Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Morning Glory

From time to time everybody dreams epic-making insights that melt away at first light. If we remember them at all, they turn out to be either absurd or obvious. What’s worrisome is that the last three moments of Zen continue to make sense to me. Perhaps senility is making me impressed with things everybody knows.

Dream insight #1

The living things in the universe form a guild, not a taxon. Unless the theory of panspermia turns out to be true, whatever complex beings we might encounter would not be kin of ours no matter how similar they may appear to be. Which is quite different than the situation here on earth where the bed bugs are literally our cousins; and even liverworts, black mold, and bacteria are all in the family, albeit more than a few times removed. It may be reasonable to define a class of complicated entities that play the same thermodynamic role on other planetary bodies as organisms do here; but this category would not be like a family or a genus or even a phyla or kingdom. You can speculate, as Conway Morris does in his book Life’s Solutions, that living things would necessarily converge on a common plan—Morris even supposes that intelligent beings will all turn out to be bipeds—but this is the merest guessing. Since all the living things we have experience of belong to a single natural group, Conway is making an inference from a database with a single entry. In any case, even if the spacemen looked an awful lot like us, they would be at best a little more than kind, but less than kin. Under the hood, in the cellular depths, living things elsewhere are surely based on different frozen accidents. The genetic code isn’t just a QWERTY; but it’s one of the most efficient possible codes, not the most efficient possible code. Other features of living things, notably the chemistry of membranes and the specific suite of organelles found in eukaryotes are also inheritances from symmetry breaks. Does anybody seriously believe that mitochondria or chloroplasts are inevitable features of complex living things?  

Dream insight #2

The first line of the Gospel According to John is absurd on its face. “In the beginning was the Word” implies that a language can exist without either any one to listen or a world to speak about. Wittgenstein famously argued that a private language is impossible, but God’s language would be more than merely private. Even solipsists who question whether other people have minds don’t doubt that there are things outside themselves.  The fourth evangelist implied something even more drastic and implausible than solipsism. Of course creation myths are usually, if not necessarily illogical—the myth about the origin of aquatic plants has otters in it and the myth about the origin of otters has aquatic plants in it—but the Abrahamic religions sharpen the contradictions. “Let there be light!” says God in his primal solitude, but it is never explained who he’s talking to or who or what is available to allow there to be light. Imagining that he’s talking to the heavenly hosts doesn’t help since they are also created beings. “Let there be angels!” simply pushes the problem back a step without resolving it.

Dream insight #3

Since the prospect of reward motivates people, inequality can promote economic growth and technological innovation. In that respect, inequality, is a good thing, at least potentially. Thing is, our economy is now so top loaded that there isn't enough inequality to go around. There's an inequality shortage. So many of the goodies go to the very top that there aren't enough left to adequately reward effort and ingenuity among the middle class and the working poor. A winner-take-all political economy creates the slackers it supposedly despises. "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work."