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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

I listened to an interview with Yuval Noah Harari recently. I read his “Sapiens” some time ago and mostly enjoyed it, but I haven’t been tempted to read his more recent “Homo Deus”. This latter book looks ahead to consider how things might go as artificial intelligence and robotics develops apace. He argues that our technology could give us incredible powers, so that we may end up more like gods, but he also says things could go the other way and create an increasingly large class of people he labels as “useless”.

That “useless class” terminology is certainly a way of getting attention, but when he specifies what he means by it, there’s a lot in it –

“I choose this very upsetting term, useless, to highlight the fact that we are talking about useless from the viewpoint of the economic and political system, not from a moral viewpoint,” he says. Modern political and economic structures were built on humans being useful to the state: most notably as workers and soldiers, Harari argues. With those roles taken on by machines, our political and economic systems will simply stop attaching much value to humans, he argues.

He goes from there to imagine a future where this class spends its time on drugs and Virtual Reality games machines. Depressing, huh?

So, two things struck me immediately. Firstly, this connects to some of the debate about “Universal Basic Income” – the idea that every citizen should receive a monthly allocation because we are heading towards a system which will be “post-work” – robots and algorithms will take over most of the jobs and the increased automation will increase unemployment. Our current economic system will either be adapted to take account of that, or human beings will have to adapt to the current economic system. Or not. It’s this “or not” that Harari explores by describing the “useless class”. One question then is what do we value in society and how do we allocate resources to what we value? As a society.

The second thought was, what, if people don’t have jobs in factories, shops or offices, the only thing they’ll be able to do is take drugs and play VR games? What popped into my mind straight away were caring and creating.

Human beings are great at caring. Sure, we don’t do nearly enough of it, and we could sure do with developing our capacities to care, but take, as one example, the response to an earthquake, a storm, a flood, a terrorist attack. In all of those situations we hear story after story of human kindness, human sacrifice and human caring. With declining infant mortality and increasing life expectancy more and more people in the world are living longer and in need of more care. We won’t run out of opportunities to care for others.

Human beings are great creators. We are problem solvers, scientists, home makers, gardeners, cooks, and artists of all kinds – writers, sculptors, painters, musicians, dancers. We won’t run out of opportunities to create.

Thirdly, I’d argue, human beings are great learners. We have whole neural circuits primed to seek out what’s new or different. We have whole systems dedicated to learning skills, acquiring knowledge, understanding and making sense of things. We won’t run out of opportunities to learn.

So, when I visited the town of Blaye recently, I saw this artwork in a car park. Isn’t it beautiful? Simple, and beautiful. Doesn’t it capture something about the human ability to care and to create.

Isn’t there an opportunity at this point in civilisation to change our focus away from grabbing and consuming, to caring and creating? And learning!

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Look at the skeleton of this beautiful fish. The intricate and delicate structure of the bones is a stunning demonstration of the nature of networks. We can see the whole skeleton is made up from two simple elements, nodes and connectors. Whether we zoom in to study just one group, or out to look at the larger regions we see a variety of different patterns based on these two simple elements.

If you start at any point on this skeleton you’ll be able to trace a path to any other point without ending up down some disconnected cul de sac. In other words every single point is connected to every other one….either in simple one or two step connections, or through an almost infinite variety of pathways across the whole structure.

This is one of the most fundamental patterns at the heart of reality – networks of nodes and connectors.

You can see the same design in all forms of life, especially in multicellular organisms, all kinds of plants, animals and human beings.

Networks of nodes and connectors are the essential fabric of the universe.

Two of the best books I know about this phenomenon are Linked by Barabasi, and Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. I recommend them both. They show how this apparently simple structure builds up into the most complex of phenomena, from individual organisms, to social groups and whole ecosystems.

Once you see things this way you can’t help but see connections everywhere. It’s the science which demonstrates the limitations of reductionism and abolishes the notion of atomisation.

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tree-vine-fog

As I was opening the shutters yesterday morning I caught sight of some swirls of mist lying amongst the vines towards the next village. I took a few photos. Here’s one of my favourite ones. It pleases me. Enormously. There’s an entrancing beauty to it. And it’s one of those photos which stimulates all kinds of thoughts for me.

I look at this and I think of two of the fundamental forces of the universe – the ones which Thomas Berry called “wildness” and “discipline”. The large tree in the centre of the image grows wild. It grows naturally and it spreads out above and below ground creating this ever branching structure which looks like its reaching out to the world. It looks like it’s stretching upwards and outwards to feel the sky and the moist air. In front of it are rows and rows of vines, trained and pruned by human hand, disciplined to grow along the wires. The vines form a complex web of life. As I look at them now it’s hard to discern where one plant stops and the next one begins.

