A reflection on deep time and human values.


I have been having the most unproductive work day ever owing to some kind of network update that has all but cut my connection to our web development servers. After two hours of simply trying to log in, I connected only to discover the whole shebang running so slow as to make work impossible. And I’m on a deadline so it’s extra-frustrating because I got shit to do!

But instead I am stuck behind a machine that records each keystroke two seconds after its made….. so I’ve been making do with other work and hoping the problem resolves itself by tomorrow.

Tonight is my class presentation for my course in Science and Human Values and since I haven’t much else to say today I am sharing that presentation here. It’s been awhile since I posted anything academic after all….. this course hasn’t required a ton of writing (beyond the final paper which I have to start working on this weekend). This piece is a seminar introduction with questions to follow that I hope will stimulate some discussion in class. I’m afraid the questions have less to do with the book I was assigned to present on, and are an attempt to broaden the discussion away from the history of the development of geology. But what better place to push discussion than at the discovery of deep time?

Notes on The Map that Changed the World, William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester

What struck me as I was reading Winchester’s book, was not really the tale of William Smith – an interesting fellow and certainly a person who opened up a new way of seeing the world – but the nature of discovery itself and how that shapes and changes our conception of our human selves.

I have never stopped to think about the transition from a world in which the bible was taken as a document of literal history to the present day acceptance of deep time – and I realized as I was reading that this shift was no less profound than  the ideas of Copernicus  when he posited that the earth wasn’t exactly the center of the universe as previously thought. This was what I was set to preface my introduction to Winchester’s work on….. until I opened up (Stephen J Gould’s book)  Time’s Arrow and discovered that on the very first page,  Gould eloquently sums up the enormity of this transition in saying:

Freud omitted one of the greatest steps from his list, the bridge between spatial limitation of human dominion (the Galilean revolution), and our physical union with all “lover creatures (the Darwinian revolution). He neglected the great temporal limitation imposed by geology upon human importance — the discovery of “deep time.” What could be more comforting, what more convenient for human domination than the traditional concept of a young earth, ruled by human will within days of its origin. How threatening, by contrast, the notion of an almost incomprehensible immensity, with human habitation restricted to a millimicrosecond at the very end!

Not only does the discovery of “deep time” challenge our notions of human importance, it opens up an even deeper theological problem, not to mention species crisis – the fact of extinction. In 1796, the French geologist George Cuvier published a paper establishing extinction of species as fact – which is where William Smith’s work pointed as well, since it was evident to him (and others around him) that the fossil layers he examined contained species that were no longer evident in existence.

This throws a bit of a wrench into the notion of divine intelligence or divine creation, unless you start making up hokey stories about God getting better or more experienced as he went along…..  or take a catastrophist approach to the fossil layer and claim that volcanoes, earthquakes and floods are the reason the earth appears as old as it is.  Those events mess up the fossil record after all. And those aren’t fossils anyway! As much as we might hope this had died out in Smith’s time, we know from the recent rise of fundamentalist religious movements that these ideas are still very much in play today.

All that aside, since I have the luxury of presenting on one of the last subjects of my course I wanted to bring the discussion around to the more existential problem of science – which is that with each discovery, establishment of a new set of facts, or theories (Higgs-bosun or recent announcements from the field of Astronomy that posit the closeness of habitable planets as examples) – humans seem to become smaller and less central to the drama unfolding around us.

Beginning with the philosopher Epicurus who (around 300 BCE) argued that the Gods controlled very little, but atoms were the physical stuff that made up our world and acted according to certain principles (swerving into one another and so forth) – we have been carried along through  discoveries that bring us up to a much larger and more complex universe today. It seems that on the one hand human existence is diminished, but on the other we are enriched by freedom from superstition and the knowledge that to a large degree we are self-determined as opposed to being controlled from above. Or, at least we could be.

Because the other thought that occurred as I was reading Winchester’s book is that although we have some pretty compelling proof of deep time and extinction – William Smith and others laid it out 200 years ago – we are still living in a world in which huge swaths of humanity believe in a literal bible, or other theological teaching that refutes the basic science of our existence. Where many people still pray for divine intervention – whether that be God or the notion of collective consciousness (a la the secret) – to get what they want. No matter that we can clone, cure, travel to other planets, smash particles, and explain the history of the earth — we can not answer the question that most wants answering.

