The APIs of Religious Experience

The holy is a serious business. Wars have been fought over the proper way to worship, and the contradictions and absurdities of religion can seem limitless.

What if we’ve got the wrong metaphor? What if didn’t think of religious and spiritual traditions as competing ideas about the One True Way, or as just exercises to make us feel good, but as a structured interface like the ones programmers use to make one computer talk to the other? What if “God” is an undocumented API?

API stands for Application Programming Interface.  To quote Wikipedia, an API is a “set of clearly defined methods of communication among various components.” APIs are how one computer program talks to another, and usually this means there are protocols for connecting, for requesting information, for sending and receiving, for confirming that information has been successfully received, and for disconnecting.

APIs are everywhere. Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have dozens of them. There are all kinds of cool things you can do with all these APIs, like winning quiz shows, turning Twitter into a newspaper or populating your personal library app with weighty tomes.

What if “God” is, or has, a few million APIs too? What if we thought of a prayer like a request to Google Maps? Absurd, maybe, but let’s think about it for a few minutes and see where it might take us. Let’s give it a try.

Of course, you may think that “God” is not even a relevant concept. Luckily, I won’t argue with you. The cool thing about an API is that you don’t need to know much about the program on the other side of the interface. If you know how to use the API, and you get the desired results, what you believe is mostly irrelevant.

Research seems to be indicating that using God APIs, or attempting to through spiritual or religious activities has some positive results, such as longer life, happiness, less stress, and even, in rare cases, possibly enlightenment.

You could argue that these positive results are outweighed by negative results like religious wars, fanaticism, and really overpriced cheese sandwiches.

But, if you look closely, you’ll see that most of these problems stem from somebody mistaking their particular God API version for the Whole Big Thing. And if you’ve got the Whole Big Thing, then somebody else ain’t got it, and you must be right while they must be wrong, and this can lead to superiority complexes of pathological and dangerous proportions.

It might seem offensive to compare religion to a web app. (I know some programmers who would be offended by this at least.) But, if we put our sanctimoniousness aside for a moment, I think the analogy can shed some light on what religious practices are actually doing, and help us look at our differences a little more technically and a little less personally.

Just the API

APIs are a structured way to connect and exchange data. The whole of the Google Maps code is far too complicated to connect to and try to interact with. That would be overwhelming. The API makes a certain portion of the program accessible to people who just want to get the latitude and longitude of the nearest pizza joint.

We can look at religion in a similar way: connection protocol, maybe authentication, data transfer, maybe sign off in some way, and voilà: API call successful.

One system can have many APIs. Canada Post, for example, has three different and incompatible APIs for getting shipping rates. Figuring out which one needs to be used for a given circumstance is almost as mysterious as choosing a religion, but that’s not the point. The point is that the API is not the system.

Where are the docs?

There’s one annoying thing about the APIs of God: the documentation is not so good. This can lead to all kinds of problems. In some cases, people get so confused about their API that they start worshiping the API, rather than using it to connect and transfer data. Or, they believe that their API is the only one, and therefor everyone else is doing it wrong and might need to be corrected for their own good, by force if necessary. Or, they let their API get so encrusted with extraneous bits that no one can figure out what’s actually the essential parts of the API and what’s a hack that was added by some programmer who couldn’t get some dependency linked up properly and forgot to add a comment on why the hack was needed for some particular case.

These are all easy mistakes to make when you’re working with a mostly undocumented API that nobody knows much about other than bits and pieces patched together from millenia of reverse engineering attempts.

Security

Supernatural APIs also have some security vulnerabilities. One is the man-in-the-middle attack, where you think you’ve got a port open to God, but actually it’s connected to something else, like maybe the back of your own head. This is why it’s good to verify your data with a behavioral checksum. If your API call tells you to do something that’s contrary to what other kinds of API calls generally recommend — something like blowing yourself up, burning witches, or massacring the Canaanites — then your connection has probably been hacked. Better check the connection logs and see what happened.

History is rife with examples of hacked supernatural API calls. They are particularly dangerous because there may be enough genuine API content getting through the hacked connection to bamboozle the onlookers into thinking you’re a boss programmer and they better follow you wherever you lead, because it’s sure to be groovy. But, the back-of-your-own-head part of the data stream can turn groovy into not-so-groovy fairly quickly, which can be a disappointment to everyone.

Protocol consistency

Deistic APIs all have their own procedures, just like other APIs. You can connect to Canada Post and get shipping data with either a REST API or a SOAP API, but you can’t connect with one and then try to get data with the other. It just doesn’t work. Godly APIs also have different protocols. The Zen API might involve spending days or weeks sitting still and pondering a riddle about dogs, while the Jewish API might require wavering back and forth and reciting verses from very old books. For squeamish modern humans who might be allergic to ceremonial protocols, there’s the no-God proxy API that might involve walking through a forest at sunset, staring out from the top of a mountain you’ve just climbed, stargazing, or discovering a new mathematical theorem. Or other things.

