In looking back over some of my earliest blog posts it is clear that my thinking has evolved a great deal. By way of a little history, back in 2006 and 2007 I taught a course in our Global Honors program called Global Challenges. I got this assignment because the then director knew I had done some research in several areas such as global warming and resource depletion. My broad background in several disciplines also provided the kind of interdisciplinary approach that the program wanted to foster. This blog, Question Everything, came out of the teaching experience where I worked with exceptionally bright students in a seminar format. It was in those classes that I developed the method of having them bring up good questions that demonstrated their engagement with the subject matter. Good questions are the kind to which the first approximation of an answer is: It depends! That should be followed by consideration of what the dependencies are (critical thinking) and should lead to additional questions. Occasionally one might find an answer, but in issues like global challenges we are more likely to be left with a seemingly unending string of questions.
Like so many others who were pursuing interests in them my understanding of the global challenges at that time was that these represented threats to the future of humanity that we might be able to avoid, or reduce substantially, if only we were to take action. My objective in the course was to motivate those students to go out in the world and teach others, spreading the ideas. My approach in the courses was to use systems science to show how all of the various threats were interrelated. At the time, I, like the writers from whom I had learned about these issues, believed that we still had a chance to do something to “fix” things. We could, I thought, if only we set ourselves to understanding the deeper causes and develop ways to correct our mistakes. The blog idea emerged as a vehicle for me to publicly pose questions derived from my researches and possibly propose some answers based on the science as I understood it.
In parallel with my investigations of the “physical” challenges I had long been investigating the apparent paradox of, “Why, if we are such a smart species, did these challenges exist in the first place?” Systems thinking cannot but help one realize the connection between human behaviors and what was happening to our world.
Through a deep and simultaneously broad investigation into intelligence (a bit of which got me my PhD!), behavioral psychology, neurobiology, and the evolution of these I eventually came to the question of what was lacking that prevented us from learning from our mistakes and especially kept us from using more systems and strategic thinking to guide our collective behavior. I got very interested in the nature of wisdom, and from there, the brain structures that must produce it. The end result of that work was the theory of sapience and, importantly, a theory of why it seems to be so weak, even in very intelligent people. I've come to realize that the reason such an intelligent species has created such a mess and moreover cannot fix the mess is because it lacks the kind of wisdom-guided decision making that it needs.
Over the last few years I have done a similarly deep investigation into the energy dynamics of civilization as seen in biophysical economics. The concept of peak oil got me started down this trail but when I learned more about energy return on energy investment, the basic thermodynamics of society, it didn't take long for me to realize that putting everything together, connecting the dots in the “system”, led to an inescapable conclusion. That conclusion has been reflected in my most recent blog posts; no reason to rehash it here.
My conclusion, though, is not just about the end of civilization and an evolutionary bottleneck. There is something else to it that I have expressed in my last two postings in this thread of thought (Hospice for Humanity and How Will People React). The real conclusion seems counter intuitive (judging by many comments those posts generated). In this post I want to try to wrap up my thinking along these lines a make one last argument about why what is happening is not, in a grander scheme of things, necessarily a bad thing in the same way that the extinction of the dinosaurs was not such a bad thing in that it gave us mammals a shot at evolving further.
In systems science  we look for patterns that are similar across many different kinds of systems. Perhaps this is one of those. Every major philosophical tradition (from which religions spring) has, in one way or another, noted the importance of cycles in nature. Some, such as the Vedic tradition I referred to in the last blog, have very explicit multi-temporal cycles from the Universe as a whole to the smallest observable phenomena. The cycles have similar form. There is a start or birth, a development and growth, a period of stability, and finally decay back to the ground substance that gave rise to the birth. Thus the cycle can start anew. But each time it does, something not seen in the previous cycle emerges.
It cannot be an accident or a fantastic coincidence that the Universe seems to operate by cycles inside of cycles at all scales. By saying it couldn't be an accident, I don't necessarily mean that it is this way by design. I haven't access to any evidence one way or the other in that regard so I offer no opinion (I categorize myself as an agnostic). Even so the ubiquity of the pattern of cycles, and the way in which they interact to produce the phenomena we observe requires some kind of explanation, even if an incomplete one.
