The Path of Totality

On August 21st, 2017, I had the privilege of traveling with a band of cosmic pilgrims to the Path of Totality. What follows is my account of and reflections on the experience of the total solar eclipse.

As Totality neared, a pale grey-purple haze overtook the land and sky. Shadows became murky, yet emanated a deeper contrast, as if vibrating with detail. A cold wind blew, and then, in an instant, everything stopped; the air, the sounds of birds and bugs and rustling trees, the very pulse of the planet came to an eerie stillness. A dark wave crept over the ground from across the lake until it settled right above us; at the horizon it was like sunset, orange and red, with planets before unseen suddenly bright in the sky. And directly overhead a brilliant white ring with a center of the blackest black stared down at us, like a great empty eye, with its gaze reflecting both the infinite void of the endless universe and a radiant fullness of the unchangeable fact that all of existence is ultimately one inseparable being, timeless; beyond time itself. And as quickly as it came on, dawn broke for the second time in one day, as if to remind us that day and night are not truly two, but one, constantly flowing into one another; one becoming the other, over and over again, forever, in the eternal cosmic cycle of being and becoming—and that we, too, are one; that even when we are apart, we are a part of the same; that even when we are apart, we are always together.

Solar eclipse

Apollo. Ra. Amaterasu. Kinich. Utu. For millennia, human beings across civilizations have worshiped the Sun. The center of our solar system, the energetic source of life on Earth, bringer of day; every being on Earth, through all of history has had an existential relationship with the Sun. None would be if not for it. The Sun, unlike anything else, unifies the human experience; it shapes the very nature of our condition, embodies the passage of time, and moves the causality of life itself. The great cosmic dance of our planet, moon, and humble star radiates the magnificent contingency of our existence and inspires the most fundamental questions of consciousness: Why are we here? What reason explains our existence? What is our purpose?

Human beings are the only animals concerned with the notion of purpose. Its pursuit defines the nature of our consciousness. We do indeed seek explanation for our existence, on one hand, but even more so, we seek its justification. What is the point of our existence? What are we supposed to do? It is from this idea of purpose that we derive our senses of meaning in life – and perhaps, it is the most fundamental of truths that we all want to live meaningful lives.

Ultimately, however, it is unclear that any absolute answer to the question of purpose exists—that there is any certain point to being alive, or that there is any supposed to at all. Grappling with this uncertainty is the very core of ethics: Some suppose that we’re supposed to do our duty (but what is duty?); or that we’re supposed to do what’s good (but what is the good? And for who?); that we should do what’s right or just (right in what sense? And what is justice?); or what’s virtuous (but what is the nature of virtue?); or that all we’re really supposed to do is keep the promises we make to each other (But what are contracts, and what contracts us to them, really?).

Ethics and the question of purpose are a great wheel that will turn forever, as long as human being are the kinds of agential creatures that act and seek to justify our actions to ourselves and to each other – and it seems a fantasy to suppose that we will ever discover or articulate any ultimate or universal answer. Perhaps if we were perfect beings we would be capable of knowing in certainty, but we are inevitably fallible, and in that fallibility we must accept and embrace a certain agnosticism about the purpose of consciousness and the purpose of living. All we can do is suppose and engage in the process of consideration: to suppose and to consider—to think and to judge, and then to act. Indeed, it is the process that makes us ethical beings and gives our lives meaning – not necessarily the answer. The question, in a sense, is the answer:

What are we supposed to do? Never stop wrestling with that very question! The question of purpose makes us what we are. When you strip it all away, all we can say is that we are just the kinds of beings that wonder what we’re supposed to do, and maybe that’s all we’re supposed to be. Maybe that question is, at its core, what makes reflective consciousness what it is.

the thinker

But while the justificatory question of purpose may be unanswerable in finality, the question of explanation is tangible. We may never know for certain the purpose for why we are here, but we can indeed know the explanation—the reason—for our existence, and as human beings have intuited for tens of thousands of years, the Sun is just such an explanation; the Sun explains why we exist. Of course, even material explanation entails is own infinite regress. If the Sun explains why we exist, then it is natural to then ask why the Sun exists – and the material chain of causality can extend as far back as we are willing to ask. We can explain the creation of the solar system, the births and deaths of stars, the origins of galaxies, and, as distant as we have been able to discern, the birth of the universe at the Big Bang. But what explains the Big Bang? What sparked the great explosion of matter and energy from which all of the known universe was born? There are suppositions, of course—an eternal cycle of Big Bangs and “Big Crunches” wherein the universe is forever expanding and contracting on itself; the multi-verse or parallel realities; some see only God as the ultimate explanation of existence—the “Prime Mover” of all that exists and the great chain of causation – the Alpha and Omega.

I have even toyed with an ontological explanation for the existence of existence (though, admittedly, not to much satisfaction); something like: “Existence, by its very nature, must always and only exist because for existence to not exist would make existence non-existence, and for existence to be non-existence would be a fundamental contradiction. Therefore, what explains the existence of existence is the nature of existence itself.”

