How Did We Get Here? (edited)

Mylec Z2820 Hockey Stick

The appalling spectacle unfolding in Washington seems to demand explanation, and pundits are more than eager to fill the void. I think we all are trying to figure out the route from what seemed to be an orderly society into what seems to be chaos. What went wrong? What could have been different? What should we do to stop the bleeding?

As my son has taught me, when dealing with complex systems involving human behavior identifying in any detail which threads of past events have led to the current state of things is impossible; discerning in any detail how various threads of events are interacting to produce the current situation is impossible; and prediction in any detail is futile.

But if you back off from the detail, structure emerges even in very complex systems, and it is by placing current events in a matrix of emergent global processes that we can make some sense out of the chaos.

If you graph the most important phenomena supporting global civilization, you often come up with something resembling Al Gore’s famous “hockey stick” graph that predicted global warming (which turns out to be quite accurate). Pollution, water usage, urban development, resource extraction, species extinction, travel, trade, communication, technology, invasive species, likelihood of global pandemics, urban life, cost of extending life, the number of consumer good wrapped in plastic – all seem to be accelerating toward a peak. Even processes like population growth, with slowing growth rates, still are growing at a high rate.

Three simple facts define our future. First, global civilization is a finite system because the earth’s near-surface resources upon which civilization depends are finite. Second, a finite system cannot continue to grow unless you redefine growth to mean change within sustainable limits (whatever you think they are). Third, nearly all processes within global civilization depend upon continued growth.

So I think we need to look at political and social chaos as the unpredictable details of a predictable unraveling of global civilization. I go on and on about this subject in other essays, and since all I accomplish is making the reader feel bad, plus I may be wrong, I guess the best approach is for all of us to drop back and come up with theories about how we got here. A theory a day keeps reality at bay!

The Foundation of Civilization: Trust

Rowayton harbor on a misty morning

A structural engineer friend once told me that you can’t safely use welded steel framing in India because so many of the weld inspectors take bribes. Welding is subject to failure, and trustworthy inspection is the only way to find the failed welds and repair them. Likewise, I am told that LEED certification in India is a farce, as consultants who must verify performance simply invent results for a small fee. Most LEED-certified project in India receive the highest rating, Platinum: if you are cheating, cheat big.

Civilization has always been based to some extent on technology, but we have become like parasites in a technological host, utterly helpless without it. Even ISIS, determined as it is to send us all back into the 14th Century, is completely dependent upon electronic media, along with modern weapons, explosives and vehicles. Shut off the electricity and everything else shuts down.

As the examples from India suggest, corruption that undermines trust also undermines the technology on which modern civilization is based. Quality control standards are at the heart of establishing trust. It is unfortunately one of the least sexy aspects of technology. The procedures prescribed by ISO (International Organization for Standards) are mind-numbingly thorough, requiring repeated testing, recording and re-checking. But ISO is the gold standard of quality control, and manufacturers who meet ISO standards can profitably use this fact in their marketing.

The Wikipedia entry on ISO notes that Microsoft pushed through a fast-track procedure now approved by ISO. A criticism of ISO’s decision to approve this procedure elicited this comment from Computer security entrepreneur (and investor in a Linux based operating system that completes with Windows), Mark Shuttleworth:

When you have a process built on trust and when that trust is abused, ISO should halt the process… ISO is an engineering old boys club and these things are boring so you have to have a lot of passion … then suddenly you have an investment of a lot of money and lobbying [by Microsoft] and you get artificial results. The process is not set up to deal with intensive corporate lobbying and so you end up with something being a standard that is not clear.

Volunteer standards like ISO are necessary but not sufficient in a marketplace based on economic competition. A current example is the Millennium Tower in San Francisco, which as of 2016 had sunk 16 inches and tilted 6 inches at the top. The causes likely were the use of 60- to 90-foot long friction pilings sunk in the unstable mud and sand, rather than 200-foot pilings down to bedrock; combined with the crazy decision (in an earthquake-prone area) to use a heavy concrete frame rather than lighter steel framing to construct the tallest building in the city. I speculate that these decisions reduced first cost, greed trumping quality and common sense, as it so often does. No one knows what will happen to the building in a major earthquake, when the mud and sand supporting the building may turn into jelly.

