Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Static Viewpoint


I sometimes wonder if the average human mind, born and raised into a particular place and time, has actually caught on to the reality that everything in life, the universe, and your own personal patch of ground is changing. All the time. With or without—usually without—your help. We all live in a kinetic universe. So get over it.

The adjective static and its noun form stasis come from Latin, which derived it from Greek, meaning “to stand.” And since this is not standing up or sitting down, rising or falling, coming or going, or moving from place to place, it implies “to stand still.” Everyone is guilty, depending on the subject and the circumstances, of thinking that the world around them hasn’t changed or won’t change, or when observing the change for themselves, hoping that it will eventually reverse and things come back to being the same.

To start with, most parents are by turns amazed and disappointed when their children grow and develop from cute babies to fretful toddlers, to winsome seven-year-olds, to moody, snarling teenagers. We want them to stay at each biddable stage and not progress. Sometimes they grow up to be adults we recognize and with whom we can become friends. But sometimes they grow up into strangers and even enemies. This is the pattern of life. And wouldn’t we hate it if our child failed to develop, through autism or some intellectual or emotional disability, so that he or she remained a charming imbecile, or a ranting child, in an obvious adult’s body? That would be the tragedy.

You can see this penchant for static thinking in the heritage of the oldest religions. The world of gods and men is fixed and unchanging. Yes, there are storms and earthquakes, wars and plagues, all of which change the fortunes of individuals and families, but the nature of the world itself remains static. You see this most plainly in the creation myths, where the supreme deity creates the land and the animals and plants that live on it, and they are all one-offs. A horse is the representative of a fixed pattern—essentially the Platonic idea of horse-ness—that was set at its creation and named as “the horse.” Yes, there are obviously related animals like donkeys and zebras, but they, too, were supposedly singular creations. And the horse is designed from scratch with teeth and stomach to eat grass and with neat hooves to run over the gentle turf in valley bottomlands. Just as camels were designed from scratch with floppy feet to walk on shifting sands and with water-retaining flesh in their humps to survive many days between drinks.

Of course, the religious writers and theorists of two and three thousand years ago did not have a true appreciation for the age of the Earth. For them, creation was just a few hundred generations ago, at most, or perhaps a few thousand years in the distant past. A world that cooled out of the solar disk four billion years ago would have been a thing beyond their understanding. Usually, they did not even have words and concepts for that large a number representing that long a span.

They also did not have a conception of tectonic forces, as I have noted elsewhere. If your world is just a few thousand years old, then you don’t ponder too long on the fact that you can see hills slump down in continual landslides, and mountains erode into silt and wash out to sea, and yet you don’t wonder why, over time, all the mountains and hills have not become flat. While you can see the agents of erosion and collapse, you never see the forces that built up the mountains and hills in the first place. It’s only when you have an appreciation for the great age of the planet and a working theory of plate tectonics—which wasn’t widely accepted until the 1960s—that you can understand the vast changes that take place over time on any part of the Earth’s surface and the necessity for all of these “created” life forms to have some mechanism for adapting and evolving to fit their current environment.

But antique religious explanations are not the only place that static viewpoints are held and nurtured. Political thinking of many types is bound up in the notion that the world and human consciousness does not or should not change.

Most obviously, there is the “conservative” view. It is a truism that conservatives1 favor tradition, that we are not offended by the vagaries of recent history, by the values we were taught and grew up with, or by the world as it presents itself to us. We are not ready to throw all of that—our parent’s world, or Western Civilization, or political values that pertained before we were born—away on the promise of a brighter, or at least different, and perhaps utopian future.

Conservatives are not always backward looking—or “reactionary” in the words of Marxists and Hegelians, meaning opposed to the just and natural evolution of liberal human thought. Conservatives can view the future with equanimity and a certain amount of hope. But we also know that history is not a just-so story, that it does not always bend in a particular direction, or not always in the direction that certain political parties—followers of those 19th-century Marxists and Hegelians—believe to be natural and inevitable. Conservatives can understand that history, and much of reality, is cyclical: ideas, political movements, economic and political conditions and parties, rise and fall against a background of human nature that has certainly evolved over many generations but is unlikely to change much from one generation to the next.

And then there is the stasis of the political left, the so-called “progressives.” They may believe that human nature is malleable and can be bent in certain directions toward idealistic perfection. But in the economic sphere, they clearly believe that a country’s goods and services, its money supply, and its scale and rate of personal and business transactions are all fixed. They believe the economy is a zero-sum game, where one person wins and prospers only through another person’s loss and misery. If one person grows rich, then he must have made a number of other people poor in proportion. As I have written before,2 the economy is not a pie, where if I take a bigger slice you must then get a smaller one. Instead, the economy is an ecology, where the more life that exists and more transactions that take place, the more wealth is generated for people to garner and to hold onto or share. The difference between a rainforest and a desert is not simply the amount of rain that falls, but the scale of interactions taking place on the ground and in the forest canopy.

And then, in the natural world, the progressives believe that conditions are—or should be—fixed and unchanging. They revile “climate change,” which also runs under the heading of “anthropogenic global warming,” because without humankind’s burning of fossil fuels and other environmental insults, they believe, the world would not change around them. They view a rise in global temperatures by a few degrees centigrade in a hundred years as an absolute catastrophe, missing the point that global temperatures have been rising steadily since the Maunder Minimum—a blank-faced Sun blank lacking in magnetic disturbances and sunspots—in the 17th century. They dismiss any historic temperature fluctuations—the Roman Warm Period, the Dark Ages Cold Period, the Medieval Warm Period, and that Little Ice Age starting in the 1600s—as a political fantasy. Similarly, they believe the sea level won’t rise without anthropogenic causes, as if shorelines haven’t been shifting, advancing and retreating, causing the relocation of city centers and populations for millennia, if not centuries.3 They also believe in a fixed amount of resources—such as Malthusian famines and “peak oil”—in relation to human population growth and density.

And finally, progressives appear to believe that, once they have achieved their goals, once human nature has been adjusted and perfected, society is ordered according to rational and egalitarian principles, and the world is led by like-minded professionals, then history will stop. That humankind, having reached the socialist or communist utopia, will cease to change and will simply roll forward, from one five-year plan to the next, in peace and personal safety, forever. For any thinking person, this idea is as narrow and stultifying as the religious conception that when we die we migrate to a place of either perfect bliss or perfect torment and reside there, as a disembodied but functioning and remembering consciousness, forever.4

Disbelief in and fear of change are written into most of the human experience. Change that we do not consciously plan for and initiate engenders the unknown. We believe we can plan for the future, and so a future that is moving ahead without us creates anxiety and dread. This is the product of having an active, thinking, projecting mind—the workings of the brain’s prefrontal cortex—that tries to meet an active, changing environment with an unknowable future.

And that, too, is part of the human condition.

1. Consider the very nature of that word, conservative. It means someone who “conserves” or “preserves.” A conservator is one who enters into another person’s life—when this person’s health or mental condition is failing—and helps them preserve their living situation, their wealth, and their dignity. To conserve something is to protect it and keep it from the ravages of time, the vicissitudes of nature, or careless waste by thoughtless humans.

2. See, for example, It Isn’t a Pie from October 3, 2010.

3. As if 11,000 years ago—well within the experience of modern human beings—the glaciers did not cover North America in ice a mile deep, and the shoreline did not extend down 400 feet to the edges of the continental shelf, all without human intervention.

4. And isn’t “forever” itself a static concept? Nothing is forever.

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