Sunday, January 26, 2020
Inspired By Science Fiction
written 19 January 2020
published 26 January 2020
Shortly after Christmas, I came down with a touch of the flu. By good fortune, I was able to stay in bed, drink lots of water, sleep as often as I wished, and read as much light fiction as I desired. Always a treat! On this occasion, I reread one of my favorite science fiction classics, Isaac Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy", including the two prequels and two sequels.
The core trilogy describes a time when the human Galactic Empire is failing after 10,000 years, due to the triple diseases of despotism, maldistribution of goods, and inertia. As I read, the Trump impeachment was unfolding against the economic inequity of capitalism, with the global climate crashing due to entrenched inaction.
Asimov wrote many science fiction books and defined the Laws of Robotics for the protection of humanity. First, a robot may not injure a human, or allow a human to come to harm. Second, a robot must obey the orders given it by a human. Third, a robot must protect its own existence. As his robot series evolved, a more fundamental "Zeroth Law" was defined, a robot must not injure humanity or allow humanity to come to harm.
It struck me that action guided by the Zeroth Law would be very ethical, much like the Buddhist concept of bodhisattva. From Wikipedia: "In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva refers to anyone who has generated a spontaneous wish and compassionate mind for the benefit of all sentient beings." This is similar to the Golden Rule, treating all others with the same regard as myself, an expression of compassion and empathy.
The evolution of life on Earth includes two jumps from individuals to organized collectives. The first was the rise of nucleated cells, building blocks of all higher organisms. Collections of autonomous simple cells merged within one large cell, sharing critical functions for mutual benefit and increased efficiency. The second jump was the rise of multi-celled organisms, of which humans are an example. The human body is organized to nourish every part, and draws strength from the unique capacities of every part. A healthy body operates from the Zeroth Law, avoiding deliberate injury to the body or, through inaction, allowing the body to come to harm. A healthy body operates from the Golden Rule, with love and regard for every part.
In the Foundation series, Asimov initially presents two solutions for reorganizing the Empire. The first creates structure through technological and commercial domination, and the second creates structure through philosophical and psychological domination. These are both shown to be unstable, and a third alternative is introduced, Gaia: organization through planetary self-consciousness. This eventually expanded to the concept of galactic self-consciousness.
Asimov's describes Gaia arising as the awakened self-consciousness associated with a human expanding to include every living being on the planet, even to the slow consciousness of all the matter of the planet. This reflects a currently emerging quantum mechanical understanding that every speck of manifested matter is the consequence of focused consciousness redistributing the vacuum energy underlying material reality. Aboriginal cultures around the world know there is living awareness within even the most basic material forms.
"Spontaneous Evolution", by Lipton and Bhaerman, describes the arc of life on Earth as a series of evolutionary jumps in response to extinction threats. Their book concludes with the suggestion that our current extinction threat may be demanding a jump to planetary consciousness, similar to Asimov's fictional Gaia, with humans eventually serving as the neo-cortex for the planet.
But this is all just concept, much like the Golden Rule. The real trick is to experience the deep connection, not live by rules. We don't "try" to keep our body safe. Our actions are guided by the direct experience of immediate pain when we fail. Joanna Macy suggests that we already experience the grief of our dying planet. With practice, we can consciously experience the pain of others and the planet, due to our capacity for empathy and compassion, and the biology of mirror neurons, despite thousands of years of culture teaching us to fear and hate the other.
I like this hopeful vision better than thinking humans are just a disease on the planet, killing our host out of ignorance and short-sighted greed.