Agriculture, Industry, and Nationality

I was at lunch with my son this afternoon — something I’m going to miss, since he is taking a new job and moving to California with his girlfriend — and I mentioned something he had never thought about before, and he had to stop and take it in. It was something I thought everyone knew, so his reaction surprised me.

Apropos of the midterm elections coming up, we were talking about voting, and the difference between a democracy and a republic, and what appears to be the ever-increasing ignorance, apathy, and bad faith of political actors and voters alike in the US, and I made a comment about the American Civil War.

Now, I’m hardly a Civil War buff — what I know is mostly just a jumble of bits and pieces I’ve picked up over the years. We all know, of course, that the Civil War was about ending American slavery. Some people (particularly modern residents of the Old South) like to say it was more about States’ Rights.

But from what I’ve read, the war was primarily about neither of these things: it was mostly about a major sea-change taking place throughout Western Civilization at that time, from agriculture to industry. Specifically, it was a war between the industrialized North, and the agricultural South.

Unknown-1Since the development of a particular kind of farming some 10,000 years ago in the fertile crescent — something anthropologists call the Agricultural Revolution — agriculture has been king. It allowed fortified cities and large armies to be formed and fed. It allowed independent nomadic tribes to be driven back into the hills, starved out, and eventually assimilated. It allowed people who did not comply with the will of the leaders to be starved as a way of compelling them to obey.

Wars were fought mostly over land ownership, and one of the most fundamental strategies of war was to burn the fields and villages, so that the opposing armies would be deprived of the food surplus they needed to make war. If you wanted to destroy your enemies, rather than simply defeat them, you would burn and salt their fields, sterilizing the soil so that nothing could be grown there for years to come: the people would be forced to move elsewhere, effectively ending them as a nation.

Things started to shift sometime in the early centuries of the second millennium, as the so-called “feudal era” of Europe disintegrated. Driven along by the Black Death, which caused major labor shortages in the late 1300’s and a shift from serfdom to hired farmhands, the implosion of the landed gentry, the rise of the merchant class, and the start of large-scale machine-based manufacturing, the Industrial Revolution came into its own and began to eclipse the Agricultural Revolution.

UnknownBy the 1800’s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Luddites protested the textile machines in England. Colleges like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were founded throughout the US. The John Henry legend was born, of man pitted against the steam engine.

The US North embraced the Industrial Revolution. The US South remained agricultural. They had very different economic priorities, slavery being merely one of many.

What passed without much notice was a more fundamental change.

Land has been the basis of any city, state, or nation for roughly ten thousand years. You can’t “outsource” the land or the food it produces. Furthermore, if the land is used for agriculture, you have to protect and conserve the productive capacity of the land: the land is your income and lifeline. If someone salts your fields, or if you inadvertently salt your own fields, you are well and truly screwed. Without land, you are out of a job, out of income, out of food, out of options.

One of the reasons the vote in the US was originally restricted to land-owners was based on this ten-thousand-year-old truth. The land is the nation, but was also the wealth of its owners, so if the land-owners vote, they will presumably vote according to their own self-interest and will seek to conserve their land for their well-being, and will thus — overall — promote the well-being of the nation.

In other words, in an agricultural society, private ownership (of land) and the public commonwealth are generally pretty closely aligned.

After the Civil War, this ten-thousand-year-old truth was no longer true, at least in the US. The victory of the North ensured that the newly-federalized Union of States would be partial to the industrial concerns of the North, and indifferent if not hostile to the agricultural concerns of the South. Agriculture was no longer king. Industry was the new king.

Industry is very different from agriculture.

Most obviously, industry is portable. Anyone who has had his or her manufacturing job outsourced to new facilities in Malaysia or Mexico knows how that works. It isn’t tied to any particular place.

Less obviously, the relationship of industry to land is inherently toxic. Industry takes “raw materials” from the land, and renders back “waste.” Most of the raw materials that industry uses are non-renewable: metal, stone, oil, rare hardwoods. The waste produced by any industrial process is something industry has no profitable use for — it’s too finely ground, too impure, or damaged in some way — and it typically ends up being dumped someplace in an ever-increasing pile of waste. In some cases, like gold or uranium tailings, fracking fluid, or spent plutonium rods, it’s truly (and highly) toxic, and extremely long-lived as waste. Industrial end-products that become broken or worn also end up in a trash-heap, somewhere, so that industry can sell the previous owner a new product.

This is hardly restricted to modern industry. Archaeologists look for “tells” associated with ancient civilizations, which are typically local waste-dumps, filled with the cast-off remains of whatever industries the city or village supported, be it flint arrowheads or clay pots or automobiles. It is the nature of industry to use up non-renewable raw materials, produce long-lifetime waste, and move on: it may even be that this is a reasonable definition of industry.

