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Posts Tagged ‘Nature

“Everything / is not itself”*…

Toward an ecology of mind: Nathan Gardels talks with Benjamin Bratton about his recent article, “Post-Anthropocene Humanism- Cultivating the ‘third space’ where nature, technology, and human autonomy meet“…

The reality we sense is not fixed or static, but, as Carlo Rovelli puts it, a “momentary get together on the sand.” For the quantum physicist, all reality is an ever-shifting interaction of manifold influences, each determining the other, which converge or dissolve under the conditions at a particular time and space that is always in flux…

The human, too, can be seen this way as a node of ever-changing interactions with the natural cosmos and the environment humans themselves have formed through technology and culture. What it means to be human, then, is not a constant, but continually constituted, altered and re-constituted through the recursive interface with an open and evolving world.

This is the view, at least, of Benjamin Bratton, a philosopher of technology who directs the Berggruen Institute’s Antikythera project to investigate the impact and potential of planetary-scale computation. To further explore the notion of “post-Anthropocene humanism” raised in a recent Noema essay, I asked him to weigh in on the nature of human being and becoming when anthropogenesis and technogenesis are one and the same process.

“I can’t accept the essentially reactionary claim that modern science erases ‘the Human.’ Demystification is not erasure. It may destabilize some ideas that humans have about what humans are, yes. But I see it more as a disclosure of what ‘humans’ always have been but could not perceive as such. It’s not that some essence of the Human goes away, but that humans are now a bit less wrong about what humans are,” he argues.

Bratton goes on: “Instead of science and technology leading to some ‘post-human’ condition, perhaps it will lead to a slightly more human condition? The figure we associate with modern European Humanism may be a fragile, if also a productive, philosophical concept. But dismantling the concept does not make the reality go away. Rather, it redefines it in the broader context of new understanding. In fact, that reality is more perceivable because the concept is made to dissolve.” 

How so? “The origins of human societies are revealed by archaeological pursuits. What is found is usually not the primal scene of some local cultural tradition but something much more alien and unsettling: human society as a physical process.

All this would suggest, in Bratton’s view, “that cooperative social intelligence was not only the path to Anthropocene-scale agency for humans, but a reminder that the evolution of social intelligence literally shaped our bodies and biology, from the microbial ecologies inside of us to our tool-compatible phenotype. The Renaissance idea of Vitruvian Man, that we possess bodies and then engage the world through tools and intention, is somewhat backward. Instead, we possess bodies because of biotic and abiotic ‘technologization’ of us by the world, which we in turn accelerate through social cooperation.”

In short, one might say, it is not “I think therefore I am,” but, because the world is embedded in me, “thereby I am.” 

Bratton’s view has significant implications for how we see and approach the accelerating advances in science and technology.

A negative biopolitics, so to speak, would seek to limit the transformations underway in the name of a valued concept of the human born in a specific time and place on the continuum of human evolution. A positive bio-politics would embrace the artificiality of those transformations as part of the responsibility of human agency.

Bratton states: “Abstract intelligence is not some outside imposition from above. It emerged and evolved along with humans and other things that think. Therefore, I am equally suspicious of the sort of posthumanism that collapses sentience and sapience into an anti-rationalist, flat epistemology that seeks not to calibrate the relation between reason and world, but is instead a will to vegetablization: a dissolving of agency into flux and flow. Governance then, in the sense of steerage, is sacrificed.”

To mediate this creative tension, what is called for is a theory of governance that recognizes the promise while affirming the autonomy of humans, albeit reconfigured through a new awareness, by striving to shape what we now understand as anthropo-technogenesis.

In the political theory of checks and balances, government is the positive and constitutional rule is the negative. The one is the capacity to act, the other to amend or arrest action that could lead to harmful consequences — the “katechon” concept from Greek antiquity of “withholding from becoming,” which I have written about before.

