Thursday, June 21, 2018

Of Dirt and Data

(Farside entry by Gary Larson)

As I read Gore Vidal's Creation, I'm encouraged to think about the nature of the Universe. One of Vidal's themes in the novel is that for millennia humans have attempted to separate the World into complementary categories. The Truth and The Lie, Forms and Matter. Earth, Air, Wind and Fire. Flesh and Spirit. Material and Non-material. Good and Evil. The list goes on.

In general I feel these divisions can be both misleading and useful. Each set of groupings is driven by a world view (perhaps religious or cultural) and by an interpretation (perhaps modern or classical). As long as we thoughtfully analyze the groupings and recognize a spectrum is likely in play, then I think a worthwhile conversation may be had.

To that end I propose the Dirt and Data model of the Universe:

  • Dirt is matter or light or anything that serves as a medium.
  • Data is a pattern or value that identifies the state of said Dirt.

I think this dichotomy is quite useful in that it underscores a Universe composed of stuff that has properties that over time tends to clump and organize ever more complex things without any mysterious entity pulling strings. As such the Dirt and Data model captures the essence of how the Universe works given centuries of collected scientific data.

Kim Stanley Robinson called the tendency for things to organize toward complexity "Veritas." This Veritas has been baked into the Universe How the properties and possible Data states of the Dirt have come to be originally are unknowable. Did a god design Creation, did an architect program the Hologram, did an alien monstrosity defecate the Dirt? There is no data whatsoever to support any intentionality in how we and our World got here in the first place. The scientific humility of "We don't know." must suffice...and we will likely never know.

And so we Humans, as the sole, known species that proposes and discusses explanatory ideas must factor self-deception into the existing Data we analyze. This is to say, people for eons have speculated hypothetical ideas that feel good for various reasons even when the data is absent. Hundreds of past cultures have attempted to explain how the Universe works and what our place in it is using magical stories. Most of these stories are spun, understandably, with humans playing a central role in the Universe. It is our challenge as a civilization and as individuals to investigate the Data and separate likely fiction from likely fact.

A swirl of ancient ideas surviving in our modern minds concurs with the Dirt and Data model. Our brains of complex Dirt are highly programmable with the Data that is behavior and cultural norm. These Data are communicated down to us in many ways: tradition, religion, conspiracy theory, rule-of-thumb, moral law and science. A lazy mind might accept the Data without delving further, especially if that laziness pays off by providing more pleasureful pursuits. Belief without doubt and reconsideration can mislead us away from bettering the world, toward tribalism, hate and selfishness.

As someone who grew up a god believer, I recognize even now that I have an "I want to believe" meme circulating within the Data that is my mind. Thankfully, the "I want to understand" meme has dominated the Data inside that animates my human Dirt. 

It is a tough fact to face that when I die my Dirt will be simply be recycled, and the unique Data of my consciousness will evaporate. Still, I hope (and as I strive to make true) that the Data I swirl within me will have reached others to stir their muddy curiosity and further sculpt with creativity toward Goodness.

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