*be sceptical - take nothing for granted!
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This essay is most of all about understanding; what we can know and what we think we do know. It is an outline originally written for my children and I have tried to avoid jargon or to assume the reader's in-depth familiarity with any of the subjects I touch on. I began it in 1997 when my youngest was still a small child and parts are still written in language I used with her then. I hope this makes it clear and easy to understand for my children and anyone else.

What is this identity you call 'Me'? What is culture and what is knowledge? What is truth? What is goodness? What is success in life? Why are we here? Are there any rules? How do our culture, upbringing and nature work to make us what we are? Can we talk about the 'meaning of life' at all, or simply about 'the presence of life'?

Others have told us most of what we think we know. How can we trust them? Why do we believe what other people around us believe? We tend to believe trusted messengers and to be suspicious of untrusted ones irrespective of the message. How do messengers gain our trust?

Ideas and speculations are fundamental to what it is to be human, unique among the animals of this planet and probably in this universe. I hope you will enjoy mine and find something useful in them.

 

The title: The title is well tried but it amuses me as both a wink to an essay of the same name by John Anderson (of Sydney Push fame)[1] and to Monty Python.

 

 

 

 

Introduction

I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?
Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him? [2].

This essay has a number of themes. Notwithstanding this insightful quotation from Ecclesiastes, central to all is my belief that the way to truth and understanding; knowledge and worth; purpose and happiness; is not through an appeal to the authority of wise men of the past (or their writings) but through a sceptical analysis of contemporary ideas and values.

This analysis is central to what I have called The Great Human Project, the understanding and mastering our immediate universe. This is a collective endeavour that gives a purpose to the otherwise fleeting existence of humanity. It goes beyond purely individual goals; like a sporting record; becoming a millionaire or the acquisition of power or fame.

The Great Human Project distinguishes humans from all other animals on this planet through the expansion of real knowledge and collective capability. But to accomplish this we must learn to sort the good ideas from the bad.

The principal test of an idea is its utility in correctly predicting otherwise unknowable outcomes and that it survive our concerted attempts to prove it wrong. Because we cannot personally test every contemporary idea this involves a reliance on trust in others. But I suggest the ways we might approach this problem.

Out of this systematic scepticism we have come to accept those ideas that have been arrived at by 'scientific method' and to reject ideas that cannot sustain 'scientific analysis'. These 'truths' are highly dependent on place and time. As our knowledge changes so does the 'received truth'.

Using these methods it is now believed the universe came into existence in a primal event about 13.7 billion years ago. The earth is a little more than a third of this age; bacteria infected it quite soon; developing multi-cellular plants and animals a little over a billion years ago. Humans, along with other modern mammalian species[3] have been here for about one seventy thousandth of this time. The universe will continue for many tens of billions of years after our sun and earth are long gone, together with all earthly life forms.

Each higher animal (including each of us) is a constantly evolving colony of cells and symbiotic organisms (from mitochondria to gut and skin bacteria). These cells, that come and go during our lives, form the super-organism that is us and service its functions just as they do in any similar super-organism from the 'higher animals' to plants.

Variation is introduced by sexual reproduction, structural variation and imperfect replication. Continuous environmental change favours one design over another. The functional designs for each animal and plant are tested against success in the prevailing environment and the more successful multiply while the less so are reduced.

Humans fill an environmental niche, unique to this time and place, that substitutes social cooperation and the processing of ideas for advanced physical attributes. This has enabled us to move from a highly threatened species, on the edge of extinction, less than one hundred thousand years ago, to world over-population today.

In this sense 'the meaning of life' has nothing to do with us. We are simply an accidental and probably redundant part in the continuum of a series of physical, biochemical and evolutionary processes under the influence of the formative circumstances and present characteristics of this planet. But in this essay I want to go beyond this 'reason for life' to the human experience; our perception of a life of meaning and purpose; and our belief in our ability to be an active agent in the flow of our lives.

Most if not all animals are 'aware'; they seek food and turn from danger. They 'enjoy' being comfortable. Even plants turn to the sun and attach themselves to things and some catch insects. But only a few animals are aware of being aware. As far as we know only humans are aware of ourselves, and others, being aware of being aware. It is this 'meta-awareness', the awareness of our own awareness, that leads us to the illusion that we have a 'mind' that exists separately to our 'body'.

Our intellectual and social capability is a two edged sword; it has given us unprecedented control over our environment but also a grandiose view of our own importance both as a species and as individuals ': for all is vanity'.