An ecology of mind, in the term of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, would encompass both by re-casting human agency not as the master, but as a responsible co-creator with other intelligences in the reality we are making together…

The Evolution of What It Means To Be Human,” from Nathan Gardels and @bratton in @NoemaMag. Both the conversation and the article on which it is based are eminently worth reading on full.

Pair with: “Artificial Intelligence and the Noosphere” (from Robert Wright; for which, a ToTH to friend MK): a very optimistic take on a possible future that could emerge from the dynamic that Bratton outlines. Worth reading and considering; his visions of the socioeconomic and spiritual bounties-to-come are certainly enticing.

That said, I’ll just suggest that, even if AI is ultimately as capable as many assume it can/will be– by no means a sure thing– unless we address the kinds of issues raised in last week’s (R)D on this same general subject (“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way”) we’ll never get to Bratton’s (and Wright’s) happy place…  The same kinds of things that Bratton implicitly and Wright explicitly are mooting for AI (as a knitter of minds in a noosphere) could have been said— were said— for computer networking, then for the web, then for social media…  in the event, they knit— but not so much so much in the interest of blissful, enabling sharing and growth; rather as the tools of rapacious commercial interests (c.f.: Cory Doctorow’s “enshittification”) and/or authoritarians (c.f., China or Russia or…). Seems to me that in the long run, if we can rein in capitalism and authoritarians: maybe.  In the foreseeable future: if only…

* Rainer Maria Rilke


As we contemplate collaboration, we might send mysterious birthday greetings to Alexius Meinong; he was born this date in 1853. A philosopher, he is known for his unique ontology and for contributions to the philosophy of mind and axiology– the theory of value.

Meinong’s ontology is notable for its belief in nonexistent objects. He distinguished several levels of reality among objects and facts about them: existent objects participate in actual (true) facts about the world; subsistent (real but non-existent) objects appear in possible (but false) facts; and objects that neither exist nor subsist can only belong to impossible facts. See his Gegenstandstheorie, or the Theory of Abstract Objects.


“Nature is full for us of seeming inconsistencies and glad surprises”*…

George Musser talks with biologist Michael Levin about his practice of uncovering the incredible, latent abilities of living things…

Michael Levin, a developmental biologist at Tufts University, has a knack for taking an unassuming organism and showing it’s capable of the darnedest things. He and his team once extracted skin cells from a frog embryo and cultivated them on their own. With no other cell types around, they were not “bullied,” as he put it, into forming skin tissue. Instead, they reassembled into a new organism of sorts, a “xenobot,” a coinage based on the Latin name of the frog species, Xenopus laevis. It zipped around like a paramecium in pond water. Sometimes it swept up loose skin cells and piled them until they formed their own xenobot—a type of self-replication. For Levin, it demonstrated how all living things have latent abilities. Having evolved to do one thing, they might do something completely different under the right circumstances.

Not long ago I met Levin at a workshop on science, technology, and Buddhism in Kathmandu. He hates flying but said this event was worth it. Even without the backdrop of the Himalayas, his scientific talk was one of the most captivating I’ve ever heard. Every slide introduced some bizarre new experiment. Butterflies retain memories from when they were caterpillars, even though their brains turned to mush in the chrysalis. Cut off the head and tail of a planarian, or flatworm, and it can grow two new heads; if you amputate again, the worm will regrow both heads. Levin argues the worm stores the new shape in its body as an electrical pattern. In fact, he thinks electrical signaling is pervasive in nature; it is not limited to neurons. Recently, Levin and colleagues found that some diseases might be cured by retraining the gene and protein networks as one might train a neural network. But when I sat down to talk to the audacious biologist on the hotel patio, I mostly wanted to hear about slime mold…

Read on for a fascinating conversation: “The Biologist Blowing Our Minds,” @drmichaellevin and @gmusser in @NautilusMag.

* Margaret E. Barber


As we’re amazed, we might send tidy birthday greetings to Irwin Rose; he was born on this date in 1926. A biologist and biochemist, he shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation.

