variations from place to place? 3. If life was whisked away from the Earth, would it be warmer or cooler? 4. If life was whisked away from the Earth, would there be more or less temperature variations from place to place? You might get answers to those questions here. I could only answer (1) with any confidence. But I am worried that you want an answer to question 5! I am not going to tangle with you on philosophy ;-)
  • 11.
    edited April 2013

    I think it's good that someone with a philosophical background entered the Forum, you raise some different points. I'll try to answer some of your questions, starting with energy.

    So here’s my stab: Energy, from a physical perspective, is a relationship that includes informational exchange (this based on Poincare’s, and later Ladyman’s, idea of structural realism: all that exist in the universe are relationships, that can effectively be described with numbers - Amanda Gefter’s response (Consultant, New Scientist) ’The world isn’t made of things, it’s made of mathematical relationships, or structure.’

    This informational exchange sounds a bit like Wheeler's its from bits (to me), but I don't think it can be made hard. (Others please correct)

    The explanation that the cosmos is ’turtles, all the way down’

    No, it is strings, all the way up :)

    But I think that in a setting of biodiversity we don't need to answer deep foundational questions about energy.

    To answer what energy would be I'd like to copy-paste from Feynman's lecture on Energy Conservation (this is what I have most closely by hand and it avoids that I have to think much)

    There is a fact, or if you wish, a law, governing all natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law—it is exact so far as we know. The law is called the conservation of energy. It states that there is a certain quantity, which we call energy, that does not change in the manifold changes which nature undergoes. That is a most abstract idea, because it is a mathematical principle; it says that there is a numerical quantity which does not change when something happens. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete; it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same. (Something like the bishop on a red square, and after a number of moves—details unknown—it is still on some red square. It is a law of this nature.) Since it is an abstract idea, we shall illustrate the meaning of it by an analogy. Imagine a child, perhaps "Dennis the Menace," who has blocks which are absolutely indestructible, and cannot be divided into pieces. Each is the same as the other. Let us suppose that he has 28 blocks. His mother puts him with his 28 blocks i to a room at the beginning of the day. At the end of the day, being curious, she counts the blocks very carefully, and discovers a phenomenal law— no matter what he does with the blocks, there are always 28 remaining! This continues for a number of days, until one day there are only 27 blocks, but a little investigating shows that there is one under the rug—she must look everywhere to be sure that the number of blocks has not changed. One day, however, the number appears to change—there are only 26 blocks. Careful investigation indicates that the window was open, and upon looking outside, the other two blocks are found. Another day, careful count indicates that there are 30 blocks! This causes considerable consternation, until it is realized that Bruce came to visit, bringing his blocks with him, and he left a few at Dennis' house. After she has disposed of the extra blocks, she closes the window, does not let Bruce in, and then everything is going along all right, until one time she counts and finds only 25 blocks. However, there is a box in the room, a toy box, and the mother goes to open the toy box, but the boy says "No, do not open my toy box," and screams. Mother is not allowed to open the toy box. Being extremely curious, and somewhat ingenious, she invents a scheme! She knows that a block weighs three ounces, so she weighs the box at a time when she sees 28 blocks, and it weighs 16 ounces. The next time she wishes to check, she weighs the box again, subtracts sixteen ounces and divides by three. She discovers the following:

    There then appear to be some new deviations, but careful study indicates that the dirty water in the bathtub is changing its level. The child is throwing blocks into the water, and she cannot see them because it is so dirty, but she can find out how many blocks are in the water by adding another term to her formula. Since the original height of the water was 6 inches and each block raises the water a quarter of an inch, this new formula would be:

    In the gradual increase in the complexity of her world, she finds a whole series of terms representing ways of calculating how many blocks are in places where she is not allowed to look. As a result, she finds a complex formula, a quantity which has to be computed, which always stays the same in her situation. What is the analogy of this to the conservation of energy? The most remarkable aspect that must be abstracted from this picture is that there are no blocks. Take away the first terms in (4.1) and (4.2) and we find ourselves calculating more or less abstract things. The analogy has the following points. First, when we are calculating the energy, sometimes some of it leaves the system and goes away, or sometimes some comes in. In order to verify the conservation of energy, we must be careful that we have not put any in or taken any out. Second, the energy has a large number of different forms, and there is a formula for each one. These are: gravitational energy, kinetic energy, heat energy, elastic energy, electrical energy, chemical energy, radiant energy, nuclear energy, mass energy. If we total up the formulas for each of these contributions, it will not change except for energy going in and out.