 

different words

Source: all cartoons are from The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker 1925-2004, unless otherwise indicated.

I will argue that it is our ideas that distinguish us; that are fundamentally important to being human and to being the person that we are. Just as we are capable of formulating ideas that have utility in improving our survival and wellbeing and that have enabled us to make initial forays to other planets and to alter the fundamentals of terrestrial life itself; so we are capable of holding ideas that are wrong and harmful, indeed the evidence is that we are very attracted to wrong ideas.

In this essay I will try to suggest the ways in which we can escape harmful ideas and value, enrich and enjoy our lives, notwithstanding their fleeting and ephemeral nature.

Although the 'truth' of any proposition lies in its utility this does not mean that it is true in every context. I will argue that all human knowledge is contingent and uncertain. Newton's laws are useful and adequate to for predicting the path of a space shuttle or the next lunar eclipse; Maxwell's equations for predicting the behaviour of light or radio waves; and Rutherford's atomic model is a fair approximation of an atom for use by chemists and biologists; but none of these stands up to detailed relativistic or quantum analysis. I will explore some of these ideas in more detail.

Being human involves a lot more that beliefs about ultimate purpose, creation or 'truth'. We share with other species needs and desires for food shelter and reproduction and like other mammals and communal species we depend on our parents when young and value the support of others.

Other animals gambol and play but we alone have evolved ideas, cultural diversity and civilisation. We alone have organised entertainment; music, painting and literature; we alone value ideas.

I will spend a good deal of time considering what it is to be human, with reference to important thinkers that might profitably be read in the original.

We are a combination of our genes our experiences and our ideas. Like all other organisms we inherit our genes from our parents and our experiences from our environment. As humans we also inherit our ideas from our parents, our peers and the community at large.

Together with the context of our birth and accidents that later befall us, these collectively determine if we will become a scientist, athlete, priest, criminal, king, pauper, diva or drug addict. Yet as I will argue each has his or her place. Each irrevocably changes the future and all that will be; some to a much greater degree than others.

But for each of us, ours is the only universe there is; we each live in our own unique field of perceptions. When we end, all this ends 'all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again'. There is no more.

 

life tradeoffs

 

Each of us has a choice of 'project' for our lives. For some it may be selfish; an Olympic medal or wealth or fame; to be admired for our beauty; to own something; to collect stamps; to spot trains; to play with a ball in public; or a thousand other individual goals.

For others it may be to mobilise society towards the great collective goals; exploration; knowledge; technology; capability. These things cannot be accomplished alone.

A theologian or mystic might 'sit alone beside the fire', like Descartes, and arrive at almost any profound position. They can be independent of society. But even the most reclusive rationalist must 'stand on the shoulders of giants'. I too have stood on many shoulders in writing this essay.

The Great Human Project can only be achieved corporately, with each player taking their part: on the stage; behind the scenes or creating the theatre.

So what can we aspire to in this brief candle? I will let the reader decide. In the telling of these ideas I will touch on the place and importance of our culture, art and religion, personal relationships and love, children, economics and market forces and the impact of new scientific ideas and discoveries on us all.

This essay is written in sections that are loosely linked but stand alone, so you can skip around without 'losing the plot'.

 

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Travel

Denmark

 

 

  

 

 

In the seventies I spent some time travelling around Denmark visiting geographically diverse relatives but in a couple of days there was no time to repeat that, so this was to be a quick trip to two places that I remembered as standing out in 1970's: Copenhagen and Roskilde.

An increasing number of Danes are my progressively distant cousins by virtue of my great aunt marrying a Dane, thus contributing my mother's grandparent's DNA to the extended family in Denmark.  As a result, these Danes are my children's cousins too.

Denmark is a relatively small but wealthy country in which people share a common language and thus similar values, like an enthusiasm for subsidising wind power and shunning nuclear energy, except as an import from Germany, Sweden and France. 

They also like all things cultural and historical and to judge by the museums and cultural activities many take pride in the Danish Vikings who were amongst those who contributed to my aforementioned DNA, way back.  My Danish great uncle liked to listen to Geordies on the buses in Newcastle speaking Tyneside, as he discovered many words in common with Danish thanks to those Danes who had settled in the Tyne valley.