Science can explain the how of existence but not the why. And therein lies the truly incommensurable question, and I believe it’s also where our notion of what is “truth” falters and gives ground to religion and superstition. It’s the space in which nonsense about a mixed-up fossil record and God getting the hang of it slips in.

I think we’re into problematic territory wherein many of the concepts we are dealing with are incomprehensible to the human mind. We can’t understand deep time, nor can we truly envisage a planet without our presence even if we can rationally know it to have once been the case. We can understand that many Europeans have Neanderthal DNA, but it’s difficult to conceptualize a world in which more than one bipedal human-like species existed. Someone can explain how the Higgs-Bosun gives energy matter and why that’s important – but most of us  can’t truly grasp the enormity of that information (I can’t – for example) even if we recognize it is an important discovery.

So – we are torn between two poles. On the one hand, we have the desire to imbue our lives with meaning and position ourselves as central to the drama unfolding around us. On the other, it is hard to turn away from the the existential truth of our species – which is that we are a mere blip on the historical record, and just as we emerged as a result of a random chemical reaction, we too will one day disappear from the planet.

Norbert Wiener sums it up thus:

To those of us who are aware of the extremely limited range of physical conditions under which the chemical reactions necessary to life as we know it can take place, it is a foregone conclusion that the lucky accident which permits the continuation of life in any form on this earth, even without restricting life to something like human life, is bound to come to a complete and disastrous end. Yet we may succeed in framing our values so that this temporary accident of living existence, and this much more temporary accident of human existence, may be taken as all-important positive values, notwithstanding their fugitive character.

In a very real sense we are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet. Yet even in a shipwreck, human decencies and human values do not necessarily vanish, and we must make the most of them. We shall go down, but let it be in a manner to which we may look forward as worthy of our dignity.

I would now turn to the questions for discussion:

Thomas Kuhn (Structure of Scientific Revolutions) says: ”A scientific theory is usually felt to be better than its predecessors not only in the sense that it is a better instrument for discovering and solving puzzles but also because it is somehow a better representation of what nature is really like. One often hears that successive theories grow ever closer to, or approximate more and more closely to, the truth. Apparently generalizations like that refer not to the puzzle-solutions and the concrete predictions derived from a theory but rather to its ontology, to the match, that is, between the entities with which the theory populates nature and what is “really there.”

Is this the fundamental problem in resolving ourselves away from a superstitious worldview? Is it that as Kuhn would have it – science does not determine truth – and thus requires a kind of faith not unlike religious faith?

Can we imagine a world without us? Does scientific discovery ultimately rob us of a fundamental assurance of our centrality and importance – or does it give us the potential for self-actualization?

Given the advancements in scientific understanding over the past two centuries, one might expect that the world dominated by religion would recede. Have we seen that? Is there a single proof that could alter the world any more than Copernicus or Smith et al?

The human inclination to place oneself at the centre of the universe has been chipped away at repeatedly – the heliocentric model and the discovery of deep time just being two examples: How has society answered this need in recent decades? Religion, superstition, the singularity, new thought? What is the role of science in delivering philosophy along with fact?

2 thoughts on “A reflection on deep time and human values.

  1. Huh. Deep thoughts for Tuesday, yay! This has multiple markers for a good presentation.

    Gould made awesome books; “Wonderful Life…” and “Full House” touch beautifully on deeptime and evolution, if you haven’t already put them in your library third shelf from the top.

    Re: “The human inclination to place oneself at the centre of the universe has been chipped away at repeatedly – the heliocentric model and the discovery of deep time just being two examples: How has society answered this need in recent decades?” – That ‘human’ inclination may be a particularly American/European mindset. When you mention society, it helps to specify which one.

  2. You are so right about which society. This is very much a “western” perspective coming out of the Greek tradition….. which I will note. Thanks! And yes, Brian has all of Gould’s books which will one day be read by me!

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