    It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is. We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount. It is not that way. However, there are formulas for calculating some numerical quantity, and when we add it all together it gives "28"—always the same number. It is an abstract thing in that it does not tell us the mechanism or the reasons for the various formulas.

    Comment Source:I think it's good that someone with a philosophical background entered the Forum, you raise some different points. I'll try to answer some of your questions, starting with energy. > So here’s my stab: > Energy, from a physical perspective, is a relationship that includes informational exchange (this based on Poincare’s, and later Ladyman’s, idea of structural realism: all that exist in the universe are relationships, that can effectively be described with numbers - Amanda Gefter’s response (Consultant, New Scientist) ’The world isn’t made of things, it’s made of mathematical relationships, or structure.’ This informational exchange sounds a bit like Wheeler's its from bits (to me), but I don't think it can be made hard. (Others please correct) > The explanation that the cosmos is ’turtles, all the way down’ No, it is strings, all the way up :) But I think that in a setting of biodiversity we don't need to answer deep foundational questions about energy. To answer what energy would be I'd like to copy-paste from Feynman's lecture on Energy Conservation (this is what I have most closely by hand and it avoids that I have to think much) > There is a fact, or if you wish, a law, governing all natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law—it is exact so far as we know. The law is called the conservation of energy. It states that there is a certain quantity, which we call energy, that does not change in the manifold changes which nature undergoes. That is a most abstract idea, because it is a mathematical principle; it says that there is a numerical quantity which does not change when something happens. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete; it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same. (Something like the bishop on a red square, and after a number of moves—details unknown—it is still on some red square. It is a law of this nature.) Since it is an abstract idea, we shall illustrate the meaning of it by an analogy. Imagine a child, perhaps "Dennis the Menace," who has blocks which are absolutely indestructible, and cannot be divided into pieces. Each is the same as the other. Let us suppose that he has 28 blocks. His mother puts him with his 28 blocks i to a room at the beginning of the day. At the end of the day, being curious, she counts the blocks very carefully, and discovers a phenomenal law— no matter what he does with the blocks, there are always 28 remaining! This continues for a number of days, until one day there are only 27 blocks, but a little investigating shows that there is one under the rug—she must look everywhere to be sure that the number of blocks has not changed. One day, however, the number appears to change—there are only 26 blocks. Careful investigation indicates that the window was open, and upon looking outside, the other two blocks are found. Another day, careful count indicates that there are 30 blocks! This causes considerable consternation, until it is realized that Bruce came to visit, bringing his blocks with him, and he left a few at Dennis' house. After she has disposed of the extra blocks, she closes the window, does not let Bruce in, and then everything is going along all right, until one time she counts and finds only 25 blocks. However, there is a box in the room, a toy box, and the mother goes to open the toy box, but the boy says "No, do not open my toy box," and screams. Mother is not allowed to open the toy box. Being extremely curious, and somewhat ingenious, she invents a scheme! She knows that a block weighs three ounces, so she weighs the box at a time when she sees 28 blocks, and it weighs 16 ounces. The next time she wishes to check, she weighs the box again, subtracts sixteen ounces and divides by three. She discovers the following: > There then appear to be some new deviations, but careful study indicates that the dirty water in the bathtub is changing its level. The child is throwing blocks into the water, and she cannot see them because it is so dirty, but she can find out how many blocks are in the water by adding another term to her formula. Since the original height of the water was 6 inches and each block raises the water a quarter of an inch, this new formula would be: > In the gradual increase in the complexity of her world, she finds a whole series of terms representing ways of calculating how many blocks are in places where she is not allowed to look. As a result, she finds a complex formula, a quantity which has to be computed, which always stays the same in her situation. What is the analogy of this to the conservation of energy? The most remarkable aspect that must be abstracted from this picture is that there are no blocks. Take away the first terms in (4.1) and (4.2) and we find ourselves calculating more or less abstract things. The analogy has the following points. First, when we are calculating the energy, sometimes some of it leaves the system and goes away, or sometimes some comes in. In order to verify the conservation of energy, we must be careful that we have not put any in or taken any out. Second, the energy has a large number of different forms, and there is a formula for each one. These are: gravitational energy, kinetic energy, heat energy, elastic energy, electrical energy, chemical energy, radiant energy, nuclear energy, mass energy. If we total up the formulas for each of these contributions, it will not change except for energy going in and out. > **It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is. We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount. It is not that way. However, there are formulas for calculating some numerical quantity**, and when we add it all together it gives "28"—always the same number. It is an abstract thing in that it does not tell us the mechanism or the reasons for the various formulas.
  • 12.
    edited April 2013