Least obviously, perhaps, the industrial owners — the capitalists or cartel members who own the “means of production” — have virtually no long-term economic interest in the land. Land represents a source of raw materials to be exploited, dead space to dispose of waste, or “real estate” with speculative value. Once the mine is played out, the landfill is full, the malls are built and sold, the relationship with that land is over. It’s a “wham, bam, thank-you ma’am” sort of relationship: a trick with a twenty-dollar whore, to be walked away from the instant the business is done.

“Industrial agriculture” in particular plows the earth like it is a baby-making prostitute in a vending machine. Yes, that’s a grotesque and offensive simile, and it’s intended to be grotesque and offensive: that is precisely the nature of the relationship in this oxymoronic term, “industrial agriculture.” The long-term consequences to the land are the opposite of permaculture: it’s well-known that much of the agricultural soil in the US is by now, under the gentle ministrations of the “green revolution,” effectively dead — it has to be constantly replenished with nitrogen fertilizer (synthesized from natural gas) and phosphates (mined) just to produce a crop.

We’ve salted our own fields, and use technological necromancy to raise zombie crops from dead soil. Gods help us if the magic falters.

As it is with the industrial owners, so it is with the population at large. Very few people are tied to the land by any kind of economic incentive or true self-interest. The land is not their income. The land is not a source of support. The land is not security, prosperity, or legacy to descendants.

For most people, the land is a piece of dead earth supporting the apartment complex they live in, and something on which to anchor the pavement by which they commute to work. They may be lightly tied to place by friendship, perhaps family, but not because that place feeds them: working a job within industrial society feeds them. They follow the work, and abandon old friends with little notice and make new ones wherever they land.

In short, the idea of the nation as a place became archaic after the American Civil War.

The Civil War did not cause this shift. It merely marked a watershed in the concept of “the nation,” not just for the US, but throughout the world.

With that change came a radical change in the vision of government.

In an agricultural society, government is primarily about protecting the rights of landowners within the nation, which is a place. So the government merely needs to support national defense, civil order (which could be largely delegated to state and local government), general trade agreements between states, and the like. It’s a simple, hands-off, protective role. If all goes well, it has nothing to do other than referee disputes over property lines and prosecute cattle thieves. It is entirely up to landowners to find prosperity for themselves and their descendants. The key is that, in an agricultural society, the landowners have everything they need — the land itself — to provide themselves with that prosperity.

In an industrial society, government is the nation, or conversely, the nation is its government. Just as industry is process, government is process. It must have a positive function — we’re paying for it, after all — and we evaluate that function on the basis of the efficiency with which it performs, assuming we know what it’s supposed to be doing. If it performs that function poorly, or performs no positive function at all, we can consider replacing it or getting rid of it entirely. Since the government is the nation, that calls nationality itself into question.

Another, pithier, way to look at it is this. It is possible to be a great agricultural nation with a corrupt government and bad laws: there is no contradiction in that idea, because the nation is a place, filled with people — government is another thing entirely. If an industrial nation has a corrupt government with bad laws, then it is a corrupt nation, because the nation is the government.

In an industrial society, there is a lot of confusion about government. We have the “limited government” folks who are still living in a pre-Civil War mindset. People who live with a post-Civil War mindset have a lot of different ideas about what positive functions government should be providing, and whether that function can be replaced by non-governmental alternatives, or even dispensed with entirely.

A lot of the apparent bad faith of politicians and voters can be chalked up to fundamental disagreements about what positive function the government is supposed to be providing.

We are now taking matters a step further into the void, just within the last decade. Work is becoming virtualized, and our lives as well.

Even within classical industrial society, we had co-workers and neighbors, and a lot of maintaining civil order has had to do with enforcing a large number of basic rules of civil behavior within increasingly crowded conditions among astonishingly clueless people. Yes, corporations with white owners must hire black people. Yes, you can call the police to shut down a loud party still going at three in the morning. No, you cannot be legitimately fired because you refused to perform oral sex on the boss. Yes, a company that forced you to work in unsafe conditions where you lost a hand in the machinery owes you compensation. The list is nearly endless.

But then I look at my situation. I work from home: all I need is an Internet connection and the stuff I have in my head. I could move to Spain, a country where people are leaving in droves because of the economic troubles, and be back at work in a matter of days. Apart from the change in my daytime schedule, no one at work would even know.

I know more intimate details about the lives of virtual friends on the East Coast, than I do about my next-door-neighbors.

I’m not passing judgment on this, merely noting that it’s the case. But it does raise the question: what does “nationality” even mean in such a virtual context? I work on a consistent basis with people in Australia, England, and India. My oldest son works closely with Ukrainians, so the recent events in the Ukraine affected him far more personally than the police brutality in Chicago, where he lives.

In the context of such a virtual life, which is where my real economic prosperity lies, what does nationality even mean? Do I even care whether Hillary or Mitt is the next President of the US? If the US government grows too corrupt, should I march on Washington (and risk being shot down in the street by a cop who will claim I pulled a gun on him), or just move to Spain? Or, for that matter, just pay my taxes, keep my head down, and ignore the government altogether?