When I think of these two forces, I think of the two hemispheres of the brain, each with its distinctive style of engaging with the world. The right hemisphere exploring, seeking the new, making connections. The left hemisphere exploiting, grasping, structuring. Iain McGilchrist writes in “The Divided Brain“, that the right hemisphere characteristically seeks to care, it seeks to engage with “the other” empathically. The left hemisphere seeks to control, seeking to deal with “the other” by categorising, labelling and separating.

How we see these forces at work in the world today!

 

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dscn7600

Barrie Condon, a retired Professor of Physics, generously shared his new book, “Science for Heretics” with me. He thought I’d like it. He was right. The subtitle of the book is “Why so much of science is wrong” and his aim is to provoke the reader into questioning both the claims of science and its methods. He uses the device of three characters, The Believer, The Sceptic and The Heretic, throughout the book as he considers several fields of science including mathematics, physics, and medicine.

The Believer is one who science reveals the Truth and will one day enable us to understand everything in the universe. The Sceptic accepts the basic tenets of science but retains some doubts about whether of not we will ever be able to understand everything. The Heretic doesn’t buy the whole project. He thinks the universe is not completely knowable and that our scientific theories which shape our views what we see are simply the projections of our human brains.

He particularly attacks the use of theory in science which tends to be translated into “laws”. He clarifies that no such “laws” exist and sets out the case for a return to observation and experimentation instead. I really enjoy his writing style and some passages particularly stood out for me.

For centuries we have been measuring all sorts of things but generally only recording the results we expected and ignoring the rest.

This captures two of my main objections to so much of medical practice – the reduction of human beings to measurements and the belief that the particular measurements which are made allow us to completely understand a patient and their illness. Although I have heard of a medical teacher say “Don’t listen to patients. They lie all the time. You can only trust the results.”, my own experience of doctoring couldn’t more diametrically opposed from that view. ONLY the patient’s experience can be trusted. Measurements, sadly, frequently mislead, and ALWAYS need to be set in the context of this individual patient.

Life saving claims for medicines need careful examination. Drugs do certain things which are beneficial to the human body in disease, but they inevitably have other effects which can be deleterious or even fatal.

I wish more doctors made that more clear every time they write out a prescription.

He’s even better on physics and cosmology.

For me, the two most important things he has to say are, firstly –

Science gives us theories that purport to explain how the universe works. This breeds confidence in scientists who then go on to do things that carry certain risks. These risks are rationalised away on the basis of existing theory. Even if our Heretic is wrong in saying that all theory is actually erroneous, history shows us that most or perhaps all theories ultimately prove incorrect. Our perceptions and calculations of risk are therefore also likely to be erroneous. Science generally also assumes a high degree of control over experimental conditions and again this faith seems misplaced. While we may routinely underestimate risk, we also routinely overestimate our ability to control it.

This is SUCH an important point. He’s arguing for a greater use of the “precautionary principle”. Instead of assuming that everything we produce, all our chemicals, all our technologies are safe until proven otherwise, we should be more wary. What we need is a whole lot more humility and the ability to confess that we really don’t know very much at all. And we certainly way overestimate our ability to control things. It’s the arrogance of believers which frightens me most – people who are so sure that they, and only they are right – I’m on the side of the Heretics in Barrie’s terms. It’s likely that what we think we know at any point will be proven not to be quite right in a few years time (or, indeed, to be completely wrong).

The second important conclusion he reaches is that there are no fundamental laws of the universe…..apart from, maybe, two –

As well as a possible law for uniqueness, the Heretic is open to the possibility of a second law governing complexity, namely that it increases with time.

Well, there he puts his finger on what I’ve written about many times on this blog – that the most important characteristics of the universe are its tendency to create uniqueness and its trend of ever increasing complexity.

Take those two undeniable features on board and try and practice science or medicine by measuring, generalising and trying to control the future! Good luck with that.

Thank you, Barrie Condon, for your delightful, humorous, thought-provoking, paradigm-challenging book. If it was an integral part of science education we might be able to look forward to a better world.

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petal web

Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme who developed the new story of the universe talk about three core values which seem to be embedded in evolution. It’s a really interesting and different take on evolution. The story we have heard most over the last hundred years or so is one of a random, harsh, competitive universe full of “stuff” or materials which somehow have stuck together to make ever more complex objects which can each be studied and understood in isolation from each other.

That story never resonated with me and it can be argued it has more to do with the dominant politico-economic model of capitalism and “the market” than it has with science.

The three values Berry and Swimme articulate are differentiation, subjectivity and communion. Their claim is that take away any one of these three and the whole universe as we know it collapses. Brian Swimme also claims that we can use these three values to check if our actions are in harmony with the evolutionary direction and activity of the universe. In other words they can be considered as fundamental values which help us to assess and judge our behaviour and that of others (including politicians and economists).