    Graham wrote:

    I have looked at Scott Sampson’s essay but I am still confused about what the solar gradient is. One possibility is that it refers to the temperature difference between the Sun and the Earth. So if the Earth warms up, the solar gradient would be reduced. Another is that the solar gradient refers to temperature gradients on Earth.

    The way I tend to understand the 'solar gradient' is that it refers to the existence of energy gradients (perhaps rather differences?) across the earth (due to the solar radiation). But maybe the clue is that the concept is undefined, and only after someone figures out something that works we can say that that is the true solar gradient :)

    But do indirect energy gradients also count? Suppose we have a plant. Its biomass contains concentrated energy. Then a herbivore comes along, and reduces the concentrated energy between the plant and its environment of air and soil. But, in fact (I guess David Tweed pointed to this above) the energy gets more concentrated in the herbivore (at the expense of production of entropy in waste heat). So there comes a carnivore to consume the next concentrated gradient, etc.

    Even more, suppose some of the concentrated energy of the biomass gets locked out from the biosphere, it ends up deep in the earth, undergoing some geological processes that make it even more concentrated. But then there's a parasite that takes care of this energy gradient: let's burn it! The production of entropy due to the burning allows other stuff to get concentrated, for example people typing texts on blogs. (sorry, I went way off here, blog texts do not represent concentrated energy that can be consumed by another form of life).

    Comment Source:Graham wrote: > I have looked at Scott Sampson’s essay but I am still confused about what the solar gradient is. One possibility is that it refers to the temperature difference between the Sun and the Earth. So if the Earth warms up, the solar gradient would be reduced. Another is that the solar gradient refers to temperature gradients on Earth. The way I tend to understand the 'solar gradient' is that it refers to the existence of energy gradients (perhaps rather differences?) across the earth (due to the solar radiation). But maybe the clue is that the concept is undefined, and only after someone figures out something that works we can say that that is the true solar gradient :) But do indirect energy gradients also count? Suppose we have a plant. Its biomass contains concentrated energy. Then a herbivore comes along, and reduces the concentrated energy between the plant and its environment of air and soil. But, in fact (I guess David Tweed pointed to this above) the energy gets more concentrated in the herbivore (at the expense of production of entropy in waste heat). So there comes a carnivore to consume the next concentrated gradient, etc. Even more, suppose some of the concentrated energy of the biomass gets locked out from the biosphere, it ends up deep in the earth, undergoing some geological processes that make it even more concentrated. But then there's a parasite that takes care of this energy gradient: let's burn it! The production of entropy due to the burning allows other stuff to get concentrated, for example people typing texts on blogs. (sorry, I went way off here, blog texts do not represent concentrated energy that can be consumed by another form of life).
  • 13.
    edited April 2013

    I think the idea of solar gradient might be a less defined version of the idea that the difference in extremes of temperature at the earth's surface are less (taking in to account distance from the sun) than the extremes on mars due to the kind of homeostasis illustrated by models like Lovelock's daisyworld. I can agree with this as a "directionless connection": the biosphere's actions result in the temperature being regulated. However, Lucy's philosophy appears to be also stating that it's a good thing to reduce the extremes of temperature, whereas I'm not yet prepared to say that the evidence is anything beyond "where you have a biosphere that has evolved to work best in a narrow range of temperatures evolution keeps steering the biosphere towards things that reduce the range of temperatures". (Ie, I don't see why there couldn't be life that depends upon temperature extremes, in which case it would presumably evolve to have as little effect on the "solar gradient" as possible.)

