Brave Lions of the Desert

“Suicide Bomber Kills Over 100 in Iraq”

I don’t care what your politics are, or how much US or Israeli foreign policy pisses you off. Driving a car bomb into a crowd of civilians is not brave and it is not noble. Allah PBHN will have demons piss down your throat for all eternity for this crime against his creation. You are not brave. Caring so little about your life or anyone else’s doesn’t mean you stand for anything but yourself, sinner.

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Navigation in the Novel Situation

If you seek a philosophy which cannot be twisted in the service of power and evil, you will search forever. The true test of an idea is not how it has been or can be abused, but where it can lead when applied honestly and diligently. ALL ideas can be abused, commercialized, enslaved by material powers to increase those powers. To point out such inversions of good intent does not lessen the value of the idea, or of good intent: one perseveres in spite of such co-option.

At the same time, it is necessary for any application of a program of belief that it be evaluated for its possible impact, both good and bad. A poorly thought out plan of action is often antithetical to its own ends. It can become its opposite through purely internal contradictions. I am thinking, for example, of well-intended legislation which worsens the problems it aims to solve — because those problems simply cannot be solved by direct legislation! Often this indicates a lack of imagination or understanding on the part of those supporting such action. The “war on drugs” (whatever its true origins in the heart of the State) is supported by many people who want their children and society to be healthy and safe. The trouble is that by demonizing “drugs” themselves as the problem, they are led to the equally short-sighted conclusion that simply eliminating drugs is the solution. They understand neither the real locus of the problem nor the most realistic and effective answers. Are these people to be blamed for their good intentions? No. Only for lack of imagination, which breeds fear and deferral of responsibility.

I think much of the confusion here has been fueled (ironically) by misapplication of critical theory and deconstructionism. Both have been invaluable tools in uncovering the hidden interests in various ideologies and “common-sense” beliefs, in unclogging a stalled creative discourse in our culture. But an immature grasp of the power of critique pushes it beyond usefulness. It is one thing to overthrow the tyranny of ideology, and another thing altogether to forsake all models of how the world works. The radical extreme of deconstructionism is that all ideas are false, or at best, meaningless. The further implication seems to be that all ideas are therefore useless. If the “critical moment” of a text can be located and illuminated, it is proposed, the whole edifice collapses like a house of cards.

This is where I draw the line. I wish to make a distinction between the truth-value of an idea, and its use-value. I am actually quite comfortable with the proposition that no idea is absolutely TRUE, at least as mediated by language. What our task should be instead is to develop models which — at least provisionally — take us where we need to go. Language is, in a sense, a system for building models, metaphors of what is going on. It is very important to realize that all we have to communicate with are models of reality. But to say it is “just” a model is not to invalidate it. Some metaphors are incredibly powerful. They can lead us past manifold distractions into rich and rewarding experiences. Others can lead us nowhere, except to waste great amounts of time and energy. And all this regardless of whether or not the model is “true”. A religious belief, for instance, may not be “true” in the Western empiricist sense, but it may contribute to overall health of a given person.

What is important here is to balance the usefulness of a presiding model with a degree of flexibility. That is because the world is in constant flux, and thus the conditions under which a metaphor remains relevant are subject to change. Realizing that all we have are metaphors allows us to adapt, upgrade, or discard the metaphors we use, as needed. A sense of humor is essential here, essential in all things. Humor is flexibility, the ability to live with irony. People assume that humor is inappropriate in certain domains: the domains of politics and the sacred, for instance. I am not advocating the kind of sarcastic, dissipative mocking which passes for humor much of the time. A sense of balance, an ability to stand outside the problem, to not go down with a sinking ship — this is what real humor, healthy humor, conveys. It is the lubricant which allows us to change models smoothly. Any political or spiritual model which does not allow for this, I maintain, is bankrupt.

