Philosophy

Why The Precautionary Principle is Misguided…

It was some two-thousand years ago Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, in book 35 of his 37-volume encyclopedia, Earth, told of an aspiring young goldsmith who presented a shiny new metal to the Roman emperor Tiberius. The metal? Aluminum. The emperor, an extremely wealthy man with vast holdings of precious metals such as gold and silver, inquired if he had shared this discovery with anyone. The Goldsmith’s answer was no. Tiberius had him instantly killed.

The Emperor’s reasoning went something like this: If a rarer—therefore more valuable—metal than gold and silver had been allowed to spread, the Emperor’s holdings would depreciate. (Why he did not just force the potter to work solely for him befuddles me, but emperoral thought is an enigma unto itself—and I may just have made up a word.) The Emperor’s use of the Precautionary Principle (PP) successfully delayed the re-discovery of aluminium by almost 1700 years, where again it became the most valuable metal on Earth. (That is, until 1886 when the method of electrolysis was adapted for aluminium.) Now it is so cheap that we wrap it around our food only to throw it away when we’re done.

This post concerns itself with similar use-cases of the PP in the modern world to nefarious ends. However, before continuing with my extrapolation of the PP in the present day, some definitions are in order. The Precautionary Principle, at least defined by modern standards, was formulated in the early 1990s by the UN as below:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

The above is quite sensible. The Emperor’s actions, however, which are not in accord with the above, would be considered an extreme example of the precautionary principle—hereafter referred to as Extreme Precautionary Principle (XPP), however, it has been referred to as the strong form of the PP, also. What’s troubling is not Tiberius’s actions 2000 years ago (bygones be bygones), but that today many modern greens are advocating similar use-cases for the XPP. Today, greens and those on the left advocate the XPP in regard to biotechnology (albeit only those we eat; those we inject ourselves with, ala insulin, get a free pass). Here is the activist version of the Precautionary Principle, formulated at the Wingspread Conference in 1998:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

 

At face-value, it is almost identical, yet there are critical differences. Compare the following fragment from the UN’s PP: “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage,” to the Wingspread’s XPP: “raises threats of harm.” The two are quite distinct. The former implies that there ARE threats occurring, or WILL occur as a result of some cause-effect mechanism postulated (it does not have to be fully understood). The latter uses weasel words such as “raises threats” and makes no mention of cost-effectiveness (e.g., the solution needs to have a good chance at being better than the problem, so as not to distract from other solutions that might be better, as is the case with the backlash against Golden Rice today). The result of such ambiguity is that non-existent fears can be—and have been—cooked up. The quintessential modern case is genetically modified (GM) foods. One method by which many oppose GM foods is to harp up that they are not proved safe. Now, anyone who understands an inkling of how the scientific method works find no surprise there. Scientific hypotheses/laws/theories can only ever be proved false, not true. The best we can aspire to is to show that a particular scientific law/theory is applicable within the bounds of so and so empirical boundaries given conditions X, Y, Z.

What’s more troubling than ignorance of the scientific method is that the Wingspread PP allows such rationalizing. It has no cost-effective (cost-benefit) mechanism, and as a reviewer of this article pointed out to me, those raising threats of harm are never accountable for being wrong. Moreover, what does one mean by threat of harm—why not actual harm?—which begs the question: whose definition of threat? The scientist or non-scientist definition? A scientist needs at least a hint of a cause-effect mechanism to propose a hypothesis, set up an experiment, and attempt to disprove the null hypothesis. Activists, however, as evidenced by numerous articles, seem to only require a priori considerations (albeit, sometimes they seem to make stuff up), though usually bringing motivated reasoning to the table.

The XPP, as espoused by many greens in the last few decades, requires of science a standard of evidence that demonstrates absolute safety (which is literally impossible), and when that evidence is not forthcoming, and it can’t be, attempts to steer the discussion towards the curtailment or cessation of that technology. Such reasoning is often found among those reasonable greens who pontificate on the dangers of GMOs decades down the line (because there is no evidence to suggest any danger today). “Sure, GMOs have been shown to be safe today, but what do we know about potential complications twenty years from now?” some may say. However, theoretical concerns twenty years from now are almost irrelevant when the problems that GMOs solve are manifestly real here and now. (I choose the word irrelevant very carefully. That is to say, they do not exist and, furthermore, may never exist.) The risk that complications may arise twenty years from now are outweighed by the rewards they solve today, such as reduced pesticide and water use, reduced soil erosion and carbon emissions. These problems, if allowed to continue as is, would generate very real risks tomorrow, next decade, and twenty years from now if not addressed today. In other words, non-existent unknown fears twenty years from now, which may or may not transpire, are allowed to outweigh problems that we know will most certainly exist in twenty years. Today we find that GMOs increase yield, replace intensive pesticides with milder ones, while their negatives, if any, may transpire (or, perhaps more likely, may not) one, two, or three decades from now. That is a bet any rational person should take every time, regardless of differing risk perception. Many modern greens would not take this bet, which is a sure sign something is awry with modern risk perception.

A tangential situation occurred in recent years when scientists created a potent human-transmissible version of the bird flu (H5N1). Controversy stirred after the news became public. People picked their sides from: ‘This is too dangerous to pursue’ to ‘This is vital research that can help explain how viruses evolve.’ The former group was advocating the XPP; the latter group was operating on the principle that more knowledge is better. Well, the advocates of the XPP were wrong in this situation, and the latter group justified. Why is this? Well, for one, we do not live in the ancient Roman Empire where, if some piece of knowledge were discovered, you could cut off the head of the snake with one fell swoop and be content it had vanished—at least for a time. There were no scientists then, and no mode of instantaneous communication across continents. People were, for the most part, beset with the problem of surviving the day-to-day—little else mattered. None of which is the case today. Today, the world of censorship is all but impossible. (Yes, Big Brother can monitor what you see, do, and filter through some of it post-hoc, but look at the last few times that Western governments and corporations have tried to regulate information pathways on the Internet; they’ve failed.) On the Internet, you can find instructions to make just about anything, from—unfortunately—bombs to—awesomely—3D printers, and everything in-between. In other words, once something is out there, its out there. The idea of a human transmissible bird flu is out there and there is no putting it back in the bottle. Moreover, even if these particular scientists did not publicize their experiment, it would not have been such a leap to put two and two together by both good and bad actors.

Furthermore, the technologies such as Information Technology that underly the Internet and the biotechnology underlying biology sit on exponentially growing trends that every year propels them into more hands at less cost with increased capability. Perhaps, were one committed enough, one could recreate the flu variant the researchers did (or something close enough), with very little help—and if not now, then it is only a matter of time. To show how far along biotechnology has come; recently, in California, a competition was held among students to produce novel organisms. The students succeeded in creating 248 novel bacteria. Students. Kids. New life. Never been seen on the Earth! Eventually, one way or the other, the right chain of thought, experimentation, or discussion will instigate some bio-hacker or terrorist to do it on their own, and if governments squash a website with such information, it will simply pop up somewhere else—as the DHS and CIA have discovered terrorist propaganda does.

