Alan Lightman, of the physics & creative writing departments at MIT, has published an essay in the NYTs that expresses his fear of “nature” and of dying. It is wonderfully naive, and a perfect example of the collapsing epistemology of industrial capitalism (that MIT has for its entire existence promulgated with brownfield, cancercluster and bankrupt-economy results). I can not pass up the opportunity to share, and laugh at, a few of its “philosophical insights.” Please take a few moments and read it, “Our Lonely Home in Nature.”
Once upon a time, Dr. Lightman was sailing and—in one of the pivotal eureka moments in history—suddenly realized his boat could sink. And that really scared him:
At any moment, a wall of water and wind could have lunged from the horizon, washed over the boat, and drowned my wife and me. I realized that there was no compassionate overseer or oceanic consciousness to prevent that from happening.
Can you believe it?
—a hand was not going to reach down from the sky, or rise up from the depths, and grab and place him back on land!
I remember falling off a skateboard and stubbing my big toe when I was 5, and realizing the same thing: I have to get up off the ground because otherwise I will still be on it, and I might get run over. No big hand was going drop down from the sky to pick me up.
This realization is what Nietzsche called “the tragic insight” and what Voltaire was alluding to when he said “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” That it occurred to Dr. Lightman only after he’d earned a PhD and published papers and books on physics is just too delightful; parody cannot touch it. What a sheltered, pampered, lonely life he lived, until that dreadful moment when he realized that boats can sink, including the one he is on—a fact that recalls the searching query of the postmodern philosopher George W Bush: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”
Dr. Lightman is horrified “nature” is not his own personal nanny. “Nature” is scary! So scary, in fact, that if we try to live on another planet, it will kill us:
In many other parts of the cosmos, conditions are far more extreme than on earth and quite inhospitable to life. On the planet Mercury, for example, the temperature reaches 800 degrees. On Neptune, it is minus 370. On Uranus, the winds exceed 350 miles per hour.
So—heed his warning—don’t buy real estate on other planets. You’ll never be able to flip it.
It bothers Dr. Lightman that, since ‘Nature” is so scary, more people aren’t as afraid as he is. Now comes his big moment, when he gets really wide-screen sciencey and philosophicating:
we have been fooling ourselves. Nature, in fact, is mindless. Nature is neither friend nor foe, neither malevolent nor benevolent. Nature is purposeless.
Unfortunately for anybody trying to understand his argument, Dr. Lightman never bothers to define what “nature” is; and these adjectives and nouns are applied to an entity that is a cliche, a general concept he assumes needs no definition. I am always careful, however, to define “nature” when I use the term, b/c I respect my readers, and because precise definitions are the tools I use to think and teach with; (nature is that which gives birth). That “nature”—like the deity of the Bible—giveth and taketh away is a realization that any child has when, say, their gerbil or goldfish dies.
Both “nature” and “God” are considered the generative sources and ultimate ends of being, a confusion caused by the overlapping of the Classical and Biblical epistemologies in our culture. Both “nature” and “God” are attempts to literally explain processes that are ineffable, and can’t ever be fully be described, because our minds are not capable of totally comprehending the cosmos.
Because Dr. Lightman never bothers to define what “nature” is, his claims that it is mindless, indifferent and purposeless are projections of his ego upon a big white screen in a dark room. They are based on his fear of dying. His argument is: if “nature” doesn’t stop everything and save little old me, then it’s mindless. What we witness in this view of all things from the perspective of a perishing, ephemeral ego, is cowardice and solipsism:
Would you be surprised you know that Dr. Lightman’s perspective is the same as any billionaire industrial capitalist—choose a Koch brother—who views “nature” as a “resource” meant to be exploited for shortterm personal monetary gain; and that the theology of this perspective is practiced everytime we use a dollar bill that has the prayer “In God We Trust” printed on it?
Dr. Lightman fashions “nature” in his own image and is a high priest of a prurient religion of Himself. The universe exists for Him, for the purpose of making him an expert on “nature.”
That is why he is scared and lonely. His epistemology is dying, and as he tries to makes points using it, he doesn’t. Instead, he exhibits signs of madness.
Dr. Lightman does not recognize the bios, or even the fact that his own life is totally comprised of & dependent on “nature.” That is to say, he is utterly ignorant and at the same an honored MIT professor. The bios—also called “life”—”formed itself out of star stuff, shortly after Earth 4,600 millions years ago congealed from a remnant of supernova explosion.”
His ignorance is highly-accomplished and roundly-honored; and surely such acclaim supplies him with the “courage” he needs to punch hippies:
In the 20th and 21st centuries, some environmentalists claimed that the entire earth is a single ecosystem, a “superorganism” in the language of Gaia.
You’ve seen pics of our planet, though. It’s round and finite; and b/c it is finite, “the entire earth is a single ecosystem.”
You’ve seen the movie Gravity, too—and enjoyed a scifi thriller that confirms the obvious: the only place our bodies can live is within the larger body of the “superorganism.”
