Showing posts from September, 2023

Knowledge and Reality

I was crossing a steep slope high in the mountains. It was a warm, sunny day in mid-September. To my left, high above, a jagged ridge was silhouetted against the blue sky. To my right, far below, a deep blue alpine lake sparkled in the sunlight. The slope between them was a mosaic of boulder fields and cliffs, with a few patches of krummholz and heather clinging to the rocks. Sweat was trickling down my forehead and into the corners of my eyes, making them sting. I licked my lips and tasted salt and rock dust. At a conveniently shaped boulder, I stopped to rest and have a drink of water. I took my backpack off. The air felt cool on my sweaty back and shoulders. I gulped water from my bottle. I wiped the sweat from my face with my sleeve. Then I sat on the boulder and gazed at the landscape. The ridge across the lake had almost no vegetation, just gray rock and white snowfields. To the east, I could see range after range of mountains, fading away into the distance. Below, the lake s

Fires, Polar Bears and Global Warming

Recently, there have been several destructive wildfires in Canada and the United States. Of course, many people blame climate change for these disasters. Others blame arson, or even space lasers. But the real cause of wildfires is the accumulation of fuel. People are not very good at understanding things on large scales. They are pretty good at understanding proximate causes, such as how a discarded cigarette or a lightning strike can start a fire. But they are terrible at understanding long-term processes and large-scale systems. People are blind to a lot of reality. When I think about the human inability to understand nature, a certain event comes to mind. In 2017, a video of a dying polar bear went viral. Of course, it was linked to a moral narrative: GLOBAL WARMING IS KILLING THE POLAR BEARS!!! Heart-Wrenching Video: Starving Polar Bear on Iceless Land This is a good test of your ability to think abstractly. If you can think about systems and processes in the abstract, you sho

Modern Civilization is Irrational

Modern civilization is based on rationality, but it is not rational. Most people think of industrial/modern civilization as an expression of rationality, or even as excessive rationality. They see the complex, highly abstract theories of modern science, the complex and carefully designed modern technology that we depend on, and the highly efficient and carefully managed industrial processes that produce everything from toothpaste to cars to hamburgers. Modern civilization seems like a triumph of rationality. The market and the printing press unleashed rationality, and that explosion of rationality created the modern world. That story is true, but not complete. Each part of modern civilization is rational in itself, within its bounds. A lot of careful thought goes into the design of a car, a dishwasher or a skyscraper. They aren’t as well-designed as they could be, but they are carefully thought-out. They are also based on empiricism. Knowledge accumulates and is applied to new probl