Ubiquitin is a small protein molecule that attaches to other proteins, tagging them for removal, which are thus recognized by the cell’s proteasomes. These structures are the cell’s waste-disposal units, allowing the proteins to be broken down into tiny pieces for reuse; this ubiquitin-mediated process cleans up unwanted proteins resulting during cell division, and performs quality control on newly synthesized proteins… which matters, as faulty protein-breakdown processes lead to such conditions as cystic fibrosis, several neurodegenerative diseases, and certain types of cancer.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 16, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.”*…

The Pythagoreans believed that the motions of the heavenly bodies, with just the right ratios of their distances from a central fire, made pleasant music — a concept that evolved into the “music of the spheres.”

As Tom Siegfried explains, the “music of the spheres” was born from the effort to use numbers to explain the universe…

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “the music of the spheres,” your first thought probably wasn’t about mathematics.

But in its historical origin, the music of the spheres actually was all about math. In fact, that phrase represents a watershed in the history of math’s relationship with science.

In its earliest forms, as practiced in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, math was mainly a practical tool for facilitating human interactions. Math was important for calculating the area of a farmer’s field, for keeping track of workers’ wages, for specifying the right amount of ingredients when making bread or beer. Nobody used math to investigate the nature of physical reality.

Not until ancient Greek philosophers began to seek scientific explanations for natural phenomena (without recourse to myths) did anybody bother to wonder how math would help. And the first of those Greeks to seriously put math to use for that purpose was the mysterious religious cult leader Pythagoras of Samos.

It was Pythagoras who turned math from a mere tool for practical purposes into the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe. As the historian Geoffrey Lloyd noted, “The Pythagoreans were … the first theorists to have attempted deliberately to give the knowledge of nature a quantitative, mathematical foundation.”…

More at: “How Pythagoras turned math into a tool for understanding reality,” from @tom_siegfried in @ScienceNews.

Apposite: Walter Murch’s ideas on “planetary harmony” (and Lawrence Weschler’s book on him and them)

* Henri Poincare


As we seek beauty, we might recall that it was on this date in 1595 that Johann Kepler (and here) published Mysterium cosmographicum (Mystery of the Cosmos), in which he described an invisible underlying structure determining the six known planets in their orbits.  Kepler thought as a mathematician, devising a structure based on only five convex regular solids; the path of each planet lay on a sphere separated from its neighbors by touching an inscribed polyhedron.

It was a beautiful, an elegant model– and one that fit the orbital data available at the time.  It was of course, nonetheless, wrong.

Detailed view of Kepler’s inner sphere


“Ice contains no future, just the past, sealed away”*…

From her new book, Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—A cool history of a hot commodity, Amy Brady

Despite more than 150 years’ worth of study and experimentation, no one really knows why ice is slippery….

Nineteenth-century Americans used ice to store perishable foods in amounts that astounded visitors from Europe, where an ice trade had yet to be developed. Apples, for example, became so commonplace in the young republic that visitors coined the phrase “as American as apple pie.”…

By WWII, the burgeoning industry of electric refrigeration was catching up to the ice industry, and companies like the Southland Ice Company were forced to rethink their business plans. Southland began selling kitchen staples like milk and bread alongside their ice. The combination became so popular, the company extended its hours to keep up with demand, and within a few years renamed itself after its new hours of operation. The 7-Eleven was born, and convenience stores today still sell ice…

Between WWII and 1975, the amount of electricity refrigerators consumed grew by more than 350 percent. Today, a look at energy use around the globe reveals that the cooling industry (refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners) accounts for almost 10 percent of all CO2 emissions…

Six more cool facts at “10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Ice,” from @ingredient_x in @Orion_Magazine.

