Time Reborn

Einstein was wrong. Time is not the relative factor in space-time. Space is. Time is constant. Here’s a lecture on the topic of the book.

Lee Smolin Public Lecture: Time Reborn

As a result of a discussion with a colleague, on the possibility of variability or mutability of so-called physical laws, he recommended Lee Smolin’s book Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. He mentioned that it would be suitable as an audiobook. Since I had a credit on Audible, I decided to use it so I could listen to this without deep scrutiny and a need for taking notes.

There is a nice review in the Guardian from 2013. I suppose I am a bit behind the times.

Whilst running errands, I listened to the Preface and Introduction. I stopped at the start of the first chapter, and am debating whether to continue. Given his setup, I don’t believe I am Smolin’s target audience. Many of the beliefs he is attempting to dispel, I already don’t hold. Yet I don’t feel that I need to hold time as a constant to hold them. He seems to feel otherwise.


For the record, Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist, who has written several books in this space. Quickly, recapping some of his points:

He provides examples of various illusions humans tend to be swayed by:

  • Matter appears to be smooth but turns out to be made of atoms
  • Atoms seem indivisible but turn out to be built of protons, neutrons, and electrons
  • Protons and neutrons are further made of still more elementary particles called quarks
  • The sun appears to go around the Earth, but it’s the other way around

Smolin relates that the prevailing perspective today is that time is an illusion—name-dropping Plato and Einstein, who hold this view. He conveys that he used to share this belief, but now he disagrees—whence the book. He tells us:

Not only is time real, but nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

Next, he posits that some people believe in timeless events—events outside of time, eternal and not a function of time. Here’s where he goes off the rails in my book.

“We perceive ourselves as living in time, yet we often imagine that the better aspects of our world and ourselves transcend it. What makes something really true, we believe, is not that it is true now but that it always was and always will be true.”

Evidently, he feels or felt this way. I am sure many others. I am not among them.

“What makes a principle of morality absolute is that it holds in every time and every circumstance.”

My position is that all morality is a social construct, so this doesn’t resonate with me.

“We seem to have an ingrained idea that if something is valuable, it exists outside time.”

Again, I am not in his intended audience.

“We yearn for “eternal love.” We speak of “truth” and “justice” as timeless.”

Love, truth, and justice are all human constructs—weasel words.

“Whatever we most admire and look up to — God, the truths of mathematics, the laws of nature — is endowed with an existence that transcends time. We act inside time but judge our actions by timeless standards.”

Yet again, I am unburdened by these beliefs.

Nothing transcends time, not even the laws of nature. Laws are not timeless. Like everything else, they are features of the present, and they can evolve over time.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

I think that this quote is a reason this book was recommended to me. I do believe that the properties that comprise laws can evolve over time. I’m not sure if this is by a probabilistic process or something else. There are a few possible implications. One is that the laws at the onset of the universe may have been different, making the understanding of that time more challenging if not impossible. I don’t know if I believe in multiverses, and I doubt I may ever live long enough to discover. However, even if there is only one universe, per the name, perhaps universes can exist sequentially and when one dies another appears with a different set of initial conditions and properties. Borrowing from evolution, perhaps these survive or perish based on the viability of this combination.

Smolin goes on to posit that, ‘thinking in time is not relativism but a form of relationalism‘.

He continues,

“Truth can be both time-bound and objective when it’s about objects that exist once they’ve been invented, either by evolution or human thought.”

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

I’m not sure he is going to define truth, but I believe he conflates moral truths with axiomatic or tautological truths. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because both are constructed.

Smolin makes it clear that he is not a determinist, but unless you take the view he is proposing, as a physicist, you almost have to be. As he says regarding Determinism, theoretically. a person could suss out a mathematical equation to predict every future event. He also considers this belief to be a metaphysical vestige of religion.


According to [the] dominant view, everything that happens in the universe is determined by a law, which dictates precisely how the future evolves out of the present. The law is absolute and, once present conditions are specified, there is no freedom or uncertainty in how the future will evolve.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

He continues to describe a deterministic system without mentioning indeterminism, which may be a more prominent belief given what we understand about quantum mechanics. He claims that this perspective diminishes time for several reasons. Inflating or at least elevating time is important for his thesis, and I am thinking that this is more an act of wishful thinking.

He takes a stab at the inherent reductionism of physics—it reduces everything to parts until there are no longer subparts, at which point the process fails—and explains that by adopting this approach, one needs to get outside of the universe to make some evaluations, but this is impossible. And this might be a true statement, but so what? The answer is not to make up a story that creates an environment where that’s no longer necessary.

