March 22, 2010
Zane Selvans is an admitted Amatuer Earthling, and is happy to share his thoughts and explorations on what it means to be a member of the adolescent human species. He lives in California, is both a scientist and a cyclist and wrote this exceptional essay that in part discuses two things — 1) how he came to appreciate that the death of Carl Sagan and the corresponding dearth of new works by the deceased scientist ultimately means its up to us to move the conversation forward, and 2) how ‘joyful and persistent understanding’ are, in the words of Nietzsche, our, “highest and most proper metaphysical,” purpose. Enjoy.
Before I finished Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age in the Salt Lake City airport Monday, I found a book by Carl Sagan in the bookstore. “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”, based on his Gifford Lectures from 1985 (and published posthumously, in 2006 by Ann Druyan). I read half of it in the airport, and the other half last night. It went fast, because I’d heard it all before. The main piece of new information was that a decade and a half after the fact, Carl Sagan is truly dead to me. I’ve read most of his books, I’ve seen his television series Cosmos several times. I love his ideas; they’ve shaped me throughout my life, but I no longer hope to find anything new in them. So long as there were pieces of his mind that had been recorded, but that I hadn’t yet been exposed to, it was as if he wasn’t quite gone. He was still, from my point of view, a dynamic entity.
More than anything else, I think I wanted to hear from him what purpose he thought we ought to assign ourselves. The closest he ever got, in his published work anyway, was Pale Blue Dot, but even this book is still mostly background and introduction. It assumes at some level that you don’t know about Copernicus, Galileo, Percival Lowell or the Voyager spacecraft, and that you need to be convinced that choosing a purpose is both possible and appropriate. I’m just not interested in that conversation any more. I’ve been convinced for a long time. It seems like a meta-conversation to me at this point — talking about talking about what we should be doing. I’ve had this feeling with Joseph Campbell too. It’s as if despite the fact that at some level they’re both decrying the nihilistic, relativist, post-modern take on the world, they cannot bring themselves to state the purposes which they would like us to aspire to. Perhaps for fear of rejection or ridicule? Or because they know they might be wrong? Or because the business of convincing people of a value judgment or aesthetic choice is so different from what we usually do in science or even academe in general. It is much more like art, or politics.
There’s also I think a sense from Sagan that we need to get everyone on board and working together, and that whatever we decide to do, it, and the decision process, should be egalitarian. This would be preferable, certainly, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. Those goals which are attainable are the ones which can be reached by only a small subset of humanity working together. Lamentably, there will be times when subterfuge and propaganda are the tools of choice. It might even be the case that in the service of our goals, some kind of violence is the lesser of the available evil options. These are painful thoughts, but I think they’re true.
So I’ll risk it. Here’s what I think our purpose is: joyful and persistent understanding. This isn’t a polemic, it’s a value judgment. It’s an aesthetic opinion, and unlike facts, everybody is entitled to their own opinion.
These three values: joy, persistence, and understanding, feed on each other. The more persistently we are joyful, the more total joy there is. The more we understand the universe, the deeper our enjoyment and appreciation of it is. An endless and omniscient but miserable existence is nothing worth aspiring to. The greater our understanding of the universe, the greater our potential for persistence is. The longer we persist, the more we are able to understand. Like most value systems, this is a tautology. That’s okay!
In the service of these values, it is our duty to protect and foster life and intelligence where it exists, and to spread it as widely as possible throughout the Universe, for only those highly ordered systems are vehicles capable of understanding. Our sworn and everlasting enemy is entropy. So far as we can tell, it will one day win, but not yet.
Today, so far as we can tell for sure, humanity is the only vessel for deep intelligence, and the Earth is the only abode of life. Maybe it will sound strange, but I think we have too much understanding at the moment. I think understanding without joy — without compassion and wonder — is a threat to persistence. Love without Truth lies. Truth without Love kills. Destruction is easier than creation. If we do one day approach godliness, transcending our mortality and limited capacities for understanding and manipulation of the Universe, I think we should consider ourselves extraordinarily lucky. I don’t think either success or failure are assured, but it does seem that one is much more likely than the other.