It is this perverse incentive to ignore reality for short-term gain that requires regulation by disinterested third parties, typically established by governments. The Millennium Tower was built before the city had set up the current structural review procedure, relying instead on the word of the structural engineer (hired by the developer).

It is highly disturbing that our political right-wing is bent on dismantling such regulations. Yes, they slow down development, burden companies with paperwork, and add cost. That’s the whole point, to insist on quality in order to establish trust. The alternative is, in the long run, to undermine the foundations not only of tall buildings but of the technology that holds up modern civilization.

It is ironic that the companies that fund the radical right are themselves completely dependent upon the trust they are undermining – yet another example of the very phenomenon (setting reality aside in favor of short-term gain) that the regulations are designed to counteract!



More Depressing News

I wish I could find something to cheer about, but this article in today’s Times is so terrifying that I have to pass it on. It is unfortunately a must-read.


So What’s Up with Trump?

Barn in New Canaan CT, 2016

The media seem bewildered that our new president would spend so much time insisting that he won the popular vote. This is monumentally unsurprising, given that the man is a classic narcissist. An article in the Atlantic published during the campaign helps explain his behavior:

Here is the important quote that ends the article:

“Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.”

Donald Trump is out for himself, and will fight to win, whatever that means for him. It is therefore totally unsurprising that he would see the popular vote as a devastating loss that needed to be undone. The surprising thing to me is that he isn’t trying to lie his way out of this particular fact, as he has with respect to the inauguration attendance. How does he decide which facts are real and which can be safely discarded? Is he reading his base, or is he truly deluded about the facts? Probably a mixture of both. He is profoundly ignorant of and incurious about what’s going on outside the tiny and impoverished world of business and entertainment that he lives in.

Since his ideas are rooted in an imaginary world, he is going to fail repeatedly when his initiatives collide with reality. As failures and frustrations pile up, the many who followed him with strong reservations may check out and join some kind of opposition. Poll results may get worse, more victims of his rants and put-downs may summon the courage to oppose him. If this happens, he will become more and more panicked.

Enraging and cornering an extremely aggressive and powerful animal is a dangerous business. The disaster scenario would be something like this: as he antagonizes nearly every country except the Russians, we will become threatened on all sides. If Trump manages to stir up enough trouble (and he has made a great start in this direction) more Americans will agree with his version of the threats we face and go along with radical “solutions” to problems of his own invention. This is how wars start. But it is also the way you get everyone to work together: fear is a great leveler.

If somehow we skirt this disaster, we have two problems: how to rid ourselves of this pest, and what kind of trouble we will be in when he is replaced by a rampant right-wing ideologue who will get along famously with Congress. It would be ideal if we could somehow hook Trump off the stage with his ego intact, but I can’t see how that is possible – impeachment may be the only option, unless he decides to retire voluntarily.

In this scenario, no matter how he goes, he will leave behind a bitter divide between his die-hard followers and the rest of the country. If his followers fall into general disrepute, this might unite the rest of the country – probably a fond hope.

We need to focus our attention on Trump’s personality and use that knowledge to de-fuse this explosive man. I think belittling him will make matters worse. Instead, we should confront him with power comparable to his own, and that will require a leader of the opposition. It might turn out to be someone in his cabinet, like the Secretary of Defense, who sees disaster coming and does something about it.

The world is indeed a dangerous place, although not in the ways Trump believes it to be. The great threats we face are nuclear weapons, pandemics, climate change, water and soil depletion, ocean pollution, and species extinction. The threats people worry about are either symptoms of these underlying problems, or hot-button social issues that are utterly irrelevant to our survival as a species.

Can we worry about and deal with the real problems instead of those we imagine to be important? So far we have flunked the test.




What Would a Sustainable U.S. Be Like?

Ritterhof courtyard, Weingut Fitz-Ritter, Bad Dürkheim, Pfalz (founded 1785), watercolor and ink 1984

Despite our many problems, the U. S. is seen as a model of liberty, justice and prosperity. Many are rightly disturbed by accelerating income and wealth inequality in the U. S. Yet we ignore the profound inequality between our way of life and that of the vast majority of earth’s citizens. At best, we believe that everyone on earth should be able to live as we do.