Smolin reiterates over and again about timeless laws in a time-bound universe, but I question his notion of timelessness. He admits that he has no grand theory—just an idea he hopes others can pursue and build upon. Emergent properties appear to be an emerging theme.

Leibniz is next up, in particular his principle of sufficient reason. Leibniz’ vision is a relational universe composed of a network of relationships—the space is simply the absence of things. He contrasts this with Newton’s view that space is absolute and serves as the container for things. He sets up a future chapter that he says establishes that Leibniz’ vantage precludes the possibility of absolute time, but I don’t see this as a challenge for those of us who believe that time is constructed in the first place.

The Newtonian view prevailed until Einstein resurrected Leibnitz with his general relativity theory of space and time. The trending vogue is about relationalism, whether biology or information science.

He cites the challenges of maintaining Locke’s views on autonomy and personal liberties in a deterministic world (again leaving indeterminism unmentioned).

And he’s back on the emergence of emergence. (I was in the midst of writing a post on emergence when this interrupted my flow. I suspect it should be forthcoming in time.)


As it turned out, I ran another errand and listened to the first chapter of part 1. It is about gravity and parabolas, but I shan’t recount it here, save to note that he seems to be of the opinion that many people have the desire to transcend the bounds of human life. He may be right. I am not one of these people.

I don’t feel that I am in his target market.

Testudineous Agency

In chapter 71, Ultimate Responsibility, in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, author and philosopher, Daniel Dennett presents a counterargument to the notion that an agent, a person, is not absolutely responsible for their actions. He questions some premises in the ‘the way you are’ line of argumentation, but I question some of his questions.

Here is a nice clear version of what some thinkers take to be the decisive argument. It is due in this form to the philosopher Galen Strawson (2010):
1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
2. So in order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain crucial mental respects.
3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
4. So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.

Dennett, Daniel C.. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (p. 395). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Dennett continues.

The first premise is undeniable: “the way you are” is meant to include your total state at the time, however you got into it. Whatever state it is, your action flows from it non-miraculously.

Dennett and I are in agreement with Strawson. There is not much to see here. It’s akin to saying the now is the result of all past events until now. This is “the way you are”.

The second premise observes that you couldn’t be “ultimately” responsible for what you do unless you were “ultimately” responsible for getting yourself into that state—at least in some regards.

This second premise asserts that one cannot be responsible for any action that one had no part in performing. Two scenarios come immediately to mind.

First, you are not responsible for being born. As Heidegger notes, we are all thrown into this world. We have no say in when or where—what country or family—or what circumstances.

Second, if one is hypnotised or otherwise incapacitated, and then involved in a crime, one is merely a cog and not an agent, so not responsible in any material sense.

But according to step (3) this is impossible.

Whilst Dennett fixates on the absolute aspect of the assertion, I’d like to be more charitable and suggest that we still end up with a sorites paradox. Dennett will return to this one, and so shall I.

So step (4), the conclusion, does seem to follow logically. Several thinkers have found this argument decisive and important. But is it really?

As Dennett invalidates step (3), he insists that the conclusion is also invalid. He asserts that the notion of absolute responsibility is a red herring, and I argue that Dennett doesn’t get us much further, perhaps redirecting us with a pink herring.

I’ve created an image with tortoises to make my point. There are actually two points I wish to make. The first point is to determine where the responsibility is inherited. This point is meant to articulate that the world can not be strictly deterministic and yet one can still not have significant agency. The second point is that culpability is asserted as a need, and acceptance of this assertion is the problem.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-14.png

The image depicts an evolution of an agent, with time progressing from left to right. The tortoise on the right is a product of each of the recursive tortoises to its left. The image means to convey that each subsequent tortoise is a genetic and social and social product of each tortoise prior. Of course, this is obviously simplified, because tortoises require pairs, so feel free to imagine each precedent tortoise to represent a pair or feel free to add that level of diagrammatic complexity.

This is not meant to distinguish between nature and nurture. Instead, the claim is that one is a product of both of these. Moreover, as genetic, epigenetic, and mimetic influences are transmitted in family units, they also occur through social interaction and the environment, as represented by the orange and green tortoises.

…if one is a product of genetic and mimetic forces, how much agency remains for culpability?

The point here is that if one is a product of genetic and mimetic forces, how much agency remains for culpability? Each person is an emergent unit—autonomous, yes, and yet highly programmed.