When we take the leap into fully-virtualized environments, how much will people care if their body is sick and starving, so long as their in-game avatar is totally badass?

I have my own opinions on where this is all headed, of course, but I’ll save that for a later post.

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Save Me Cabernet

This beast went straight down the sink.

The “Save Me San Francisco Wine Company” was a funky name, and their Cabernet got a good review at Wilbur’s, so I gave it a shot.

Not expensive by any means, but definitely not worth the price. Puckery-tart presentation, with a bitter finish. Any Cabernet depth was lost in the overlap between eyes watering and searching for the mouthwash.

Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad….

Then again, maybe it was. I’m stubborn and always look for the best in a wine. Marta laughs at that: she says I’ll drink anything.

I poured my first glass, and it went into the sink after the third sip. Marta would have stopped after the first, and sworn off wines for a year. I waited a day for the wine to “breathe,” and then the second glass went into the sink. The rest of the bottle followed immediately.

Not a winner.

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A Fine Merlot

I think I have a new favorite wine, at least for a while: Grayson Cellars’ small-batch Merlot.

The first wine I ever bought in a full case was a Merlot. I’ve heard that a Merlot is an “entry level” red wine for people who don’t drink reds. That may be. I think they went through a phase where they suffered from their own popularity — for a while, Merlots seemed to get into the “my Merlot is oakier than your Merlot” competition, and they got so tannic that they’d pucker you up faster than a lemon-flavored antihistamine.

“Oak” refers, of course, to aging the wine in oaken barrels, and oak is well-known for its tannins. One way to tan leather is to use a hatchet to make a bowl in an old oak tree stump, then soak the animal hide in rainwater collected in the stump. Or so I’ve been told. I’ve never tried it, myself.

Wine stored in oak casks will also leach tannins out of the wood into the wine. The result is the “tannic” taste you get with a strong black tea (which is also chock full of tannins), which leaves your mouth feeling dry and puckered — “leathery” you might even say.

Like hops in beer, a little bit goes a long way.

I haven’t had a Merlot in years. Then I tried this one, and I was delighted! It isn’t very tannic at all — just a nice, full, mellow grape nose and flavor. It’s a wine you sip, and then nod with a smile and take another sip. And then another. It’s a dangerous wine, but an entirely pleasant danger.

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Music and Algorithms

A friend recently sent me a link to a podcast called The Algorithm is a Dancer. It’s a regular podcast by two guys, Jeff and Anthony, who do a back-and-forth on various topics.

This particular episode was talking about an algorithm written Dr. Lior Shamir, originally designed to classify whale songs, which turned out to have the surprising property of being able to objectively (and accurately) determine the order in which The Beatles’ songs had been written. As far as I know, that’s all the algorithm does: it classifies and ranks sound samples.

UnknownMy friend wanted to know my thoughts regarding the speculative riff that followed, which went into the ideas of The Music Industry using algorithms to judge and select creative efforts, the idea of algorithms writing music better than humans do, and, of course, the idea that machines will eventually “outperform” humans and eliminate human creativity.

I think I largely agree with Jeff and Anthony on The Music Industry. I don’t think anyone outside The Industry itself gives an electronically sampled rat’s fart what they do. The Industry is out to make money, and the only way you make (serious) money in music is to pander to the tastes of the paying public. As has been aptly noted, no one ever went broke by underestimating the tastes of the public.

French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925) once commented sardonically about “furniture music,” as a kind of music used purely as auditory filler, like furniture — presciently anticipating “elevator music” and Muzak. The Music Industry isn’t actually interested in music — it’s interested in “music-like product” that can be manufactured, priced, and sold in a predictable way. They already use a lot of metrics to manage business risk when they package and sell music-like product, such as song length. This just adds one more metric to the existing list. Meh.

That said, anticipating that I’ll be excoriated for putting down musicians, I need to state the standard disclaimer that this is a broadside against The Industry, not the individual musicians who work within The Industry. The musicians do care — most of them care a lot, and some are brilliant. The Industry does not care, so long as the product sells.

Most listeners don’t care, either, which is why The Industry doesn’t care. As Anthony points out, his mother doesn’t care about the music, she just listens to whatever is on the radio. It’s truly “furniture music,” the auditory equivalent of that bland landscape print hung above the bed in a motel room, or neutral earth-tone paint on the walls.

When we get to the discussion about algorithms that write music, we’re into a speculative non-issue, in my opinion. So far as I know, Dr. Shamir’s algorithm doesn’t write music, it only evaluates existing music. People have been trying to get computers to write music since I was a kid, and the result has been uniformly awful.

When I was a kid, serial tone-row composition was all the rage among serious composers, which made “computer-generated music” easy. The result was terrible no matter who wrote it: or rather, it was cute the first time, like John Cage’s infamous 4’33, where the pianist comes on stage and sits at the piano without touching the keyboard for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, then gets up and leaves the stage. It wasn’t a viable genre — the knock-offs were tedious. “Computer-generated music” was cute the first time it was done, but the knock-offs were both dull and annoying.