This belief is self-serving nonsense. Earth’s resources are now being exploited well beyond a sustainable rate, especially its capacity to absorb pollution. As global population continues to grow, each person’s share must get smaller. If we truly believe in justice and equality, we would reduce our consumption of resources to meet a sustainable global average.

What would this mean? China uses roughly the same amount of earth’s resources as the U. S. It is also the same size as the U. S. Until recently, China was using resources at what optimists think might be a sustainable rate for the entire globe, assuming population growth slows rapidly. So using our fair share would be equivalent to adopting a Chinese standard of living.

Here’s the rub: China has more than four times our population. So bringing our consumption down to a sustainable level would amount to adding a billion people to our population without using any more resources than we do now. The share of my town, Norwalk, with a population of about 85,000, would be around 250,000 people. This is a truly ridiculous idea, yet it is the only fair and just solution.

Resolving the un-sustainability crisis requires cooperation, sharing, making do and doing without. That’s what I remember from my childhood during the Great Depression and WWII. It was hard, but it felt right. We could do with a large dose of that old medicine, to help cure us of the delusion that we can continue to live the way we do now.


More is Less

Our son David inherited his grandmother’s 1969 white Pontiac convertible with red vinyl upholstery. It was sexy, but it was a beast, a gas-guzzler and perfect example of the dangerous designs Ralph Nader successfully fought against during the same era. Just to list a few of its more egregious features, it had a rigid frame, lap belts, bench seats, tiny rear view mirrors, manual windows and door locks, carburetor, spongy suspension and a big V-8 motor that drank a half-pint of fuel every mile. Its heating, air conditioning and ventilation system hardly functioned and the radio was a joke. The bumpers could not withstand a 5 mph collision. It did have power steering and power brakes – drum brakes. It was huge.

In 2015, when we sold the Pontiac, I still owned a 1992 Camry station wagon I had bought used many years before. In the 23 years between 1969 and 1992, all major mechanical, safety and comfort issues had been addressed. It had a transverse V-6 engine with fuel injection driving the front wheels that delivered 25 mpg on the highway (its in-city mileage is not that great because of the big engine, but still was more than twice that of the Pontiac). It had a driver’s side air bag, over the shoulder seat belts, individual adjustable front seats, electric windows and door locks, rear window wipers, big motor-adjusted mirrors, cruise control, an impact-absorbing frame, highly effective rust protection, ABS disk brakes, impact-resistant bumpers, a modern suspension system, and an excellent radio with tape and CD players. It was quiet, comfortable, capacious, compact and reliable. In short, it was a fully modern car.

In the twenty-three years between 1992 and 2015, what important features have been added? More air bags, endless electronics and other small refinements, some very nice but of minimal importance and at a substantial increase in maintenance. All aspects have been refined, but there have been no innovations that increase safety, durability or efficiency remotely comparable to the dramatic changes that took place between 1969 and 1992. In addition, the progress made in compacting the car between 1969 and 1992 has been reversed. We are now used to tall huge vehicles instead of the low and wide huge vehicles we loved in the 60’s.

This is an example of one way in which “progress” is a misnomer: adding expensive, high-maintenance incremental changes to mature products. An important factor in the escalation of medical care in advanced societies is expending large sums to add a small increment of time at the end of life. I am very glad I have a titanium knee and a piece of cow in my heart, because otherwise I would not be nearly as active as I am, and might well have expired. But these surgeries cost tens of thousands of dollars, and it is simply impossible to extend such benefits to billions of people; we can’t even do so for a large fraction of our own citizens.

And can anyone argue that the difference between iPhones six and seven is remotely comparable to the difference between a flip phone and an iPhone? Or between no cell phone and a cell phone?

Another form of spurious progress is the loss of functionality in the service of reducing costs. Not only is ours a throw-away economy, but the products often break down after only a few hours or even minutes of use. In countless cases, new products are less reliable, less durable and less functional than those they replace.