    Comment Source:I think the idea of solar gradient might be a less defined version of the idea that the difference in extremes of temperature at the earth's surface are less (taking in to account distance from the sun) than the extremes on mars due to the kind of [homeostasis](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeostasis) illustrated by models like Lovelock's [daisyworld](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daisyworld). I can agree with this as a "directionless connection": the biosphere's actions result in the temperature being regulated. However, Lucy's philosophy appears to be also stating that it's a good thing to reduce the extremes of temperature, whereas I'm not yet prepared to say that the evidence is anything beyond "where you have a biosphere that has evolved to work best in a narrow range of temperatures evolution keeps steering the biosphere towards things that reduce the range of temperatures". (Ie, I don't see why there couldn't be life that depends upon temperature extremes, in which case it would presumably evolve to have as little effect on the "solar gradient" as possible.)
  • 14.

    Thanks to you all for your useful responses. I'm going to have to put this on hold for a while and concentrate a bit on the drudgery of writing up a first chapter so I won't respond as fully to this as I'd be inclined to if there was more time.

    For the few diehards who might be still be interested, the messages below set out the steps of my argument and then you might see why I'm so interested in the work you're doing in this forum. (Entirely subconsciously, I started using the work 'steps' to describe the stages of the argument and then found that I had expanded them to twelve. Oh, well. Coincidence, I'm afraid.)

    First step: the prevailing paradigm within which we, humanity, currently operate (the paradigm of the 'global North') is dualistic and heirarchical. That is, we think of humanity as separate in quality (having souls, consciousness or other non-material attributes) and this allows us to justify a sense of superiority so that we prioritise human interests over those of the rest of the ecology. This has led to our current ecological crisis.

    Second step: the prevailing paradigm has come about as a result of idiosyncracies in the development of human history/culture. In other words, it was not inevitable that the paradigm of the global North became dominant. It just did.

    Third step: what we know now about evolutionary science indicates that the two central elements of the paradigm - dualism and heirarchical justification for prioritisation of human interests - are, neither of them, justifiable (sub-step: ironically, it is the development of dualism and hierarchical assumptions that has allowed us to develop scientific thinking - see Descartes, etc, yet this thinking has led us back to the realisation that a mechanistic view of the universe is inadequate).

    Fourth step: therefore in order to better reflect our understanding through how we act, and so that we might stop damaging and destroying the ecological context within which we've developed and upon which we depend for survival, we need an alternative way of understanding the relationship between our species and the ecological context. We need to uproot the illusion that the world was made for humans.

    Comment Source:Thanks to you all for your useful responses. I'm going to have to put this on hold for a while and concentrate a bit on the drudgery of writing up a first chapter so I won't respond as fully to this as I'd be inclined to if there was more time. For the few diehards who might be still be interested, the messages below set out the steps of my argument and then you might see why I'm so interested in the work you're doing in this forum. (Entirely subconsciously, I started using the work 'steps' to describe the stages of the argument and then found that I had expanded them to twelve. Oh, well. Coincidence, I'm afraid.) First step: the prevailing paradigm within which we, humanity, currently operate (the paradigm of the 'global North') is dualistic and heirarchical. That is, we think of humanity as separate in quality (having souls, consciousness or other non-material attributes) and this allows us to justify a sense of superiority so that we prioritise human interests over those of the rest of the ecology. This has led to our current ecological crisis. Second step: the prevailing paradigm has come about as a result of idiosyncracies in the development of human history/culture. In other words, it was not inevitable that the paradigm of the global North became dominant. It just did. Third step: what we know now about evolutionary science indicates that the two central elements of the paradigm - dualism and heirarchical justification for prioritisation of human interests - are, neither of them, justifiable (sub-step: ironically, it is the development of dualism and hierarchical assumptions that has allowed us to develop scientific thinking - see Descartes, etc, yet this thinking has led us back to the realisation that a mechanistic view of the universe is inadequate). Fourth step: therefore in order to better reflect our understanding through how we act, and so that we might stop damaging and destroying the ecological context within which we've developed and upon which we depend for survival, we need an alternative way of understanding the relationship between our species and the ecological context. We need to uproot the illusion that the world was made for humans.
  • 15.