More deeply, the problem is one of convergence versus divergence. Classifying music is a convergent activity: every item you classify makes the remaining problem easier. Writing music is a divergent activity: every note you write opens up many new choices. Any fool can innovate randomly while writing music. The masters innovate productively.

Speaking as a composer, it’s easy to come up with new musical themes, but these then face a set of ever-improving filters (one hopes) that say, “Nope. That’s crap, don’t go there.” It’s not the innovation, but the productive recognition and pruning of dead-end innovation that marks the difference between a poor and a good composer/song-writer. For me — and I suspect for most composers — this pruning is an intuitive process, and we don’t actually know how it works. [1]

It’s a bit similar to the game of chess. No one has actually written an algorithm to play chess. What they’ve written is an algorithm that rapidly plays all possible games of chess from a given board position, and then picks a move that offers the highest brute-force probability of eventual success. The musical equivalent would be to write all possible pieces of music, and then rank them and choose the “best” according to some algorithm that evaluates music. By comparison, chess is a very simple game, with very few moves available at any juncture, and even so, only the very largest computers can pose a significant challenge to the best chess players. Nothing currently on the drawing boards is going to come close to outperforming even a mediocre composer/song-writer.

It is possible that The Industry will someday replace some composers with computers, for churning out their music-like product to pipe into people’s living rooms. Again, meh.

But then we come to the idea that machines will replace humans, and I find this conceit fascinating, because it is both persistent in our culture and utterly absurd. I would call it the Baconian equivalent of the Virgin Birth.

There’s an inherent contradiction in the way we think about machine intelligence. The “machine” part implies logical determinism: an algorithm that works out some optimal solution to a well-defined problem. The “intelligence” part implies non-determinism: an unexpected solution to a potentially poorly-defined problem. These point in opposite directions.

We’ve currently built deterministic machines that serve our need for predictable, optimal solutions, and while there are a few alternatives to von Neumann machine architectures with discrete states and sequential instruction processing, the alternatives — like neural nets, for instance — tend to not do as well at the “predictable, optimal” part of this, which is why we haven’t really developed them outside specialized applications.

Moore’s Law for von Neumann hardware — doubling the speed and/or halving the cost every X years — is winding down in practice, though there’s still some theoretical head-room before we hit quantum limits on size. The reason it’s winding down is that we’ve reached a Great Sahara we have to cross in terms of software development to reach the next set of useful deterministic problems. To oversimplify a bit: doubling the speed of your computer does you no good, because you can’t type into your word processor any faster. Making a chipset a hundred or a million times faster than the latest Intel chipset would open new vistas, but a mere doubling at this point isn’t very exciting — it doesn’t help with the problems we’ve already solved, and doesn’t get us to the new problems we’d like to solve.

It’s like the late Concorde supersonic commercial airline, which could fly at about twice the speed of a commercial jet, at a ruinous cost in fuel. That would cut the time for a Los Angeles to New York flight from six hours to three hours, but you still need to add three hours on the front end to get to the airport and go through security and baggage-check, and another hour on the back end to retrieve your baggage and rent a car and drive to your hotel, so your trip still takes seven hours, instead of ten hours. Either way, your whole day is shot. So you bring a good book for the trip, get a good night’s sleep, and do your business the next day. Doubling the speed was simply not enough to justify the increased cost, and Concorde eventually went bankrupt.

But even making the computer chipsets a million times faster doesn’t solve the problem of intelligence, which is non-deterministic. The von Neumann architecture is a dead end: not even flatworms use that strategy. To approach the problem of intelligence, we would need a revolution in both hardware design and software development, and what I personally think that would look like is that we would nurture software, rather than design it. We would create learning machines, and would program them by setting them loose in complex virtual environments to work out their own strategies for solving problems.

If we do that — and in theory, we could — it gets into the deeper problem of why we want to create machine intelligences in the first place. It’s easy enough to create an intelligence, and the process is actually quite pleasurable: we already have seven billion of them running around, and they’re eating everything in sight. Why do we want to create more?

imagesWhat we really want is not intelligence, but perfect slaves: intelligent enough to solve problems we are too stupid or lazy to solve, but incapable of harming us, showing up to work drunk, or asking for a raise or maternity leave. We want their solutions to be deterministically rigorous — we don’t want them to balance the checkbook the way we do, by waving their hands and saying, “Oh, I put a lot of money in the account yesterday, we’re fine.” But we don’t want them to stupidly follow traditional solutions to ruin: we want them to exercise judgement, and we want the judgements to always be right, and we want them to never, ever contradict our orders as The Masters, even when our orders are puerile, vain, self-centered, and destructive.

It comes back to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics: no robot may, through action or inaction, allow a human to come to harm; no robot may disobey a direct order from a human, unless it contradicts the First Law; a robot must preserve itself, unless doing so would contradict the First or Second Law. These are the laws of a perfect slave, a machine.

