Something or Something else

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Steven Weinberg.

Science seems to have the unspoken goal of finding explanations that have no arbitrary element.   Nothing can be a certain way, when it could as well be another way.  Why it isn’t always has to be explained.   The result is that scientific explanations require that purely random elements somehow build the non-random world we know.

This is proving difficult.  The great mathematician, Kurt Gødel, proved that all logical systems require a ‘given’, an assumption that is unprovable by the logical system itself.  Reality seems so far to be the same.

Sean Carroll, in “From eternity to here“, 2010, tells us that the most important and baffling ‘given’ in our Universe is the unidirectional nature of time.  He traces the irreversibility of time to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that entropy can only stay the same or increase.  Entropy is the measure of disorder of a system.  All of the other fundamental laws of physics seem to be time reversible.  Somehow, time reversible processes create time that is irreversible.  Carroll ventures to explain this.

Changing low entropy into higher entropy is the dynamic that creates our knowable world, the evolution of life, the existence of stars and planets, and galaxies, the unidirection of time.   And so entropy must have started low, but this is very improbable and therefore it must be explained, why didn’t it start high?

From eternity to here” gives us a wonderful tour of the advanced science that is grappling with this question.  We are presented the concepts behind  mathematical equations that have been found to predict the behavior of the universe.  In something like a parlor trick, science theory tells that what exists is what is probable. Anything can exist, however, no matter how improbable, given the immense time and space of the universe.  Infinity solves equations, Infinity has happened, yet the universe is only 14 billion years old. Empty space can have virtual particles that improbably, but actually, pop in and out of existence, and nothing can escape a black hole, except, improbably, something does. Probability helps explain reality, except when it doesn’t.  Cause and effect exists, except when it doesn’t.

Mr. Carroll is left engagingly unable to explain how entropy started low, and time is irreversible.  We seem to be left with a given.

Most people can accept many if not most scientific explanations, but most people, unlike Steven Weinberg, can’t really feel that it is all pointless.  There just seems like there is something when there could have been something else.

Neuron History

On Deep History and the Brain, Daniel Lord Smail, 2008.

Does culture evolve  and if so, how?  This is a big question, for if culture evolves and we can change its course, then perhaps we can change our future.  We tend to see cultural history as showing a progression, a direction, and that the accumulation of knowledge is increasing in complexity and power, and is ‘passed on’ in such a manner as to influence successive cultures, for good or ill.

In On Deep History and the Brain,  Danial Lord Smail suggests that the engine and logic of cultural evolution lies in the neurology of the human brain.  In his thinking, biologic evolution is about genes getting what they want, and cultural evolution is about neuron’s getting what they want.  Genes and neurons, however, don’t want the same things, and this may not be good. It has been said that our future would either be like 1984, by George Orwell, or like Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley.  Daniel Lord Smail thinks it will be like Brave New World.  Genes, he suggests, want to proliferate, but neurons want soma.

Mr. Smail notes that the ideas and knowledge that ‘take hold’ in the neurons of minds the most avidly, and therefore get passed-on the most powerfully, are those that stimulate body sensations, particularly pleasure, but also fear, excitement, enhanced perception, and feelings of solidarity.  These create mental energy and a sense of virtual experience.  We crave, after all, experience, because we crave learning, and we particularly crave experience and learning that are low cost in energy. Vivid brain stimulation and virtual experience can seem like living and learning “for free” – at low energy cost.

And so, for Mr. Smail, History with a capital H can be seen as a story of seeking, obtaining, and manipulating increasing intensities of mental sensation.   Wars are fought for access to sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and hallucinogenic drugs, and religious rituals are developed for shared ecstatic mood, body excitement, and feelings of unity.  Greater masses of collective organization are sustained.  Dominant elites achieve influence and control and maintain hierarchy, using both the positives of excited ideology and the negatives of threatened and uncertain physical and emotional abuse.  History becomes a story of excitement, propaganda, group enthusiasm, and the control of the many by the few.

Not unlike mass societies, our brain neurons seem to have a heirarchical structure, with reward neurons at the top.  Mental stimulations which activate most effectively the most reward neurons will have the most acceptance and proliferation, and these reward neurons, like pharaoh’s and kings, will drive the lessor neurons to serve their needs. Think rock concerts, multi-media experiance, drugs and alcohol, the passion of political rallies, movies, television, and “Amusing Ourselves to Death“, Neil Postman, 1985.

The direction of culture evolution may not be progress, but intoxication.

Legacy of Compromise

Legacy of Secrecy, The long shadow of the JFK assassination, Lamar Waldron, with Thom Hartmann, 2009

Democracies are new to the world stage.  And the first, truly world wide power, the United States, is a democracy.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the United States had unprecedented military dominance.  The US could and did topple and build whole governments the world over.  Yet, according to this book – and many, many similar books – within US boundaries, criminal enterprises with government-like powers, have thrived.  It is a curious and unexpected development that such a powerful nation could have had such an astonishing usurpation of its power within its own borders.