Differentiation.  The universe started differentiating from its earliest moments. We don’t look around and see a homogenous mush – we see clusters, or “objects”. But the universe doesn’t just produce what Swimme calls “articulated constellations of energy”. It produces UNIQUE articulated constellations of energy. No two galaxies, no two stars, no two creatures are identical. Producing uniqueness turns out to be a key universal value.

Subjectivity. Everything has an inside. Even the simplest atoms are self-organising, self-maintaining phenomena. The particles within the atom are held together and organised by the atom itself. This self-organisation reaches its most complex in human beings. We are all “autopoietic” – we are “self-making” creatures. We self-defend, self-organise and self-maintain. Yet this interior “self” remains unknowable. We can’t see it, can’t define it, can’t pin it down. This interiority is what enables us to see every object as a subject.

Communion. Thomas Berry used the word “communion” to describe the relationships which exist everywhere. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything is connected to other things. We all live in a vast web of relationships.

This all leads to Berry and Swimme describing the universe as an “communion of subjects”, or as a “communion of differentiated subjects”.

Try this idea out for yourself. What does the world look like through this lens? What sense do you make of life which part of a “communion of subjects”?

When considering any political policy, any scientific description, any choices you might make, what happens when you set them in the context of  the three values of “differentiation, subjectivity and communion”?

For me, I experience a shift from fear to curiosity, from senselessness to meaningfulness, from isolation to belonging…..how about you?

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night sky flower.jpg

I’ve just finished reading Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature” which is her biography of Alexander von Humboldt. I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a big read but a great one. I must confess I’m one of the apparently many who has never heard of Humboldt but am I glad I know something about him now.

One of the most amazing things about Humboldt is how he saw, described and wrote about Nature as a complete interconnected web, and he did this at the end of the 18th, and beginning of the 19th centuries. What an insight! What a vision! What an understanding! His enthusiasm for Nature and his insatiable curiosity are infectious, even now. But it’s his underlying fundamental insight which thrills me most. He describes ecology before the word was even invented. He sees the damage caused by short term economic greed and, more than that, he describes the environmental consequences of these short sighted actions. He demonstrates how the interconnected web of Nature means that these simple minded grabs for wealth will produce long term, far reaching negative consequences for many.

Seeing our world and everything in it as intimately, inextricably interconnected is the basis of holistic science. This is a science of wonder, exploration and discovery. He uses the best scientific instruments of the time to measure whatever he can measure, but he does something which scientists today so often fail to do. He uses the measurements to discover the connections. He puts things together rather than dividing them up. He sees nothing as existing in isolation. In other words he uses reductionist methods in a holistic way.

Reading about him is one of the clearest examples ever of integration. The two halves of his brain both worked brilliantly together. He pursued the new and climbed the highest mountains to see the world as a whole (right cerebral hemisphere). He measured, analysed and categorised (left cerebral hemisphere). Then he put it altogether in a vast web of contexts (right cerebral hemisphere again). What a great demonstration of using the whole brain. Of course I’m simplifying here. I’m sure he didn’t use his brain in such a linear fashion, but, still, I think it’s magnificent.

I thought about him again as I looked at this wonderful flower (see the image above). It’s called “Night sky”. Isn’t it stunning? Doesn’t it immediately show you how the human brain both discovers and creates connections?

That we can see the starry heavens in the soft purple petals of an earthy flower…….


 

Here’s a short video clip of Andrea Wulf talking about her book –

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seedweb

In “Deux Idées de Bonheur”, Luis Sepúlveda says that he’s come to understand that happiness and wellbeing are a web or network of relationships, between ourselves and others, between ourselves and what is around us, between ourselves and Nature.

I like that. It seems very true to me. We all exist with an intricate and infinite web of connections. None of us exist without any relationships. We all have, or have had parents, we’ve all encountered many, many others over the course of our lives, people we’ve been taught by, looked after by, friends, rivals, people we are related to through genes and marriages. We all live our every day lives in a web of others who produce, transport, prepare and sell the food we eat. Others who make the clothes we wear, who make every object we handle in an ordinary day. We live with others with whom we share our stories, co-create our values, our purposes, our reasons to get up every morning.

And we are in an intimate and unceasing relationship of exchange of energy, information and substances with the natural environment. The air, the water, the soil, the way we work the land, change the landscapes, warm the atmosphere around the Earth.

The other dimension of these vast webs is time. Our lives are all like stories….we are continually describing and telling the present as it emerges from our personal and our shared past, and which, moment by moment, is already in the process of becoming the future.

Happiness and wellbeing are not states, not independent, self-sustaining, isolated characteristics or “data points” to be measured. They are experiences which emerge out of a web of moments, within a network of connected people and events.

They are qualities of life, not permanently present, but always in the process of creation, like an intricate cloth of threads woven across lifetimes.

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