We purchased a cheap set of wooden lawn furniture made with some kind of tropical hardwood (Americans import 95% of the tropical hardwoods, a large fraction of which are harvested unsustainably). To reduce the assembly cost of the chairs, the slats that formed the seats were designed with joints that were guaranteed to fail if a robust adult sat on them. Edward O. Wilson once commented that cutting tropical rain forest for profit was like burning a Renaissance painting in order to cook dinner. Our tropical chairs made a nice fire one chilly evening.

To keep the economic growth engine running, governments, corporations and consumers (previously known as citizens) need to buy more stuff. Some of the new stuff is indeed useful, notably electronic devices. Even in that case, functional innovations are becoming marginal, and sometimes (as in the case of Microsoft operating systems) run in reverse.

There are exceptions. One is scientific instruments, where innovation and refinement allow us to uncover entirely new layers of natural phenomena, genome sequencing and deep space imaging being only two examples. Another is technology that has enhanced the arts.

It’s too bad all this extra stuff isn’t making us happier: even though  at the moment Americans are the safest people who have ever lived on earth, we don’t feel safe. And the religion of growth is making us much less safe in the long run.

As I argue in other essays, the survival of human civilization requires moving from the economy we have to one where growth is parceled out in ways that are productive, equitable and sustainable.

This will require a fundamental shift from an emphasis on competition to one of cooperation, sharing, redistribution and making hard choices to shed amenities we can’t support. No one has yet figured out how to make these hard choices in a way that will be acceptable to a free people in a liberal economy.

My wife and I, my daughter and her family, and almost everyone I know continue to consume like mad, just like everyone else who can afford it and way too many who can’t (our son is admirably abstemious). We don’t know what else to do, and I suspect you are in the same boat.

It is time to put the sapiens back in Homo sapiens, but it will require us to work together, give up many luxuries, and base our actions on science. This is not exactly a recipe for getting elected to public office.

No-Growth Economy

Looking for enlightenment on the subject, and hoping to find some good news, I Googled “no-growth economy” and found this article at the top of the list:

It lays out a convincing case that civilization as we have constituted it cannot exist without growth. As far as I know, most mainstream economists would agree with him.

At the end, he references another 2014 article he wrote that lays out how to grow and not fry ourselves:

Its credibility is marred by his comment that he is not considering “speculative technology” like cold fusion, which has long since been round-filed as a bad piece of research. He also features carbon capture, which is highly speculative. This indicates to me that he is behind the curve regarding technological possibilities.

If you have some time (ha!) and want to see what no-growth theory looks like, you might read

I am impressed with its detachment from reality, especially with these prescriptions:

  • The first institution is to correct inequality by putting minimum and maximum limits on incomes, maximum limits on wealth, and then redistribute accordingly.
  • The second institution is to stabilise the population by issuing transferable reproduction licenses to all fertile women at a level corresponding with the general replacement fertility in society.
  • The third institution is to stabilise the level of capital by issuing and selling depletion quotas that put quantitative restrictions on the flow of resources in the economy. Quotas effectively minimise the throughput of resources necessary to maintain any given level of capital (as opposed to taxes, that merely alter the prevailing price structure).

These policies aren’t consistent with a democratic, liberty-based social structure, to dramatically understate the issue. However, the prescriptions are the sorts of measures that would be needed to control growth. So I deduce that solving the problem of growth means giving up many of our liberties. I am highly skeptical that this can happen without a crisis.

Stop Being Terrified

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that most of my ideas have been expressed much more succinctly by someone else. Here is an excellent article pleading for calm and reason in response to bomb-throwers. Our obsession with perfect safety is making us miserable.

Reason is needed, but emotion guides our actions, as predicted by the psychologists and amply demonstrated by events.

History in Lifetimes

Outbuilding at Cardney-Dunkeld, 1968
Outbuilding at Cardney-Dunkeld, 1968

Born in 1935, I began to be vaguely aware of the wider world in 1941, at age 6, when we declared war on Japan. So 75 years of sentience have passed for me as I write in 2016.

