Saturday, March 9, 2019

Some stray thoughts

Here are some stray thoughts…

I find it hard to believe in “hard” or “deep” teleology, according to which humans (or human-like creatures) are somehow predetermined or fated to appear – no, more, they are the actual *goal* of cosmic evolution itself. Presumably, God directs this entire process. This simply doesn´t compute with what we know about evolution and Earth history. For instance, if that meteorite hadn´t collided with Earth, non-avian dinosaurs would have survived, continued to dominate the fauna, and humans might not have evolved at all. Note also that Earth is at present in an interglacial between two Ice Ages. (Or should be, unless we screw up the atmosphere with AGW.) Thus, our entire civilization is made possible by a temporary warm-temperate period and might not survive its end. Doesn´t sound like we are “supposed” to be here as some kind of “crown of creation”… If neo-catastrophism is true, and I strongly suspect that it might, human or human-like civilizations might have existed in the distant past and been wiped out by cyclically reoccurring global cataclysms!

That being said, I do believe in a “soft” version of teleology. Consciousness and intelligence may be part of the deep structures of the universe. They have always existed, at least as a potentiality. Evolution is simply the unfolding of this potentiality. Or perhaps they exist all the time, but usually in forms undetectable to the tiny brains of naked ape-men. If consciousness and intelligence are eternal, it stands to reason that at some point, they will manifest themselves in the form of human or human-like creatures (or non-human like creatures with human-like intelligence). However, this is not the “goal” of The Process, anymore than ravens, elephants, whales, chimps or Neanderthals are the “goal”. Besides, what makes us assume that intelligence can only exist in a human form? Ants, bees and termites strike me as intelligent. For all we know, forests may have an intelligence, and so may the biosphere itself. If you believe in the paranormal, the varieties of consciousness and intelligence are almost endless! Why think the intelligence of the Western White 21st century scientist (or philosopher, or TV personality, or autistic nerd…) is the “goal” of cosmic evolution, or the only form creative intelligence can take in an infinite cosmos?

A religious believer may object that humans are the only creatures that can know God, so therefore we do play a central role in the cosmic process. But even religious people admit that there is at least one other class of beings which can know God: the angels. Strictly speaking, even the demons know God! And what makes us think that animals and plants *can´t* know God? For all we know, there could be different ways of knowing God (I mean, why not). Or maybe they don´t *need* to know God, perhaps that´s a human weakness…

The historical process doesn´t strike me as teleological either, at least not in the “hard” sense. The rise of the modern West seems to be the result of contingent events and processes which could have turned out differently: the concrete way in which the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the defeat of the Muslims at the hands of Charles Martell, the death of Genghis Khan which saved Europe from the Mongols, the low resistance of the Native Americans to our diseases, the prohibition of cousin marriage by the Catholic Church (which may have made our societies more “open” rather than clan-based), the fact that Nero or Diocletian didn´t manage to exterminate Christianity, the fact that some of us survived the Black Death, China´s unexpected isolationism shortly after Columbus… Of course, there is a “point of no return” somewhere, perhaps during the Late Middle Ages or Early Modern Period, beyond which the rise of modernity becomes near-automatic, and this creates the illusion that it has always been so, when in reality, Europe might still have been a cluster of warring tribal kingdoms in the North and “Asiatic” modes of production in the South (perhaps Muslim ones), both constantly threatened by the Jade Emperor. Besides, our downfall might be equally near-automatic, since the system doesn´t have any natural brakes stopping us from overexploiting our finite resources, so who is the “god species” exactly…?

None of the above means that human intelligence and Western modernity are “bad”. The one doesn´t follow from the other, anymore than peace is bad just because it´s rare. However, it does mean that once lost, we won´t be able to resurrect the modern West (or human intelligence) anytime soon. On the positive side, I suppose you could argue that the cosmos will continue turning even after we´re gone…

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