However, to come back to the main point: The reason the scientists were, and are still, justified in doing such research was to better understand the mechanisms by which the flu virus evolves, mutates and, given enough research, discover any weaknesses. If the H5N1 were ever to evolve to make the jump to the human population, either on its own (plausible), or by some malicious act (terrifying), such information would put to shame any further usage of the word ‘priceless’ for all time. The globalized world being interconnected and constantly traversed such a virus, were it ever released or evolved, would devastate humanity. It would catch every government and scientific institution by surprise reaching every corner of the world in a matter of weeks, if not days. By the time any research was started; its weaknesses, if any, discovered, and a vaccine developed and deployed, who knows how many people would have died. (The movie Contagion accurately depicts such a global pandemic, and it is very, very scary.)

At the end of the day, human transmissible bird flu is possible. It may evolve naturally or be developed nefariously or weaponized for purposes of terror. Given that potential reality, it behooves us to instigate steps to ensure that if it does happen, the counter-attack is ready and swift. The mortality rate from H5N1 is somewhere in the region of 60%. Even if there is the tiniest chance of it evolving to be human-transmissible—and there is more than a tiny chance, not to mention the many other flu variants—any effort put into preventing such a disaster could reap untold benefits. That is to say; the risk-to-reward ratio is in favour of research, because tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people dying infinitely outweigh a few million dollars in research in a Level IV quarantine lab. Yet, the crux of the XPP would have its constituents stick their heads into the sand and do nothing—in essence, hoping that such a scenario never comes about, instead of doing everything possible to ensure it does not. Part of the problem, I think, is that the XPP gives the illusion of taking action, while in reality, only superficial action, at best, was taken.

Furthermore, it seems that in recent decades society has been cajoled into defaulting to the XPP. Take the following two examples.

DDT

In 1962, Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring, which stressed the adverse effects DDT was having on bird populations in the United States. The burgeoning environmental movement latched on like a fat kid on cake, and within a short amount of time, the pesticide was banned worldwide. (It was not banned for disease vector control, however, often enough aid money coming from wealthy western countries came with an addendum: DDT not be used—an example of the XPP approach on top of the XPP!) The banning of DDT had many deleterious effects, most notably for poor people in developing countries without recourse to alternate methods of fighting malaria, or, in rare cases, only access to more expensive and less effective methods. Today, up to 3-million people, most of whom are in Africa, die of malaria each year, and DDT was, and still is, the most effective pesticide for fighting malaria-borne mosquitos. Yet, despite never being implicated in a human death, it became almost impossible to source due to its banning for everything else. What were the ramifications of the XPP approach? Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health wrote “the ban on DDT may have killed 20 million children.” Some price to pay for egg-thinning in Bald Eagle and Pelican populations in the US. In the decades since Carson’s book and the banning of DDT, we have learned a lot more about DDT’s effects, and though not everything is known, its effects fall far, far short of the original claims put forth to justify its banning. As Brian Dunning wrote: “There probably is a correlation, but it’s not a strong one; and at best it’s only one of many causes. Whether DDT is used or not would probably not have a large impact on bird populations.” As a result of activism, society and government went way, way too far in its curtailment, and adverse affects (seems wrong calling the deaths of 20-million children an adverse effect, but language fails me) have demonstrably made this world worse off. 

Golden Rice

Golden Rice is another example. It is a genetically-modified rice that produces beta-carotene, which the human body converts into vitamin A. In 2005, it was estimated that 190 million children and 19 million pregnant woman were affected by Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). Of these two staggeringly large numbers, 1-2 million of them die each year, while causing 500,000 cases of blindness. Golden Rice, despite being effectively ready since 2002, has been blockaded by Green organizations such as GreenPeace and Friends of the Earth delaying its introduction to those it could help the most. Despite the controversy over GMOs (most of which relate to agriculture in general, instead of to GMOs specifically, such as patents, abuse of monopoly, and market share concerns), Golden Rice was intended from the outset to be patent-free, zero-cost, and freely re-plantable to any and all farmers who earn less than $10,000 p/a. Despite these concessions, opposition to Golden Rice remains as adamant as ever, with full support from the badly defined, easily rationalized XPP. As we saw with DDT, there is no cost-benefit analysis; such as, what is the risk of two beta-carotene inducing genes escaping into the wild and what are the implications to the local environment vs. the well-being and suffering of hundreds of million of people. Is that a price we can afford to pay to ensure the health and safety of a significant portion of the region? The answer, clearly, is yes. Despite the lamentations of Greenpeace et al. that vitamin-A pills are a superior solution, which are of a top-down nature, it can never have the reach and cost-effectiveness of a bottoms-up approach. Supplementation programs cost $4,300 for every life saved in India; fortification programs cost $2,700 per live saved, while golden rice is estimated to cost $100 per life saved and is just as effective in imparting the necessary vitamin A. Both cost-effective, with a favourable risk-reward ratio to tackle a moral dilemma. Instead, as a result of fundamentalist use of the XPP, twelve to twenty-four million people have died of preventable-VAD since 2002. (Although it is easy to say X amount of people died, this is not to say that X amount of people would have been saved if GR was legal and distributed in the region. The key measure is that some fraction of X would have been saved—hopefully a high fraction, of course—and a population of people would be on their way to telling their children of the scourges of VAD as their society course-corrected to an optimum use of their resources to become and stay healthy. Instead, what we have now is a stagnating population of people continuing to die without any moral outrage on the part of the public.)

The Precautionary Principle can a valid tool, if used rationally. It can paint a big picture of what could be one way or the other.

What might happen if we do this?

What could occur as a result of that?

But, it is only the first step. Very few, if any, conclusions can be drawn from there. From there, it not only needs a cost-benefit analysis (which the activist PP avoids entirely), but further a risk-reward ratio, plans of action, contingency planning for the ‘what-if’s’ and ‘could’ve been’ scenarios that are brought up, along with a host of other factors. For example, in the 60s, someone could have asked “what will replace DDT in disease-vector control?” Then, as a follow-up: “what do these replacements cost and how does that affect the poorer countries most afflicted by malaria?” (The severity of mosquitos is underestimated by almost everyone, so I think a little context is needed here: malaria today kills 725,000 people a year, which for comparisons sake: humans kill 475,000 other humans per year.) How effective are they compared to DDT? Finally, they could have asked if the cost of banning DDT outweigh the potential risks of doing nothing: continue using DDT? In hindsight, it is easy to say the answers were: nothing, more expensive, less effective, and no. Yet, there was nothing in principle stopping regulators and scientists from being able to find out the answers to such questions then. At the time, it was known that DDT saved millions of lives as the discoverer of DDT was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1948, while the effects of DDT in American populations of Eagles and Pelicans were only hinted at, and when studied in greater care, was shown to not be entirely causal (there were multiple causes, of which DDT was a relatively minor one). The question then becomes (if we could travel back in time, that is): do we risk millions of lives for the reward of potentially helping the environment? Even if one were a misanthrope, the answer is not so clear-cut, as families tend to have more children in areas with higher child-mortality, because they know some will die, therefore, the environmental burden increases one way or the other.

