Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Great Conundrum

3/11/2006 - 2 a.m.

Sleep won't come. Why not work on the Conundrum?

That old Master-Knot of Human Fate. Why is human life so unsatisfactory on the large scale? Civilizations rise and fall, and they fall hard, in proportion to their wretched excess/success. They often begin, nowadays, with a wonderful ideal, that the unencumbered individual finds both beautiful and rational, a promise of a better world in the future. The decay of the ideal, like a blue whale being torn apart by sharks, is agonizing to watch. Reason seems to us to be the one great power in the conscious universe; how could it be corrupted and enslaved?

The unencumbered individual: of course no such thing exists, but some distinction must be made between the slaves of the memes at one end of the scale, and Euclid at the other end, who allegedly said (contemptuously, to his slave, regarding one who had questioned the usefulness of a theorem): "He wishes to profit from knowledge. Give him a penny." The 'free' individual recognizes memes and attempts to root them out of his brain; he has at least some ability to use a relative objectivity in looking at life from a point of view outside of the subconscious demands of his genes and the ubiquitous moral coloration that his nurture has immersed him in. The slaves of the memes have heeded the closed-loop command found at the end of the Bible, at the end of Revelations: that no changes of any kind may be made to this word from God. Though it is sometimes less explicit, or disguised, every strong meme contains this enforcement loop: here are the thoughts of absolute truth, and you are forbidden to think except within this compound. This is not to say that such slaves never escape, for they sometimes do.

Memes: a useful term for mental instruction-sets analogous to genes, in that they survive by benefiting their hosts (individuals and groups). The memes compete and evolve through normal evolutionary pathways; if they help their hosts to multiply faster and outcompete other entities, they are passed on. Like genes, they have no actual consciousness; they are as purely mechanical as prions or bacteria. They have no particular connection to objective reality, for they are the mechanism of pure subjectivity. For my own argumentative purpose I am using the term to indicate major idea systems that have sufficient complexity and benefit to their hosts that the hosts subordinate their reason to them. Is the scientific method a meme? Certainly, and among the most influential in existence; however, in my estimation a person cannot be a meme-slave to Science unless the meme is corrupted, so to speak, so that the individual begins to worship it, or use it for his subjective aims. I use the term meme-slaves for those persons and groups whose primary energy is devoted unswervingly to the stated goals of their meme; they possess reason, of course, but only are able to use it in service of the meme, and not for themselves. Don't touch that apple!

When I say "benefiting their hosts" I do not refer to the human race, although quite often the meme specifies that it should apply to all humans; this is in service of the universal imperative to expand. What drives this imperative, since it is not a rational impulse? There's no mystery there: the genes drive it, in humans just as in viruses and everything in between. Without this quality of blind competition and expansion life would not have changed since the blue-green algae phase. So here is the tragedy, the huge annoyance for those of us I have called 'unencumbered': conscious existence is subordinate to, and far less sophisticated than, the immense intricacy of the mechanical substructure of life, both genetic and memetic.

Objective Reality: a very funny term, the longer I think about it. Of course it does not exist as such, which leads many to premature despair and to surrender to their subjective natures. It is only an abstract hypothesis alleging that existence is not an illusion and can be accessed and manipulated using the tools of reason. Its existence can neither be proven nor disproven; nevertheless, the use of reason quite often produces changes that we can observe and replicate in that weird, unprovable experiential zone outside our brains that we call the 'real world'. So, although we may never be able to apply objectivity to any ultimate proof, such as the origin of the universe or even its existence, we can, apparently, apply it as an immensely strong tool to manipulate our limited lives and environments to our benefit. So - returning to my first question - why (fer the love of St. Pete) don't we?

Civilizations rise slowly and painfully, and often fall very hard and fast. Their wreckage fertilizes the civilization to follow, to be sure, but the cycle remains. Currently we in our Western Civ. seem to be at a perilous height, from which we can only fall; but perhaps we could go a little higher first. I can't help thinking, every day, about when we shall fall, like a mountaineer who has gone too high and can only go upward, hoping all the time for some magic dragon to rescue him from the final summit. However, the complexity of the many elements in this system make it impossible to pinpoint the exact or even the approximate time when we exceed the angle of repose and it all comes tumbling down - the tipping point, etc. Jay Hanson feels that collapse comes only a few years after the peak of oil production; but he may be over-weighting economics and over-estimating the fragility of other systems; and perhaps the world is not as tightly interdependent as it seems, and collapse will be localized and spread out in time. This might teach those in their national lifeboats something about how and why civilizations collapse; or it might not. I just don't know. I am grateful, however, for having been born into such interesting times! I am torn between wanting to live long enough to see the collapse, just because it is so interesting, and wanting to avoid all that terrible ugliness.

I am interested in how and why civilizations collapse.

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