These APIs might all work, but that doesn’t mean they are all the same. You can’t mix two API protocols for double the data. If you try to mix APIs into, for example, a Zen Shiva Christ-Consciousness Shaman Warrior Goddess Moon Kabbalah Ceremony, you’re likely to get no data at all. If you do get data, you might want to give it a sniff before you stick it in your database. That kind of a glommed-together application is usually a security nightmare of the first order and is likely to have been already hacked a few times by Russians, the NSA, the Chinese, and even the video-game nerd living in the basement down the street. Caveat emptor.

It might be more technical than you think

To get data with an API you usually have to send something first. If you want info on a book from Amazon’s API you first have to get the connection going, which involves sending your API keys. They might look something like ZBJs7deF9KLJ2342FdVO. Based on this, we might say that Amazon is a strange, powerful creature that lives up in the cloud, and is hungry for long strings of numbers and letters. If you give it some it will make it happy, and then it will bless you with data.

Of course nobody believes this about Amazon. Who would want a long string of numbers and letters? With supernatural APIs we are, as usual, more easily confused. Some connection protocols include things like singing Hosannas, Hail Marys, or Hare Krishnas. One might conclude we’re dealing with a massively egotistical system that requires a lot of praise and flattery before it will do anything. Praise might be part of the protocol, but that’s no reason to anthropomorphize the system into a petulant teenager. Praising and Hallelujahs might have more to do with prepping the input buffer in your system than propitiating a higher power.

All these APIs have protocols and procedures and data formats and complex maneuvers involved — praying, for example, or staring at the stars on a clear night, or reading a wise book. But even if all the procedures are followed, it doesn’t always work. It’s kind of like connecting to Google Maps from my small-island radio internet connection: sometimes it works, sometimes not.

API calls that don’t work may be one reason most North American and European churches are mostly empty. A defective API call might be because a well-intentioned reformer, taking things literally, decided to delete parts of the API call without knowing how it actually worked. Or, it could be because the API call is being done improperly by mistake (in which case finding someone well-versed in that API and getting some tips might be a good idea). Then again, it may just not be the right API for the connecting system. There are many others, so don’t despair.

Do these APIs change? Are they always the same — so that one could connect with equal efficacy using the same protocol, say, in ancient Greece, and in modern Athens — or do they get updated from time to time, so we have to use new protocols? Or is it the other way around: are we changing over time, and the APIs are having to adjust so we can still connect to them? Who knows, but if we want to revitalize ourselves as a species, it might be a question worth exploring. What sorts of API calls could give us renewed connectivity to the universe and all of Life, quickly?

Excuse me, I’m just making an API call

For my adult life I’ve been a daily meditator and a software developer. Meditation, I’m sure, has made me a better programmer. Programming, has probably made me a worse meditator.

In exchange it has provided a few good metaphors, and — from all that troubleshooting — a couple of useful rules:

1. don’t assume you already understand what’s happening.

2. don’t assume you can’t understand what’s happening.

Metaphors are tinted goggles we can put on and take off depending how we want to see the world. Sometimes they help us see things we might have missed otherwise. This doesn’t mean one metaphor is more right than another. If it’s useful, use it. If not, find a new one.

The same applies to API protocols. If we look at religious and spiritual practices through the metaphorical lens of an undocumented API, it can help us see them with both compassionate and inquiring eyes. They may be beautiful, mysterious, and profound, but they also have a structure and pattern and internal mechanics that holds them together — just like a symphony, a flower, or an emotion. The technical and the numinous co-exist.

Happy connections.

Ecological Efficiency, Hamburgers, and the Possible Survival of Civilization

“Efficiency” usually means the degree to which costly inputs to a process are reduced in relation to the process’s desirable outputs. This linear input-process-output model of efficiency fits well with the linear models of production, consumption, and growth that have been spreading, like cultural parasites, over the globe for the past few hundred years.

On a finite planet, though, such linear models are doomed.

Is there a measure of efficiency that could work on a finite planet? One that could guide us toward cyclic, harmonious processes rather than linear, doomed processes?

A Tale of Two Hamburgers

In the Mato Grosso province of Brazil, near the Xingu River, on the traditional lands of the Bororo indians, in the midst of one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, is a 32,123-acre soybean plantation. Its borders are sliced out of the green patchwork of forest with satellite-guided precision in a perfect rectangle. Planted and fertilized by tractors, dusted and sprayed by airplanes, harvested by a swarm of massive combines, this is, in conventional terms, possibly one of the most efficient food production operations in the history of human civilization.