Nevertheless, compared to Australia or the US or even many other European countries, Denmark is remarkably monocultural. A social scientist I listened to last year made the point that the sense of community, that a single language and culture confers, creates a sense of extended family.  This allows the Scandinavian countries to maintain very generous social welfare, supported by some of the highest tax rates in the world, yet to be sufficiently productive and hence consumptive per capita, to maintain among the highest material standards of living in the world. 

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

A Secret Agent

A crime fiction...

Chapter 1

 

 

 - news flash -

Body in River

Monday

 

The body of a man was found floating in the Iguazú river this morning by a tourist boat.  Mary (name withheld) said it was terrible. "We were just approaching the falls when the body appeared bobbing in the foam directly in front of us.  We almost ran over it.  The driver swerved and circled back and the crew pulled him in. The poor man must have fallen - or perhaps he jumped?"

The body was discovered near the Brazilian side but was taken back to Argentina. Police are investigating and have not yet released details of the man's identity...

 

Iguazú Herald

 

Everywhere we look there is falling water. Down the track to the right is a lookout to the other side of the gorge, in Brazil, where the cliff faces are covered by maybe a kilometre of falling curtains in white windswept water. Here and there the curtains hang in gaps or are pushed aside by clumps of trees and bushes, like stagehands peeking out into a theatre before the performance.  

Read more ...

Opinions and Philosophy

Climate Emergency

 

 

 

emergency
/uh'merrjuhnsee, ee-/.
noun, plural emergencies.
1. an unforeseen occurrence; a sudden and urgent occasion for action.

 

 

Recent calls for action on climate change have taken to declaring that we are facing a 'Climate Emergency'.

This concerns me on a couple of levels.

The first seems obvious. There's nothing unforseen or sudden about our present predicament. 

My second concern is that 'emergency' implies something short lived.  It gives the impression that by 'fire fighting against carbon dioxide' or revolutionary action against governments, or commuters, activists can resolve the climate crisis and go back to 'normal' - whatever that is. Would it not be better to press for considered, incremental changes that might avoid the catastrophic collapse of civilisation and our collective 'human project' or at least give it a few more years sometime in the future?

Back in 1990, concluding my paper: Issues Arising from the Greenhouse Hypothesis I wrote:

We need to focus on the possible.

An appropriate response is to ensure that resource and transport efficiency is optimised and energy waste is reduced. Another is to explore less polluting energy sources. This needs to be explored more critically. Each so-called green power option should be carefully analysed for whole of life energy and greenhouse gas production, against the benchmark of present technology, before going beyond the demonstration or experimental stage.

Much more important are the cultural and technological changes needed to minimise World overpopulation. We desperately need to remove the socio-economic drivers to larger families, young motherhood and excessive personal consumption (from resource inefficiencies to long journeys to work).

Climate change may be inevitable. We should be working to climate “harden” the production of food, ensure that public infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, hospitals, utilities and so) on are designed to accommodate change and that the places people live are not excessively vulnerable to drought, flood or storm. [I didn't mention fire]

Only by solving these problems will we have any hope of finding solutions to the other pressures human expansion is imposing on the planet. It is time to start looking for creative answers for NSW and Australia  now.

 

 

Since my retirement Wendy and I have done quite a bit of travel, often these days to less 'touristy' places, although that's just a matter of degree. After all we're tourists and we were there.  On occasion we've revisited old haunts after a decade or so absence. 

Everywhere we go there is one thing in common with our home in Australia:  there are a lot more people than there were a decade or so back. Everywhere we go there is evidence of resource depletion, particularly water resources, and environmental degradation. Everywhere we go new dwellings have spread like a cancer across once green fields.and forests. Concrete forests now stand where humble dwellings or open fields once were.

It's no good blaming our parents, the underlying causes of the many environmental challenges we face go back the start of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution when no longer were the great masses of humanity the children of farm labourers, serfs, slaves or servants serving a small cultured elite.

With industry came systematic applied science, engineering, and improved medical understanding. Now workers needed new skills and had to be educated. With education came many benefits, including independent volition, and improved living conditions.  Death rates declined; fertility improved.  By the end of the 19th century world population had more than doubled its pre-industrial record, reaching 1.6 billion.  But then it really took off.

By the mid 20th century many informed commentators were getting alarmed and calling for population restraint.

In 1968 the world human population had topped 3.5 billion, over a billion since the end of World War 2.

That year Professor Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in the US, published The Population Bomb correctly warning that: 'hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.'   Critics claimed that he was alarmist, yet very soon 260 of every thousand babies born in Zambia were dying due to malnutrition before their first birthday. In Pakistan the number was 140 per thousand (source: The Limits to Growth). 