* Haruki Murakami


As we chill, we might recall that it was on this date in 1982 that record low temperature of -117 F was recorded in Antarctica. That record was broken the following year, also in Antarctica, at -128.6 F– a mark that stands to this date, as Antartica has been warming… leading Dr. Brady to ask, “in an age of accelerating global warming… can ice in the freezer and ice on our planetary poles continue to coexist?”

Halley VI Antarctic Research Station (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 23, 2023 at 1:00 am

“No one ever explained the octopuses”*…

We humans are forward-facing, gravity-bound plodders. David Borkenhagen wonders if the liquid motion of the octopus can radicalize our ideas about time…

… The octopus may navigate its ocean home with ease, but it can seem like a creature from another planet. It populates our popular visions of cosmic beings and extraterrestrial life, with its eight arms, three hearts, and a malleable body without bones. What’s more, its ability to camouflage itself, coupled with a propensity to hide in tight holes, make it a master of disguise. If seen, a water siphon that expels inhaled water can instantly propel the creature away from danger in any direction in three-dimensional aquatic space. Its web of radially symmetrical arms allow it to crawl in any direction with equal competence, regardless of how its head is oriented. Its soft and malleable body can move through any crevasse larger than its beak. And with its two eyes positioned on opposite sides of its head, it has a near-total field of vision with almost nothing hidden ‘behind’. These abilities give the octopus a radically different relationship to its surroundings compared with other species, human or otherwise. It is a relationship free of constraints.

And what about our bodies? Compared with the octopus, human beings appear corporeally constrained. We lack the fluid mobility and wide field of vision of our (very, very) distant cephalopod cousins. Instead, we have two eyes stuck in the front of our heads. We have a paltry two legs, hardwired for forward movement. And we are bound to our terrestrial ecological niche, where our bodies must continually counteract the downward pull of gravity.

It’s not only that our experiences of space are different. Our experiences of time are likely different, too. We think about the passage of time through our terrestrial experience of unidirectional motion through space – our metaphors of time are almost all grounded in the way our bodies move forward through the environment. Given this fact, how would an octopus, who can easily see and move in all directions, conceptualise time? Current research methods may be able to take us only part of the way toward an answer, but it’s far enough to consider a radical possibility: if we became more like an octopus, could we free time, metaphorically speaking, from its constraints? Could we experience it as multidimensional, fluid and free?…

[Borkenhagen reviews the research on octopuses and what it tells us about how their relationships with time and death]

… In many ways, the octopus represents a challenge, or a profound limit, to our conventional ways of thinking about time and death. But it’s more than a challenge. It’s also an invitation. With its unconstrained movements and semelparous lifecycle, the octopus offers a radically different perspective on the fluidity and flexibility of existence. Could we learn to move through time as an octopus moves through space? With equal access to the past, present and future – viewed wide or with sharp focus – we might better navigate the challenges of living and dying on Earth. The octopus invites us to think in a way that dissolves the boundaries between the present and the future, understanding our ‘ending’ less as a fixed point and more as a fluid process stretching across generations. As the boundary between life and death dissolves and becomes more porous, so do the boundaries between ourselves and others. The metaphors we used to inhabit our time here may seem impoverished, but there’s another way. It’s in the unconstrained movements of an octopus traveling through space – fluid, flexible and free…

Octopus Time,” from @posts_modern in @aeonmag. Eminently worth reading in full.

Pair with The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler and/or “Stories of Your Life” in the short story collection of the same title, by Ted Chiang

Gail Garriger (@gailcarriger)


As we re-understand unfolding, we might recall that it was on this date in 1871 that the American Museum of Natural History opened to the public in New York City. Organized into a series of exhibits, the Museum’s collection–which had been gathered from the time of the Museum’s founding in 1869– went on view for the first time in the Central Park Arsenal, the Museum’s original home, on the eastern side of Central Park. The cornerstone of the Museum’s first building was laid in Manhattan Square (79th Street and Central Park West), the Museum’s current location, in 1874; but it is obscured from view by the many Museum buildings in the complex that today occupy most of the Square.


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