Field cut through the Mato Grosso forest (image thanks to Google Earth)

In ecological terms, though, it is a monster of staggering proportions. This monster stretches back and forward in time: back through the network of energy and chemicals that feeds the soy plantation, and forward into the places where the soybeans and the leftovers from their production will go.

These soybeans grow on fossil fuels, from Venezuela or Saudi Arabia or Kazakhstan, refined and shipped across oceans and burned to make the concentrated nitrogen fertilizer needed to grow soybeans in the thin post-rainforest soil. Some of this nitrogen becomes soybeans, while much of it floats into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a highly potent greenhouse gas, or runs off into rivers and eventually estuaries. The soybeans are transported to feedlots where they are fed to fattening cattle. Some of this nitrogen becomes manure and urine, and the rest becomes beef. The beef eventually comes to North American fast-food restaurants, and is turned into hamburgers. The hamburgers are enclosed in disposable packaging, money is exchanged, the hamburger is eaten, and the packaging is thrown away.

This is not the end of the hamburger. Once eaten and digested, the nitrogen whose journey through the linear food system began with fossil fuel extraction goes from a gut to a toilet to a sewage plant, and eventually ends its journey by being dumped into a river or an ocean or denitrified into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide.

This hamburger — we’ll call it Hamburger A — is a masterpiece of linear efficiency. Every step in its production and disposal may be fully optimized for maximally efficient use of human labour, capital, and even energy. The business plan of hamburger A is optimized to perfection. But, because every part and process of hamburger A begins somewhere and ends somewhere else, and the two do not connect, there is a vast impact that is outside the business plan of the hamburger, but borne by the Earth. Hamburger A is a linear hamburger of doom.

Now consider Hamburger B. It is a hamburger that could, in an only slightly different version of reality, be purchased at the food co-op on the small island where I live. It is almost a Möbius hamburger, because there’s no beginning and no end to any of its parts, but we have to start somewhere: nitrogen-rich manure from animals and humans is applied to nearby grass and grain fields. Cows eat the grass, while fertilizing it with their excrement. Grain is harvested using human and animal labour and small machines, then ground into flour nearby. Cows are butchered, and ground up in small batches. Farm and processing leftovers are recycled through composting and carbon-sequestering biofuel cycling. Flour and meat are transported a short distance, then made into a hamburger and immediately eaten, without packaging. Once it’s served its purpose in the human digestive tract, hamburger B is composted and recycled into fertilizer.

In conventional terms, hamburger B is appallingly inefficient. The localization of production and processing eliminates all the economies of scale that benefit mass production. Every step in the process is small, slow, and labour-intensive. Marketing, branding, testing, process design, and transportation all have to be figured out locally, rather than by specialists in a centralized organization.

But, in ecological terms, hamburger B is far more efficient than hamburger A, because the required adaptation of nature is minimal — it doesn’t create extractive impacts from mining fossil fuels or mineral fertilizers, and it has only very small, local impacts from the leftovers of the system’s processes. We could call this property of Hamburger B, the minimal adaptation required by the rest of nature, ecological efficiency. Under this definition, a process is ecologically efficient in inverse proportion to the amount of adaptation — present or future — that it demands in the surround bio-ecosystem.

Hamburger B is ecologically efficient, but where does that get us? In our current economic arrangement, almost nowhere.

The Economic Catastrophe

It is well known that hamburger A is a disaster, and hamburger B is where we need to be heading. Why, then, is hamburger A still taking over the world, and hamburger B still disappearing?

We can think of a socioeconomic system as a Darwinian environment that shapes the fate of its contents, in the same way that rocky environments lead to the evolution of mountain goats and the deep ocean vent environments lead to sulfur-breathing tube worms. I call this extension of the notion of selection from evolutionary theory the principle of selective systems. In an economic environment where conventional efficiency is the sole determinant of fitness, hamburger A out-competes hamburger B. This is why, in North America, hamburger B has become scarcer and scarcer, and hamburger A more and more ubiquitous, even though A is, in systemic terms, a defective hamburger that carries the seeds of its own destruction.

In biology, something like this has been dubbed a trojan gene effect: a heritable trait may confer some extra virulence and spread through a population, even though it weakens the population overall, potentially leading to its collapse. In this case, the unchecked spread of hamburger A and all that goes with it, driven by a relentless maximization of conventional efficiency, could lead to the conclusion of our current attempt at civilization and the end of the hamburger as we know it.