To bring this back around to the bird flu fiasco: What are the risks from H5N1 becoming human transmissible?

Risk, in the case of a virus, depends on several factors:

The R0 (basic reproduction rate) of the virus, N (human population), the contact rate, and a suite of other variables that estimate how fast and how deadly a disease is to a given population. All told, the result would be that millions, perhaps tens of millions, of deaths. As a reference point, in 1918, the Spanish Flu infected a third of the planet (some 1.6 billion) and killed 50-100 million people. If the early 20th century had our population density, comparable numbers would put the death toll between 175-350 million.)

On top of that, as if that wasn’t enough, it is fair to say that economic output would plummet, millions would lose their jobs, with a concomitant drop in quality of life. These would increase the general disease burden, population growth would increase to compensate for the increasing disease burden, and tangential factors like infant mortality, maternal mortality, poverty etc., would likewise rise in lockstep. In short, it could be a planet-wide disaster.

What are the rewards?

Increased health (as has been the upward trend of the last century) and less human suffering. The likelihood of increasing disease burdens (along with infant/maternal mortality) rising are slim to none in a stable, growing world economy. That also goes for the economic rewards from not losing the billions of work-hours from death and illness, and the restriction of travel, plus the economic output that would not have materialized if the pandemic occurred.

Does it make sense, therefore, to attempt to mitigate such a risk for such a reward, even at the cost of a potential outbreak? Yes, it does, by any criteria with the risk so enormously large (the bird flu could evolve on its own, it could be weaponized etc.), and the reward so much larger (that is, the reward includes hundreds of millions not dying if the risk materializes).

But, perhaps, the biggest lesson is this: outlawing research into any particular field only stops law-abiding scientists and citizens, not bio-terrorists or would-be Malthusians. The outcome merely stops honest folk from working to understand it within a regulatory framework that the public and government allow with oversight. Adopting, in this case, the XPP does not get you a better risk-reward ratio; it simply deepens the risk and superficializes the reward. It may as well be called placebo logic. (If the expected risk never comes along, it is pure luck that saved society, and not rational forethought, hence its superficiality.)

Contrarily, if we allow scientists to research it under strict quarantine, we will in time learn to develop a cure. Perhaps be able to synthesize one in very short order, or know where to look should the unthinkable happen. One thing is for sure: whether we outlaw it or not the universe will not respect our wishes. Nature won’t decide to give up on virus strains evolving, adapting, and mutating to better allow for their fitness just because we’ve collectively decided that we don’t like catching the flu. Nature has no laws; it just is, and it just does, and it is humanity that must adapt to it instead of the other way around. By allowing research to continue, we are accepting that responsibility.

This situation is going to come up again and again as we move into the technologically accelerating future. Very soon we’ll have nanotechnology coursing through our veins, more lines of genetically modified crops will be needed to combat climate change and pest resistance, and nutritional deficiencies in crops as a result of higher CO2 atmospheric conditions. We’ll even genetically modify humans (in fact, the first have already been born—and yet, we can barely get to grips with GM corn, and by we, I mean only affluent foodies in the West). No matter the answer or ethical outlook one has for banning such technologies, only one thing will occur if they’re banned outright: They will move underground. Bans rarely ever, under any circumstances, eradicate a problem. Outlawing drugs has not decreased drug use; outlawing abortions has not stopped abortion; and placing speed limits hasn’t stopped speeding. Trying to do so are examples of placebo logic, and humans are as bound to placebo logic as human physiology is bound to placebo medicine. Sometimes it works purely by chance; however, more often than not, it doesn’t.

Ramez Naam’s brilliant book, Nexus, accurately depicts a future where genetic enhancements (such as enhanced intelligence, increased muscular strength, carbon-fiber enhanced skeletal structures, etc.) are banned in the West, yet are available in locations such as Thailand where it is not legal, but it is tolerated. (For the record, these are all potentially real enhancements that may come in the following decades.) Their illegality has the adverse effect of creating a global tourist trade of folks making their way to where it is legal, or illegal and tolerated, to receive the enhancements—of course, minus the safety net and regulatory structure that a government provides. Because, as we all know, when humans really want something, it is practically impossible to stop some fraction of them from getting it. As is often the case in reality, in his fictional universe the crime syndicates are the primary beneficiaries. Much like today it is the cartels who benefit most from the illegality of various drugs to the tune of $26-29 billion, at the expense of human well-being.

Over 60,000 people have been killed in the pursuit of profits from illegal drugs in Mexico alone, and millions have been thrown in jail and had their futures destroyed for taking a decision that would, were those drugs legal, affect only their own body—except in the most extreme circumstances. This situation is not only pathetic, it is backward, counterproductive, a waste of resources, and most importantly, human life. Yet, it is an example of the XPP: Let’s not deal with the issue of drugs and why folks want them; let’s just ban them and pretend the problem is solved. Society tried to outright ban drugs, i.e., to work against human nature, which wants what it wants, instead of working with human nature and researching ways to allow human social life and drug use to co-exist. It is evident that one cannot exist without the other. Were we to do similar with studying the bird flu, we’d be embracing a similar scenario: we’d lose the benefits of the research, while still exposing ourselves to the risks, which have not been mitigated by the political solution of banning, as has been the case with drugs.

The future is coming, and it is coming fast. In order to create the best possible world, we need to identify the shortcomings of human risk perception, see the Extreme Precautionary Principle for what it is: placebo logic resulting in the propagation of the status quo (which in real and relative terms is a regression), and above all, foster public understanding that doing nothing is itself doing something (i.e., it is a risk, and sometimes a big one!). And, lastly, just making something illegal (the opposite extreme of doing nothing) does not solve the issue of the problem’s existence; it just pushes it underground where there are no ethics committees, oversight boards, safety regulations, or public oversight and accountability. In other words, outlawing or banning ensures that society receives the bad parts, and none of the good.

In place of informed, real-world choices that include the potential implications of both doing something and not doing it, we have simplistic bans, precaution’s monotonous answer to every challenge. ~ Tracy Brown, managing director of Sense about Science.

The Extreme Precautionary Principle is no longer a practical mode of thought in the fast-moving world we find ourselves. This is not to say “away with the Precautionary Principle. I happen to agree with Andy Stirling that “Precaution does not necessarily mean a ban. It simply urges that time and space be found to get things right.” In light of that, imagine if the time and space was given to the study of the use of DDT. Imagine if greens took the time and space to actually understand GMOs and Golden Rice without ideological baggage. However, that is not what we get, what we get instead is the overuse of a XPP which leads to bans of benign substances like DDTs, opposition to required medical interventions such as Golden Rice under the facade of doing the right thing, and, when things go wrong, are not even held accountable for their actions! We need better, much better. Public buy-in and commitment would be nice, but we can very easily do cost-benefit analyses, calculate risk-reward ratios, prepare contingency plans in case plans go awry, and demand scientifically literate politicians so that correct policy can be crafted to watch industries, with experts to anticipate and ameliorate potential problems. At the end of the day, more knowledge is almost always a good thing, and less knowledge a bad thing. Yes, there are risks with everything we do; however, doing nothing is often just as big a risk, if not bigger. And banning anything is akin to sticking one’s head in the sand. The original PP allows for risk, because it is implicit that doing nothing is risky, the XPP does not.