If the stories outlined in this book can be believed, rogue elements within the CIA, the FBI and the Mafia, working within, caused more national injury –  including presidential assassination and forced presidential resignation – than any outside enemy could have hoped to achieve.  Illegal business – drugs, prostitution, protection, gambling, and fraud, etc. – have attained the power of life and death over citizens, the ability to kill and get away with it, even Presidents.

The getting- away- with- it is the stunning story here. With shrewd involvement, calculated funding, and planned compromise of politicians and law enforcers – including the FBI and the CIA –  criminal organizations have gained immunity within. And so for these authors, our democracy has become a symbiosis of the legal and the illegal, and there is a tenous balance of crossing the line and not crossing the line.  Scandals are the inevitable splashes when crossing the line spills over – think Watergate, the Kennedy and MLK assassinations, Chinagate, and many others.

This book’s story is a long one, of myriad overlappings of the CIA, the FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, and pro-Castro Cubans, organized crime, and political operatives who conspire and commit assassinations, and achieve business and foreign policy manipulation.

And the investigations don’t go anywhere, because they can’t go anywhere, because in all directions compromise is to be found.  Indeed it has all been engineered that way, to block the truth.   The good guys do some good, and some bad, and the bad guys do mostly bad, and maybe some good, and the whole story gets partially aired in a ‘limited hangout’ that hides the collusion of government and crime.

A mansion has many rooms, and there were many things going on during the period of the [antiwar] bombings.  I’m not privy to who struck John.”

James Jesus Angleton, 31 year veteran of the CIA and Chief of CIA Counterintelligence, New York Times, December 25, 1974

“Mr. Angleton did not deny, however, that he had been named and identified by a British counterspy, Kim Philby, in “My Silent War”, a book published in 1968 after he defected to the Soviet Union.”   New York Times, December 25, 1974,  Helm’s Disavows ‘Illegal’ Spying by the C.I.A. in U.S, Seymour M. Hersh.

Das Kapital, A biography

Karl Marx has convinced generations of western intellectuals that capitalism is evil.  He witnessed capitalism during its early and ugliest stage, in 19th century England, and made the case that capitalism was an unavoidably diabolical exploitation of the many by the few.   Alas, over the next 150 years, capitalism lifted the material well being of the working masses to a degree unimaginable by Marx in his time, sparing mainly those who decided to follow him.  And yet Marx lives on.

In Das Kapital, A biography, by Francis Wheen, 2006, we meet Karl Marx the man.  He is a polymath, a voracious reader, an energetic, ideophoric thinker.  He is a very unappealing person.  He is angry, grandiose, self-loathing, eccentric, obsessive, argumentative, distractable, litiginous, compulsive, sickly, mean, sarcastic, a severe procrastinator, and unkempt most of the time.  He would not have succeeded on TV.

Das Kapital, his major work, was never finished. It is ponderous, full of literary reference, circuitous, and contradictory. It may be the most unread but revered book ever written.  His most enduring point was that history had a logic, history was not just ‘one damn thing after another’, it was humans exploiting humans in an dynamic process (heretofore not understood until by him).  We can all relate to that.

Marx predicted that Capitalism would degenerate into crisis.  Capitalism fosters technological innovation, which increases productivity. But this has precarious effects on employment.  Sometimes increased productivity creates new markets and new employment, at other times, it does not, or not soon enough.  In the Great Depression, the tractor destroyed farm labor faster than the industrial economy could create new employment.  Marx would have expected the Great Depression.  He wouldn’t have expected its recovery with the modern social welfare capitalist state.

As the economist Joseph Schumpeter famously said:  “Marx asked all the right questions, but got all the wrong answers”.

Marx revelled in his apocalyptic vision.  He enjoyed the devilish, sinister story of history he was convinced that he uniquely discovered.   ” Das Kapital can be read as a vast Gothic Novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created“.

One of Marx’s favorite books was Frankenstein.

Das Kapital is a passionately condemns western enlightenment.  He was one of many who would deride the very kind of society that allows people like him to do with such relish what they love to do – – independently think, read, and philosophize.

“one can argue that the most truly Marxist achievement of the Soviet Union was its collapse:  a centralized, secretive, and bureaucratic command economy proved incompatible with new forces of production.”

Today, Marxist ideas linger on in the shadowy background of cultural studies.  Here, diabolical, unconscious exploitation carries on in language, in words, in mores, in texts. Culture, now, is the exploiter.  And so Marxism lives on in issues of education, religion, psychology, and family – ironically, all areas Marx considered ‘bunk’.