If I programme a boobytrap to kill or maim any intruder, the boobytrap has no agency. I assert further, that the maker of that boobytrap has no more responsibility than the killing device.

The old hand grenade wired to a doorknob boobytrap trick

But who do we blame? you ask, and that’s precisely the problem. Asking questions doesn’t presume answers. This is a logical fallacy and cognitive bias. This heuristic leaves us with faulty jurisprudence systems. Humans seem hardwired, as it were, to blame. Humans need to believe in the notion of free will because they need to blame because they need to punish because vengeance is part of human nature to the extent there is human nature. There seems to be a propensity to frame everything as a causal relationship. Dennett calls this the Intentional stance. To borrow a from Dennett…

This instinctual response is the source in evolution of the invention of all the invisible elves, goblins, leprechauns, fairies, ogres, and gods that eventually evolve into God, the ultimate invisible intentional system.

Dennett, Daniel C.. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (p. 374). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Fire Trap in Home Alone

Sins of the Fathers (and Mothers)

Let’s wrap this up with a sorites paradox. As I’ve already said, I agree with Dennett that the absolute aspect is unnecessary and undesired. The question remains how much agency™ does a person have once we account for the other factors? Is it closer to 90 per cent or 10 per cent? Apart from this, what is the threshold for culpability? Legal systems already have arbitrary (if not capricious) thresholds for this, whether mental capacity or age, which basically distils back to the realm of capacity.

I have no basis to even venture a guess, but that’s never stopped me before. I’d argue that the agency is closer to zero than to one hundred per cent of the total, and I’d propose that 70 per cent feels like a reasonable threshold.

I could have sworn I’d posted a position on this after I read Robert Sapolsky’s Behave. Perhaps it’s never made it out of drafts.

In closing, I don’t think we need to settle the question of determinism versus free will to recognise that even without strict determinism, personal agency is still severely limited, and yet as our political systems presume a level of rationality that is not apparent, so do legal systems presume a level of agency not present.


The lamb spends all its time worrying about the wolf and ends up being eaten by the shepherd.

— Unknown

I think one could look at this from several perspectives or through different lenses.

We worry about the wrong things.

At some level, this is about trust.

We trust the wrong people. Those whom we most entrust do us in. But I feel this is contextual.

One might feel this shepherd is Capitalism or the State or organised religion. Perhaps it’s culture or identity cohorts. Or all or these or none of these.

On another level, it recalls the inevitability of death. This shepherd reaper is always waiting in the wings whether or not one worries.

In the words of RATM, Know Your Enemy.

Which Laws of Nature are Fundamental?

Reading Dennett has gotten me down a rabbit hole. I decided to take a break from book-reading and spend the day reading essays and blogs and watching YouTube vids such as this one. The question posed by the title is Which Laws of Nature are Fundamental? The topic I find curious is an established dichotomy where intelligent design or multiverses are the only possible reasons why we as humans are here to question our existence.

Full disclosure: I don’t pretend to be a physicist, so although I have tried to keep current on, let’s call it, lay physics, there is much I don’t know. But that doesn’t make me stop questioning propositions.

In the case of intelligent design versus multiverses, I feel that both go overboard. I don’t particularly cherish Occam’s Razor, but I do find it apt here. As David Deutsch states in this piece, intelligent design only manages to kick the can down the kerb.

In a nutshell, intelligent design arrives at a place with a claim that all of this can’t have been the result of chance and random events, so [insert the entity of your choosing] had to have designed and constructed it, leaving open the question of how that entity came to be. This is a spin on the age-old issue that many defenders of intelligent design-like theories seem to cling to: The universe cannot have spawned from nowhere, so its genesis must have been due to an intelligent (read: divine) entity without recognising or admitting the circular reasoning involved.

On the other hand, the multiverse solution—which I don’t entirely rule out—also seems unnecessary. In another nutshell—or perhaps repurposing the first—, the main idea is that there are many if not infinite parallel universes. Given the large number—in the manner of the infinite monkeys typing Shakespeare’s sonnets, at least one is bound to be configured just so to enable life and humans in particular.

Typing Monkeys

I don’t subscribe to intelligent design in the least. I dismiss it as implausible. And whilst multiverses may exist, I fail to see why there can’t be a single universe—this one—that just so happens to be configured. If it had been configured any other way, there would have been no life as we know it—and certainly no human life and no life to question how it get there and why.