And let me reiterate that I am not dismissing a critical perspective — it is, in fact, essential in evaluating the use-value of a proposed or existing model of the world. We are rapidly entering new historical territory. The rate of change of cultural and technological evolution is accelerating exponentially, the amount of novelty is increasing. There is only one approach to this situation which is likely to survive and flourish in this situation. That is a perspective which thrives on novelty, which is critical yet spontaneous, determined but playful. It is an ad hoc philosophy, but one which is based on as much awareness of the present situation as possible. It acknowledges the resources at its disposal, but does not become attached to them. Because it seeks novelty, it naturally values cooperation and compassion, seeing conflict as limiting to freedom and thus to a pursuit of the fully novel. On the other hand, when conflict does arise, the non-attached person is not sentimental, but learns what she can from the experience and moves on. This person is forgiving, unattached, compassionate, playful, but not frivolous. She makes critical evaluations but knows the limits of such judgments, and does not mock others for holding different beliefs. This person is not super-human but, as Maslow might say, fully human.

If such a proscription seems naive or impossible in today’s world, it is because enough people have not taken the responsibility to examine themselves. Those who are pessimistic about turning others around should at least seek to make themselves more aware, more responsible. It’s not in human nature, you say? Perhaps you feel hopelessly chained to your bestial nature, but I don’t. I would argue that to say we are and always will be brutish animals is a cop out, and a self-fulfilling prophecy. The real reason an attempt at self-betterment is difficult is that it demands creativity, and this means challenging our encrusted beliefs about ourselves and about others. This may offend some would-be Artists, but most people ARE creative, deep within. This output from the unconscious is merely clogged with years of repressed fears, desires, and self-deceptions, occasionally erupting in sprays of psychosis and raw hurt. Getting into the habit of self-examination and reevaluation, one begins to clear away the personal and cultural detritus clogging the pipe. It can be done; it has been done.

So flexibility, creativity, humor, and a desire to improve one’s self and one’s world — is this so deluded? Do not accept anyone else’s declarations of “true” and “false”, but neither write off a new idea on prior or unchallenged assumptions. Take responsibility. Take action. You are alive! Have you ever considered what that means? And you are going to die! Have you ever considered what that means? Stop telling yourself you are helpless and take responsibility. This is the last chance you may ever get.

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Evolution and the Minefield of History

Evolution began long before the first carbon molecules banded together and started replicating. I see organic evolution as but the soft pink tip of a much older process extending back at least to the appearance of the first electrons. The material universe has undergone a succession of increasingly rapid transitions into new, more complex, forms. At the near end we find the process eagerly rushing from the mechanical world of complex molecules into the explosion of forms we call Life.

Towards the center of this process, and more recently, the dim glow of self-awareness, self-reflecting consciousness, has been flickering, slowly growing brighter. This phenomenon has been realized fully by only a fraction of the human species. The trajectory of these isolated illuminations, now lent further weight by the evolution of a worldwide economic and communications system, is towards global self-awareness. The closest we’ve come to such a state has been in fragmentary, painful distortions such as nationalism, ethnocentrism, and organized religion. In all these cases, the individual has subsumed his or her identity within that of a greater whole. But in all cases this whole falls far short of the totality of the human race, leaving an external Other to be hated and feared. I maintain that these are gropings towards wholeness, but ones which have not succeeded.

The final stage of evolution is — must be — a conscious one. Consciousness is at the radiant center of all becoming. It is surrounded by Life, suffuses Life. But each successive increase in complexity is also increasingly improbable, according to the mechanistic demands of the material universe. The last stage is the least predictable — because it relies upon the choices of a free agent, a conscious agent.

The realization of Humanity as a single, conscious entity depends on several conditions:

  • Freedom: individuals must be free to make conscious choices, that they may form a medium for the play of global Ideas. The inertia of entrenched and obsolete political systems must be reduced.
  • Awareness/Information: The prospect of humanity united must be given serious consideration. Knowledge of human potential must be shared and spread, in the face of indifference and despair. Ideas must be free. Information must be free. The inertia of entrenched and obsolete belief systems must be reduced.
  • Love: Given an understanding of the process in which we are participants, nourished by information regarding the totality of the planet, we should lean naturally towards a state of transcendent freedom. Our fellow humans are necessary for achievement of this goal; they are in the same boat as we are — the minefield of history, the pain of material existence. Realizing this, we proceed forward hopefully towards the light of this great project: the birth of Humanity as such.
  • Finesse: The last act will be one of playful surrender. All of humanity’s greatest achievements have been crowned with final flourish, often simple in itself, which yet stamps the act as immortal. Ravaged by the horrors of time, thirsting for release, we will at the last moment relax our eons-old rush forward and let ourselves be drawn lightly into completion.