The example is easily followed when presented in a single person whom we’ll call Bob. Our friend Bob has just been diagnosed with cancer and is given three options:

(1) Receive chemotherapy

(2) Take alternative medicine

(3) Do nothing

Chemotherapy (or evidence-based medicine, to be more precise, as better therapies will come) gives him the best chance of survival (albeit, not 100%). Alternative medicine, while giving the illusion of action, keeps him on his path towards inevitable death (unless, by some luck, his cancer goes into remission or disappears). However, Bob doesn’t like either option: he has read too much Natural News and, as a result, thinks chemotherapy is a fraud, yet, he is not quite comfortable taking alternative medicine as it often includes ingredients not indicated on the label, and even though such active ingredients might be very small, because he is a homeopath (the smaller the dose, the more potent the effect), he foregoes even this option. So poor ol’ Bob opts neither for the red pill (chemo), the blue pill (alt.med), but opts instead to do nothing. Six months later, Bob is dead.

Now, you say: “thank you Captain Obvious for pointing out the obvious! Obviously, doing nothing is a risk in this situation!” And yet, though some will disagree, if Bobby boy chooses the blue pill (alt.med), his likelihood of death is quite likely to be just about the same as doing nothing. The obvious choice (the chemo) does not have a 100% success rate, yet it sure beats the others, but wasn’t chosen. Now, replace Bob with Society.

Routinely, society has the same three choices to pick from: take the red pill (evidence, logic, and course-correct as required in full view of the public) making hard choices on the way that will occasionally backfire; take the blue pill (i.e., political solutions and placebo logic to technological problems, human nature, or both, i.e., drugs, free trade, globalization), or freeze/ban/ignore innovation (DDT, stem cell research, and who knows, perhaps very soon, self-driving cars, wearable computers, and nanotechnology). Society and Bob are not so different from eachother. (While ban/freeze and ignore are two different options, I have simplified them into one for convenience’ sake. For example. imagine if the US government ignored the Soviet push into space; that is, did nothing. No NASA agency, therefore, no Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo programs. We wouldn’t have explored the hundreds of worlds in our solar system, made it to the Moon, or launched satellites, or learned about climate change from Venus. As a result of such a program, microprocessors would not have been invented, nor single-crystal silicon solar cells, memory foam, safer helmets, emulsified zero valent ironadjustable smoke detectorsimproved breast-cancer detection analysiswater filtersstanding wave reflectorscochlear implants, and thousands of other inventions that have returned to Earth to benefit humanity. Imagine, without the Cold War, the Internet, originally called the ARPAnet, might not have been invented, which was spawned by the US government to ensure that geographically disparate scientists and government leaders could communicate with each other in the event of a nuclear world war. The adverse cost of doing nothing can be large.)

In the near future, we may find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with the dangers of antibiotic resistance, stagnating worldwide food yields that need to be 70% higher than today by 2050, population growth (which will increase if the standard of living drops), resurgent and new diseases, pollution, declining water-tables, and the problem of climate change because politicians are all too eager to pander to the crowd, and the crowd never bother to learn about the important issues of the day—if they are able to do so, at any rate. So far, societies have tended to oscillate between doing nothing/banning and the blue pill, and we’ve muddled through—so far. However, we may soon need the red pill. Given our history and propensity for easy answers, how likely are we to take it in an age where everybody thinks he or she is an expert or, even worse, think themselves smarter than the experts? A Bayesian argument here spells trouble.

The coming decades will present bigger issues than we have ever encountered before, and if the public still allows itself to be cajoled, either by activists, industry, or government, to the Extreme Precautionary Principle, we will be the worse for it.

Yes, there can be misuse and abuse. Yes, we will make mistakes. But perhaps the worst abuses are committed by those espousing the precautionary principle: “Prove this will never harm anyone, and I’ll give you permission.” Had such folks been in charge a few decades ago, we would never have had cars, stairs, electricity, or hammers. ~ Juan Enriquez

[UPDATED: 17th May for grammatical, spelling, and flow errors. ~ Fourat J]
David Deutsch and Jason Silva

The Beginning of Infinity: Untestable Theories & the Power of Explanation

In reading David Deutsch’s brilliant book, The Beginning of Infinity, I finally came across a couple of simple reasons why untestable theories in science are a dead-end and why the explanatory content of a theory matters. It’s very common for me to harp on about empiricism and evidence to friends and folk I debate on subjects like God, heaven, homeopathy, alternative medicine and other realms where science cannot speculate or has to no avail. I’ve never, however, managed to condense such lectures into conversational fragments that didn’t make them hate me by the time I finished. For that reason alone, I’m glad I came across Deutsch’s book; for my argumentative arsenal has increased.

Let me start by asking a few questions:

Q1 – What is the single factor that science, pseudoscience, and non-science have in common? (This is not a trick question).

A1 – The answer is that they started thousands of years ago, with the same base of information, which is relevant to the conclusion at the end of this post.

Q2 – Now, what differentiates science/pseudoscience, and non-science?

A2 – Testability*

Put it that way, A2 is obvious. As Karl Popper wrote: empiricism is the demarcation point between science and non-science (the criterion of demarcation). In other words, the testability of a hypothesis will tell you if it can be improved by experience. And, if it can’t, there is nothing to rely upon except authority, yet the rejection of authority is what allowed the scientific method to come into being, and thereafter flourish!

Deutsch’s 1st Science Nugget: an untestable theory cannot be improved upon by experience

There was nothing new in Deutsch’s nugget of wisdom that I didn’t know before, but its succinctness and comprehensibility are what struck me. No longer will I need to leap off onto fifteen minute tangents on why someone’s pet theory is wrong. It is as simple as this: if it can’t be tested, it can’t be improved by experience, therefore, it is far more likely to be wrong (which, in a Bayesian sense, may as well mean that it’s always wrong—in the sense that a rational person wouldn’t believe something a priori).

Another way to put it is this: when a untestable theory is set forth as part of an argument one has no good reason to believe it, as there are any number of equally untestable theories one could believe in. In such cases, there is nothing to resort to except authorities (which is to say ‘you’ll only have reason to believe this because he/she/I said so’—i.e., the way Natural News works!). Without testability, there are only arbitrary reasons for choosing between competing theories. Religion is the quintessential example of this phenomenon. How many religions are there? Hundreds. Christianity alone has something like 2,000 different sects. Furthermore, in Mankind’s short history, there have existed some 10,000 gods. According to Deutsch, the reason why is because the hypothesis that there exists a God or Gods is inherently untestable, and I can find nothing wrong in such logic. And, in the absence of rigorous empirical results, anybody’s pet reason for why this religion/sect/god is better than that religion/sect/god is as good as any other. (Actually, it is testable as Deutsch eventually avails, but only when the explanatory theory of the theory is bad, which I’ll get to soon).

