Straw Men and Gaps

In my last post about evolution I may have not been quite on target on a couple of things.

First, I don’t want to set up natural selection as a straw man. If you look at a modern textbook on evolution you will find many much more subtle mechanisms for evolution in which natural selection may play a small or even no role at all (genetic drift, for example). Selection is still generally thought to be a final arbiter in most scenarios, but that is a given. If some change, no matter the mechanism, doesn’t allow for successful multigenerational reproduction at higher rate than what is already in play, of course it won’t result in change, and change, movement, transmuting energy into new form and function, is what evolution, is what life in the realm of the six senses, is all about. It’s such a given, so inherent in its formulation, that I referred to it as a tautology, out of respect, not as a criticism.

Second, I may have opened up a sense of awe and wonder of the “Gaps.” Like a God of the gaps, it is weak to the point of meaninglessness. Wonder and awe, deep inspiration, spiritual insight, samadhi, are not made more or less authentic and part of your life by gaps in some other view or metaphysical stance, including current scientific data or dogma. It is not a matter of using the gaps in science to create openings for anything else or to justify your practice or beliefs. Of course you can fit whatever fantasy or delusion you care for in those gaps, and fundamentalists do, but hopefully your world view is more coherent and doesn’t rely on gaps.

Science will never have no gaps. A gap is important in directing where scientists need to look to learn more. However, our approach to measuring the universe through extensions of our six senses is finite, internal to what we are measuring, and so has limits.  The limits of science will likely include our finite monkey brain with a certain number of synapses that evolved to survive in a given time and space or our technology which doesn’t have the oomph to explore the realms we dream up with our math and the implications of current scientific understanding of basic, fundamental physics. Many gaps, of course, will be filled IF our species survives and thrives. Science has a really good track record of surprising gap filling!

I watched a wonderful lecture series on particle physics from the Great Courses called “The Theory of Everything” given by Don Lincoln. If you want to know what is current thinking in physics, including where the gaps are, this is the series for you. But that isn’t its real strength. If you want to see how a working experimental physicist approaches the matter of matter and energy, this is the best out there. Now, it doesn’t go as much as you might like into the gee whiz stuff of quantum (a bit of course; has to!) and makes no real effort at “deeper meaning,” but that’s what I loved about it. Just what scientists think they know and what they think they don’t know about particles and forces.

One thing he points out: we can already describe the transformations of energy in all the realm of the six senses by a series of equations that would fit on a tee shirt. Problem is they are disconnected and don’t fit well together and require constants, numbers empirically derived, that we have no theoretical basis for. Lanza and Berman also discuss this in “Biocentrism”. A real gap in physics that these are experimentally derived, often approximated, and not derived from some single number and first principles. A very recent book that goes into that in detail about this is Lewis and Barnes “A Fortunate Universe Life in a Finely Tuned universe.” While I liked their detailed exposition of the situation, I wasn’t as enthralled by the philosophical discussion at the end; too dualistic.

There are gaps that I think will remain in science. One is any ultimate “explanation,” mostly because explanation past a mechanistic story or mathematical description will always be an attempt to take observations and fit them into a more sophisticated story that works on our human scale and perspective. Why should that work? We are primates! Why should the Universe, Truth, be primate friendly, understandable and graspable in its entirety by primate intellectual constructions?

Buddha famously warned against speculative metaphysics. He seems to have said something like: yeah I know a bunch of stuff, and so can you, but don’t get distracted. Take care of your world on fire. There will be understanding, but don’t get greedy, first things first.

Another gap I believe will be a scientific theory of consciousness. Lets say scientists can show exactly the neurologic correlates of consciousness to an exquisite and intellectually satisfying level of detail, way beyond what is known now. That will happen to one degree or another and is happening now in neuroscience. I am not as enthralled with neuroscience as an adjunct to my practice as some seem to be in the Buddhist community. I am currently enjoying “Behave” by a primatologist Robert Sapolsky. But, while I’m not through yet, this is not a metaphysical book, it explores how we function as human primates, as the subtitle says “the biology of humans at our best and worst.” Interesting stuff, so far a great read, but not about consciousness per se, but about our contingent biologic programming. Anyway, even if our scientific understanding of consciousness goes deep, deep, deep into quantum effects on the mind and in neurology  and  complex brain level activity, and grasps the role in our consciousness of inputs from the endocrine system, the immune system and the gut etc., and shows how it all fits together, will that be any different from describing the science of light (energy, electromagnetic waves, photons and quantum field theory) and perception (eyes, optic nerve, brain pathways) to a blind person and expect them to experience the color yellow? Heck, we sighted people with the usual kinds of photoreceptors (i.e. not color blind) don’t have yellow receptors in our eyes, yet we see yellow, as a story, a projection.