In my mind, just because we can ask why doesn’t mean there is an answer or that we can find it. More to the point, even in a world of cause and effect, the results can be emergent on one hand and multlivariant on the other. So whilst we want to discover a causal chain of A ⇒ B ⇒ C ⇒ n, it is not likely so linear. Humans do understand the notions of stochsticism and chaos, but we don’t necessarily know how to deal with them causally. Moreover—and Deutsch has specialised in the quantum space—, our understanding of quantum processes is extremely primative. We are probably operating more from conjecture than knowledge, but one needs to start someplace. The trick is not to believe you’ve reached India when you’ve only just departed Spain.

If a lion could speak

If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

As much as I love Wittgenstein’s quote on language, I find it vastly more amusing aside the lion of Gripsholm Castle in Sweden. Because as talking lions come, this one is certainly more unintelligible than most.

If a lion could speak (Gripsholm Remix)

I also appreciate Daniel Dennett’s retort that if we could manage to communicate with this one talking lion—not, of course, this lion in particular—that it could not speak for the rest of lionity. (Just what is the equivalent of humanity for lions?)

If a lion could speak (traditional)

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” ( [Philosophical Investigations] 1958, p. 223) That’s one possibility, no doubt, but it diverts our attention from another possibility: if a lion could talk, we could understand him just fine—with the usual sorts of effort required for translation between different languages—but our conversations with him would tell us next to nothing about the minds of ordinary lions, since his language-equipped mind would be so different. It might be that adding language to a lion’s “mind” would be giving him a mind for the first time! Or it might not. In either case, we should investigate the prospect and not just assume, with tradition, that the minds of nonspeaking animals are really rather like ours.

Daniel Dennet — Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness (p.18)

Can Metamodernism Sublate Modernism and Postmodernism?

I’ve been hearing that metamodernism is the next stage in the march of history toward progress. Metamodernism will synthesise modernism and postmodernism into something better that before. It’s what’s for breakfast.

I’ve heard about metamodernism in the past, and everytime I review some material I discount it and move on. This time, I’ll react to it. My colleagues in some other online fora have suggested metamodernism (Freinacht) or post-liberalism (Pabst), who see their solution located in the middle between conventional polarities. The attempt here is to adopt Hegel’s dialectic approach, so we’ve got a starting point, an objective, a lens, and a framework. Sounds good. Let’s go. But what are we trying to reconcile?

Ideas attributed to Modernism are

  1. Faith in science
  2. Development and progress
  3. Democracy
  4. The individual
  5. A meritocratic social order
  6. Humanity can recreate nature by virtue of her reason

Ideas attributed to Postmodernism are

  1. Critical questioning of all knowledge and science
  2. Suspicion towards all grand narratives about “progress”
  3. Emphasis on symbols and contexts
  4. Ironic distance
  5. Cultures have been oppressed and ruined by modern society
  6. Reveals injustice in “democratic” societies
  7. Relations create the individual
  8. A multicultural order where the weak are included
  9. Humanity has destroyed the biosphere

Metamodern Ideas

  1. How can we reap the best parts of the other two?
  2. Can we create better processes for personal development?
  3. Can we recreate the processes by which society is governed, locally and globally?
  4. Can the inner dimensions of life gain a more central role in society?
  5. How can modern, postmodern and premodern people live together productively?
  6. How can politics be adjusted to an increasingly complex world?
  7. What is the unique role of humanity in the ecosystems of nature?

Reviewing the Modern List

I want to be careful not to construct a strawman or create a false dichotomy, so perhaps I do have to backtrack to touch on the Modern list.

Faith in science is exactly that—faith—and is not warranted without recognised and articulated assumptions.

The notions of development and progress rely on underlying teleological goals and values that are not universally agreed upon and don’t benefit participants in the same manner and to the same degrees. There are winners and losers.

Democracy is a specious notion that I’ve railed against time and again. This is simply one form of political organisation among many. There is no reason to elevate this form over many others.

Moderns do have an rather fixed notion of what defines the individual. A Postmodern is not very likely to accept this notion except as a snapshot that can only be interpreted within a narrowly defined context.

A meritocratic social order is a Modern concept ripe with metanarrative support.

That humanity can recreate nature by virtue of her reason—notwithstanding the odd use of ‘her, evidently a nod to Mother Nature—, there is a elevated notion that reason is a superior mechanism. I’d extend this to include the notion that many people—not just the elite—are capable of ‘reason’. Yet again, all of this is questionable.