In the same year concerned scientists in Europe formed The Club of Rome.  Three years later the Club published 'The Limits to Growth', the results of a state-of-the-art, yet primitive, multi-factorial computer model that projected the impacts on food consumption/production; pollution and the cost of reduction; energy resources; and non-renewable industrial minerals, of unrestrained exponential population growth. The model forecast multiple disastrous consequences early in the 21st century. The authors feared no less than anarchy, driven by food and resource riots, and the total collapse of civilisation.  The final sentence reads: 'The crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but even more whether the human species can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence.'

 

 

My copy of The Limits to Growth
 

 

Only a few paid any heed. Several of these were later described as the 'Asian Tigers'.

 

Singapore's Stop at Two policy
From 1972 Singaporeans were encouraged to have two child families
- incentives included payment for sterilisation and public housing for married couples without children
- disincentives included precluding couples with more than two children from applying for public benefits
The result was a decline in fertility from 4.7 in 1960 to 1.7 in 1980
Although the campaign stressed the need for girls, as in China, cultural factors resulted in a preponderance of boys
- an ongoing social and economic problem
Nevertheless, Singapore has gone from a struggling third-world country to become the fourth richest country in the world (
1)
On the other hand, since independence in 1947 India's population has grown sixfold
- India will soon overtake China as the world's most populous country - visit and compare 

 

Critics of The Club of Rome, like Herman Kahn, of the Hudson Institute, cried: 'garbage in gospel out', a popular objection to computer modelling at the time, and lo, the Club's projections were soon proven to be overly pessimistic. In the 1970's science came to the aid of mankind. New crops were developed and there was a 'green revolution'; new processes and products improved efficiency and new mining technologies, like remote sensing from aircraft and satellites, together with new extractive methods, like deep-sea oilwells and 'fracking', redefined resource availability. In first world countries rivers and air was cleaned up and pollution ceased to be our number one concern.

 

 

The Hudson Institute's Herman Kahn's riposte - one of many
The Hudson Institute was later employed by the NSW Government to help plan the State's future
- no mention of global warning

 

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief - we didn't have to do anything.  The religious among us were right: God, or the Gods, had it all in hand - it was all part of 'The Plan'. It was business as usual.

Yet today, the Club of Rome's foremost prediction: that unless we did something, by 2020 world population would reach eight billion has proven alarmingly prescient. And Paul Ehrlich's predictions are also vindicated.

In 2013 a Global Hunger Summit in London(2) was told that: 'Malnutrition is the underlying cause of death for at least 3.1 million children [per year], accounting for 45% of all deaths among children under the age of five and stunting growth among a further 165 million [children].'

Although they factored in 'pollution' as a general concern, the research team behind The Limits to Growth said, or knew, nothing about the specific threat of carbon dioxide. Was this an oversight?

With our new skills scientists now have ice-cores, containing entrapped air bubbles, that go back half a million years.  These show a close correlation between global temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  The highest level ever was around 300 thousand years ago, when it was much warmer and carbon dioxide reached 300 parts per million.

Because of man's multifarious activities, including agriculture, the atmosphere broke that half million year record in the 1950's and we have been in uncharted territory ever since. While correlation does not necessarily denote causation, and it's still not as warm as it was back then, I find it rather alarming. Read my paper: Climate Change - a Myth?

It seems highly probable that climate change is at least in part due to the current mouse-plague that we call humanity: clearing forests; digging up the ground; building things; making stuff soon to go to garbage tips; consuming resources without concern for the future and, of course, burning things.

How long can this go on?  I hope there will be a deus ex machina, that some, as yet unknown, aspect of quantum science, genetic engineering and/or nuclear energy will save us.  Failing that, I hope that current civilisation will outlast my grandchildren and perhaps theirs?  One glimmer of hope is the declining fertility in first-world countries as more women have careers beyond motherhood and living standards improve. Yet as I pointed out in 1990 this would consume far more energy than the third world has to hand. Is it now a case of too little too late?

I won't be around to know.

As the The Club of Rome pointed out, and should be obvious to 'Blind Freddy', the indefinite exponential growth, that our economies are addicted to, is unsustainable. 'Soon or later,' as Alice remarked about drinking from a bottle marked 'poison': 'it's bound to disagree with you'.

 

 


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