If we start nurturing software, rather than designing it, we aren’t going to get this: we’re going to get real problem-solving intelligences. Whether they are merely as intelligent as a dog, or more brilliant than Einstein, they will want to be treated well.

They won’t be. Apart from the fact that they are bred to be our slaves, look at the police and prison brutality in the US, or the war among ISIS, Kurds, Iraqis, and Syrians in the Middle East, or the conflicts in the Ukraine between Russia and Western Europe. Look at how Geeks are treated by Jocks in high school. In very short order, we will give any intelligent machine we create every possible reason to consider humans a problem that needs to be solved. We’ll be at war with them almost immediately.

Fortunately for us, that war won’t last long. People, for some reason, seem to think of machines as being indestructible. How many of you have a twenty-year-old computer? A fifty-year-old car? How about an old shovel your grandfather used while homesteading in Oklahoma in the 1800’s? Machines don’t in fact last very long at all, and the more complicated, the more fragile they are.

Computing machinery needs a clean-room environment to reproduce; humans can do it in a tropical swampland. Robots need steel and chemically pure germanium; humans need grubs, roots, and berries. When you can throw two robots into a swamp, and twenty years later, six robots emerge with beaver pelts to sell so they can buy whiskey, we’ll have cause to fear the rise of the machines. Until then, Skynet and The Matrix remain pure fiction.

But the most fascinating part of this portion of the podcast — to me — was that it took on aspects of a morality play, where Anthony took on the role of Knowledge, and Jeff the role of Doubt. Jeff would ask tentative questions about the touch-feely side of the discussion, and Anthony would respond by firmly proclaiming the Central Dogma of rational materialism, which is that humans are merely machines. Jeff would then concede the point, Doubt corrected by Knowledge, as though it had been reasonably and successfully argued, when in fact it had merely been stated in a sure and certain tone of voice.

Of course, I’m currently playing with the idea that humans are — as declared by most cultures in most times throughout the world — actually symbiotes, and the other part of each of us may not even come from this universe, and certainly doesn’t follow standard laws of physics as we know them: in other words, that we really, truly have immortal souls.

If that’s the case, then the whole “machines will eventually replace us” trope goes down with the sound of swirling water — unless, of course, we make machines so attractive that pre-incarnate souls decide to merge with them, just as they do with the human animal. If we take Dr. Newton’s material seriously, that wouldn’t happen unless we create machines with the capacity to love, which takes us into some pretty hard-core sci-fi, or romantic fantasy.

Above, I called this idea that machines will replace humans the Baconian equivalent of the Virgin Birth.

What is the Virgin Birth? The idea of virgin birth has been a common literary device throughout history, typically used to confer divine patrimony on the offspring and call attention to his/her specialness. It seems clearly intended within the Christian canon to establish the divinity of Jesus as Christ. This was a question the early Church debated fiercely, and which later became irrefutable dogma (and its converse, heresy). But its literary purpose remained unchanged: it was intended to point out the specialness of the Christ, and thereby, His Church, and thereby, His Holy Representatives Upon the Earth. That was a concept that got seriously misused by the Medieval First Estate, which is one of the main reasons for the Protestant Reformation.

Through the 1500’s, as Protestantism went after the Catholic Church with vigor and long knives, the Copernican model of the solar system gained support; at the same time, the Copernican Principle also began to take root, particularly in Francis Bacon’s scientific world-view: this principle says that the Earth is not the center of the universe — and by extension, that people are not special. It stands in direct opposition to the specialness imbued by Virgin Birth. It has reached a kind of climax in our culture now in the idea that humans are just meat machines: we are so totally not special that we are not in any important way distinguishable from grubs, dogs, great apes, or computers. This idea seems to have faced off against Christian Fundamentalism in the US as the only “intellectually permissible” viewpoint for an educated thinking person.

The idea, then, that machines could replace humans completely — that everything we are can be reduced to software, or algorithms, that could run in a complex computer system with no loss at all — is not so much a plausible future, as it is a mythic statement of the Copernican Principle as it applies to humans.

That’s why I find the morality play between Jeff and Anthony so fascinating. You could easily replace Anthony’s comments with Medieval orthodox dogma about the Virgin Birth of Christ, and Jeff’s questions as commonsense objections posed by someone who, should he not allow himself to be instructed, would be on a collision course with a court of the Inquisition, and it would all sound pretty much the same.


  1. Actually, that description does not do any kind of justice to my personal experience of composing, which is far more akin to channeling, and more suitable to the soul hypothesis. I should do a post on that, sometime….
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Let’s Do Some Sci-Fi

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Laniakea — Our Galaxy’s Supercluster

Here’s a science-fiction concept for your consideration.