An untestable theory (that is to say, a theory not able to be falsified) cannot be improved upon by experience, only by authority, which confers no explanatory power other than because I said so, therefore, it offers no real-life implications (other than those implications that it confers as a result of pretending it has real-life implications).

In Q2, I put pseudoscience on the same side as science when differentiating the demarcating factor between science and non-science. The difference between science/pseudoscience and non-science, as I wrote above, is testability. You can test science and find out one way or the other it’s validity, and you cannot do this in non-science. The reason that science and pseudoscience line up together is because you can test the pseudoscience. However, it’s staying power in the realm of its empirical demise is the difference between science and pseudoscience. That difference being their theories respective explanation. That is, whether a theory is a good explanation or bad is what further demarcates science and pseudoscience.

Duetsch defines a bad explanation as a theory that is easily variable while still explaining the same thing. For example, Deutsch uses the Greek myth explaining winter: Persephone was forced into marriage with Hades and had to visit the Underworld to perform her womanly duty for 6 months of every year. Persephone’s mother Demeter would become so sad upon her annual leave to the Underworld that she would blanket the known world in snow. That was the ancient Greek explanation for the winter. However, it is a bad explanation because it did not account for the seasons of the Southern Hemisphere, where it was summer alongside the Greek’s winter. Now, if replication was the sole factor in transforming a hypothesis into a scientific theory, an ancient Greek would need wait only year and after and upon winter’s recurring return, would have proved Demeter’s sadness to be the cause of winter.

Imagine then, after our Greek scientist successfully proved his theory that knowledge of the Earth’s sphericity was discovered, and in the northern hemisphere’s winter the southern hemisphere experienced summer. Would they then abandon the theory of Demeter’s winter? No, as Deutsch argues: our Greek scientist would’ve modified his theory to state that in Persephone’s annual absence, Demeter banishes the heat from her vicinity only, thereby explaining the South’s summer. Theory saved and Greek life marches on. Yet, what has changed in the explanatory content of the theory? Nothing! It essentially boils down to the same argument: the gods did it. By Deutsch’s definition, the theory is easily variable (a bad explanation). A good explanation for the winter, on the other hand, looks something like this: the combination of the Earth’s 23.5 degree axial tilt, albedo, atmospheric components, distance from the Sun, along with the Sun’s thermonuclear transmutation of hydrogen into helium which releases photons that, as a result of stellar convection, forces the photons on a 10-million year journey to the Sun’s surface, upon which they break free of the sun’s gravity and dash out on an 8-minute sprint to the Earth all interact in such a way to produce regular annual variations in the average temperature on the surface of the Earth that humans call spring, autumn, winter, and summer. How easy is that theory to vary while still explaining winter? Nigh impossible. Remove the axial tilt component of the Earth, and our weather would be relatively unchanged year round (no explanation). If the strong nuclear force—a key process of stellar transmutation—were 2% stronger, helium would not be produced in the sun’s core; in fact, no stars would exist at all because all the hydrogen in the universe would have transformed into bi-protons within minutes of the big bang resulting in a boring universe devoid of form (no explanation). If any one of a million variables is changed, the end-result is entirely different. That is a good explanation.
There we have the demarcation point between science and pseudoscience. The variability of the theory’s constituents should modify the theory’s explanatory power significantly. If it does not, be wary.

Deutsch’s 2nd Science Nugget: A hard to vary theory is more likely to be a good explanation than an easily-variable theory

Take the real-world example of homeopathy vs. medicine. They both started at ludicrously wrong theories of the human body. The conventional medicine of the time believed the body to consist of four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm; while homeopathy believed that diseases can be cured by a ‘like cures like’ remedy that increases in a potentiality inversely correlated to the amount of remedy present. Despite medicine believing an equally silly thing (though at least they could see those 4 things in the body), it has today come to the point of organ transplants, chemotherapy, antibiotics, vaccines and a host of other lifesaving devices because it used the criterion of demarcation (testability) to remove the non-science components of then-medicine, and further, regularly tested new explanations for why certain things worked or did not work, and updated the relevant theories with those that had better explanatory content. (I make it sound simple here, but in reality, it happened millions of times, across millions of people, and millions of times with information being lost/rediscovered all the time, and to top it all off, thousands of dead ends, duplicative works, hoaxes and the like. It was, by no means, an easy process, and it will continue for centuries more, so long as the core of science remains intact.)

To demonstrate the issue at hand. Consider when homeopathic practitioners learned of the existence of atoms, their finitude, and pesky facts like Avogadro’s constant. They didn’t stop believing in the explanatory content of homeopathy (that substances which cause similar symptoms in large quantities in healthy people cure that same symptom in dilute quantities in sick people), they instead opted to invent a water memory that cannot be directly tested (just like our ancient Greek would’ve amended his theory of Demeter’s winter). Compare that to the discovery of thalidomide’s effect on pregnant women. It was banned, with no excuses or fake hypothesises present.

In the end, the key difference between the competing theories is that even though they both started at horrible explanations (as Q1 above), one strived not only for testability, but for good explanatory prowess, while the other did not. (Homeopathy has regressed into non-science because it embraced testability until it didn’t work, and can no longer be considered a pseudoscience by Deutsch’s definition.)

To summarize: real science revises its theories in light of new observations to arrive at better explanations, while pseudoscience does not. These are further differentiated from non-science by being testable, which separates theories that can be improved upon by experience from those that cannot.

The Beginning of Infinity is a fascinating escapade into science, philosophy, and epistemology and I heartily recommend to anyone so interested. He rails against scientists for not taking their theories seriously, and ravages pseudoscientists to shortsighted to see past their own bad explanations alike. And this post, by the way, is only material from the first chapter. I look forward to reading the rest of this book, interlocuting my own thoughts on his chapters in written posts like this.

Afterword: I am well-aware that I’ve defeated the purpose of why I like those two tiny tidbits of information by extrapolating them into a 1,800 word post! Some things never change. I’m okay with this.

Further Ruminations on the Appeal to Nature

Sometime back, I wrote a post about the Appeal to Nature fallacy. It is a fallacy that bothers me quite significantly; the main reason is because its assumptions and consequences are unspoken or, in most cases, never addressed.