It will be argued that this program is hopelessly optimistic, that the momentum of despair is already too great, that history proves we are not up to the task and are condemned as a species to fade out in pain. To this I reply that, at least at first, only a fraction of the population need be consciously involved in the salvation of this planet. It does not require consensus. But there is a “critical mass”, probably unknowable, which we are yet far from. There is a point up until which the forces of convergence must seem to be failing, but after which the tide is irrevocably turned. Despair will be possible until the very end. Thus we are still stirred from complacency to act, not to single-handedly change the whole, but rather to tip the balance. Our individual actions have influence far beyond what most of us assume, and this influence may be amplified now by the communications technology at our disposal.

History is a transitional phase. Its brutality does not invalidate hope — it shows how high the stakes are. It demonstrates, not the unique human capacity for evil, but the amplifying effect of self-awareness on animal nature. What is unique about humankind is self-reflecting consciousness; all else follows. It has turned animal aggressiveness into cruelty, animal territorialism into war, animal fear into guilt and hatred. But it has also turned animal affection into love, and in its purest form has created works of art which defy explanation in terms of animal nature. History is the turbulence caused by the infusion of self-consciousness into an animal system. History will end when that self-consciousness becomes total, independant of the animal which has hosted it.

What this means in practical terms, it is impossible to say. There will be an air of familiarity, the sense of gazing into a collective mirror. After that, the embrace, and a kiss of reunion.

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Free Agents In Fractal Space

Many of you are now familiar with the so-called “butterfly effect”. Complexity theory and chaos dynamics squeezed out this memorable nugget to amuse the world with Nature’s antics. It states that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world can have profound effects on the weather in another.

Now, there are two “spins” on the butterfly effect. One I reject; one I embrace.

Typically, the butterfly effect — and chaos theory in general — is used to define limits: limits of human knowledge about nature, about the results of our action. “Sensitivity to initial conditions” is the applicable term here, and popular science takes that to mean that the best laid plans of Mice and Men are subject to the leeching blight of CHAOS. In its basest incarnation, this attitude shows meteorologists throwing up their hands, exclaiming, “D’oh! We just can’t predict the weather more than two weeks in advance!” The Empire sighs. Business as usual continues, its prison walls a tad more visible.

Well, that’s pretty lame. Say, what does a fractal mean to you? Sure, you’ve seen them on posters at the mall, and on rave flyers. Pretty colors. Druuuugz, man. And maybe you’ve heard that fractal math is used to generate trees and landscapes in computer films. Well, that’s kind of neat. Why is that? Fractals provide models of lots of natural processes, such that it’s easier to simulate the branching of a tree with a few simple formulas than by tediously computing every leaf and twig.

So what? What about the second interpretation of the butterfly effect?

I’M GETTING TO THAT!

A fractal is generated by a recursive process. So are landscapes and trees. DNA replication, population flux, heart fibrillation, the stock market — all are based on iteration (cyclicity) and feedback. So are you. And how about language? And, sorry to jump the gun here, but consciousness — self-consciousness — is now presumed to be a recursive process. Capiche?

The butterfly effect is due to a small change in one cycle getting fed back into the process, amplifying itself each time until it is quite significant.

On boundaries there is life
Life is a boundary condition
Like the shape of flames
Like farms along the Nile

Another gem from chaos math is that fractals are often found along boundaries. Or more accurately, many boundaries are fractal. That means that between two seemingly discreet regions there may be a zone of chaos, swirling filigrees wherein one cannot tell what region one is in. Is a tidal pool land or sea? What is the edge of a cloud? Where is the line between Right and Wrong? What is the nature of altruism? When does a historical period “end”? How can one describe the transition between waking and sleep? Between life and death?

These fractals, these patterns of randomness, are found throughout the universe, on all scales, at all times. Perhaps they are saying, “Wake Up!” Perhaps you begin to see why they are more than just techno-fetish talismans with pretty colors. The mathematics of chaos hint at some fundamental Mystery that lies at the center of the universe. A Pattern has been found, which suggests that all levels of being are inherently interconnected, infinitely reflective of one another, vicissitudes of the eternal Tao.

Or maybe you’re too busy to think about fundamental Mysteries. Worse, you’re too mature, too practical, too goddamn grounded. Oh well.