But none of these suppositions are immune to the prospective interrogation of infinite regress. No matter the origin, we can always proctor successive questions and inquire as to the origin of the origins. And at the end of the day, we may never know. Even in terms of the material explanation, we may have no choice but to accept and embrace, in our inherent fallibility, a fundamental agnosticism about the explanation of our existence. We may never know—and indeed may never be able to know—in any ultimate sense either the explanation or the purpose underlying our existence.

Nevertheless, we need not stare into the face of infinite regress as if it entails nihilistic futility. The privilege of being distinction-making beings is that we can choose the distinctions to which we ascribe meaning. We need not see meaninglessness in infinite regress; infinite regress is just infinite regress, and for no reason should we assume that infinite regress necessarily means meaninglessness about the distinctions we unveil along the way. We need not know in absolute certainty the explanation of the entire universe to understand the relationship between the Sun and Earth that explains the existence of life.

earth sun and moon

To be sure, life would not exist were it not for the harmonious relationship between the planet from which we sprang and star that emanates our essential energy. We owe our very lives to the alignment of the Sun and Earth; and in so knowing that celestial relationship we can derive the values of gratitude, appreciation, respect, awe, and love for the contingencies that explain life’s existence and ultimately unify us all.

Solar eclipses, unlike much else, are significant because they illustrate for us so explicitly, so obviously, the cosmic alignment at the heart of our existence. In the great dance of our solar system, every so often the Moon crosses directly between the Earth and Sun, and in those few, rare moments we feel, more powerfully than is usual, our oneness with the cosmos of which we are a part. We are never not one with the universe, but in the bustle and distractions of modern life, it can be easy to forget the bigger picture of our existence. Sometimes we need reminding of our unwavering universal unity.

The world often seems so estranged from itself and we from each other, so carved up by nations, interests, or politics, so wrapped in discord—and we, in turn, can lose ourselves to a sense of division and alienation. But the unchangeable truth is that, for all our dissensions, we are all here, together, and indivisible in the fact of our existence. And solar eclipses, in all their majesty, evoke in all who experience the Path of Totality a blissful comfort about our fundamental oneness and shared place in the universe.

Nothing can ultimately separate us, for even when we are apart, we are a part of the same, and thus, we are always together. And where we are together forever, we can be together, in love, for all eternity.

So honors the Sun Sage: To the Sun god, the Earth, and Moon—and the cosmic ecology to which we owe our existence.

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Our new hydroverlords

The image below is one of four precipitation models published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that together forecast extreme global drought less than 50 years from now as a consequence of climate change. What follows illustrates predicted global precipitation levels in 2060-2069 assuming a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario as defined by the International Panel on Climate Change. Moderate.

Climate prediction map 2060-2069

Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2060-2069

Take a moment to let all the purple, red, and yellow sink in. These are Dust Bowl conditions and worse. Take another moment.

It is difficult to emphasize enough the gravity of this predicted drought. We should all keep the above image in mind when we consider the value of water. Water is fundamental to the existence of life as we know it. Not just human beings. All life on Earth. For obvious utilitarian and deontological reasons, by the land ethic and the difference principle, by the precautionary and proactionary principles, and by our natural moral sense, water is of the highest non-arbitrary value and it is our responsibility as constituents of the human world and of the Earth itself—if we even entertain such a distinction—to do everything in our power to prevent and prepare for this possibility.

Pause to consider what it would mean for governance, for geopolitics, for the world if we fail to curb climate change beyond this moderate GHG emissions path and simultaneously 1) fail to implement and enforce the universal human right to water as recognized by 122 countries of the UN in 2010, and/or 2) consent to the privatization of water resources by multi-national corporations. I, for one, would not welcome our new hydroverlords.

What’s worse, the map shown above is only the third of four models. The fourth model extends from 2090-2099. Brace yourself for the purple: Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2090-2099

Water resource management, conservation, and preservation will likely fall into their own compartmentalized regime complexes—as discussed by Keohane and Victor—fragmented from other initiatives focused on mitigating and adapting to the various impacts of climate change. According to Keohane and Victor, there’s reason to be optimistic about the capacities of this regime structure. But simply adapting to new conditions of water scarcity equates to treating the symptom rather than the disease. While adaptation is absolutely necessary, we must simultaneously confront climate change at its source: human greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) and the several positive feedback cycles that global warming entails.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations alone are currently around 397 parts per million (ppm), which essentially guarantees an increase in average global temperatures of ~4 degrees Fahrenheit (~2 degrees Celsius). What’s more, unless we reduce GHG emissions by ~80%, we can expect the increase in average global temperature to be even more dramatic.

Confronting climate change means one of two things (and maybe both, but probably not—the former would render the latter largely unnecessary and the latter would likely preclude the former). We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 1) an immediate significant reduction in energy consumption or 2) a techno-scientific revolution in renewable energy, energy storage, energy transmission, transportation, agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and architecture.

Coupling either approach with reforestation and afforestation projects would be a good idea too, especially considering the Brazilian government’s recent report that deforestation in the Amazon has actually gotten worse since May of 2012.