Conventional efficiency is driving the biosphere to the edge because to be inefficient is expensive. Our economic system is designed around the maximization of linear, economic efficiency, not ecological efficiency. There is zero economic cost for ecological inefficiency, except where it overlaps with conventional efficiency because of resource costs or where government regulation has made pollution or extraction expensive.

We all know that hamburger B is better, but still, hamburger A wins.

Hope, or something like it

Looked at in strictly political, or economic, or ecological terms, it seems that we and the rest of life on this molten, igneous, fascinating, miraculously evolving megalith are, to put it bluntly, screwed. Neither market forces, nor altruistic politicians, nor ecologically conscious consumers have come anywhere close to turning our society from its dogged march towards ecological disaster.

If we zoom out from politics and economics and ecology to look at the larger picture, the situation looks even worse. This, paradoxically, might be reason for hope. Altruism may not have to work entirely on its own.

The same linear mindset that is wreaking havoc with the biosphere is at work in human society. For example, consider the linearity of current methods of handling a person’s passage through life. In traditional societies, the elderly generally take care of the young, while those of in between years are working. Today, this cyclical arrangement is broken: children start in a hospital, are then handled by a daycare, then go to school, then, if economic and social conditions permit, to university, then they get a job, possibly have children, eventually retire, and then are exported to a nursing home to end their days surrounded by other old people under the management of professional caregivers. This is an efficient system indeed: hospitals have specialized economies of scale at baby production, daycares have economies of scale managing herds of toddlers, schools are efficient at mass production of more or less socialized teenagers, filtered by obedience and academic skills, universities continue the filtration process and allow mass selection of mates, jobs fill most of the time not occupied by sports and television, and nursing homes keep the embarrassing and unsightly denouement of the human condition from distracting the workforce.

The psychological costs of this arrangement are on a par with the ecological costs of the linear industrial food/waste system. The Earth, which bears the burden of the latter, cannot speak. The humans, who bear the burden of the former, can speak, and are very gradually coming to grips with how thoroughly their lives have been misdirected through the machinery of linear efficiency and an economic dogma that deifies the crude satisfaction of material desires while blindly ignoring the ultimate purpose that satisfaction is supposed to serve: human well being.

This is, possibly, the most hopeful thing in the world.

A Sermon for the Choir

Please note, dear reader and esteemed member of the choir: this hortatory fragment was written some time ago. Since then, the climate has changed just slightly. This means it is already out of date. However, it remains less out of date than most hymnals, so the choir may still find it of modest interest.

How shall I begin? This world is filled with pain, with desperation and peril, but it is also full with unending beauty. Humankind, victims and perpetrators of our own stupidity and heedlessness, are also beautiful. While not shutting our eyes to the condition of our world and our fellow creatures, and of our own species, we must keep our hearts open to the beauty that surrounds us, wherever we are. Faith is the antidote to despair. Faith is not the province of facts; it is the province of experience.

All things are connected. Strip mines in Appalachia are connected to families who watch television for four hours each day, and can’t listen to each other. The ones who are killed and maimed in far away places by bombs dropped from planes from our countries are connected to the ones who lie hopeless beneath cardboard boxes and blankets on the streets of our cities. Not caring is connected to not caring.

Children who grow into teenagers who grow into adults without learning to respect and care for the world outside themselves are connected to politicians who do not respect the truth or care for the lives and living communities that are entrusted to them. A million people marching through the world’s streets pleading for a livable planet is connected to me listening, truly, when you speak.

It is a moral challenge. It is about truth, and ethics, and the fate of our children’s children, and the children of all beings. It is about being righteous in our relation to the future, and to the present. It is about being good.

It is one struggle. If we realize this, we can see that there is sanctity in working for justice, peace, and wholeness, and that learning to be virtuous is a revolutionary act.

Virtue is not fashionable. Goodness, sincerity, and innocence are not fashionable. Plant a flag on these things and you may be laughed at, but it is the only way to push forward towards a brighter future without being, and looking, like hypocrites.

If we want peace in the world, we have to be peaceful. If we try to fix the wrongs of the world out there while ignoring the cultivation of our own peace, we are too weak for the job at hand. Ghandi spoke of soul force. But we cannot have soul force if our souls are muddled with postmodern confusion about whether it is possible to tell right from wrong.

Real activism goes from the center of one’s self to the farthest reaches of the world. The strongest change comes from within. If our actions are harmonious and based on the same principles all the way from our closest, most immediate effects to out farthest, most distant effects, then we are strong.

The foresight that sees that unmitigated carbon emissions will lead to dire consequences is the same foresight that sees that children growing up in a culture of moral vacuity will lead to dire consequences. Politics would divide us into camps who see either the outer ethics of the world or the inner ethics of character, but seldom both. In the hands of vice, politics would divide and conquer virtue. This is not the way forward.