There is another pattern that is superimposed over the cyclical nature of everything. And that pattern is the tendency for special little bits of the Universe to produce higher levels of organization and complexity, to concentrate knowledge and capacity to interact in interesting ways with the rest of the Universe. Specifically I refer to the process of a progressive evolution.
As I look out at the Universe I see two major, seemingly competing forces at work. Gravity has brought material bodies into existence, especially stars and, subsequently, planets. The concentration of matter in stars creates the opportunity for nuclear reactions (fusion) that produce heavier elements (star dust), and just as importantly, the production of extremely high potential energy (light). At the same time all physical processes and objects are subject to the law of entropy. Entropy involves the dispersing of energy from concentrated sources to diffuse space. It describes the return of matter and energy to their most disorganized states. It extends from the fact that space is a near vacuum, i.e. vanishingly low density in matter and energy (note: this doesn't include dark energy, whatever that is!)
Yet between these two phenomenal aspects of the Universe something rather wonderful happens. Energy flows from source (star) to sink (space) and on its path, through a planetary system where it drives evolution toward a higher organization, consistent with the potential complexity of that planet. Clearly all planets and star systems cannot evolve life based on carbon chemistry, but just as clearly some can!
A picture came to my mind that I found interesting and thought I would share it with readers. The picture depicts not just a structural arrangement, but a dynamic one as well. I called it the Universe's cyclical pump — it is pumping up organization in tiny bits of itself.
Figure 1. A picture of progressive evolution. Is there an end to it?
At the bottom we see the relations between star and planet production and the generation of star light that flows through the planetary system to drive all of the processes above. Without entropy there would be no flow through and no dissipative processes that are what is needed for life to emerge from pre-life chemistry.
Life emerged and evolved to produce consciousness. We have an existence proof on the Earth. Animals evolved increasing capacities for being aware of their environments and, to greater or lesser extents, of themselves until one day very smart apes emerged and eventually gave rise to sapience, a higher and qualitatively different kind of consciousness. With sapience and cleverness humans began to formulate understanding of how their world worked. By encoding knowledge gained through observation and experimentation into written, shared, abstract form the process of extracting and codifying knowledge accelerated. This allowed humans to interact with their environment in ways that prior animals had never been able to achieve. In fact it allowed humans to have the whole planet as their environment. And their interactions began to reshape that environment. Unfortunately, as we now know, that reshaping hasn't always been for the best, at least if humans as we are were the end of the story.
Within some humans the capacity to understand and to engage the world in constructive ways has led to a deep appreciation of the wholeness of it. Some humans, those that were the most evolved sapients, experienced a wonderful emotion for which the only word we seem to have is “love”. Not really like love of another person, or love of your job, or anything quite like that. It is just an unjudging, unfettered feeling of communion with the whole. It is a realization that one is part of that whole and the whole is within one. Hard to describe.
Note that as the pump cycles energy and matter into the higher realms, the space and mass of the bits of the Universe occupied get smaller. This could be represented better by a pyramid structure with a wide base that gets very small at the top (a point?). Which thought leads to another interesting speculation. Is there something yet to evolve? I've never been a fan of Ray Kurzweil's “Singularity” concept — too cornucopian for my taste — but if you think about the shape of this evolutionary pyramid it does make one wonder about the apparent convergence, what the end point might be, if there is one.
As a young man I read Teilhard de Chardin's “The Phenomenon of Man” and something in it profoundly resonated with my understanding of evolution toward a kind of goal state. I did not buy the teleological notion of God pulling life and humankind up toward the “Christ State”. Nevertheless, the notion that the Universe was on a trajectory toward something very wonderful, and that we humans were just a point along the way, intrigued me mightily.
Figure 2. De Chardin's evolution plus the dynamics from Figure 1 produce a structural hierarchy. The sun is the source of high potential energy flow. That flow goes through the Earth system driving the evolution of greater complexity and organization and eventually radiates to deep space. The Earth as a whole system is dissipative. Here knowledge and wisdom emerge from the noosphere, itself an emergent property of the biosphere, etc. Is there more?