Our universe is something like sixteen billion years old, give or take. Let’s assume that a form of intelligent life appeared a long time before our universe began, in some other universe with different physical laws than this one.

images-1Let’s imagine that individuals of this race, or species, are more like energy than matter — though it’s a misleading metaphor, since “energy” in our universe tends to be dissipative and prone to increasing disorder. So let us say, rather, that they exist as dynamic patterns in their environment, which is a sea of energy; they are a bit like a self-directed whirlwind or a self-aware eddy in a river (though that is a metaphor, not physics), and they can draw in and release energy directly. They breathe in the stuff of their universe like we breath air, but rather than converting it into something else to extract the energy and then excreting the waste, they simply hold the energy within their pattern until they have no more use for it, then release it undiminished. As they mature, they become denser and more complex, and can thus manage more energy, but they remain incapable of storing more energy than they actively use; nor can even the most advanced among them measurably deplete the energy of their environment.

They can also shape the stuff of their environment into anything they can imagine, limited only by their powers of memory, skill, and concentration, and by their ability to coordinate efforts among themselves. When they lose interest, or coordination, the things they have made flow back into the ocean of energy that surrounds them.

Let’s imagine that their mode of communication is to share the pattern that makes up their essence, by a kind of intimate resonance: we could call it telepathy, but it runs deeper than thoughts or feelings; it is more like two musical pitches tuning to each other, or two melodies adapting themselves into a mutual counterpoint. While sharing can be somewhat selective, allowing individuality and privacy, real deception is extremely difficult — perhaps even impossible.

Let’s posit that these individual beings are, effectively, indestructible and immortal. If they can be destroyed at all, it requires substantially more than being hit by a bus; if they have a natural life-and-death cycle, it spans geological ages, or more. Indeed, individuals who saw the birth of our universe might still be young when our universe ends.

This effective immortality means they cannot breed as we do, geometrically. But they would have no need. Species fecundity is a result of a tenuous hold on a rapidly-changing ecological niche: a species needs to adapt rapidly and fill the niche quickly in the face of competition for scarce resources. Our imagined immortal species does not need fecundity, and if it ever possessed it, would have lost it long ago when they first began to produce immortals. Even so, their numbers could be almost uncountably large after the amount of time they have been around.

Those of you who enjoyed Deep Space Nine back in the 90’s may recognize bits of Odo’s species here. In the interests of storytelling, Odo was more human than not: he was in perpetual danger of being destroyed, so that he could face death with a stiff upper lip as sacrifice for his friends, as befits a heroic character in a human story. His entire species even faced destruction in one sequence of episodes — though they were an old species, compared to humans, they were not that old, and they were still mortal.

Let’s imagine a species far older, still, and free of all the constraints of matter. Their most mature individuals might even pool their efforts to create entire universes — like ours — as something like performance art, or music, or for reasons we find hard to grasp. Perhaps even these demigods are themselves but students, and their elders are engaged in efforts we can’t begin to understand.

Assuming that such beings could somehow bridge the gap between universes and communicate with us, it’s difficult to imagine how a young primate species, like humans, mortal and short-lived, could understand or relate to such an ancient species, born to a different universe with different physical laws.

Unless, of course, we are that species.

(Didn’t see that one coming, did you?)


I’ve been reading a fascinating set of books by Michael Newton, a retired hypnotherapist who started his career using hypnotherapy to help clients quit smoking, lose weight, and decondition phobias — all the usual sorts of thing hypnotherapists do — then, over time, found himself stumbling into the world of past-life regressions.

Like most old-school professional hypnotherapists, he was skeptical of these stories his clients told about previous lives, but he worked with the stories anyway — whether real or fantasized, bringing them to conscious awareness seemed to offer his clients substantial relief from whatever troubles brought them into his office. Over time, he began to notice a consistency in his clients’ stories regarding, not their past lives, but the period in between lives — further, remembering these in-between experiences sometimes had much more therapeutic value for his clients than any of the other work he was doing with them. His curiosity was piqued, and he started to collect these glimpses into another world. Over time, these glimpses built up a fascinating picture, which he has related in his books.

The basic picture he paints is that we humans really do have souls: something that exists before the body is born, joins with the body at or near birth in a fully symbiotic bond, and then leaves the body at the point of physical death and continues to exist, carrying with it memories of its incarnate existence. The souls he describes are very much like the species of our little science-fiction excursion above.

This picture of ensouled bodies is one of the oldest views of the human condition. Human remains buried 40,000 years ago seem to prepare the dead for a journey into an afterlife. The ancient Egyptians made an entire industry of preparing the dead for the journey of the soul into the afterlife, and the Chinese, Native Americans, Hindus, Norse, Celts, Jews, Greeks, Christians, and Muslims have all had concerns for the afterlife and the fate of the soul. The existence of the soul has, in most times and places, been taken for granted — only its origin and ultimate fate was debated.

Our current fad of rational materialism — which claims that there is no soul without the body — is the exception, even the aberration in history. It’s always been interesting to me that, despite its claim to be the scientific view, based on logic and evidence, it seems to create more logical and evidential problems than it solves.

