Raed Nerian - Items filtered by date: May 2018
Monday, 14 May 2018 17:58

Bringing Ragnarok: On Metaphysics

One of my first challenges in establishing the plot and setting for Bringing Ragnarok was coming up with a creditable vision of metaphysics that addresses one of the biggest unanswered questions in modern science: how to make gravity and quantum theories play nice with one another.
Despite the woo-woo nonsense that often gets associated with metaphysics in the popular press, (astrology, as an example, does have its own odd sort of metaphysics...) in point of fact coming up with a functioning metaphysical theory of the universe is a key starting point in all scientific activities. To actually do science, to systematically explore variation and make reliable predictions about the future, you need something in which to ground your work. Some idea of what the world is made of, and how it came to be.

At present, the vast majority of scientists agree that our reality is comprised of a set of fundamental particles, which have certain characteristics that cause them to interact with one another in a predictable way. They also agree that there's a powerful force (gravity) that has detectable effects on those fundamental particles, especially when there's a lot of them clumped together. But, so far, no one has been able to come up with a unified perspective that can account for both these aspects of reality in the same model of reality. That is, although we have strong empirical evidence that gravity is real, and also that quantum mechanical effects on particles are real, we still have no idea how to make these two aspects of reality play nice with one another in the same set of basic equations. We just know that if you are trying to understand big stuff, like the movement of stars, planets, and galaxies, you generally want to use gravitational theory to predict their behavior. And if you are looking at little stuff, atomic and subatomic particles and fundamental forces, you invoke the strangeness that is quantum mechanics to try and understand what is happening.

One of the greatest ambitions of most physicists is to come up with a unified theory that integrates gravity and quantum mechanics to produce a comprehensive theory (and, ultimately, metaphysics) of how our reality came to be, how it works, and its future evolution. But so far, all that can be said with any confidence is that at the beginning of our universe, all the matter that is now spread across billions of light years was clumped together in a super-hot, tiny space. And, for some reason, a “Big Bang” occurred, resulting in the expansion of our cosmos to its present configuration over the course of nearly fifteen billion years. An expansion that is ongoing and apparently even accelerating, for reasons unknown and with uncertain consequences in the long term (I mean really long term: many billions, perhaps even trillions, more years).

Now, mythology is also deeply concerned with the questions of what the world is made of, and how it came to be. Metaphysics and mythology are deeply intertwined. In a very real way, the metaphysics contained in many mythological traditions represent humanity's first draft of what was to become science, just as they contain the first version of what we call history. So, in Bringing Ragnarok, I “solve” the problem of making gravity and quantum mechanics play nice by proposing that each originates from a different universe, and that the overlap of several independent universes, three of the Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology: Niflheim (mist-home), Muspelheim (fire-home), and Jotunheim (giant home), caused what we call the Big Bang. Niflheim is, in my metaphysics, the source of gravity, Muspelheim the source of matter/energy, and Jotunheim the source of the attributes of matter that produce quantum effects.

And then, I add another twist: many physicists are beginning to accept the view that our universe is one of many, and that different universes were also born at the same time as the Big Bang, each potentially “evolving” a little differently than all the others. Now, in several versions of Indo-European mythology, there's this concept of reality being something like a net or web, with different realities being represented by different branches. So for Bringing Ragnarok, I merge the idea of the multiverse with the Norse concept of the Web of Norns.

In the Norse myths, the Web of Norns is spun by three mysterious deity-like figures, who weave into it the fates of all those living in Midgard (and maybe beyond). My author's conceit here is to make the Web of Norns something more technological in nature: rather than there being three women who choose people's fates (they're more operators than drivers, so to speak), instead the Web is a visual representation of the multiverse itself, with each independent reality appearing as a golden Thread that is adjacent to and sometimes even merges with other Threads. The Norns are basically sampling the realities they can access, and using a sort of metaphysical statistics to predict the past, present, and future of all Threads.