    Fifth step: one way that offers this alternative perspective is to consider how idiosyncratic our historical development has been: we need not have come to this relationship with the world as a species. It was not inevitable. It just happened. The myths, explanations and ideologies we've used to justify our exploitation of the planet developed on the basis of our idiosyncratic history too, so do not offer stable grounds for a more integrated response.

    Sixth step: looking at our development from an evolutionary/ scientific perspective offers a better explanation for how we have developed and therefore needs to be central to any further response we make. Things simply are the way they are as a result of all that has happened. In this sense, we are no more 'responsible agents' than a rock is responsible for its current condition, or even than a plant is. Everything that has happened to take us to this point is perfectly natural and yet was never inevitable. We can 'wake up' to that and then see what level of agency we have in this context.

    Seventh step: Part of our understanding of ourselves in the context of evolutionary science means accepting that everything, including humans, obeys natural laws as a matter of fact. Evolution has come about by chance developments that have nevertheless obeyed natural laws. Humans have come about in the context of evolution and chance or idiosyncratic opportunities have allowed particular developments to succeed and others not to, but all successful evolutionary developments obey natural laws. One natural law is the second law of thermodynamics that states that things fall apart, that all matter cycles and energy flows dissipate towards a state of entropy. The evolution of life is sometimes said to violate this law but it accords to it perfectly, if understood from the point of view of being a) temporary and b) the development of a complex process that dissipates more energy than would be the case if there was no life (I NEED EVIDENCE TO SHOW THAT THIS STATEMENT IS PLAUSIBLE).

    Comment Source:Fifth step: one way that offers this alternative perspective is to consider how idiosyncratic our historical development has been: we need not have come to this relationship with the world as a species. It was not inevitable. It just happened. The myths, explanations and ideologies we've used to justify our exploitation of the planet developed on the basis of our idiosyncratic history too, so do not offer stable grounds for a more integrated response. Sixth step: looking at our development from an evolutionary/ scientific perspective offers a better explanation for how we have developed and therefore needs to be central to any further response we make. Things simply are the way they are as a result of all that has happened. In this sense, we are no more 'responsible agents' than a rock is responsible for its current condition, or even than a plant is. Everything that has happened to take us to this point is perfectly natural and yet was never inevitable. We can 'wake up' to that and then see what level of agency we have in this context. Seventh step: Part of our understanding of ourselves in the context of evolutionary science means accepting that everything, including humans, obeys natural laws as a matter of fact. Evolution has come about by chance developments that have nevertheless obeyed natural laws. Humans have come about in the context of evolution and chance or idiosyncratic opportunities have allowed particular developments to succeed and others not to, but all successful evolutionary developments obey natural laws. One natural law is the second law of thermodynamics that states that things fall apart, that all matter cycles and energy flows dissipate towards a state of entropy. The evolution of life is sometimes said to violate this law but it accords to it perfectly, if understood from the point of view of being a) temporary and b) the development of a complex process that dissipates more energy than would be the case if there was no life (I NEED EVIDENCE TO SHOW THAT THIS STATEMENT IS PLAUSIBLE).
  • 16.

    Eighth step: And yet there is a spectrum of response between ourselves, the plant and the rock that can be seen to operate according to the complexity of the available reactions. All processes respond to conditions, exchanging energy and information: it's just a matter of degree to what extent and how complex this response system is. Consciousness gives us a level of ability to respond that involves an additional potential to influence the feedback processes through observation. We can see that we see and that can change how we respond. Observation or awareness of what we are doing is, in itself, a response.