For those who don’t know the Appeal to Nature (ATN) usually involves a dietary and medicinal claim that natural products are, directly or otherwise, better than artificial (read: man-made) products. Anytime you read the words “Natural”, “All Natural,” “Organic,” you are reading an Appeal to Nature; specifically, to nature’s goodness–I’ve never seen arsenic used in an ATN. Notably, it tends to rear its head in relation to conditions and diseases that our current medical knowledge is unable to address—Alzheimer’s and cancer being two examples among many. (In that light, the ATN might be considered the exploitation of severe emotional distress among those at the least rational stage of their life as they face daunting, perhaps hopeless, odds to make money, but that’s just the pessimist in me talking.) The selling of natural supplements is often marked as a way to give back power and certainty that psychological wellbeing demands; subsequently relieving cognitive discomfort, albeit at exorbitant costs (in relation to their benefit that is—except for a few, genuinely exorbitant price tags such as Stanley Burzynski’s supposed cancer cure which rings in at several hundred thousand dollars). From multivitamins to gingko bilboa, the ATN is a powerful train of thought.

However, despite its popularity, it is so full of holes, contradictions and—what really gets me—unspoken assumptions and conclusions. I’m not going to bother debunking it; that has been done many times; once here on this blog, and many other—far better—denunciations on the Internet (my favourite being Kyle Hill’s Does Mother Nature Always Know What’s Best). Rather, I plan on taking the ATN through to its logical conclusion.

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friedrich-nietzsche

Favourite Quotations from the Anti-Christ

I recently finished reading Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, and my, oh-my, was it a great book! Granted, I only understood about half the book, and to top that embarrassment of,  had to look at the dictionary for half the words he used (thank god — sic — Kindle has a built-in dictionary), yet it was still a riveting read. I can’t remember the last time an atheist’s words were this memorable, beautiful, and powerful. Let me tell you, Nietzsche can throw a verbal barrage unlike no one I’ve ever read before. Below are some of my favourite quotes from the book in order:

1 – “The histories of saints present the most dubious variety of literature in existence; to examine them by the scientific method, in the entire absence of corroborative documents, seems to me to condemn the whole inquiry from the start – it is simply learned idling.

2 – “The ‘salvation of the soul’ in plain English: the world revolves around me.”

3 – “If any one were to show us this Christian God, we’d be still less inclined to believe in him.”

4 – “Such a religion as Christianity, which does not touch reality at a single point and which goes to pieces the moment reality asserts its rights at any point, must be inevitably the deadly enemy of the “wisdom of the world,” which is to say, of science — and it will give the name of good to whatever means serves to poison, calumniate and cry down all intellectual discipline, all lucidity and strictness in matters of intellectual conscience, and all noble coolness and freedom of mind.”

5 – “Man has had to fight for every atom of the truth, and has had to pay for it almost everything that the heart, that humans love, that human trust cling to.”

6 – “The fact that faith, under certain circumstances, may work for blessedness, but that this blessedness produced by an idee fixe by no means makes the idea itself true, and the fact that faith actually moves no mountains, but instead raises them up where there were none before: all this is made sufficiently clear by a walk through a mental asylum.”

7 – “Christianity remains to this day the greatest misfortune of humanity.”

8 – “Faith means the will to avoid knowing what is true.”

9 – “I condemn Christianity; I bring against the Christian church the most terrible of all accusations that an accuser has ever had in his mouth. It is, to me, the greatest of all imaginable corruptions; it seeks to work the ultimate corruption, the worst possible corruption. The Christian church has left nothing untouched by its depravity; it has turned every value into worthlessness, and every truth into a lie, and every integrity into baseness of soul.”

What’s your favourite quote? I can’t decide between 4 and 8.

mind reader

Mind-Reader

Neuroscience is one of the sciences most feeling the exponential progress of technology. With the invention of the fMRI machine, we can peer into the brains of people (and presumably animals). Each year, the tools and techniques we use to probe into the brain are doubling in their precision, finesse, and resolution (i.e., we can resolve more and more detail in less and less time), until eventually, some say between 2030-2040, we will be able to see all 100 billion neurons and their 100 trillion intra-neuronal connections firing in real-time in the human brain. As these technologies, and several others, increase our quantitive understanding of the brain, we have other technologies increasing our qualitative understanding, i.e., learning to decipher the organized chaos of the mind.

Scientists can mind-read words that a patient reads silently (note: this cannot be used yet to read what you’re thinking but only match up what your reading). And scientists have figured out a way to reconstruct movie clips that people were watching from their mind; as well as reconstruct the voices in other subjects heads. Laying the groundwork for mind-reading far in the future. (Though I do hope that Moore’s Law doesn’t allow those devices to become portable, though conceivably, even if they do, technology will be invented to keep out eavesdroppers–Norton BrainSafe? On special for only $999.99. In fact, just yesterday, an app named Silent Circle became available for iPhone and iPad that creates uncrackable peer-to-peer networks to call, message, and send files. [The app must still pass an independent security test which it will do soon, so grain of salt])

But I don’t want to get bogged down in technical jargon and scientific details. If you want to go in-depth on such subjects; chapter-four of Kurzweil’s ‘The Singularity Is Near’ is a well-to-do primer. (I imagine his new book, How To Create A Mind, will explore chapter four in even greater detail, but I haven’t read it yet.)

What I do want to explore are the things we might do with such technology once it becomes cheaper and more capable in the coming years. (We won’t have to wait until 2030 to fully take advantage of it, but it will take that long perhaps for the advancements of the brain-deciphering mentioned above.) I’d love to see this tech trained on animals. Just think of what we’d learn. We know that dolphins have a language; they have syntax and grammar, have been known to outsmart humans, and even introduce themselves to newly met dolphins. In reading Carl Sagan’s (amazing) book, Pale Blue Dot, he mentions that in flying to space, we discovered the Earth. It might be said, in talking with the first species, we will have discovered our humanity.

What will we learn talking to a chimp? Or an ape? Or our dogs and cats? Who wouldn’t want to know the width and breadth of their thoughts? How they think, why they think; do they have a capacity of choice, and if so (a safe assumption to make), how much capacity?

The story of civilisation is that of our increasing circle of compassion. That is, as our technology advanced, we became likely to view others as sub-human, and began viewing them –  properly no less – as equal, thereby laying the groundwork for new moral truths, and thus, more moral societies. We are moving beyond our evolutionarily endowed tribal mentality. (Though we are not yet out of the woods but we are, oh so close.) It only seems logical to extrapolate that this circle of compassion will expand, and indeed has already, to the denizens of the entire animal kingdom. Perhaps, on that day, resistance to the theory of evolution will stop? (Though that may be wishful thinking on my part.)

What animal would you want to talk to first? And why? I’m all for the dolphin, but let me know in the comments below.

is politics relevant?

Political Relevance

This is sub-chapter #10, of Chapter #3, Politics, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World.

Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.


POLITICAL RELEVANCE

A question I’ve pondered for many years and still cannot find a definitive answer for: Why is politics still relevant? Democracy was invented thousands of years ago in Athens. It was created at a time when humans didn’t understand a fraction of what we do today, in relation to what was happening around them. So philosophy was used to arrive at the most rational answer, and while that was great for the Hellenic epoch, it isn’t so adept at arriving at final and conclusive answers today, where the well-being of our societies often rests precipitously at the confluence of resource management, health, economic stability, and vibrance.