It is hard for me to realize that had I been born just one lifetime earlier, in 1855, the Civil War would have replaced WWII, and I now would be living in the depths of the Great Depression. Further, my life expectancy at birth would have been 43 years instead of 65 years. Another lifetime earlier, and from then all the way back, it would have been in the 30’s.

So it seemed useful to look back in time in 75-year steps – my long lifetime – beginning in 2015 to keep the numbers simple. As I go back in time, there is less detail. Partly this is a matter of perspective, but mainly it is that events with crucial implications for the future are occurring much more rapidly. A decade today is equivalent to a century a few hundred years ago, millennia before that, and hundreds of millennia as humans evolved from earlier species.

The timeline begins at the present, and steps back for 10 lifetimes. After that, the steps become progressively longer. Prior to the point at which the human lineage splits off from that leading to chimps, the steps become snapshots of key evolutionary events.

YBP means “years before the present”. I will omit “CE” for common era dates (formerly AD), and stick with “BC” instead of “BCE” (before the common era).

My Lifetime: 1940-2015

Human population more than triples

Humans and their livestock and pets now account for 98 percent of the world’s vertebrate biomass (mammals, marsupials, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds). 10,000 years ago, they accounted for one-tenth of one percent.

Global warming is confirmed and accelerates

Sixth Extinction is confirmed and accelerates

Communism, Nazism, WWII, Chinese Revolution, Cold War, numerous regional wars

Invention, use and proliferation of nuclear weapons – humans gain the capacity to exterminate all complex life on earth through “nuclear winter”

Plastics revolutionize material culture, create extensive ocean pollution

Tens of thousands of man-made chemicals created and disseminated

Electronics revolutionizes communication and becomes the primary information storage medium

All technology becomes dependent upon electricity

Consumerism and the necessity of growth becomes a dominant global force

Free trade and air travel link all people economically

Muslim radicalism erupts

Growing migration of populations displaced by war

Lifetime Two: 1865-1940

Height of Nationalism and Colonialism

All science is integrated around seminal discoveries in physics

Western countries are electrified

Coal-based railroads and steamships revolutionize transportation

Petroleum-based technology revolutionizes transportation again (automobiles and aircraft)

Modern medicine matures, extending life expectancy

Russian Revolution, WWI

Lifetime Three: 1790-1865

Industrial revolution becomes a dominant force

Coal-based technologies arise

Middle classes expand in Europe and America

Darwin undermines the foundation of religion

Nationalism and Colonialism growing

Most of eastern U.S. deforested

Lifetime Four: 1715-1790

European Enlightenment

American and French revolutions

Early industrial revolution

Lifetime Five: 1640-1715

Newton revolutionizes physics and invents the calculus

Louis XIV guides France to its apex of power and sets the stage for its decline

Wars in Europe continue

Lifetime Six: 1565-1640

Galileo and the rediscovery of experimental science

Luther triggers the Reformation, which leads to the wars of religion

Age of Elizabeth and Shakespeare

Descartes revolutionizes philosophy and mathematics

Spanish are the dominant power in Europe

 Lifetime Seven: 1490-1565

Late Renaissance

Voyages of discovery

Destruction of Pre-Columbian civilizations and their written history by the Spanish

Lifetime Eight: 1415-1490

Ottomans conquer Byzantium

High Renaissance in Europe

Lifetime Nine: 1340-1415

Black Death kills one in three Europeans

Schism fractures the Catholic Church

Tamerlane invades middle Asia

Rise of Ottoman Empire

Early Renaissance

Lifetime Ten: 1265-1340

Islam in retreat, under attack in east and west

Late Middle Ages in Europe

Nation states arise in Europe

Increased contact between East and West

 Lifetimes 20-10: 515 – 1265

Feudalism dominates for 500 years in Europe after Germanic invasions

Catholic church becomes the predominant power in Europe

Medieval revival of European culture

Origin and explosive expansion of Islam

Golden age of Islamic science

Lifetimes 30-20: 235 BC to 515

The Roman Empire replaces the Roman Republic and disintegrates after 500 years of dominance

The invasion of the Huns sets off the Great Migration of Germanic tribes into Europe

Christianity arises and becomes the dominant religion in Europe.