    Ninth step: Observation or awareness of this kind is closely comparable to the Zen practice of mindfulness, or meditation (here I describe parallels with the Soto Zen tradition). The potential for an individual to change the trajectory of his or her individual response to the current ecological crisis lies entirely in their ability to practice observing their own reactions. The very act of observation opens up the possibility of creating biofeedback processes that elicit different sets of responses. (substep: one aspect of this observation may accord further with our scientific knowledge if we can see that life is a dynamic dissipation of energy and that it has evolved at one edge towards complexity and diversity so that more niches have been filled and more energy captured in the process - I'm not sure I can justify this statement). So we can get better at responding to the ecological context by realising how embedded we are and that then may cause us to shift our responses from short-term, immediate gratification to broader consideration of the impact of our activity on all our relationships and contexts. We may see ourselves as embedded within systems, rather than as separate entities. However, there is no formula that says we ought all to do the same thing, or that reponses must be based on principle. This is the anti-meme, or anti-patterned, element to the response that is elicited by this practice.

    Tenth step: A major criticism of this approach is that individual activity will not create enough of a shift to change the trajectory of the human-nature relationship. Community and political action is also necessary. But to be consistent with what has been said so far, any community or political activity will have a very different character from ideologically-based activity, being based, instead, on the notion of voluntary elicitation, non-prescriptiveness, and context-based response. The main thrust of any support for communities must be to find ways that communities can see themselves, individually and species-wide, within an ecological context. This may involve considering our activities as reflective of the activities of, not our 'primate' selves but of the interrelationship that we embody between virii, bacteria (both ancestral, like mitochondria, and concurrent, like gut-bacteria) and so may have implications for disease control, diet, and so on. It may involve considering the soil not as rock but as microbial ecosystem and systems in general as far more integral to our self-understanding than our current fragmented tendencies allow. It may involve developing technology that biomimics, or considering entire human manufacturing and processing systems as cyclical (cradle to cradle) along the lines proposed by William McDonough.

    Eleventh step: Part of the practice of developing this kind of attitude may include becoming aware of the parallels between a evolutionary science-based understanding of our response to the ecological crisis, and the Zen practice of Zazen, Chan, or meditation. The act of watching oneself in the dynamic context of consciousness and ecology brings to light an awareness of the patterns that come into existence in thought and dissipate, the emotions that are triggered by similar patterns of activity. Some of these patterns can be rigidly repetitive and those tend to engender a sense of inescapable fatalism. In Buddhist terms, these rigid patterns are represented by the term, 'karma', and the idea of repeating the same reaction to similar sets of stimuli is well known in the behavioural sciences as potentially pathological behaviour (think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for instance). On the other hand, being able to reflect on the repetition of patterns of response itself develops the potential for a loosening of the inevitability of that repetition. Instead of being caught in an endless loop, the possibility emerges to situate the response in a broader context, so that new possibilities are explored and new patterns are created. This mirrors the very process of evolution itself where patterns are frequently subtly altered by the context and respond accordingly. 'Evolution does not repeat itself, but it rhymes', as Mark Twain might have said.

    Twelfth step: It may also be useful to become aware of the parallels between our understanding of how patterns and relationships work in nature, and the human impact caused by rigid adherence to patterns. As outlined above, all activity, including all human activity, is natural, by definition. Even the most 'permanent' form will, at some point, yield to the second law. Yet rigid repetition of patterns occurs both in various contexts in the cosmos (very repetitive patterns and long-lived elements that cannot be broken down into their constituents might be examples here), and in the human situation. Human examples of the creation of rigid patterns include the development of plastics that cannot then be broken down for millenia, or the creation of radioactive waste. Seeing these in the context of understanding Zen teachings can help us to understand why an increasing awareness, a waking up to the impact of the creation of these more permanent, or rigid, forms is adding to the weight of what we must respond to. Seeing ourselves and our impact as impermanent and then working towards that impermanence may provide a more useful model than our current drive to make our mark on the world.