Stephen Hawking said in his latest book, The Grand Design, “Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in Science…” And well, in a small way, he’s right. Traditional philosophies and science are no longer comparable in terms of their tangible contributions to society. Though philosophy is a useful and oft-times beautiful endeavor in thought, it is less meaningful (by meaningful, I mean practical) today than at any other time in history on hard-issues such as climate-change, pollution, population, food-production, and so forth. We must design or engineer ourselves out of these problems using the scientific method (not that philosophy cannot be involved in the thinking stage). In the same line of thinking, politics, invented in the time of philosophy, should be of waning relevance, as it is based on the same intuitions: namely, the human mind, which neuroscience has shown to be inherently biased, though more importantly, unable to impartially view and act upon information presented to one’s self, no matter the circumstance.

Yet its relevance seems to be in recent years rising. In 2012 we had elections going on around the world; most noteworthy being the recent American presidential election, which concluded months upon months of agonizing Republican posturing, talking points, ads, backstabbing, news coverage, debates, and the usual nonsense that accompanies the two-horse cacophony.

Talking point after talking point is endlessly thrown back and forth, with the candidates incessantly arguing which is the best way to do this and that—political whims and soundbites, little of which is based on fact or empirical evidence, but only designed to increase a politician’s popularity.

The same debate recently raged on in France during the 2012 election, where the new—now president—candidate Francais Hollande was campaigning on a platform to enact seventy-five percent taxes on millionaires, and when pressed on the futility of such a measure, even if passed, brushed those concerns aside, effectively saying it is a moral measure to tax a productive member of society ever more so, like a milk cow. And if you missed it, the futility of such a measure still made him want to do it because his mind was already made up. You’d have better luck teaching Germ Theory to a monkey, and luckily the measure was shot down in the closing weeks of 2012.

But the question remains, why is politics, as we know it today, still relevant in this modern society?

Politics is run on the whims and opinions of people, which can be and often are wrong and always are, at the very least, biased. It’s just as easy to believe in a lie as it is to believe in the truth, and it’s always easier to tell an easy lie than a hard truth, like the aforementioned French president, and almost every Republican frontrunner in the 2012 Republican convention, and maybe even Obama a few times. For the simple reason that lies stick easier than truths. Just look at the climate change debacle. The science has been settled for a while now, and all the new models and supercomputers dedicated to it, just refines and increases the accuracy. Yet, since the first Rio summit in 92, our politicians have accomplished next to nothing. There have been little stopgap measures here and there but nothing even close to substantive. We’veve elevated a position of power to almost mythical heights despite the majority of us almost expecting them to lie, and everywhere I go, people do nothing but complain about their leaders and representatives, yet are continually fooled into voting for another politico who happens to end up doing the same stuff, and if not the same stuff, different stuff that somehow wind up having the same outcomes.

Furthermore, on matters of the economy, health, education, and all things relevant to the modern world, the scientific method provides the means to answer these concerns without the inherent bias (at least significantly reduced bias). We can come to the best, most efficient conclusions using statistical analysis, experimentation, and peer-review using the scientific method to arrive at a suitable, efficient, and humane solution to today’s problems, so what’s with the pandering? Why so much politicking? Why such radically different solutions to the same problem that society has faced time and time again? Why aren’t they solved by now? And why are most of these solutions horrible to begin with?

It’s almost comical that in this modern age, we are using social tools invented thousands of years ago to discuss modern problems. Especially given the distrust of the people in charge by so many, whom we all suspect of lying in one way or another—especially when we have better more open tools and methods to solve it ourselves with greater effectiveness, more humanity, and zero bias thereby removing the favoritism so inherent in politics that contributes to so many social ills, which I’ll address in the next chapter.

The problem is two-fold, a misinformed populace, and the second, politicians live inside their own little bubbles, and you can’t evolve and update a system from within. It’s hard to think outside the box when you’ve spent years inside the box, and disconnected from the reality of those you are supposed to serve.

“The problem with always being a conformist is that when you try to change the system from within, it’s not you who changes the system; it’s the system that will eventually change you.” ~ Immortal Technique (Artist)

The first problem is far greater than the second. Politicians derive their power from us. There is a balance of power between the government and the people. Much like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market, there is an invisible hand of power.

Governments, time and time again, in all manner of differing governmental models, always end up doing everything in their power to distract the people they govern. Usually by way of freebies that the people themselves demand, while they diligently work behind the scenes to tip the balance of power in their favor. Maybe it’s by accident and they truly are shortsighted goldfish, but it doesn’t really matter why. It happens regardless, and it affects everyone.

On the other hand, people are usually so concerned with surviving the nine-to-five and enjoying the entertainment in their downtime whether it be feeding Christians to the lions or watching Honey Boo Boo and American Idol that there is no available idle brainpower to ponder the why for’s and the WTFs on the doings of their governments. I exclude no one from that second point, including myself.

Who takes the time these days to really research how their country is run? How many people actually want to? Who knows that much of the democratic process has been usurped, and how much of the power lies with the state? A few do, most don’t care. Perhaps they presume safety in numbers, and that this time is different; this time democracy will remain uncorrupted.

If this sounds like I’m complaining about you, you’re right. But I’m also complaining about myself. I am as much susceptible to this corrupting influence as you are, I just have more free time and have been lucky enough to have been raised to be curious, even on subjects I dislike, i.e., politics. There are few things I have more disdain for than politics—genocide, war, rape, and murder, though I think they are rooted in the misapplication of politics, so six in one, half-dozen in the other. We are so caught up in the hype of politics every few years. The media blitz, the promises, the demagoguery, and the activism, that we continually forget to ask the question, why is a politician so relevant in the modern world? I implore you to burden yourself with this question and those around you, when the subject of politics comes up.

 “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” ~ Emma Goldman (Anarchist)


Meaning of Life

Life

This is sub-chapter #8, of Chapter 2, Philosophy, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World.

Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.


LIFE

For thousands of years we’ve philosophized, proselytized, debated, and bickered over a Meaning of Life to apply to the human race as a whole. Yet, it seems to me that this is a question without an all-encompassing answer, and we fear admitting that because the notion of an unanswerable question is distinctly foreign and extremely uncomfortable. But I will try to make the case that there isn’t a meaning of life, because meaning presupposes purpose, and purpose presupposes agency—or God. After four-hundred years of searching, none of the events that was ever purported to God (or gods) ever turned out to be supernatural. (And we have good reasons to apply this to the moment of creation itself.)

Let’s start at the beginning. The Universe was created from an infinitely dense point of energy, in an event we have come to know as the Big Bang, which began the expansion of the Universe up until the present. Through all this, the Universe has followed a fairly predictable rule, repeating ad infinitum concordant with the laws of physics, and will predictably continue to do so until the heat death of the Universe, i.e., everything will be so far apart and so random that order (stars, planets, life etc.) will be impossible, and the Universe will be in thermal equilibrium (this is what timeless and formless looks like). This is also known as maximum entropy. The physicist Brian Cox estimates this will not occur for ten-thousand trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion years.