Roman culture survives in the Byzantine Empire

Lifetimes 50-30: 1735 BC to 235 BC

Written history arises in China

Urban civilizations arise in India and Meso-America

Classical Greek culture

Alexander the Great reaches India

Roman republic arises and conquers Italy

Deforestation for agriculture, ship-building and fuel begins, continuing to the present

Lifetimes 75-50: 3610 BC to 1735 BC

Invention of writing and recorded history

First civilization – Sumer, c. 3,300 BC

First Egyptian dynasty c. 3,100 BC

Harrapan civilization arises in the Indus Valley c. 2,600 BC

Pre-literate civilizations arise in Meso-America

First Chinese dynasty c. 2,000 BC

Lifetime 100-75: 5,485 BC to 3,610 BC

Pre-literate civilizations arise in Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan

Lifetimes 150-100: 9,235 BC to 5,485 BC

End of the last glacial period

Invention of agriculture and animal husbandry

The first towns appear

Lifetimes 200-100: 12,985 BC to 9,235 BC

Humans colonize North America via the land bridge across the Bering Strait.

As occurred elsewhere soon after colonization by humans, nearly all the megafauna in the Americas become extinct.

Lifetimes 500-200: 35,500 YBP to 12,985 BC

The last of our close relatives, the Neanderthals and Denisovans, disappear, after interbreeding with modernt humans

Humans colonize the entire earth except for the Americas, Antarctica, and some Pacific Islands

Lifetimes 1,000-500: 75,000 YBP to 35,500 YBP

Fully mature language evolves

The first confirmed evidence of art occurs

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) colonize Eurasia, Australia and some Pacific islands

Lifetimes 100,000-3,000: 7,500,000 YBP to 225,000 YBP

The lineage of African great apes leading to humans, their ancestors and cousins (Hominins) splits from the lineage leading to Chimpanzees and Bonobos (genus Pan); Gorillas and Orangutans had split off earlier

Numerous Hominin genuses and species arise, a few of which are ancestral to humans (no one knows which ones)

Members of the genus Homo migrate out of Africa at various times. Homo erectus Hominins migrate into Middle East, East Asia and India about 2,000,000 YBP

Stone tools and fire are invented

Upright posture frees hands to use projectile weapons, giving Hominins a crucial advantage in hunting: attacking from a distance

Early form of language develop

Lifetime 870,000: 65,000,000 YBP

A great extinction event triggered by a comet impact results in extinction of dinosaurs (except birds), allowing the dominance of mammals

Lifetime 2,100,000: 160,000,000 YBP

Origin of flowering plants resulting in major increase in atmospheric oxygen, allowing the evolution of large terrestrial animals

Lifetime 7,200,000: 540,000,000 YBP

The “Cambrian Explosion” populates the seas with macroscopic organisms, the ancestors of all our phyla of animals

Soon thereafter, animals, plants and fungi move onto land

Lifetime 28,000,000: 2,100,000,000 YBP

The “Great Oxygen Event” occurs when enough oxygen accumulates in the atmosphere to cause a massive extinction event and the evolution of oxygen-dependent organisms

Eukaryotes, much more complex but still microscopic organisms, form by the merging of specialized prokaryotes and viruses.

 Lifetime 50,000,000: 3.700,000,000 YBP

Life arises, probably in many different forms, until one chemical system becomes the standard template for all subsequent life

All life for the next 2 billion years consists of prokaryotes – bacteria and bacteria-like “archaea”, along with viruses

Lifetime 61,000,000: 4,600,000,000 YBP

The sun ignites at the center of a rotating disk of dust, ice, heavy elements and gas, in a quiet “suburb” between spiral arms of the Milky Way Galaxy

The earth, other planets, and countless larger and smaller fragment coalesce from the rotating disk

Large and small fragments bombard the earth. One the size of Mars strikes a glancing blow to the earth, and the resulting debris coagulates into our moon.

The bombardment gradually tapers off over half a billion years, until the earth cools enough for liquid water to form; it is uncertain where the water came from

 Lifetime 183,000,000: 13,700,000,000 YPB

The universe expands abruptly from a tiny kernel in the “Big Bang” and the “Cosmic Inflation” that immediately followed, all within an infinitesimal fraction of a second. Or at least that what cosmologists thought last week.