Dr. Lightman wins the gold award for biggest laugh when he concludes:
We feel such a strong connection to nature. But the relationship between nature and us is one-sided. There is no reciprocity. There is no mind on the other side of the wall. That absence of mind, coupled with so much power, is what so frightened me on the sailboat
He has no clue that every his every thought is totally comprised of & dependent on “nature”; most of his brain is water, for example. If he stops pulling the atmosphere into his body, in 3 minutes or so he’ll suffocate and die. This kind of ignorance, matched with such an over-inflated, arrogant ego is deadly—especially b/c it is backed up by the material and cultural force of industrial capitalism.
I can’t think of a single farmer, even a factoryfarmer, who could ever believe that “the relationship between nature and us is one-sided.” It’s just too stupid to even consider, even as a dumb joke. A farmer must give “nature” his/her full attention, devotion, labor, seeds, soil-building treatments etc. to receive food in return—this life-given-life-received relationship is the “reciprocity” Lightman says doesn’t exist. To have to type this out fills me with some humiliation, b/c it is so obvious I am embarrassed to have even mention it. You are what you eat, Dr. Lightman, just like every other animal. That he’s so alienated from the source of his own being is as shameful as it is telling. He has no clue who he actually is; he is an emptiness papered over with jargon and lies.
Since WW2, MIT has been a major beneficiary of socialist military-industrial-complex spending, and it’s where our pro-nuke, pro-fracking, pro-tarsands pipeline Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz comes from. Moniz and Lightman work in the same department. MIT just announced it is spending tons of $ to create a nanotechnology industrial research division. Nanotech re-engineers the tiniest parts of “nature” so they fulfill industrial capitalist goals. The MIT PR department says “Researchers now have the ability to manipulate and construct materials at the scale of individual atoms or molecules.”
Lightman’s false cosmology—of humans standing somehow outside of a scary, mindless, purposeless “nature”—is shared by his colleagues, and by Wall Street and Washington, DC. This cosmology is rooted in ignorance, fear, and selfishness.
But what is most interesting, and appalling, is that industrial capitalism requires the same ignorance, fear, and selfishness to sustain itself as most of the world’s population suffers from the failure of industrial capitalism to advance their health and well-being, and the health and well-being of our long body, the bios. For example: Fukushima happened, yet Ernest Moniz calls for the building of more nukes: which is why he must act and be willfully ignorant. This willful ignorance, this transgenerational amnesia, is necessary if industrial capitalism is to survive, because it perpetuates technological determinism, which is what MIT is in charge of and awarded for.
MIT, Wall St and DC and all the world’s technocrats need us to feel alienated from “nature” because if we understand “nature” is us, we will love and protect it. Lightman bullshits us by saying that our relationship with “nature” is “one-sided” because he and other technocrats are paid well to destroy it. The MIT nanotech center will engineer and release active physical pathogens into our “superorganism” that will be unregulated, and make DDT seem like organic mother’s milk—grey goo is what they call nano-pollution. Since technocrats have been key players in promulgating the global biocide that is killing us all, along with the honeybees, coral reefs and monarch butterflies, expect that things are going to get much worse. That’s why “Lightman” is so disgusting as a character.
The “Lightmans”don’t intend to save the planet; they are going to profit off of its destruction instead:
“we should not be concerned about protecting our planet. Nature can survive far more than what we can do to it and is totally oblivious to whether homo sapiens lives or dies in the next hundred years. Our concern should be about protecting ourselves — because we have only ourselves to protect us.”
Notice how, because he ignores the basis of his own existence he can pretend that “nature” is out there, like it seems it is when we are driving with the heat and radio on.
But his fantasy is unscientific; it’s bad theology that deconstructs his own argument that “nature is mindless & purposeless.” He argues that “nature” is “oblivious” to whether we live or die, thereby giving “nature” intentionality. However, intentionality presumes mind and purpose.
His fantasy makes bad policy advice, too, because to protect ourselves, we must protect that which generates and sustains us: “nature.”
Lightman gets paid to write about, teach and protect the domineering, phallocentric, one-sided, non-reciprocal relationship that industrial capitalism has with “nature.” The Wall St-dependent newspaper that said Saddam had WMDS and started our “oil crusade” against oil-rich Islam is the perfect place for his (perhaps unintentional) parody of scientific writing and natural philosophy.
We can’t fully comprehend “nature” but that does not mean we have to share Dr. Lightman’s Neo-Dark Age cosmology.
Neo-Dark Age? Oh yes, his cosmology of fear and alienation is functionally the same as the one that preceded the Enlightenment of Newton and Jefferson. See for yourself—compare Lightman’s solipsistic technocratic cosmology to Jefferson’s cosmology of logos, which more or less says that our minds are part of the larger mind of “nature”:
I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in it’s parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to percieve and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of it’s composition. The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the structure of our earth itself, with it’s distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles, insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organised as man or mammoth, the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms. We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the Universe in it’s course and order. Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos
The proof that “design” is actual is us; it is our body and all that we inhabit. If there was no “design,” and “nature” was mindless, purposeless, and antagonistic to us, we and Dr. Lightman would be dead.
Don’t be afraid. You belong here.
You are biocitizen, not a lying and nanny-less MIT professor.