Chaos is the Enemy only if you are terrified of Freedom. If your hidden agenda is to salvage determinism, reductionism, and mechanism from the jaws of the eroding Void, then you will see little difference between chaos and entropy, and fear both. You will struggle to control chaos, to become lords of matter, but in the end Chaos will devour you.

And hopefully feed you back into the mix as something more benevolent.

The Payoff Zone (Where I really get goin’!)

Let the Empire tremble at the flapping of the butterfly’s wings, for its message is one of hope! Whatever else it means, it means that no system of control can be complete. Somewhere, in a shack on the outskirts, or in the basement of the Central Planning Office, a free agent, acting alone, has the potential to shift the whole damn thing into a new orbit.

Power, like climate, is a dynamical system, and as such is subject to the forces of feedback and iteration. Male-dominance hierarchies tend to centralize power, to simplify the channels of feedback so that further iterations further centralize power. And they try to minimize the “noise” — that pesky hiss of human freedom, like escaping steam…

The fractal is a symbol of freedom. It is infinite within a finite space, sprouting Form as waves rise from the sea. It is the abstraction of Energy as it is enfolded by the material plane. It hints at realities previously reserved for mystical visions.

The assumptions under which nationalist agendas proceed are crumbling. Technology and the insatiable expansion of capital have brought cultures together in irreversible and increasingly complex relationships. And though assimilation and imperialism are real concerns, it may soon be true that the term “global culture” is redundant. We can now anticipate, and work for, a planetary context for the full unfolding of human potential — a context of mutual and nonexploitative exchange.

The tools for change are here, but they will not do well in the service of archaic power games and control fantasies. The universe will not submit to total control. (You are part of the universe — would you?) The exuberance and vitality of nature, which reaches its highest expression in mankind, is incompatible with such an agenda. Chaos will not bow to the yoke, but it is more than willing to dance.

The Active and Passive principles dance to the pipes of Pan, and between them spin the spiraling strands of life.

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In Condemnation of Despair

It has become fashionable in recent years to indulge in public displays of resignation and to celebrate history’s darkest moments. The magnitude of today’s culture crisis has produced a particular spectrum of despair which, in its worst formulations, has become the justification of further grave-digging. I am referring to the smug celebration of any number of toxic futures which Western military-industrial excess has made possible. This hip resignation takes many forms, from the punk Luddite who welcomes apocalypse as the termination of collective misery, to the capitalist whose tacit cynicism gives him license to rape and plunder until the well runs dry. At least the former might base upon his or her despair a creative exploration of human freedom, dancing and singing on the deck of a sinking ship. The latter is the most dangerous. He takes what he sees as a hopeless situation, and uses it as an excuse to make it worse. The cynicism which permits the ongoing evisceration of the biosphere threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy if unchecked.

Perhaps more dangerous still is the acceptance by “ordinary” people that All Is Lost, human nature is inherently self-destructive, the damage is done, and if we don’t blow ourselves up in a paroxysm of primate territoriality, we’ll suffer a far worse fate at the hands of environmental collapse, cancer, AIDS, ebola, or general widespread barbarism. The best one can do in such a situation is try to grab hold of whatever shreds of the Good Life remain available, to get what pleasure one can from existence, and to die in one’s sleep. A form of quietism emerges, a feeling that one is powerless to change anything, so “Why try?” This outlook, on a large scale, invokes Narcosis — habitual pharmaceutical sedatives, both legal and illegal; promotion of increasingly vapid “activities” and “distractions” as tonic for hectic lifestyles; and, of course, television, the Great Silencer of both inner and outer dialogue.

A more active despair is to be found in the dredging up and cataloging of various human pathologies and excesses. Here is the mass murder fan, the collector of fatality statistics, the connoisseur of human cruelty and stupidity. This phenomenon bears the unlikely stamp of intellectual justification; it presents itself as a critique of the existing order, a brutal reminder that Things Are Not Right. Well, I agree, but celebrating the Sneeze does not cure the Disease. What disturbs me more about this cult of depravity is that it self-righteously proclaims that there IS no cure, that human self-destruction is inevitable. It points to the Holocaust, declares all striving to be a bankrupt endeavor, bangs its gavel and cries “Case closed!” Thereafter we are expected to sit around collecting Charles Manson T-shirts, reading depressing eighteenth-century literature we don’t understand, waiting for Society to finally dissolve in some abstract scenario wherein only the people with the most tattoos will survive.