This is how the Norns appear to know the fate of people living in Midgard: they are able to look at similar Threads and evaluate events. And this is how the Six Friends of the Saga are able (once they learn the ropes) to predict what actions they need to take in their different Threads to try and alter the course of events.

This metaphysical setup also lends itself quite well to the apocalyptic theme I'm (heh – weaving) into the story. Because, as most anyone with a passing familiarity with Norse mythology probably remembers, all realities are fated to end in Ragnarok. Midgard and all the neighboring realms alike. Because once they were bound together at the start of the Big Bang, they remained bound to one another. And eventually, because of something very particular about the way this metaphysical conceit plays out, they will eventually share the same fate: annihilation.

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It's pretty much old hat for a writer of genre fiction to acknowledge a debt to J.R.R. Tolkien. Few works of science fiction or fantasy have or will continue to endure as well as The Lord of the Rings. But the very reason why Tolkien's work endures, I am convinced, is the fact that he wasn't, in point of fact, writing genre fiction. He was writing mythology.

These days, mythology has a bit of a bad name. A "myth", in common use, is a bad thing. A mistaken belief. A distraction from truth, which in our age of uncritical scientism is mistakenly defined as the primary object of scientific inquiry (it isn't, but that's for another blogpost).

But there is another way to look at mythology. For most of human history, the only way we could reliably transmit information about the past to future generations was to tell stories about how the past (supposedly) was. And by telling stories, I mean actual oral transmission: someone puts together a story, and tells it to listeners. Before the invention of writing, this is all you've got to work with if you have any interest in remembering the past.

And remembering the past is one of humanity's most basic activities. It is only through obtaining information about what was that allows us to examine what is and try to estimate what will be. Which is a rather important survival skill, if you think about it. A form of basic, innate, heuristic science, that helps humans make (one hopes) reasonably better decisions about where to expend energy in order to improve odds of survival. 

There is a powerful view, most potently expressed in the field of comparative mythology, that humans telling stories about their ancestors is essentially the earliest form of history. Witzel's fascinating book, The Origins of the World's Mythologies, actually argues that all humans appear to share a set of story components, mythemes, that repeat across cultural and lingustic groups throughout history. This isn't to say that we all share the same mythology, but that there are commonalities between different cultures' myths that imply some common origin deep in our collective past, going all the way back to our origins as a species in East Africa. And like language, there are markers that can be used to trace how we got from a hypothetical original world-myth to the diversity of manifestations of myth that persist throughout the world today.

In this view, any culture's oral histories start with a set of basic stories, that individual groups tell and re-tell, adding and shifting and altering to suit present circumstances. It is only with the advent of writing that the pressure to develop and maintain a fixed canon begins, and the idea that stories are fixed and unchangeable becomes viable. But before that, what you have is each generation of story-tellers inheriting a set of stories, then adapting them to maintain their relevance.

In most cultures, this naturally takes the form of people telling stories about the supposed exploits of their great-great grandparents. The Icelandic Sagas offer a case in point. Iceland, like Hawai'i, New Zealand, and Madagascar, was only relatively recently settled by humans, circa 1000 AD. In Europe, this was a unique time in history: writing was spreading through the continent as Christians sought to convert the pagans and establish rule over them. For the first time, the old Norse had the opportunity to write down their oral histories, and one particular Icelander, Snorri Sturleson, decided to write down the oral histories (thus providing us with most of what we know about Norse mythology). Both the Norse Mythology (I really like this website, Norse Mythology for Smart Peopleand many of the more narrowly-focused Sagas that tell the stories of... yep, the ancestors (and original colonizers) of people living in Iceland when Snorri was writing his books.

The Icelandic Sagas, though you obviously have to parse much of what is said, given that Snorri was a Christian and wrote from a Christian perspective, basically present the original founders of Icelandic society as semi-legendary people, generally tougher and more noble than anyone living in the present. And they, in their turn, were said to be descended from people who were semi-divine, that is, children of a union (lost in the deeps of time) between a human and a god or other deity. If that sounds familiar, it should: many mythological systems do the same thing. Hell, in Japan, where they still have an Emperor, the royal family is explicitly said to trace its heritage back to deities of myth. In Japan, you had better respect the Emperor, because the guy is literally a descendent of a god.