    Comment Source:Eighth step: And yet there is a spectrum of response between ourselves, the plant and the rock that can be seen to operate according to the complexity of the available reactions. All processes respond to conditions, exchanging energy and information: it's just a matter of degree to what extent and how complex this response system is. Consciousness gives us a level of ability to respond that involves an additional potential to influence the feedback processes through observation. We can see that we see and that can change how we respond. Observation or awareness of what we are doing is, in itself, a response. Ninth step: Observation or awareness of this kind is closely comparable to the Zen practice of mindfulness, or meditation (here I describe parallels with the Soto Zen tradition). The potential for an individual to change the trajectory of his or her individual response to the current ecological crisis lies entirely in their ability to practice observing their own reactions. The very act of observation opens up the possibility of creating biofeedback processes that elicit different sets of responses. (substep: one aspect of this observation may accord further with our scientific knowledge if we can see that life is a dynamic dissipation of energy and that it has evolved at one edge towards complexity and diversity so that more niches have been filled and more energy captured in the process - I'm not sure I can justify this statement). So we can get better at responding to the ecological context by realising how embedded we are and that then may cause us to shift our responses from short-term, immediate gratification to broader consideration of the impact of our activity on all our relationships and contexts. We may see ourselves as embedded within systems, rather than as separate entities. However, there is no formula that says we ought all to do the same thing, or that reponses must be based on principle. This is the anti-meme, or anti-patterned, element to the response that is elicited by this practice. Tenth step: A major criticism of this approach is that individual activity will not create enough of a shift to change the trajectory of the human-nature relationship. Community and political action is also necessary. But to be consistent with what has been said so far, any community or political activity will have a very different character from ideologically-based activity, being based, instead, on the notion of voluntary elicitation, non-prescriptiveness, and context-based response. The main thrust of any support for communities must be to find ways that communities can see themselves, individually and species-wide, within an ecological context. This may involve considering our activities as reflective of the activities of, not our 'primate' selves but of the interrelationship that we embody between virii, bacteria (both ancestral, like mitochondria, and concurrent, like gut-bacteria) and so may have implications for disease control, diet, and so on. It may involve considering the soil not as rock but as microbial ecosystem and systems in general as far more integral to our self-understanding than our current fragmented tendencies allow. It may involve developing technology that biomimics, or considering entire human manufacturing and processing systems as cyclical (cradle to cradle) along the lines proposed by William McDonough. Eleventh step: Part of the practice of developing this kind of attitude may include becoming aware of the parallels between a evolutionary science-based understanding of our response to the ecological crisis, and the Zen practice of Zazen, Chan, or meditation. The act of watching oneself in the dynamic context of consciousness and ecology brings to light an awareness of the patterns that come into existence in thought and dissipate, the emotions that are triggered by similar patterns of activity. Some of these patterns can be rigidly repetitive and those tend to engender a sense of inescapable fatalism. In Buddhist terms, these rigid patterns are represented by the term, 'karma', and the idea of repeating the same reaction to similar sets of stimuli is well known in the behavioural sciences as potentially pathological behaviour (think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for instance). On the other hand, being able to reflect on the repetition of patterns of response itself develops the potential for a loosening of the inevitability of that repetition. Instead of being caught in an endless loop, the possibility emerges to situate the response in a broader context, so that new possibilities are explored and new patterns are created. This mirrors the very process of evolution itself where patterns are frequently subtly altered by the context and respond accordingly. 'Evolution does not repeat itself, but it rhymes', as Mark Twain might have said. Twelfth step: It may also be useful to become aware of the parallels between our understanding of how patterns and relationships work in nature, and the human impact caused by rigid adherence to patterns. As outlined above, all activity, including all human activity, is natural, by definition. Even the most 'permanent' form will, at some point, yield to the second law. Yet rigid repetition of patterns occurs both in various contexts in the cosmos (very repetitive patterns and long-lived elements that cannot be broken down into their constituents might be examples here), and in the human situation. Human examples of the creation of rigid patterns include the development of plastics that cannot then be broken down for millenia, or the creation of radioactive waste. Seeing these in the context of understanding Zen teachings can help us to understand why an increasing awareness, a waking up to the impact of the creation of these more permanent, or rigid, forms is adding to the weight of what we must respond to. Seeing ourselves and our impact as impermanent and then working towards that impermanence may provide a more useful model than our current drive to make our mark on the world.
  • 17.
    edited May 2013