The universe is energy transformations. That changes in, and perhaps defines, our experience of time and space. That is what evolution is and it is of the nature of movement. The question is: what is the basis of these transformations, and whether consciousness, Mind, is fundamental, foundational? The most given of givens. The irreducible.

So, let there be no straw men or spirituality, awe or consciousness of the gaps. We don’t need no stinkin’ gaps or straw men to bolster our practice, to be compassionate, for samadhi, to be.

Nature Shows, Mind, Non-Dualsim and Intelligent Design

Straight up:

I do not, as I have written before, believe in intelligent design.

It is a dualistic concept, and so misses the deep Truth of how things are.

And in our culture intelligent design is theistic and literal religious scriptural dogma in disguise in order to try and pass off superstition as science and Truth to corrupt the minds of the young in school and the old in life.

We project our stories, our, intellect, including our understanding of randomness and creation based on our four dimensional perceptions, our scale of time and space, on life as we see it, so there is the appearance of design.

I have written about Huxley and Darwin and my respect for them and evolution. I have a collection of contemporary (to them i.e. late 19th century) Huxley and Darwin books. If you have read about plant communication (like the recent books “What a Plant Knows” or “Brilliant Green”), you have Darwin to thank. I was watching a TV special on Carnivorous plants that quotes Darwin’s studies. I have his book on insectivorous plants, the American edition of 1875, that  someone picked up and bought over 140 years ago to read! I love having the artifact that is contemporary with these original ideas and great efforts to clarify the matter of what nature is up to.

Having set that out in black and white, in bold italics, let me say that it doesn’t mean I am not sympathetic to intelligent design believers who are sincere! I mean, life is so abundant and resilient: think how fast life rebounded after multiple huge extinction events. Cant keep it down. It would take a total destruction of earth to wipe it out, like a comet blowing earth apart, and even then some might survive on the remains of the planet.

And the manifestations of life, the “solutions” (forgive the anthropomorphizing) to problems of survival, are so robust, so varied, complex and elegant that if you don’t pause to marvel and question whatever you may believe, no matter how scientific, you need to watch more nature shows and read more nature books and regain a sense of wonder and awe with a bit of humility!

While random variation and the obvious continuation of what works, that is, natural selection, are true and clear mechanisms for evolution (a recent Scientific American article and new book “How to Tame a Fox” illustrates a human/fox model of how selection works to create species; a model because it is manipulated with intent that natural selection does not have),  I find, despite my loyalty to evolution, that I wonder if there isn’t, in some sense, more to it than blind random chance filtered through the editing function of reproductive success. It almost pains me to type those words, but I can’t deny the sense I have that the syllogism, strong as it is, of natural selection is true and necessary, but not sufficient.

Maybe it is a matter of something like the thought patterns in Bernardo Kastrup’s top down idealism, the nature of That Which Experiences (TWE) or Mind. Maybe it is something deep about the laws of nature that we don’t write understand. I know the standard answer is deep time, randomness rules when vast numbers are involved, but I am not so convinced. Yes, I know that sounds like intelligent design. But I don’t see it as occurring “outside” of Mind, as intelligent or designed by a higher power, deity or otherwise. Rather it seems to me that Nature and Mind are one, and that matters in how the Universe unfolds.

Maybe I am wrong and apostate in this, but I am so overwhelmed by the exuberance and range of life, the incredible lack of chance implied by the way it ranges into the extremes of the world and will not be denied, that I am willing to entertain the possibility that while random chance and selection clearly are important, they just may not be the whole story on what life is as a manifestation of Mind.

In fact, the problem with defining life, and it is tough to do, as I have written before, may imply that life is not all that special, except in the way that all is special. Or nothing is special. You know, like in “ordinary mind is the way.” Or that life is a projection of Mind, perhaps in a way that Biocentrism and the Lankavatara sutra seem to me to imply, or for that matter any non-dualistic Mind-only approach seems to me to imply.

Yes, we can all agree we are made of star stuff, not separate from the workings of the cosmos. But what underlies all of that?

The mind of God (if you like that theistic approach)?

Life is, I believe, as Stephen Gaskin titled one of his books, Mind at Play.

Does matter make mind or is matter a manifestation of Mind? A foundational question. Same goes for life as for all matter, for that matter, does mind make life or life make mind.

Life is Mind. Mind is life.

That’s what I think Biocentrism is about. That’s what I think “Mind is Buddha” is about.