Sturleson, Christianized as he was, actually laid out a scholarly theory on why the Norse myths and legends he was writing down seemed similar, in may respects, to the Greek and Roman myths and legends that accompanied Christianity as it spread north to Scandinavia. He argued that the oral histories of the Norse were actually themselves derived from the Greeks, with the mythological figures Odin, Freyja, Thor, Idunn, and all the rest being refugees from the downfall of Troy, and thus identical with many figures familiar from Homer's Iliad. He was wrong, of course, but there's no way he could have known: only the efforts of generations of mythologists, looking at linguistic and archaelogical evidence accumulated over centuries, have shown that, in fact, the Greek and Norse mythologies themselves are merely individual branches of a far older and deeper mythological tradition associated with the migration of the Indo-European peoples, who also ended up making it into Northern India thousands of years ago, linking the Vedic mythology and Hindu pantheon to the Norse and Greek traditions (in the way way back).

But to get back on point: mythology is best seen as a sort of first draft of history. It tells half-remembered stories from the past, with the express purpose of having relevance to people living in the present time.

That relevance hinges on something else, very fundamental, that mythology does (has probably always done): it assigns certain traits and behaviors to certain characters within the myth or legend, creating archetypes that move through the story saying and doing things that are supposed to serve as guides for proper behavior in all times, past, present, and future. Mythology isn't about simple transmission of stale facts through time, it is inherently about laying out moral and ethical codes for the community that is associated with the mythology.

And there is where the miscategorization of Tolkien's work as mere genre fiction does a serious disservice to the author's achievements and intent. Tolkien was explicitly writing a mythology for his tribe, the English people. He did that because he perceived in English culture a lack of rootedness, an inability to know who they were and what they stood for as a people.

The Lord of the Rings in particular, because it is a narrative (unlike the Silmarillion, which is straight-up myth in the Homeric mode), expressly describes a group of people with near-legendary abilities who are faced with fundamental moral choices. Throughout the story, we see characters making pronouncements about what is right in terms of behavior and belief. In many ways, the story itself is a carrier for a deeper philosophical discussion about how to be in a diverse world fundamentally endangered by the fact that humans are always at risk of pursuing power, which in the end destroys them body, mind, and soul.

There's actually a far deeper philosophy at work in Tolkien's legendarium. He hints at it in his letters, where at one point he tells his son Christopher Tolkien that he, in fact, sees himself as a sort of anarchist: he believes in monarchy, but elected monarchy, which is reflected in Aragorn's election by popular acclaim to become King of Gondor at the end of the Lord of the Rings. This isn't the sort of anarchy most of us living today have been trained to see as the only form of anarchy in existence (bewhiskered bomb-throwers, as Tolkien described those of this mode), but the more traditional form of anarchy, that simply rejects the presumption that anyone deserves power, or that being granted rule by a people also implies that the ruler then obtains permanent authority over them, and has the right to demand obedience. Tolkien believed very strongly in right and wrong (he was a firm Catholic, after all), but not that those in power had any special authority to determine such matters. Kingship is fundamentally limited in Middle Earth, and he goes through great pains to show exactly how those with power usually end up abusing it, and those they are supposed to serve.

I could go on (and on, and on, as Tolkien and I are akin from afar in many ways, not least in that we're both members of the Anglo-Saxon tribe, and believe it to be just one tribe among many with no inherent claim to being special), but for now suffice to say that as someone who is also writing mythology (merged with science fiction, for fun) I am also writing a story about semi-legendary beings who have to make hard moral choices about their actions. And I am also writing a story that deeply engages with philosophy, and embeds anarchist thinking throughout the narrative.

