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Friday, March 14, 2008

Getting Practical

So why does any of this, any of any knowledge, matter? Why pay
attention to the structure of reality, to rules of arrangement, to
domain independent meta-pattern and meta-process, to universal
grammars, to stacked grammatical hierarchies, to causal ontologies
and influence cones, to complexity metrics?

Greater knowledge of the dynamics of the system you are a member of
yields efficiencies in processing and access of resources. That is
the game. That is evolution. That, like it or not is the game you
were built to play. And, in this game, the board, the players, and
the rules are evolving as well. There is no standing still. You
play or you get played. You eat or you get eaten.

In this game called evolution, there is profound advantage to being
at the apex of control, the apex of complexity. Know more and you
will exploit more completely and cleanly and your exploits will shape
the future of exploitation, of evolution itself.

We have a tendency to think nature and the cosmos as static. We
romanticize concepts like natural cycles and balance. These are side
effects of our short perspectives, our limited vistas in time and
distance. Our daily experience is restricted to a few tens of miles
and a memory that breaks down at the scale of a year or two. As a
result we think we see yearly weather repeat itself, we think we see
landscapes and vistas as fixed and unchanging. Once the airport
construction is complete, we are at odds to remember what was there
before. We read and try to absorb concepts of much larger cycles,
warm and wet to cold and dry epochs that stretch out over the scope
of tens of thousands of years. Continents that split and drift the
circumference of the globe to smash into each other at the speed our
fingernails grow (a meter a century!). We are experientially retarded
to the very idea of events that are a hundred thousand or a million
times our own life span.

Yet the patterns that matter, that connect our little lives to the
history and breadth of the universe and to the equally distant, but
miniature world of the particles we are made of... these patterns
must be divined and abstracted and forced into simplified and cleaned
up forms acceptable to our very scale-challenged little brains.

We have a tendency to look to the past as a slightly more primitive
form of the present. How many of us can truly grasp the 4.5 billion
years our little Earth has been in existence? Imagine for instance
that our moon was closer when it first formed and even 1.5 billion
years into our planet's history, daily tides were 1000 feet tall.
Oh, and by the way, our moon came at a heavy cost. Just 35 million
years after the earth had reached something like its current modern
size, it smashed into another planet almost as large. The resulting
reverberation of melted rock in space left much material orbiting as
mini moons that slowly smashed into each other to form a single
mass. Remember here that the earth is not now and certainly wasn't
then a solid chunk of rock. The hard cool stuff we experience on the
surface of our world is ridiculously thin, comprising just .7% of its
mass. Animals, the multi-celled kinds of life we think of when we
think of life, you know, with heads and limbs of some sort, came into
existence just three quarters of a billion years ago. Plants first
came out of the water 450 million years ago. That means that for
more than eight ninths of the earths history, there were no plants of
any kind anywhere except in the oceans. Flowering plants didn't
appear until just 130 million hears ago... just one three hundred
fiftieth the age of Earth! The first primitive primates didn't show
up until about 60 million years ago, the great apes appeared just 15
million years ago. Modern humans have existed less than 250 thousand
years. Written language less than 5 thousand years ago.

Then there is the considerably larger scale of the evolution of the
Universe itself, which did its own thing for about 9 billion years
before bothering to build the Earth. Our galaxy is a collection of
second generation stars and stars don't exactly have short lives.
First generation stars were made of the only elements left over from
the big bang, the simplest ones; mostly hydrogen, helium, and
lithium. Anything you could build a rocky planet from simply didn't
exit. The stuff of stuff, rocks, water, air; none of these things
could exist at all until the nuclear fusion caldron that is an
imploding first generation star.

Only the debris (as atomic dust) from the stupendous death of a first
generation star can create the kind of hard stuff (the heavy matter
populating the periodic chart) that will swirl around its own
distributed gravity well and end up accumulating into a new sun and
its attendant planets, rings, dust clouds, astroid belts,
planetesimals, etc.

Nothing stands still. Nothing is truly cyclical. Even the wildly
energetic forces that hold electrons in orbit clouds around an atom's
nucleus loose a little push with each moment that passes. Every
action has its cost. Every action irreversibly changes the
parameters of the game. An orbit is in reality a spiral. A sun is
burning itself out. A fox today is different from what at fox was 30
generations ago. An astroid is a chunk set free from the collision
of two planets large enough to melt heavy elements in a chemical
furness fired by the friction and pressure of its own collective
gravity. A storm this year is in fact different (if only slightly)
from a storm any previous year. Even the word "evolution" means
something different today then it did just months before. Returning
to any previous state is an illusion. Time and its attendant
dynamics force irreversibility on all systems.

If we are to know process, if we are to understand the most basic
parameters of the universe we live in, were produced by, and now play
an active and collective roll as creator, then we must switch our
impetus of understanding from things, places, and events to process,
change, and evolution.

The stuff, the current incarnation of process, is ethereal. Only the
process of change, and the rules of change, remain eternal and
unchanging. But don't choose to be attracted to change because it is
somehow qualitatively more interesting than stasis... it isn't.
Interest your self in change only because reality is set up in such a
way as to make it causally superior to a lack of change. The rules
of change create the the stuff and the dynamics of stuff and any
current state, never the other way around. The laws of change are
more causal than the dynamics of stuff and of domains of stuff. The
laws and parameters that govern change give rise to the subservient
laws that describe stuff and the dynamics of stuff. Not the other
way around.

As culture (the collective collection of what we know and how to
apply it) becomes a more and more accurate and complete abstraction
to process, humans exert greater and greater control over their
environment. Much of this exploitive power was achieved before we
had any conception of the laws of change.

-- more to come --

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