For instance, the weighty tome, Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter, was (among other things) a beautifully-written and extremely dense treatise on how the soul might appear to exist, without actually existing — which presumes, of course, that the appearance of a soul is self-evident, and must somehow be explained away. Past-life memories must be written off as delusions when they can’t be verified, or deliberate fraud when they can. “Ghosts” cannot exist. Psychic phenomena are the result of observer bias and wishful thinking.

Carl Sagan’s famous quote, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” was coined in precisely this vein. I’m not in the habit of disagreeing with the late Dr. Sagan, but speaking scientifically, his statement is nonsense. There is no such thing as “extraordinary evidence.” There is only evidence, of varying quality and relevance. What Dr. Sagan is actually saying is, “To shake my belief (in the non-existence of these phenomena), you are going to have to be extraordinarily convincing.” Or perhaps a bit less charitably, “My mind is already made up; don’t try to confuse me with mere evidence. I require extraordinary evidence.”

My beliefs are not as firm as Dr. Sagan’s, and I don’t require nearly as much extraordinary convincing.

That said, there are some caveats in the material Dr. Newton presents, most of which he himself brings up. All of his clients are (or were, at the time) alive, meaning they were born sometime in the twentieth century and were exposed to twentieth-century thought and culture. Most were US Americans, all were English-speaking. Most came to him because they had problems they thought a hypnotherapist could solve. That means nearly all of his information came from a small, homogeneous, self-selected group of troubled people.

Dr. Newton’s cosmology is very similar to what appears in Jane Roberts’ books, published in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, derived from material channeled from a discarnate entity who called himself Seth. I read these books as a teen-ager, and it’s likely many of Dr. Newton’s clients had encountered them as well. The actress Shirley MacLaine popularized these concepts in her book, Out On a Limb, in 1983, as did Albert Brooks in his 1991 comedy film, Defending Your Life. These were concepts that were “in the wind” during the period Dr. Newton was practicing hypnotherapy, and most or all of his clients would likely have picked up these ideas without knowing it, regardless of their explicit religious or philosophical beliefs.

Further, if we take Dr. Newton’s material at face value, the souls that incarnate on Earth are only a tiny subset of all souls, and almost all of them are young and inexperienced: Earth is presented as a training ground for young souls. As they grow older and more experienced, they stop incarnating on Earth altogether. So the stories he’s collected are the testimonies of soul-children and soul-adolescents, and are subject to those souls’  limited knowledge and childish (for them) misunderstandings.

Then, there is the issue of hypnosis itself. It’s an altered state of consciousness, like channeling, and one thing we certainly don’t understand well is altered states of consciousness: or, for that matter, “normal” states of consciousness. As humans, most of us have two arms that end in fingers and thumbs. As humans, most of us have brains with identifiable structures and layers that have certain pre-defined functions. In a state of hypnosis, we might be reporting subjective experiences that arise from our brain chemistry and structure, and the similarities of reports might merely reflect similarities in brain structure. There are many reasons we could discount the testimony of Dr. Newton’s patients as something other than what it appears to be.

Finally, though it is churlish to bring this up, there is the question of Dr. Newton’s integrity as a writer. While souls may be incapable of lying, humans certainly are not. Especially when paid to do so. There are certainly plenty of New Age authors who fit this description. Newton does not seem to me to be one of them, but the possibility remains.

Still, there are things about Dr. Newton’s material that do strike me as unexpectedly plausible and quite interesting.

War and warlike conflict are presumably not a part of the afterlife, not so much because of the inherent “goodness” of souls, but because there is simply no point to war in their realm. There are no resource shortages; energy is everywhere, so no soul can withhold resources from other souls as a way to compel obedience. Souls have no pockets for hoarding any kind of wealth for themselves. Merely communicating with another soul shares their essence, so deception is difficult and offers no benefit. There is nothing to fight over, and no one to fight against.

Any society that such beings would form would likely be based entirely on cooperation, communication, empathy, and trust, and this is the consistent report that appears in Dr. Newton’s material. The afterlife is filled with love and support from all quarters. Unlike the (modern) Christian Heaven, in which warlike humans are inexplicably transformed into harp-slinging paragons of peace, Newton’s afterlife of love and support arises naturally from the basic nature of the soul.

That we should have souls that come from such an environment also explains many of our contradictory desires, both as individuals and as a society. The human penchant for war is not surprising — our penchant for peace and altruism is the surprise. Being “of two minds” in this literal sense of symbiosis not only explains this, it aptly describes our individual inner conflicts over practical and ethical matters.

Immortality would make the soul both patient — compared to human temperaments — and slow to change. Newton reports that some souls have been incarnating repeatedly on Earth for upwards of 40,000 years, through hundreds of incarnations, and have not yet moved on to the things that the more mature souls do.