Most people don't realize the true depth of Tolkien's work at first glance. It has only been re-reading most of his work every couple years that has given me insight into the magnitude of what he was trying to accomplish. Because, thankfully, he appreciated subtlety. Making art that doesn't have to scream I'm art! Pay attention to ME! I can only hope to be half as subtle when it comes to my own attempt to discuss morality and philosophy in the context of a grand adventure. Because in the end, a story has to be fun. And should be.

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Thursday, 03 May 2018 18:18


So the other day I ran across this awesome website: Decolonize ALL The Things. And, happily, its companion: Decolonize ALL The Science.

In the spirit of privilege-checking, I should point out that I am as white, male, hetero, cis..... basically, I'm as vanilla white dude as they come. Despite that, I firmly believe that the Decolonization movement is ridiculously important. Here's why.

There is such a thing as 'Western' science. In fact, most science is 'Western', because despite the usual homilies about science being impartial and objective, concerned solely with facts and the proper methods used to generate them, science itself crucially depends on philosophy. What counts as a fact, what doesn't, isn't a determination that comes out of thin air. It comes, in the Western model, from a group of people with similar backgrounds and interests who get together and agree on two key questions: how they go about deciding what counts as a fact (the jargon-phrase for this is epistemology), and what facts are considered to pass the threshold of fact-hood and so are accepted implicitly as constituting what is "real" (the jargon-phrase for this is ontology).

This is what the "peer-review" process in science is all about. Groups of "peers" read one another's work and decide whether it passes muster as science according to their collective opinion.

Scientists don't usually like to discuss this too openly with laypersons. But this basic reality of science as being a social endeavor, fundamentally bound to the identities of the people doing the science, cannot be denied. As much as practicing scientists are loath to admit it, pure objectivity is impossible in science. Bias is always present, because people can't help but be biased in at least some dimension. Scientists, no less than the rest of humanity, are psychologically and culturally shaped by the circumstances of their upbringing. What they are prone to accept as real or not-real is bound up with their life experiences.

The basic problem with contemporary science across all the disciplines is that this inherent bias is rarely considered. It gets swept under the rug at every opportunity. And because it is effectively taboo to discuss, extremely damaging prejudices and assumptions have been allowed to persist and thrive within the scientific community for far too long.

And here is where colonialism comes in. Most scientists living today have been trained to accept that the European Enlightenment was a time of explosive growth in knowledge and technique, where brilliant minds laid out the fundamentals of what we know today as science. Scientists are trained to uncritically accept that they are, in effect, the intellectual descendents of these Enlightenment luminaries. Standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak. And further, they're trained to believe that these Enlightenment types were themselves working according to traditions dating back to the European Renaissance, and before that, of course, Ancient Greece itself.

Notice something? This model of science, which is taught throughout North America and Europe, roots itself entirely in a European (and male) perspective. And what contemporary scientists are by-and-large loath to accept, is that these scholars baked in their own narrow prejudices into their writings. Because, like all humans... they were human. Limited in perspective. Limited in time.

They were also direct beneficiaries of Europe's 500-year effort to dominate and enslave the rest of the world. Consider who, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, had the time and education necessary to do science, write down their results, and report them to other scientists. Science at the time was an upper-class and male endeavor. It was also intrinsically bound up with, and served, the European colonial effort. Edward Said's classic book Orientalism shows how this worked in literature, where White Europeans were always the default and proper identity for a protagonist, while the African or Indian was always a secondary or supporting character, often described in atrocially racist terms, denied independent will or capability. And scientists, part of the upper classes who read this literature, couldn't help but have their opinions of other peoples shaped by this European conceit.

And, of course, there was the whole theft of resources (and bodies) from the colonized, which fed the rapid economic growth and industrialization of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is why, at the turn of the 20th century, insane ideas like social darwinism emerged from and were supported by the scientific community. Eugenic theories proliferated that insisted (falsely!) African brains were smaller and less intelligent by nature than European brains. The Nazis in Germany, insane as they seem now, actively deployed science and scientists to justify their dehumanization of anyone not sufficiently aryan. And there were many Americans, writing in the early 20th century, who agreed with them.