There is a universal ethics. They are values shared by all peoples and espoused by all faiths. If we base our efforts to save this earth on them, we can communicate across creed and culture and politics.

There is sanctity in all life. The world, created through whatever means, deserves to live. We may steward and cultivate, but not destroy.

If we accept the reductionist premise that all is mechanical, then we are attempting to make a meaningful argument on behalf of life, and of future life, in a context in which life itself has no meaning. It is like attempting to lift one’s self up by one’s own feet. Such a capitulation is not necessary.

We see that there is sacredness in standing up for justice and peace, and there is revolution in sincerity, kindness, honesty, and virtue. To be strong in righting the wrongs of the world, we must work for rightness and harmony and sanctity in ourselves, and among ourselves, and between ourselves and all of creation.

We must be ambassadors of truth and goodness, and yes: also of beauty, for real beauty also transcends boundaries of creed and culture. This is not the sort of beauty one has to be taught to appreciate. It is not the beauty of modern art, or of contemporary design, or of fashion, or of the avant-garde in any field. The distinguishing feature of the avant-garde is its speedy obsolescence. The distinguishing feature of beauty is that it is never obsolete.

Bringing truth, and goodness, and beauty into the world can happen in the humblest of ways. A smile. Work well done. Honesty. There are a million ways in which our human faculties can serve in the growth of the world, in the unfolding of something new. We cannot predict what that something will look like, but we can be, as fully and honestly and artfully as our capacities permit, today, and that will lead us on to what is next.

Jesus, I’ve heard, said to love your neighbour as yourself. Our neighbours are all the living things we come into contact with. Our neighbourhood is the community of all such things, and the culture that exists among them, and our relationships to them. If love fills the gap between our selves and all of our living relations, earth, plant, animal, human, then we cease to be an atom drifting about bumping into other inanimate objects, but become part of something larger, and can begin to see ourselves in all living things.

No matter how far human ignorance and greed goes in damaging and impoverishing the world, Life persists in its patient working of miracles. Even in the midst of the deepest poverty and oppression, there is light. Seeds sprout through cracks in the pavement.

The spark is always there. It cannot be extinguished. We must keep our eyes open, and notice it, and collaborate with it in brightening the world.

Between Here and There

There is a lot of talk in the small, curious world of theoretical physicists, and in the swarm of admiring hand-wavers, paper-skimmers, and buzzword-retailers that surrounds them, myself included, about the arrow of time. This arrow, which is no doubt fletched with the remnants of scores of papers debating its existence, speeds in only one direction. Nobody knows why. “The equations of physics,” so the story goes — I don’t know these equations, but I have this on good authority — can “run in either direction”. Why, then, do they run forward from now until tomorrow, rather than backward from tomorrow until now? Nobody knows, and it seems there is only a very mumbling and ill-equipped dude by the name of Entropy keeping tomorrow from crashing into yesterday and causing a mass of utter confusion.

One day, I will write down a theory about all this, and convince my physicist acquaintances to read it, perhaps along with some bitters for stomach calming or, perhaps more likely, a tube of caviar paste which they are, strangely, quite fond of. Today is not that day.

Today the arrow of time I want to discuss is psychological, not physical, and it moves — if it can be said to move at all — not necessarily forward or backward, but primarily sideways.

What could this possibly mean?

Time, psychologically, has at least two dimensions. There is the forward and backward dimension of the past we remember and the future we imagine; and there is an up, down, or sideways dimension of our current mental state and outlook. Why is our mental outlook a dimension of time? Because as it changes, the futures we can imagine also change. It is as though we are traveling sideways in a 2-dimensional plane of time: the forward-looking line of plausible futures changes with each version of now we inhabit. As usual, a scientific plot will help:

 

 

This is of course not the whole story. We behave as though there’s a future out there, and we’re going from here to there, but in fact there isn’t a there at all, only a interminable here that changes as it goes along, such that one here is vaguely related to what we did in the previous one. Brilliant, eh? No. It’s the biggest cliché since Zen and the Art of Whatever-You-Jolly-Well-Please. It’s also true.

The idea of a here, and a there, and some kind of passage in between is an important illusion. It’s important because without an imaginary future over there that we can be illogically striving towards, here tends to get increasingly shabby. Entropy, remember? He was talking about people, not futures, but Victor Frankl said it very well.

If there is what we imagine could be, should be, or must be — say, a world in which humans are living in something like harmony with the Earth, or a version of myself that has moved beyond Earth-destroying economic entanglements — here is our starting point, the situation as it is: a world getting closer to ecological collapse each day, and myself still eating, directly or otherwise, from the economic systems that are abusing the planet.