Validating po-mo despair on the most fundamental level is the mechanistic scientific model of the universe. From this world view we get at least two reasons to give up the ghost. First, the sun will expand in a few billion years to engulf the Earth, vaporizing the last traces of humanity’s naive bid for immortality. Beyond that, the universe is winding down, dissipating towards an interminable heat-death in which everything will be frozen, inert, forever dark. Thus, even if humans survive technological adolescence, and escape the earth before the sun goes nova, we’re only prolonging the inevitable. (This is the case also in the Big Crunch scenario, wherein a sufficient universal mass will draw everything back into the singularity from which it presumably sprang.) Unconsciously or not, this cultural theme sets the tone for many individuals’ private philosophies of life. If one does not approach it creatively, it is a tacit sanction for despair. (Some intelligent — and explicitly optimistic — alternatives include the transhumanist and Extropian philosophies.)

What most cosmologists and many physicists fail to consider is the phenomenon of biology. The emergence of life on at least one planet in the ocean of space-time is seen as incidental, a curious sideshow to the Big Top of dust clouds and stellar evolution. And yet biology, as experienced on Earth, can be seen as a major development in a series of increasingly brief, increasingly complex epochs. It is the dynamic conservation of pattern against the tidal pull of entropy. (Creationists who see this as a refutation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics are, however, misguided. Biology doesn’t contradict the SLT. However, it doesn’t seem to follow inevitably from it. Biology is the deferral of the SLT in isolated pockets. This needs consideration, but it is not a contradiction, I think.) One might start with the condensation of the solar system out of primordial hydrogen. Eventually planets form, and much later one of them sprouts simple biological systems. Life then undergoes a series of evolutionary leaps into successive layers of complexity. Human culture lies at the near end of this chain, with the progression passing out of pure biology and into the cyborganic realm of global computer networks, robotics, and other human-machine syntheses. The point to understand is the acceleration of the process. A possible future epoch of this sort will begin with the development of self-replicating, self-maintaining machines.

Biology as a fact of the universe does not prove that there is a God, or that human intelligence as we know it is inevitable. What it and more recent epigenetic developments suggest is that there is more going on than mechanistic materialism would have us believe. Specifically, it suggests a teleology of sorts, which is anathema in Western science. If the epochs of complexity I have mentioned are accelerating, what are they accelerating toward? There are at least three options. One scenario, the one anticipated by the despairing intellectual, is that at some point the whole system will become so top-heavy that it will collapse in on itself, the speeding train of human culture will slam head-on into the brick limitations of the planet’s resources. The other two options are potentially more optimistic. There is the idea that the tightening epochs of evolution point towards some sort of asymptote, where the gradual accretion of novelty we have been passing through shoots abruptly towards infinity, towards unlimited freedom. The third possibility here is that this eruption of novelty is somehow limited by physical constraints, but unlike the first scenario, this limit is a threshold and not a wall. (Think of a neuron collecting synaptic stimulation until it reaches a threshold and discharges.) The second and third scenarios are almost identical in their end results, except that in the latter novelty does not increase forever, but rather reaches a point of maximum saturation or equilibrium.

The millennialist outlook which the last two scenarios promote stands in stark contrast to the tired schadenfreude of postmodern shock-jocks and armchair slackers, who self-righteously dismiss as futile any attempts to improve any situation, and whose boring confessional poetry fills volumes which even their own therapists refuse to read. The human race is on the brink of cataclysmic transformation, but whether that transformation will snuff us out forever, or usher us as children back into the Garden, is far from clear. You do not have to give up too many basic assumptions to be optimistic, and you certainly don’t have to embrace New Age extravagance. There is another path, positive, determined, but not falling into the talk-show polarities of militant rationalists and channeling housewives. If you truly think there is no hope, if you are unwilling to investigate the full breadth of possibilities, please kill yourself now. At the very least, shut up and let the rest of us get to work, because there’s information to be gathered and ideas to be spread. Whatever happens, you won’t have to wait much longer to see who is wasting their time.

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