The heritage of western science is directly tied to the colonial effort. And the rot goes back even further in time. Consider, for example, how many scientific papers and books at some point or other quote some Ancient Greek or Roman philosopher. Only rarely do they quote someone from China, or the Islamic world, or Africa, or the pre-colonial Americas. Consider too, how the "Socratic" style has permeated higher education over the years. Isn't it interesting, that scientists who would otherwise be skeptical of any argument rooted in the ideas of one thinker, will happily commit the basic logic error of arguing from authority - so long as that authority is a dead Greek man.

The Ancient Greeks, and the Romans who imitated them, were nothing more than sexist, racist, elitist, slave-owning murderers. Both societies depended on using war to obtain slaves, who did the actual work necessary to keep Athens and Rome up and running. Citing Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cato, whomever, isn't that different than citing Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein, if either were to write a book of philosophy. That modern universities continue to teach the words and style of these disgusting creatures is one of the greater ironies of our time. Particularly when there are scholars from numerous other traditions, whose ideas go back as far as those of the Ancient Greeks, who were themselves merely minor players in the Axial Age.

The pernicious persistence of sexism and racism in the modern university is in large part due to most scientists accepting what amounts to little more than received wisdom. And a graduate student or other aspiring scholar questions this received wisdom at their peril. Because whether or not they are allowed to join the science club is heavily determined by their willingness to parrot this mythological version of science. And this in turn produces powerful selection pressures, which are partly responsible for the continued over-representation of white males in the Academy (the political economy of the modern university, as with other major institutions in our society, is another key factor).

One of the greatest projects of the 21st century will be reclaiming science from the basic failures of the Western model. The institutions must be reclaimed and rebuilt to allow a new generation of scholars to break free from intellectual traditions that, in the end, reduce to arguments from authority, where authority is granted to a narrow and unrepresentative set of perspectives that have fundamentally biased huge swaths of what we accept today as "science".

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The United States of America is falling apart.

It is taboo to say such a thing publicly, of course, because it is the truth - and a truth that threatens the established interests of the rich and powerful. They will naturally prefer to keep harping on the need for 'unity' - whatever that means, when the divisions between Americans are now so obvious and persistent - and focus public attention on the reality TV show now occupying the Oval Office.

But the country is tearing itself apart, and the "delay-and-pray" tendencies evident in our power elite's handling of the situation is unlikely up to the challenge of handling the mounting crisis consuming Washington D.C.

America's disintegration goes well beyond simple politics, though the stranglehold of the two-party system in D.C. and the complete surrender of both the democrats and republicans to the lobbyists of the "swamp" is a major driver. But the truth is that the United States of America has never been as coherent a political entity as we'd like to think it. Our federal system of government has always papered over very different societies existing within the boundaries of the USA, societies that don't simply reduce to a simple dichotomy of right/left, conservative/liberal, rural/urban. The information revolution has made it impossible to ignore our differences, and is also making it easier than it has ever been to understand our federal government for the monster it has become, a creature capable of doing tremendous harm to those designated other by our elites, and yet wholly incapable of reconciling the different versions of "America" that exist in our pluralistic nation.

The truth is, that we are in an age where big, complex, bureaucratic federal governments are having more and more difficulty coordinating the various bits of society according to a common interpretation of universal principles - that itself being a prerequisite for a society that functions. While virtually all Americans believe in the idea that our nation is supposed to guarantee the conditions for the "pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness", but we can no longer agree on the essential question of how to get the job done. This will eventually result in the disintegration of the United States of America as we've known it. The question is, whether this disintegration takes a cancerous form, where we are held together by a governing system that looks out for the interests of a privileged few, or a trajectory more conducive to systematic reform, one that lets the different Americas that already exist take control of their political, economic, and social future.