Critiquing the Postmodern List

At the start, I’ll suggest that Metamodernism is an attempt by Moderns to re-established ground lost to Postmoderns under the auspices of reconciliation. This does not appear to come from a disinterested mediator. The constituents of the Modern list look orthodox enough for my purposes, and I wish to spend some time parsing the Postmodern list. These lists don’t appear to be equivalent, as there is more editorialising in the PoMo list. I’ll skip the the first 4, taking them as given.

That cultures have been oppressed and ruined by modern society is quite value-laden. I’d be more inclined toward cultural constructs rely on unspoken metanarratives that leads to unbalance and disrupt the playing field. Employing the term ruin is a hint that the author is a Modern out of their element. To ruin would presume a notion of something to ruin with some teleological metanarrative in play.

That PoMo reveals injustice in “democratic” societies is interesting. First, the quotes around democratic suggests that the author finds claims of democracy to be specious or finds the term is at least at times misapplied. I can’t be certain. In the end, it’s not important because it seems to be acting as an unnecessary filler anyway. I better rendering might be the phrase ‘reveals injustice in societies‘. Full stop.

Relations create the individual feel legitimate. Identity is unnecessary in a vacuum. Although Identity is a dynamic and ambiguous concept. I don’t think this will affect my assessment.

A multicultural order where the weak are included is prescriptive. This, again, is a misinterpretation by a modern. That a Postmodern makes a claim that a culture has inequalities and inequities, it does not follow that s/he is promoting some particular solution—include the weak. Emotionally, this may indeed be the reaction by a Postmodern—perhaps myself included—, but this is not part of the philosophy that points out the discrepancy. It’s an annex.

Attributing the claim that humanity has destroyed the biosphere to Postmoderns is a huge stretch. I don’t believe this is an idea initiated by Postmoderns, and I don’t think this perspective is disproportionality held by Postmoderns over some other cohort.

Perusing the Metamodern List

Now to react to the metamodern list. Having already inspected the list, I’ll point out that every one of these questions has a Modern perspective—the need to construct and resolve over a need to deconstruct and explore.

How can we reap the best parts of the other two?

Ok. The concept of best here is a bit disconcerting since best is value-laden and relies on context, which further relies on some set of narratives.

Can we create better processes for personal development?

Again, what is this person we are developing? What is the telos? Why this telos and not another?

Can we recreate the processes by which society is governed, locally and globally?

This is a binary question, so I’ll assume the author meant more. We already know this answer. It’s yes.

The question this implies is ‘what might it be?’ We already know this answer, too. There are any number of organisations and processes of government, none particularly better than the next.

Can the inner dimensions of life gain a more central role in society?

Where is the inner dimensions idea even come from? Why would anyone even accept the notion, and why give it any preference let alone credence? Not to be a dick, but why give anyone a role? The apparent metanarrative here appears to be democracy or at least participation, but there is not reason to accept this as better or worse than alternatives.

How can modern, postmodern and premodern people live together productively?

Why ‘productively’? This is another Modern notion foisted on the solution. Aside from the productivity red herring, this is a somewhat valid question, though it does elevate the notion of an inclusive society, and there is not reason to accept this as a preference, again, without some underlying metanarrative treatment.

How can politics be adjusted to an increasingly complex world?

This feels a bit emptier that the other list entries. Again, the answer depends on the goals and expectations, so it requires this context.

What is the unique role of humanity in the ecosystems of nature?

Really? Humans need to have a unique role? This is obviously a Modernist-Humanist notion that elevate humans. I could see an argument where humans can be unique but not elevated. Again, what world would that be in? With notions of progress and productivity, it should be obvious that we’re again operating with some underlying metanarratives in place.

So What?

Reviewing metamodernism again, I can see why I forget about it shortly after I encounter it. Perhaps this will serve as a reminder that I’ve trodden this ground before. In summary, it’s painfully apparent to me that so-called Metamodernism is simply an attempt by Moderns to repackage and re-gift Modernism through the same old lens, but I’m not buying it.

Along my quick review of information on Metamodernism, there is a large metaphysical/spiritual element that is quite unlikely to resolve to either rationality or Postmodernism.

I may investigate other flavours of this concept, whether post-post modernism, post-liberalism, but from what I can tell, these are backwards looking toward Classical Virtue metaethical models. Besides having nostalgic value, I’m not a fan.

Property, Tax

Interestingly, I started this blog exploring property, a concept that makes no sense to me, and continued on a Postmodern journey to discount rights and truth. And then Enlightenment thinking in and of itself. I think of these still, most recently turning onto the concept of Democracy. Whilst researching de Tocqueville, I happened upon this letter by Ben Franklin. What on? Property. And taxation.