Futures have a function, and that is to alter what we do in the present. To serve this function, though, they have to be believable. To be believable, we have to be able to see a way to get between here and there. To see a way between here and there, through or around the obstacles that lie in between, we have to be looking from the right spot. To get to the right spot, we have to be able to move, not just forward in time, but up, down, and sideways, such that we can change our outlook until we catch sight of a future that looks so frickin’ fantastic that we’ll get — no, we’ll jump — up off our sorry butts and start trying to drag ourselves, possibly our friends and relatives or anyone else who will listen, possibly even the whole world, in that direction.

In extreme cases that are successful, this is called being a visionary. In extreme cases that are unsuccessful, it’s called being insane. Otherwise, it’s called the human condition. How I feel, what I ate for breakfast, what calamitous or inspiring thing I’ve just been informed of all change my outlook, and therefor what seems to lie between here and there. My movement up, down, and sideways in time is determined by a host of factors, only some of which are under my control. The more I understand them and learn to navigate, the better my view can be.

All this talk of viewpoint could be dismissed as romantic delusion, but the fact is that where we are — what forward-looking line we can see — is critical for practical, real-world effectiveness.

Famous change agents are famous in part because they were unusually capable navigators of perpendicular time, and were able to see a route between here and there that was invisible to others: Ghandi, for example, a route of non-violent resistance from tyranny to self-rule; MLK a route of non-violent resistance from oppression to civil rights; Victor Frankl a route from despair to meaning, no matter the circumstances; Elon Musk a route through a $100,000 battery-powered roadster from fossil-fueled disaster to universal clean energy; Donal– …. no, never mind. There are negative visionaries as well: those who are able to see a route from here to a version of there that is generally repugnant enough from where many people sit that they can’t see the line of possibility and are therefor taken horribly by surprise. Visionaries are nearly always underestimated, since their futures are simply impossible when viewed from where most people are looking from.

Every visionary is some percentage a failure. The vision of what could be — peace between Muslims and Hindus in India for example, or justice and equality between races in the USA — rarely fully comes true. Reality falls short of the mark, but it can get much closer thanks to someone finding a place to stand where they could catch a glimpse through a pin-hole of possibility, and then describe it convincingly enough to bring others close to the same viewing point.

Views of what’s possible create their own probabilities. The question is not which view of what’s possible is “most true”; the question is: which view of what’s possible will lead to the best result?

I think the heart, that organ of surpassing sagacity and sometimes of extreme foolishness, generally knows this. It is more prudent than the mind, and invests only in what is inspiring, knowing that what is inspiring has the best chance of success.

As an activist in any arena, even the petri dish of my own consciousness, I have to keep in mind that navigation of mindset and motion on the ground are of equal importance.  Just getting to the visionary place where I can see a way forward does nothing; pushing for change without getting to that place may do less than nothing, because the pushing might not be pointed in the right direction.

We need to have an inspiring vision, whether it’s of a more beautiful world, or a more enlightened version of myself, and we need to know in our hearts that this vision is possible. At the same time, we need to look very close to home, in both time and space, for the real action that will move us forward towards whatever a positive future will look like, whether it matches the vision or not. Like belief, a vision of the future is a tool that can be used for adjusting the knobs and dials of our own minds and motivations. Meanwhile, the knobs and dials of my mind affect the future I can see, and so believe.

Between here and there is an imaginary landscape. It is by changing the version of here I’m inhabiting that I can get the virtual reality out there to leverage the evolution of here so that, in time, there can become real.

Why Not Democracy?

Democracy means “rule by the people.” We call our system of government democracy, but we are not ruled by the people. Technically, we are ruled by politicians.

Every few years we are subjected to an election campaign. We attempt to select the best of a small number of choices, and — if we’re not too jaded to bother — we mark an “x” on a piece of paper and drop it into a box.

The input bandwidth of our national democracies is approximately one bit every two years. After 16 years of civic engagement, then, our input amounts to one byte: about enough data to contain a single character of the English alphabet. This is what we know as democracy. The ancient Greeks (who invented the term) might be surprised at our use of their language.

Two centuries ago, when our current political systems were designed, newspapers were the cutting edge of information technology. Low bandwidth democracy may have been the best available, and representative democracy was the result.

In theory, representative democracy means that a politician represents his or her constituents in government; in practice, it can seem to mean that she or he represents a political party to constituents at election time. Once elected, there is generally no requirement for the “representative” to represent the will of the constituents at all.