In all likelihood, the future holds an increase in energy consumption, not a decrease, so we must—at some level—prepare ourselves to rely on faith in Julian Simon’s infinite resource of the human mind to spark the large-scale techno-scientific advances that the climatic consequences of our industrial behavior demand. We must have faith in progress, despite the paradox therein. A daunting task, to be sure, but we have little choice as we have collectively agreed, both implicitly and explicitly, that the Good Life is an energy intensive one. The climate challenge is upon us. If we are to progress, we must progress toward sustainability—and hopefully to a future with more water than NCAR has predicted. Let’s get it together, humans.

jmk

Human consciousness: The normative question and the creation of value

When consciousness flickers into being, into self-awareness, it faces some basic philosophical questions. The existential question: What am I? The topographical question: Where am I? And the normative question: What should I do?—which essentially amounts to asking: What is worth doing?

And thus is born the idea of value: Asking the normative question presupposes the possibility of value because it assumes some answer, some purposive skill, is more or less worthwhile than another, or (in relativistic pluralist egalitarian fashion) that all answers are of equal worth.

Among all possible purposes, we then either choose to cultivate non-arbitrary purposive skills (biologically necessary functions), or, if we encounter an ease in fulfilling the biologically necessary, we conceive of arbitrary purposes with which to occupy our time. Whatever one’s choice in a given moment, we ascribe to that purposive skill its value through our behavior: our prioritization of its cultivation. We choose what purposes are worth the dedication of our finite existence, and in doing so, denote their value. Admittedly, this presumes that value is somewhat a function of mortality–that without finiteness, without a sense of urgency, the creation of value to make life feel meaningful is less of a pressing concern.

The value of non-arbitrary purposive skills are seated in nature—in the natural evolutionary process by which we and all life are subsumed—but we alone are the inventors of arbitrary purpose and arbitrary value. Beyond what is necessary for survival, it is left to us to determine which skills are worth cultivating. Neither God nor intrinsicity gives us this purpose—it is a matter of our creation, of our dedication.

For a purposive skill and its value to be “arbitrary” is not an evaluative claim, however, but observational. Arbitrariness is not good or bad, it simply is or is not. The cultivation of arbitrarily purposive skill is no less worthwhile or valuable than that of non-arbitrarily purposive skill. Indeed, we derive much of our sense of meaning in life from arbitrary purpose. But we must recognize ourselves as the creators of arbitrary purpose—of arbitrary value. We cannot forget that we are the arbiters; we are the source. Nor can we forget that we must fulfill non-arbitrary biological necessities (nutrition, rest, shelter…) before we can even begin to focus on arbitrary ones—a privilege not shared by all. The former comes prior to the latter as a matter of necessity—something of a biological order of operations: only once our bellies are full and our minds safely rested do we concern ourselves with the arbitrary.

In this sense, having the time and energy to focus on the arbitrary is an exquisite privilege: a joy of being human, of being conscious. It is through creating value that life feels meaningful—or at least that we overcome the sense of futility about living. Human beings are ultimately animals, but the cultivation of arbitrary skill is one of our distinguishing characteristics. It makes being human feel special—even if we are insignificant by any cosmic scheme.

The cultivation of arbitrary skill is a celebration of life! Arbitrariness is cause for ebullience. The arbitrary purposes we create make life exciting—they give people an interesting uniqueness amongst one another. Dance, art, sport, scholarly intrigues, cultural exploration—the arbitrary richness of human existence: these make living human life feel over and above the predominately non-arbitrary cycles we observe in other animals.

But the non-arbitrary is worth celebrating as well. Food, water, shelter from the frequent harshness of nature—these are fundamental to comfortable living, and thus (perhaps even more so than the arbitrary) worthy of our deep, humble appreciation. To be reminded of this is especially important in places where such amenities have become taken for granted.

The existence of consciousness is itself a sort of contingently orchestrated celebration of and by the universe. That matter-energy has slowly and stochastically evolved toward subjective self-awareness is the universe’s manner of perceiving itself, of celebrating its own existence—for despite our temporary sense of individuality, we are no more or less part of the universe as a single whole. Conscious creatures constitute the universe capacity to recognize itself. To perpetuate this awareness, we fulfill our non-arbitrary purposes—we survive as long as we can. To enrich this awareness, we indulge the arbitrary: we cultivate artistic, athletic, scholarly, specialist, and cosmopolitan skills.

This is not a hierarchy of values—the arbitrary and the non-arbitrary—but my observation of how human beings tend to answer the normative question: how we make life feel meaningful; how we make life seem worth living. Thus we give thanks. Thus we celebrate. To the sun god!

Silly nihilist…

“What’s the point of living?” the nihilist asks. “Well,” replies the sun sage, “the point of living could be to ask that very question!”

Our cosmic insignificance is not a regrettable condition, it is freedom! This is among the most ebullient of epiphanies, for when faced with the contingency of human existence, while some people fear nihilism, I see only opportunity.

That life is is itself a reason to celebrate.

JM Kincaid