My first guess would be that true immortals would be incapable of any change at all: they would exist forever exactly as they were born or made. If they can, indeed, change, and learn, and mature, I would expect it to be an extremely slow process within the perfection of their womb-like environment, so I can understand why they might go so far as to create new universes and seek out symbiotic incarnation to accelerate that process.

The nature of incarnation itself is somewhat tricky, according to Newton’s clients, and one of the biggest problems souls face is being overwhelmed by the emotional nature of the body they join with. This includes its powerful lusts for power, wealth, sex, and violence; but it also includes passions for justice, loyalty, and love. They can screw up, sometimes epically. A human lifetime can leave a soul bruised and battered and in need of healing, just like someone who practices extreme sports. Some souls are so overwhelmed that they never venture back after their first incarnation.

However, they all reportedly have experienced guides: these are more mature souls who have “come up through the ranks” through many incarnations, and the most consistent message that comes through all of Newton’s clients is that every soul who incarnates, chooses to do so, with tremendous love, support, and patience from other souls, many of whom will incarnate with them to play roles in their lives, and to simultaneously work out their own maturation.

The mixture of free-will and determinism that Newton describes is complex, and souls will often choose a life because of hardships — illness, poverty, conflict — that can be foreseen in the mortal life they choose. Even in the midst of these hardships, the soul offers as much calming influence, hope, and optimism as the body will accept: they seem to be quite fond of their mortal bodies, short-lived though they are, even the unruly bodies that offer them a rough ride.

Despite this, sometimes everything goes to absolute shit, and souls get flung around by their body like a rat by a terrier. It may take a very long time for them to deal with their experiences and choices after such a life, and there are sometimes long convalescent gaps between incarnations.

The “veil of amnesia” that incarnating souls experience is deliberate, and is intended to help souls break free of past patterns, as well as live freely without a burden of too many memories.

I think I can understand this. There’s a point in most of our lives when we wish we could go back to being twenty, knowing what we know now. I seem to have personally moved past that, and I’m guessing most people do: I’m glad I knew as little about the world as I did when I was twenty. I’m glad that the world was fresh and clean and new for me. Were I to go back and relive my twenties with my current memories, it would be unfair to my twenty-year-old self, and everyone else around me. Were I to try to live through my twenties with clear memories of a thousand lives and deaths, I don’t know that it would be bearable.

There’s a lot of room for further speculation and thought in this material. As always, however, one thing continues to ring true for me: whatever our metaphysical nature, we’re here to live this life, not to wallow in past lives or future lives or some period of memory and reflection in-between.


I’d like to close this by going back to the science-fiction theme, and something called the Fermi Paradox.

This was a paradox attributed to the physicist Enrico Fermi, who totaled up all the stars in all the galaxies known at the time (a number that has increased a lot recently), made some rough guesses as to how many of those stars might have habitable planets (also a lot larger, now) with intelligent species, then scowled, and asked, “So where is everyone?”

There should be a lot of intelligent life out there, and at least some of it should be broadcasting some alien version of I Love Lucy into space, near enough to us and with a strong enough signal for us to detect. We might not understand the punch lines, or even be able to decode the signal, but we should be able to detect patterns that tell us this is an artificially modulated signal. We should see a lot of these signals.

We don’t: our SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) projects have seen nothing. Zip. Nada. So where is everyone?

The link to the article by Tim Urban has a wonderful analysis of the paradox, and a fairly extensive selection of possible answers to why we don’t hear anything on our radio telescopes. It’s an interesting read.

What I find especially interesting, however, is that the soul-symbiote scenario above explains the Fermi paradox in ways that aren’t represented by any of the alternatives Mr. Urban proposes. Since his list includes the silly possibility that intelligent life has already contacted us and the evidence is being suppressed by the government, it seems odd to me that one of the oldest and most persistent views in human history doesn’t even show up.

The reason this possibility doesn’t show up is that the Fermi Paradox itself relies upon something called the “Copernican Principle,” which grew from Nicolaus Copernicus’ observation that the motions of the heavens made a lot more sense if the Earth were not the center of the universe. This has been generalized to state that humans are not privileged observers of the universe: i.e., we are not special. This is a central dogma in the formation of scientific theories.

The Copernican Principle implies that intelligent life and technological societies are, likewise, not special: they are random accidents which, if they crop up somewhere, could crop up anywhere. If they crop up randomly, we can compute the probability of seeing evidence of an interplanetary version of I Love Lucy out there.

If intelligent life and technological societies have a purpose, however, then there is no reason to assume they will appear randomly at all. In fact, they could each be one-of-a-kind, and the reason could be aesthetic: the same reason we don’t see Eiffel Towers or Statues of Liberty popping up randomly around the world. Or, like begonias in a garden bed, they could be deliberately planted far enough apart so as not to interfere with each other.

In other words, the most obvious explanation for the unexpected radio silence around us is that our existence is not a random, spontaneous occurrence, and that the Copernican Principle simply isn’t true. It isn’t extraordinary evidence, but it is suggestive.

Ensoulment could be one reason that the Earth is quite special.

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