Thursday, November 10, 2011

Across The Youniverse

Josh Rothman:

[C]hemicals organize[d] themselves into complex patterns requiring the coordination of trillions of molecules. And they did this with no instructions. No human organized them. Nor did they have a genetic blueprint that guided their actions. Their own intrinsic self-organizing dynamics directed these complex interactions.... The deep truth about matter, which neither Descartes nor Newton realized, is that, over the course of four billion years, molten rocks transformed themselves into monarch butterflies, blue herons, and the exalted music of Mozart.

This scientific story, the authors argue, should make us rethink our own relationship to the environment, and call into question our tendency to see the non-living world as inanimate. In fact, physics shows us that the non-living world is incredibly dynamic, surprising, and creative -- it's just that the creativity happens over very long scales of time. It's an important fact, they write, that the universe is itself 'set up' for creativity. The universe, they argue, isn't anarchic, meaningless, absurd, or pointless; it's creative in its essence. This should make a difference in the way we think about the meaning of our own lives: By being creative and creating novelty, we're participating in a universe-sized process.

As Bakunin said, the urge to destroy is also a creative urge. What I mean by invoking that in this context is that molten rocks also transformed themselves into lethal viruses, genocidal tyrants and nuclear weapons, and thus we're still left with the age-old question of how to live meaningfully in a world frequently indifferent or hostile to individuals, and that question isn't resolved by simply trying to make the focus of one's identity the universe itself. It's true that we really are all one in an important way, but we can't live day-to-day on that level of awareness. No one is comforted in a meaningful way by the fact that our atoms, which may once have been part of a comet or an underwater volcano, will also one day be part of other living organisms, and perhaps return to being stardust countless years hence. It's sublime to contemplate, sure; but sublime is not the same thing as beautiful, you know.