This predictable rule puts in doubt a grand Meaning of Life. This rule is the increasing complexity of matter and of objects composed of that matter—until we start bumping up against entropy that is. From hydrogen through to uranium and the ninety naturally occurring elements sitting snugly between, and to the molecules and objects comprised of these atomic structures.

This same increase in complexity is essentially, though not always, the same direction evolution has progressed in—from single-celled organisms to the fifty-trillion celled primate writing this long diatribe, pretending to be an intellectual.

So if everything around us follows a rather predictable rule based on the unchanging laws of physics, why or how, can there be a grand answer or meaning of life?

We long to be here for a purpose, even though despite much self-deception. None is evident.” ~ Carl Sagan

Life wasn’t magic, nor spontaneous, but given what we know, an inevitable outcome of the random complexity of the Universe. To give context and perspective; it is estimated that there are at least ten-billion Earth-like planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone. And the Milky Way is just one galaxy among an estimated one-hundred billion galaxies in the observable Universe, suggesting there could be trillions of planets with the potential for life. On top of that, we’ve found the building blocks of life in uncontaminated meteorites. (Two of the four nucleobases: A and G of the ATCG base-code that underlies the gene code of all Earthly life were found in the meteorites including other derivative nucleobases that exist nowhere on Earth). We should be perplexing ourselves over the odds of life not existing elsewhere, for surely there is life elsewhere, no matter how small the odds. There is simply no intelligent way of going around it. We exist, therefore, the odds are greater than zero, and the sheer immensity of the Universe guarantees that the results will be replicated elsewhere. Perhaps these other life forms also ponder the meaning of life?

To cut directly to the heart of the matter: life just is, and we just are, and there’s nothing else to it. Everything else simply springs forth from the self-importance we bestow upon ourselves—which I imagine morphed out of our evolutionary survival instinct. As survival waned in its cognitive necessity—as our intelligence was allowed to flourish into ego-centric philosophies. The Universe doesn’t operate on our needs or wants, biases and prejudices, or our hopes and aspirations. It just is, and we just are.

We are the cosmos made conscious. Life is the means by which the universe understands itself.” ~ Brian Cox (Particle Physicist)

To philosophize a grand answer or some central doctrine to life is meaningless. Furthermore, even were you to be convinced that there is an answer, how could you ever know if it was right?

We can try to make sense of the Universe, the ‘how’ and the ‘what,’ but the ‘why’ will always be out of reach. We can’t look into the Universe from outside. There is no absolute reference point. Even if we could, there’s no guarantee we’d find anything and we may just find more universes further pushing the question into obscurity, ambiguity, and nothingness. Why is but a human concept. An expression of our own agency, of our search for meaning, our subjective language, and not an inherent quality of this Universe. To assume a why elsewhere likewise presupposes agency. Some questions are without an answer.

Life, subjectively, is indeed a beautiful thing, though as far as I can tell, it carries with it, no objective meaning. The only meaning it has, is that which you yourself give it, as the astronomer Carl Sagan writes, “We are the custodians of life’s meaning.”

This question, or yearning to understand, exists because we have an innate desire, perhaps a need to be a part of something greater than ourselves. To stand for something greater than ourselves. This desire, since time immemorial, predominantly expressed in religion and in country (or city-state, tribe, and family), has persisted through the ages, an inherent part of our collective psyche.

It’s understandable why the ancients developed such an affinity with their religions and their creeds, their kings, queens, and allegiances but what else did they have in their lives? It was simply the path of least resistance in a violent, unforgiving world.

In today’s modern scientific age, this powerful desire need not be allayed to such traditional and ignorant roots. For fear of being taken out of context, ignorant here references to the dictionary meaning, ‘lacking in knowledge,’ and will be used as such in this book and not as the modern insult it has morphed into. (For all I know, I’m ignorant on everything I write about.)

We now have a vast scientific understanding of the Universe, of life, and while this knowledge may never be complete, it is at a point that we can explain and logically extrapolate where almost everything came from, how it came to be, and where it might go. Let us explore a different perspective, perhaps more worthy of our intellectual curiosity. Think back to the last time you looked upon the luminescent stars in a clear nights sky; picture them. Do you remember what you felt as you gazed upon those fiery points of light way back when? Perhaps a sense of wonder or amazement, almost spiritual in its reverence? If so, there is a very good reason for this feeling. And if you don’t feel anything staring at the sky, something might be wrong with you.

Everything that ever was, that is, and that ever will be, was created inside one of those stars. Every atom in your body: the hydrogen, the oxygen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the calcium, the iron, and the phosphorous that makes up the human being reading this page was created inside the fiery furnace of a violently mixing, rotating, and luminous sphere of energetic gas.

From these brilliant points of light in the heavens, the largest of which, in their explosive death throes, scattered their remains across the Universe, came the fantastic chemical array of which everything is built from. Their violent ends expanding the Universal (and non-sentient) toolkit, which formed yet more stars, and asteroids, comets, and finally planets. All of which endlessly mixed and roamed the Universe when by happens-chance, a tiny fraction of this kaleidoscopically arranged matter merged and mixed in unison to create an ordinary yellow star; our Sun, and formed the planets we know today. One of those planets began forming organic compounds (or received them via meteorites), which went on to become single-celled life that replicated, reassembled, and mutated trillions upon trillions of times until, finally, at last, it arrived at You.

You are literally made of star-dust and the stars are the gods of the Universe. Billions of small pieces of different stars and their matter. All of which has been smashed, re-arranged, combined and recombined, assembled, and passed down from generation to generation of stars, dust, rocks, and once upon the Earth, the never-ending chemical cauldron of volcanoes and oceans and landmasses combined with the energy of light, began one day to self-assemble into little cells, thanks to the majestic influence of that double-helix structure we now know as DNA.

Every atom in this Universe is connected to every other atom by way of the stars. We are a part of something greater than ourselves, and as such we have no need of inventing a meaning of life; we are part of this Universe, and it, us. That, you think, would be enough.

We likewise find life meaningful when we have seen that it is without purpose, and know the ‘mystery of the universe’ only when we are convinced that we know nothing about it at all.” ~ Alan Watts (Philosopher)

We are dust, borne of stars, and perhaps one day we can celebrate that instead of our ideologically irrelevant and invented metaphysical stories of existence.

I do not believe that this yearning we strive for is meaningless, merely misrepresented thus far and distorted to serve the needs of a few at the expense of the many, and guises itself as religion. (For the record: I don’t think religion was invented to distort this need, but rather was eventually hijacked to do so.) With that, I defer—for the second time—the concluding thought to Omar Khayyám’s masterpiece of literature, The Rubaiyat.

“No agony of any mortal brain

Shall wrest the secret of the life of man;

The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.” 

~ Omar Kkayyám (Mathematician)