If the United States is moving toward eventual disintegration, then setting politics aside to consider how this situation can be managed to minimize the harm experienced by the majority of Americans is absolutely crucial. The most essential step in salvaging something of the wreck that America is rapidly becoming is to determine how we can collectively "sidestep" the D.C. swamp, and make it accountable to our needs, however we define them, wherever we choose to live.

There is only one way I can think of to make this happen: pass a Constitutional Amendment that fundamentally restructures the federal government, essentially by breaking up the existing unitary federal government into several regional federal governments. These will have near-complete autonomy, including the right to interpret and amend the Constitution within their jurisdictions. Only a few powers expressly delegated to D.C. by unanimous agreement of the new autonomous federal regions (collective defense against invasion or nuclear attack, common currency ($), as examples) will remain in the hands of whatever supra-national establishment these regions choose to maintain - similar to the relationship between Brussels and the rest of the European Union.

Here is a simple map (apologies that it is a bit slapdash) of the six autonomous regions I think would 'work' under this scheme, including their basic population and GDP statistics (taken from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis).


This division of the US into 6 autonomous regions is ad-hoc, done according to my own personal sense of the different social divisions that exist within the United States that are visible at the state level. For a county-level assessment rooted in recent voting records, over the summer I did a different version of the US Breakup scenario (with more references to other work in this area).

Still, with this caveat aside, this simple split (if you can imagine it being real in about a decade's time) would allow the different Americas to establish their own independent trajectories - political, economic, and social. Each group of states (they could/should choose their own names, of course) would establish a new capitol and federal infrastructure, inheriting all the rights and responsibilities of the existing federal government. They would remain permanently associated under the flag and supra-national leadership in D.C., but rather than trying to make one big federal capitol located at the far eastern edge of the country accountable to all 325 million Americans, each capitol would only have to manage the affairs of 25-75 million Americans.

It is worth imaging the degree to which this would shake up the D.C. swamp. Lobbyists would have to relocate, politicians would suddenly find that their pool of colleagues was both smaller and generally facing the same kinds of pressures from similar kinds of voters. Rather than having every one of the major issues confronting the next generation of Americans (Black Lives Matter. Healthcare. Gun violence. Climate change Foreign policy. Size of government. The list goes on) get tied up in D.C., there would be a chance to actually make progress in large enough swaths of America to matter, and allow different federal regions to learn from one another.

This split also allows the different American economies to choose their own path forward, while keeping enough states grouped together to make sure that all the resulting regions have a high degree of economic competitiveness with respect to the rest of the world. To illustrate, here's how the six autonomous regions would stack up against other world economies by GDP:

1. China - $11 Trillion

2. Japan - $5 Trillion

3. Atlantic Union - 4.4 Trillion

4. United Southern States - 3.6 Trillion

5. Germany - $3.5 Trillion

6. Federation of Pacific States - $3.4 Trillion

7. Great Lakes Confederation - $2.9 Trillion

8. Plains Federation - $2.9 Trillion

9. United Kingdom - $2.6 Trillion

10. France - $2.5 Trillion

11. India - $2.3 Trillion

12. Italy - $1.9 Trillion

13. Brazil - $1.8 Trillion

14. Canada - $1.5 Trillion

15. South Korea - $1.4 Trillion

16. Russia - $1.3 Trillion

17. United Western States - $1.3 Trillion

18. Australia - $1.3 Trillion

Even the US region with the lowest GDP (the Intermountain West) has as large an economy as Russia or Australia. Both the Northeast and Southeast would have independent economies larger than any of the nations of Europe. The Pacific States would be on par with Germany, not far behind Japan. The simple truth is that given the difficulties in coordinating a continental sized economy, the United States may actually make more sense and be more economically competitive than at present, because you'd eliminate the rent seeking that is now, frankly, the primary reason Washington D.C. exists. I mean, just compare the per capita GDP of the District of Columbia (highest, at $160,000) to the poverty rate (7th worst, at 18.4%) and consider what that means in terms of income distribution.



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