Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Intimate, Free and Safe: A Holiday Season Wish

An atheist scientist explores the spiritual core of life and the holidays

In business they say the two human drivers are fear and greed. I'd invert them. We crave safety and freedom. Safety is freedom from fear; Freedom is greed’s ultimate objective. 

Xmas celebrates both--the safety of a cozy home, the freedom of a wild child playing with way too many toys. Deeper into Xmas’s back-story, safety in Christ’s love; the freedom of everlasting life through him, safety in God’s Grace, freedom from guilt as Christ died for our sins.

I’m an atheist and an origins of life researcher. Countering the general concensus among scientists I am committed to the belief that life is different from mere mechanism, yet I'm committed to trying to explain scientifically how the physics and chemistry of the universe’s first 10 billion years ever gave rise to selves, souls, will, the heartfelt stuff that many scientists dismiss as mere biochemistry.

My research colleagues and I pay a lot of attention to constraint, limits on what happens. The universe abhors constraint, not purposefully but statistically. With time, constraints on the organization of matter disintegrates. Stuff mixes, degenerates, breaks down and desegregates.

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In fact, we know time by such disintegration. Eggs break much more readily than, once broken they come back together. If we saw a broken egg repair itself we’d think time was reversed, constraints on its form magically accumulating until it’s a tidy tight orb anew. The tendency for things to become unconstrained is called the second law of thermodynamics, and though second among laws, it’s the most fundamental in the universe. 

Still sometimes constraint accumulates locally. As a snowflake falls, ice builds up on six points. The more ice accumulates on those points, the more constrained to those six points all further accumulation becomes.

No two snowflakes are alike because they fall through different humidity and temperature regimes. Different circumstances lead to different “don’t go there’s” and “go there’s” on where ice accumulates.

Snowflakes are but one of many kinds of “constraint propagation.”  Whirlpools are another, turbulent water (or air or galactic arms) “self-organizing” toward highly constrained patterns. Our lab sees such constraint propagation as a bridge to life but not as life itself, which is why I put “self-organizing” in parentheses.

Life has real selves; self-organization does not. Living beings like you and me are proactively self-constraining. We do work to keep our constraints together, for example, you regenerating skin cells to keep your viscera from spilling out un-constrainedly. Though we don’t expect an egg to restore its constraints, we do expect or skin to heal. In a universe in which everything is falling apart, living things keep their fit together, the amazingly tuned constraints you regenerate that keep you from just falling apart.

We regenerate our psychological constraints too. We keep our wit together by not buying into certain beliefs that would throw us off course. We live through our openings, and opportunities, but our openings are made by our closings, the constraints we impose to discipline ourselves so that our efforts get channeled down productive grooves.

Like snowflakes, we are all different, exposed to different elements over our lives.  Getting too drunk one Xmas you commit yourself to AA’s constraints. Growing up Mormon, you break free from that religion’s constraints and now enjoy eggnog. 

Where to be free, where to be constrained?  That is the question on which all sorts of moral language accumulates and crystalizes.  When we like a constraint we call it discipline, focus, dedication, commitment.  When we don’t like a constraint we call it a shackle, a rut, intolerance, being uptight. 

When we like an opening we call it opportunity, freedom, liberation, tolerance.  When we don’t like one, we call it a temptation, indulgence, vice, seduction.

We have words that totter between good and bad connotations. We are all entitled by right to certain things, but we shouldn't feel entitle because that's an indulgence. We declare universal rights (openings) but can’t somehow impose the constraints that would make such rights universal.

We want the freedom (openings) to enjoy our grooves, but also the safety we get from reliable constraints, and we negotiate, argue, fight and war over such openings and constraints, where the boundaries belong, and where the boundaries are constraining.  We are dancers on a crowded dance floor. We want to swing our arms freely but without getting elbowed by others doing the same.

At close range, one person's freedom can be another person's threat to safety, for example when your close relative, drunk on eggnog freely blurts things that feel unsafe to you. The greater the intimacy, the more careful we have to be in tuning our freedoms and safeties--free to be me, but still safe to you. 

May your holidays be intimately safe and free. May we tune tolerently and intolerently to bring out the best in us all.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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