I am a medical scientist; this is not something I would want to confuse people about. I am only saying keep an open mind as to what life is and the role of randomness in the Universe we experience.

One show on PBS that inspired this post just now was an episode of Nature called Forest of The Lynx. Watch it. Especially note at 27-29 minutes about the trees and rain. Trees bioengineering their environment. Trees are too cool. Consciousness without brains in the animal sense of brains. Some trees, like some insects, function as super-organisms. And fungi and trees… OK I digress. Hard not to as this stuff is so wonderful! Of course now “the Hidden Life of Trees” is deservedly a best seller. Good book to read so you can really marvel at trees. But back to the PBS Nature show the forest of the lynx; at 27-29 minutes (watch the whole thing of course), they mention that trees release a molecule when they are stressed by drought, but don’t name the molecule. I am not sure what molecule they were referring to that trees release is (why don’t they just say? Frustrating when even PBS dumbs down; we can handle a word with two or more syllables), but here’s something similar: cosmic rays and trees and pine and marijuana resin and quantum effects might make clouds/rain. And have medicinal properties (Bold italics below are mine):

Ion-induced nucleation of pure biogenic particles

  • Jasper Kirkby, Jonathan Duplissy, Kamalika Sengupta, Carla Frege, Hamish Gordon, Christina Williamson, Martin Heinritzi, Mario Simon, Chao Yan, João Almeida, Jasmin Tröstl, Tuomo Nieminen, Ismael K. Ortega, Robert Wagner, Alexey Adamov, Antonio Amorim, Anne-Kathrin Bernhammer, Federico Bianchi, Martin Breitenlechner, Sophia Brilke, Xuemeng Chen, Jill Craven, Antonio Dias, Sebastian Ehrhart, Richard C. Flagan et al.

Nature 533, 521–526 (26 May 2016) doi:10.1038/nature17953

Received 06 July 2015 Accepted 16 March 2016 Published online 25 May 2016

Atmospheric aerosols and their effect on clouds are thought to be important for anthropogenic radiative forcing of the climate, yet remain poorly understood1. Globally, around half of cloud condensation nuclei originate from nucleation of atmospheric vapours2. It is thought that sulfuric acid is essential to initiate most particle formation in the atmosphere3, 4, and that ions have a relatively minor role5. Some laboratory studies, however, have reported organic particle formation without the intentional addition of sulfuric acid, although contamination could not be excluded6, 7. Here we present evidence for the formation of aerosol particles from highly oxidized biogenic vapours in the absence of sulfuric acid in a large chamber under atmospheric conditions. The highly oxygenated molecules (HOMs) are produced by ozonolysis of α-pinene. We find that ions from Galactic cosmic rays increase the nucleation rate by one to two orders of magnitude compared with neutral nucleation. Our experimental findings are supported by quantum chemical calculations of the cluster binding energies of representative HOMs. Ion-induced nucleation of pure organic particles constitutes a potentially widespread source of aerosol particles in terrestrial environments with low sulfuric acid pollution.

Regarding Pinene:

(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Pinene (C10H16) is a bicyclic monoterpene chemical compound.[1] There are two structural isomers of pinene found in nature: α-pinene and β-pinene. As the name suggests, both forms are important constituents of pine resin; they are also found in the resins of many other conifers, as well as in non-coniferous plants such as camphorweed (Heterotheca)[3] and big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). Both isomers are used by many insects in their chemical communication system. The two isomers of pinene constitute the major component of turpentine.


α-Pinene and β-pinene are both produced from geranyl pyrophosphate, via cyclisation of linaloyl pyrophosphate followed by loss of a proton from the carbocation equivalent.


Alpha-pinene is the most widely encountered terpenoid in nature[4] and is highly repellant to insects.[5]

Alpha-pinene appears in conifers and numerous other plants.[6] Pinene is a major component of the essential oils of Sideritis spp. (ironwort)[7] and Salvia spp. (sage).[8] Cannabis also contains alpha-pinene.[6] Resin from Pistacia terebinthus (commonly known as terebinth or turpentine tree) is rich in pinene. Pine nuts produced by pine trees contain pinene.[6]

Makrut lime fruit peel contains an essential oil comparable to lime fruit peel oil; its main components are limonene and β-pinene.[9]


In chemical industry, selective oxidation of pinene with some catalysts gives many compounds for perfumery, such as artificial odorants. An important oxidation product is verbenone, along with pinene oxide, verbenol and verbenyl hydroperoxide. [10]

Pinenes are the primary constituents of turpentine.

Pinene has also been used as anti-cancer agent in Traditional Chinese medicine, also for its anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, expectorant and bronchodilator properties.[11]