From what I think I now understand about evolution as a universal physical process I can see that organization is not being pulled but rather being pushed to higher levels. Seeing the pattern that it is smaller and smaller aggregates of matter and energy that organize into increasingly powerful (effective interactions) entities and that these are fewer in number than those below, I cannot help but recall the pattern that de Chardin described. He coined the term “noosphere in recognition of the emergence of “mind space” above the level of the biosphere, just as the latter emerged from the litho-, hydro-, and atmospheres. He reserved the name for the collective consciousness of humanity, I think. I would extend it to include lower animals that have at least first order consciousness in recognition of the continuity of the evolution of brains.
Here is another interesting thought. So far as the metaphysics of a spiritual supreme being having anything to do with this whole process, would it make any difference if the Universe is being pulled (teleological) or pushed (teleonomic)? From the pattern that has emerged we end up with the same structure! The beauty of the latter is that it allows us to have a completely non-spiritualistic explanation for phenomena. Pushing is the result of the laws of nature. But it leaves the door open to asking how those laws got to be what they are in the first place. Well as intriguing as that question has seemed, I don't seem to have enough information to tackle an answer myself. So I'll leave it in the realm of metaphysics and religion. I'm satisfied with understanding the pattern of evolution, its trajectory.
People sometimes ask me how I can write about the end of the current human world and not get deeply depressed. The reason is that I see what is happening to us now as just part of those grand cycles. I don't have any way of knowing what is going to eventually happen to humanity or the future of life on the planet. What I do know is that evolution will continue to work its magic. Perhaps my diagrams above are more wishful thinking than scientifically based. But having a conviction (some might just want to call it faith) that evolution leads to greater structures and complexities, to more understanding and love, makes it possible for me to ask questions about what is really going on in our world. It makes it possible for me to listen to the answers when they manifest without falling into despair.
And even if evolution toward greater organization were to be coming to an end on Earth it is comforting to know that somewhere in the Universe it has gotten further along, or will do so. There are apparently lots of planets out there. From a statistical point of view some species of sentient beings must have evolved higher sapience or will. The Universe is up to something. We will probably never really grasp what it is, but I can't help but feel a sense of serenity and appreciation for having been a tiny part of that agenda and feeling like I can discern a bit of the pattern. I sincerely hope that most of you who are lamenting the fall of Homo sapiens can try to see this much bigger picture; to try to put what we are experiencing into a broader, deeper context. It really does help.
This concludes my speculations about the future of humanity. I think I've said everything that I can in developing a feasible scenario about what might happen as humanity faces the challenges ahead. What I have produced is a scenario and should not be treated as a prediction. It is just one possible story. I believe it is a justified story in having tried to consider scientifically known facts woven together into a fabric that maintains consistency. From this point on I will mostly try to chronicle events and trends as they develop. I will continue my investigations in sapience, its brain origins and its evolutionary significance as these may contribute something additional. I will also continue investigating a method for encoding critical knowledge in a way that makes it self-extracting perhaps tens of thousands of years hence. But going forward I think it will mostly be a matter of watching and recording significant events as they unfold, until either I or the Internet give up the ghost.
 Interested readers can bone up on systems science by going to my series index page, here, and going to the last series on that page. It starts with an Overview. This series was actually a preliminary version of the book I am now working on. Also, I highly recommend “Thinking in Systems” by Donella H. Meadows, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT. Donella was one of the authors of the “Limits to Growth” study and book and her writing on the subject is very clear. I am using this book in my general education courses on systems science.
 Morowitz, Harold (1968). Energy Flow in Biology, Academic Press, New York. This is an absolute must read (and understand) classic. There are several more recent books that follow the same theme, recognizing the role of energy flow in the evolution of systems.
 As I said, I am agnostic, but that is with respect to the notions of deism. Theism, on the other hand, seems totally without a basis and so I would describe myself as a-theistic, or not harboring a belief that there is a theistic god.
 Naturally there will be those who see this appeal as something like a sour grape argument. They will argue that I am rationalizing our predicament as a kind of denial. I would argue, however, that they are, instead, rationalizing their need for self-pity. But why argue about anything anymore?