After the “Dark Ages”, stars begin to form and our galaxy begins to coalesce, a process that continues to the present

  Next Lifetime: 2015-2090

I see the next lifetime as a climactic episode of dramatic change in human civilization and global ecosystems. Nobody knows what the world in 2090 will be like, but it is certain that it will not remotely resemble that of 2015. It is extremely unlikely that it will be as comfortable, populous and orderly.

Essay I on Function: Does Reality Have a Purpose?


Leaving aside ceremonial dinners and mathematical expressions, “function” is a synonym for purpose, or is the role something plays, whether by itself or as part of a larger assembly. So if we substitute “role or purpose” for “function” we will not be far off. My ultimate goal is to explore the concept of function in the context of architecture, but in this first essay, I want to explore function in the context of nature.

Does the sun or a rock or the atmosphere play a role or have a purpose? Well, if you believe that this land was made for you and me, then the sun functions to light and heat us, rock provides us with building material, and the atmosphere delivers oxygen to breathe and protects us from ultraviolet radiation. If you adopt the Enlightenment notion of a clockwork universe, then each has a function as part of God’s grand clock that he wound up and let run according to the Newton’s laws. Einstein had such a view of God; he was certain God made orderly, logical laws, and didn’t at all like the uncertainty that is fundamental to the theory of quantum mechanics he helped formulate.

A modern scientific point of view rejects such ideas. Stars and rocks and gases are things that emerge naturally, given the laws of physics. You can trace cause and effect step by step back to the big bang, beyond which for the moment we are blind. If you want to interject a deity, you can be a Deist and have God set off the Big Bang or design the laws of physics, but I don’t think this kind of deity would satisfy many people’s spiritual needs, although it seemed to satisfy Einstein. For today’s science, there is no one behind the scenes deciding what comes next. Arguments on the subject continue unabated; I stake my claim on the side of materialism.

A role or purpose needs context. To define the role or purpose of a rock, you need to have some kind of goal, for example, making a rock wall. When you set a goal, everything in the universe suddenly has a role or purpose relative to the goal. Rocks, yourself, tools, a plan, and a location all have essential functions, while the Andromeda galaxy takes no part, and the sun functions to keep you warm while you work and to provide light. Invent a goal, and function follows; if there is no goal, nothing has a function.

But does this line of thinking apply to life? It seems natural to think of one’s heart as having an essential function, doing its part to keep you alive so you can reproduce. Richard Dawkins argued in “The Selfish Gene” that it is your genes that have the goal, and you are just the vehicle they use to make more of themselves (as a chicken is an egg’s way to make another egg, or a scholar is a library’s way to make another library).

I maintain that we have invented the goal. Genes don’t have goals, they are just doing their thing, even if it seems to us that they “want” to persist into the next generation. It is a compelling metaphor, but it is just that: a gene is the pathway through time taken by the atoms that make up the gene, a part of the unfolding evolution of our universe.

The injection of purpose, intention, role, agency, goals and the like into our thinking about things is probably essential for understanding. We seem compelled to personify things, to think of them as if they were people, applying our hyper-developed social skills as a tool for understanding. In this way, we endow objects and events with an essence, a thingness that helps us makes sense of the world.

This is a highly useful tendency (which is no doubt why it evolved), since on our planet, nature clumps into identifiable objects and events. But our planet is highly unusual: very little of nature clumps into identifiable objects and events, important as these are to us. Most of nature consists of undifferentiated aggregations of dust, gas, plasmas, particles and fields. Only a few percent of the mass of the universe is in the form of what we call matter. But we didn’t know that when our mental equipment evolved. It was tuned to a pre-scientific world.

Nature doesn’t have a purpose, and being a part of nature, neither do you. This idea creates cognitive dissonance, so we seek meaning and purpose in our lives: it’s the only way we can avoid existential despair. But when we try to find out how nature actually works, we need temporarily to abandon our search for meaning and purpose and accept reality as it presents itself.