The constraints that democracy operated under two centuries ago are gone. Today, it is very easy to measure the opinions of a population. It is done routinely by market research companies, and even by political parties to better sell themselves to voters. But what if polling were not just a tool for political and commercial marketing? What if it was a condition of elected office that a clear majority opinion among constituents must be truthfully represented in government?

It would be simple to implement such a veridical representative democracy, but there is a step missing: who is going to implement it? Power is rarely relinquished voluntarily.

It is an age-old dilemma, but in this case there is a loophole. In countries such as Canada, directly representative democracy could be put to the test without first changing anything about the system of government. What if one courageous and imaginative candidate promised his or her constituents that once elected, their voice — the opinion of the majority of the constituents — would guide the representative’s actions in the assembly? A single candidate could provide an example that could radically reform the way we are governed.

Would such a candidate be elected? And if elected, would they be capable of implementing the promise of real democracy? I don’t know. I do know that the our ancient machinery of governance is overdue for an update.

The problems facing our societies are not being effectively solved by our current political arrangements. We could pin this trend on any number of contributing causes — a dumbed-down electorate, the media, lack of apparently meaningful alternative candidates, complacency of a society that’s never had to fight for its freedom, the influence of money, laziness. But, identifying mutually reinforcing causes is not a solution.

Real democracy could be. If citizens’ opinions really mattered, there would be reason for them to become informed about issues that affect their lives. The intelligence of a society could be brought to bear on the questions that are important to its future in a way that no individual politician or political party, whose ability to act wisely is hampered by a tangled web of political obligations, could arrange.

Civilizations live and die by how well they are governed. The acceleration brought about by exponential technological change and its unintended consequences places a heavy burden on the abilities of society to make well-informed, timely, and far-sighted decisions. Climate change, environmental degradation, inequality, financial instability, and resource depletion demand wise governance if our societies are to survive or prosper.

If there is a better way to make the decisions that will shape the fate of civilization on this perilously fragile planet, we must find it.

Democracy? Let’s give it a try.

On The Saving of Planets

Planets, in the basic sense of the word, do not need saving. Their trajectories through the heavens are wholly indifferent to the squabbles and errors of microbial-scale life upon their skins. Even in a more inclusive meaning of “planet,” that of a home for life, a garden of diversity and even, perhaps, a living being, it would be hubris to talk of saving. Humans may be foolish and damaging, and may wreak an ugly blip on the timeline of planetary vitality, but life goes on.

There is a sense, though, in which the planet, or the work of the force of nature upon it, is in danger. Over the course of planetary history there has been long-term trend, if fossils are to be believed, of greater and greater diversity and complexity in the thin film of life that calls this planet home.

We are part of that film, of planetary nature’s great creative work, of life becoming itself in all its astonishing beauty and complexity.

We are part of the continuum of life, in this sense neither greater or lesser than a tree frog, or a buttercup, or even, perhaps, a raindrop. But, within this continuum, our capacities may beunique; our meta-awareness, our ability to know that we are knowing, to feel that we are feeling, to imagine, build steward; our capacity to understand, if we will, distant causal connections, to make inferences, to shape-shift our consciousness such that we can imagine being a fish, a parakeet, a lemon; we can see wholes from parts and parts in wholes; and through language and culture we can build upon these things from one generation to the next.

We can be the neurons of the planet, a meta-species through which the earth can see, and know, and care for itself.

We can be this, but only if we will. So far these awesome gifts have been used to abuse, destroy, and impoverish. Through arrogance and greed, through our failure to realize our role as stewards and observers of the biosphere, we are endangering not only the diversity and elegant functioning of the Earth’s life, but also the survival of ourselves. Perhaps most immediately, we are endangering the possibility that our civilization may, somehow, stumble forward into a new comprehension of our relation with ourselves, the Earth, and the universe, rather than backwards into chaos.

Our civilization is a mixed bag, and no mistake. Within that mix, though, there is caring and beauty, and an expression of constructive instincts that are as fundamental to our natures as language and tribal networks.

If that civilization fails, and fails without the redemptive result of a more cooperative version arising in its place, then the work of life on this planet will have taken a step backwards; the road to another civilization getting this close to a tipping point of contextual understanding could be very, very long.

We can chose to see evolution as the dumb mechanics of fate, or we can chose to see it as a sort of miracle. (Science has nothing legitimate to say on this point. Which would you choose? And which view point, overall, leads to more of what’s true, and good, and beautiful?) What a gift that the dynamics of evolution didn’t favour the Earth being permanently enveloped in a film of single-celled slime moulds. It could have happened, and the fact that the we’ve escaped such seemingly-possible equilibria may be a giant case of quantum tunneling of the most magnificent kind, but that’s a digression for another post.