CHAPTER 16|Document 12

Benjamin Franklin to Robert Morris

25 Dec. 1783

Writings 9:138

The Remissness of our People in Paying Taxes is highly blameable;

the Unwillingness to pay them is still more so.

Benjamin Franklin

The Remissness of our People in Paying Taxes is highly blameable; the Unwillingness to pay them is still more so. I see, in some Resolutions of Town Meetings, a Remonstrance against giving Congress a Power to take, as they call it, the People’s Money out of their Pockets, tho’ only to pay the Interest and Principal of Debts duly contracted. They seem to mistake the Point. Money, justly due from the People, is their Creditors’ Money, and no longer the Money of the People, who, if they withold it, should be compell’d to pay by some Law.

Franklin calls out those citizens unwilling to contribute their fair share to the commonwealth.

Property superfluous to [the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species] is the Property of the Publick

Benjamin Franklin

All Property, indeed, except the Savage’s temporary Cabin, his Bow, his Matchcoat, and other little Acquisitions, absolutely necessary for his Subsistence, seems to me to be the Creature of public Convention. Hence the Public has the Right of Regulating Descents, and all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the Quantity and the Uses of it. All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.

Franklin is supportive of Locke’s property of ‘life, liberty, and property’ fame, but he is decidedly not a fan of passing along excess generational wealth. In fact, he feels that such excess property should accrue to the public.

To those unwilling to play by these rules, banishment to the wolves is not too good for them. Stripping them of citizenship is not too harsh a punishment.

He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages

Benjamin Franklin

The Founders’ Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 16, Document 12
The University of Chicago Press

The Writings of Benjamin Franklin. Edited by Albert Henry Smyth. 10 vols. New York: Macmillan Co., 1905–7.

Easy to print version.

Natural Causes

Some of us are concerned with the metanarratives underlying society, but and given society is apt to have many competing metanarratives. Logical Positivists tapped into the narrative of science, which is a primary theme of Enlightenment thinking. This was supposed to have supplanted the narrative of superstition, except it didn’t. And a sort of empirical, scientific Nature was supposed to have supplanted the metaphysical gods, except it didn’t.

Illuminati Eye Symbol

Apart from the problem that a supernatural God was replaced with a sort of animated Nature, some people just didn’t buy into the new narrative. Today, in the 21st Century Western world, some people still subscribe to these pre-Enlightenment notions, but that’s not the root of the issue. Neither is necessarily right or wrong. And in a Hegelian synthesis, some people assuage the ensuing cognitive dissonance by merging the two and cherry-picking the ones that work for them. These people usually have little difficulty finding people who believe that the earth is 4.5 billion or 6 thousand years old, that Ayurvedic medicine is superior or inferior to Allopathic medicine, that vaccines cause or don’t cause autism, that homeopathy is effective or ineffective, that the Illuminati are some secret society that rules the world or not.

Many people still can’t get past an appeal to nature, whence the Organic and traditional medicine movements. This is not to say that some or all of these claims might have validity; it’s just to say that ‘because it’s natural’ is not a suitable defence. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day—unless it’s set to a 24-hour display, in which case it’s only right once a day.

Without rehashing the argument whole hog, we know that poison ivy and uranium, arsenic, and cyanide are all natural. Not many attempt to defend this with an appeal to nature, so this suffers from selection bias from the start.

you cannot go against nature
because if you do
go against nature
it's part of nature, too

— Love and Rockets, No New Tale to Tell

The larger issue is about how we define nature. I don’t recall if this was Lyotard or Lacan (and I don’t feel like looking for the cross-reference at the moment), but by definition everything observed is natural, whether physical or behaviour.

Love and Rockets – No New Tell to Tell

Some humans—notably the Enlightened ones—like to view themselves as somehow above nature, but the veneer is nanometers thin and threadbare at that. And these people extend this concept to behaviour. As the song goes, you can’t go against nature because when you do, when you observe it, it is by definition part of nature, too.

Oftentimes, this becomes a moral argument: this or that is unnatural. Certain sexual activities are usually held up as examples, and yet many of these activities are not only practised by many humans, they are also practised by members of other species. The argument is that we need to elevate about nature, an so they are making some appeal to meta-nature or some such.

In any case, the complaint shouldn’t be whether it’s natural anyway. It might rather be couched in some instances as not ‘naturally occurring’, so plastics would not happen save for manufacture, but neither would asphalt or telephones or televisions or processed foods, so I find it to be disingenuous to rail against some items that do not occur naturally whilst ignoring the ones you happen to find useful.