    Lucy wrote:

    One natural law is the second law of thermodynamics that states that things fall apart, that all matter cycles and energy flows dissipate towards a state of entropy. The evolution of life is sometimes said to violate this law but it accords to it perfectly, if understood from the point of view of being a) temporary and b) the development of a complex process that dissipates more energy than would be the case if there was no life (I NEED EVIDENCE TO SHOW THAT THIS STATEMENT IS PLAUSIBLE).

    I again recommend Prigogine's book(s), since he's worked harder than almost anyone else to understand these things. I wish I understood them better myself! Here are some small remarks.

    First, I completely agree that life, and the evolution of life, is consistent with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that the entropy of a closed system increases. The point is that the Earth taken by itself is not a closed system. To get a closed system we at least need to include the Sun, and a bunch of space around the Solar System. As the Sun runs down, entropy increases. Life on Earth is just a tiny eddy next to a great waterfall, from this viewpoint.

    "Dissipation of energy" is probably another name for the increase of entropy, or the decrease of free energy - these are the same thing in situations where we fix the total energy of a system ahead of time, but not otherwise.

    Does the presence of life mean entropy increases faster than it would have otherwise? I don't know! This is a tricky question, not one that every physicist knows the answer to.

    Prigogine is famous for the principle of minimal entropy production. In some situations where energy is flowing through a system, patterns form in such a way that entropy increase is minimized. He proved a theorem about this. However, this theorem only applies to linear systems. You seem to believe that in some other situations, entropy production is maximized... at least, that might explain why life arises, if life creates entropy faster than non-life. Other people have also claimed that entropy production is maximized in some situations, but I have not found good evidence for this yet. See our article:

    but don't expect simple answers here!

    Comment Source:Lucy wrote: > One natural law is the second law of thermodynamics that states that things fall apart, that all matter cycles and energy flows dissipate towards a state of entropy. The evolution of life is sometimes said to violate this law but it accords to it perfectly, if understood from the point of view of being a) temporary and b) the development of a complex process that dissipates more energy than would be the case if there was no life (I NEED EVIDENCE TO SHOW THAT THIS STATEMENT IS PLAUSIBLE). I again recommend Prigogine's book(s), since he's worked harder than almost anyone else to understand these things. I wish I understood them better myself! Here are some small remarks. First, I completely agree that life, and the evolution of life, is consistent with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that the entropy of a closed system increases. The point is that the Earth taken by itself is not a closed system. To get a closed system we at least need to include the Sun, and a bunch of space around the Solar System. As the Sun runs down, entropy increases. Life on Earth is just a tiny eddy next to a great waterfall, from this viewpoint. "Dissipation of energy" is probably another name for the increase of entropy, or the decrease of [free energy](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermodynamic_free_energy) - these are the same thing in situations where we fix the total energy of a system ahead of time, but not otherwise. Does the presence of life mean entropy increases faster than it would have otherwise? I don't know! This is a tricky question, not one that every physicist knows the answer to. Prigogine is famous for the principle of minimal entropy production. In _some_ situations where energy is flowing through a system, patterns form in such a way that entropy increase is _minimized_. He proved a theorem about this. However, this theorem only applies to linear systems. You seem to believe that in some other situations, entropy production is _maximized_... at least, that might explain why life arises, if life creates entropy faster than non-life. Other people have also claimed that entropy production is maximized in some situations, but I have not found good evidence for this yet. See our article: * [[Extremal principles in non-equilibrium thermodynamics]] but don't expect simple answers here!
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