Yes, life will go on, will return, will cover and erode the scars left by this most daring of its creations, eventually. Nature has worked long and hard on us, though, and if we really mess up it may be a very long time before some other part of the planet emerges that can look itself in the mirror and see the whole looking back.

Evolution occurs in fits and starts. Sometime, it is crisis that forces progress, be it biological, psychological or societal. The story of evolution is, in the larger timescale, the story of smaller, separate things forming larger things through cooperative networks. If we are to continue this story, we will — at some scale, through some means — learn cooperation beyond what we’ve yet employed, and possibly beyond what we can easily imagine.

In this time of vertiginous unraveling, there remains reason for hope. Despite human nature, despite 10,000 years of misery and conflict, despite all that has been tried and failed, we have not yet fully explored the territory of human cooperation. We may have never been closer to disaster, and we may also have never been closer to breakthrough. The more blatantly our ways of living on the Earth are not working, the more motivation exists for seeing other possibilities — possibilities that may yet save this fascinating experiment from the lab-bench sink.

This is the summer solstice. As the Earth turns again, its implacable trajectory moving for perhaps the 4.5 billionth time around the ever-radiant sun, through the black star-studded reaches of space, an extraordinary drama is slowly unfolding on its thin, teeming skin.

We are not done yet.

Genesis

This is it, my friends. After some years of incubation, ideas begat words, which begat documents, which begat schemes, which begat domain names, which begat doubts, which begat delays, which begat panics, which begat more delays, which begat reflection, which begat inspiration, which begat more domain names, which begat a WordPress installation, which begat a “coming soon” page, which begat, after a surprisingly brief interval, this post.

It was bound to happen some time, just like our fine-tuned cosmos in the universe-proliferating schemes of Max Tegmark, or every possible version of everything according to the many quantum mechanical worlds of Hugh Everett. (These are highly unparsimonious theories, but they do forward the increasing difficult and quixotic aim of keeping meaning out of science’s view of the universe; and, incidentally, of this post.)

Starting a blog is like climbing up a rocky outcropping and flinging ideas into the wide, murky ocean of the internet. They may sink, float, or, in rare cases, catch some off-shore zephyr in their gossamer thought-sails and go zooming off toward the far horizon. It can be messy, but here’s the thing: ideas don’t really do any good if they’re just sitting around getting fat and eating all the potato chips in the back of my head. They need exercise. They need to get out a bit more.

The perfect exercise machine for a flabby ol’ idea is a conversation, and I’m hoping this blog will start a few. They may be online or off, light or deep, short or long. Possibly, it will facilitate communications with various people who, noting my lack of academic qualifications, wealth, royal parentage, or Twitter followers, would hesitate to communicate otherwise.

If I’m very lucky, it may even shatter the dull poignancy of a conversation in which nobody realizes their mutual enthusiasm for evolutionary game theory, composting their own manure, or even Life the Universe and Everything; due to this, they have a brief exchange of insipidity that is of interest to no one, then go away feeling slightly more disappointed about themselves and possibly the whole universe.  If this blog somehow thwarts even one such encounter, it will have paid the debt of its existence and proved a counter-example to my brother-in-law’s well-intentioned theory that talking about ideas makes me an aloof, nerd-infested brain case from which all sociable people will run away while silently clutching their heads. Disproving this theory is one of my ambitions in life.

I intend to write about some of the strange things I’ve noticed during my so-far-thirty-odd-year sojourn among the three-brained beings on this planet. Here’s one such strange thing: none of us are merely “on” the Earth; we are part of it, along with the rest of life; we are an expression of the creativity of Earth and Sun, of the miraculous propensity of the universe towards complexity and splendour. And, we are an expression of DNA, of natural selection, of genes selfish and altruistic, of the struggle for survival, of physics, chemistry, and biology. Worldviews can contain each other.

So, this blog will also be about jigsaw pieces of things — science, religion, ecology, enlightenment, politics — that seem to fit together surprisingly well, but haven’t been assembled quite yet.

You and me are like neurons in the brain of a very large creature. Each of our communications is a little action potential jumping across a synapse, contributing its minuscule vibration to the whole symphony of our sleep-walking global cranium that one way or another, through its harmony or discord, shapes the fate of the world.

Right now, that symphony isn’t sounding too good. But, the better we can each play our own instrument, and the more elegantly we can harmonize with others similar or dissimilar to ourselves, the more we can contribute to getting the whole orchestra pit back on track.

Dendrites collecting incoming signals? Check. Ion channels loaded? Check. Membrane potential approaching threshold voltage? Check. Neurotransmitters massed in the presynaptic terminal? Check. 3… 2… 1… ZAP!

Thanks for stopping by.