Philosophy and General Reading

On Recent Events

Dear Reader(s),

It has been some time since my last post. Just as I was gearing up with a series of different articles and essays – and generally getting into a good pattern of regular blogging – Covid-19 broached the shores of the UK. With the outbreak, life for all was turned upside down. In addition to having to adjust to the unsettling reality of a global pandemic and its implications – I usually respond to such world events with lots of studying and research as a way to get my head around what is objectively happening – one of the practical consequences was a series of changes to daily life and usual routines. As a person with Asperger’s, these types of changes means it can take time for me to re-establish solid ground. I’m sure everyone reading this will be able to sympathise one way or another, given that the global pandemic has affected us all in different ways. For some, the pandemic will have had a greater impact than for others, whether directly in terms of illness or economically or otherwise. People have lost loved ones; there are stories of vulnerable individuals struggling for support or being taken advantage; we are now seeing unemployment rates increasing; among a list of other things. I once wrote about the concept of rational compassion as an alternative to empathy, and it seems pertinent. In addition to the public health crisis and the suffering that has caused, there seems no shortage of economic suffering for many. It is unfortunate, I think, in a very critical and objective way, that rational debate and dialogue has often seemed to be overtaken by extreme political rhetoric and ideology on both sides of the spectrum. I know in the UK and elsewhere, important debates about managing public health and economic health have often become reduced to two ideological positions and what is essentially a false moral dichotomy. It shouldn’t be so surprised, I suppose, since wearing a mask and social distancing – two science and evidenced-based policies that require some semblance of social reason and rational compassion – have become politicised and subject to the irrational. We of course have the far-left and the far-right, both of which ultimately seem to fold into one another as the spectrum of extremes takes on the image of the ouroboros (you can decide which is the head and which is the tail); but it is not just the extreme polarisation, but also the interior of these poles. Perhaps the moral is as it always was: it is no secret that the condition of the human being is one of struggle for reason and rationality; as I am currently writing in a series of essays on the enlightenment and the anthropology of (re-)enchantment, the enlightenment was a historical moment that resulted in the culmination of developments since Plato and beyond. Enlightenment disenchantment was by no means total, such is evidenced surely in taking a systems view of contemporary patterns and trends.

But I digress. What I meant to say is that these are uncertain times, to be sure. For whatever it may mean to each individual that reads my blog, I hope you’re keeping well.

For my part, I’ve been fortunate to continue my studies and keep working away on stringy things. During the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time catching up on mountains of string study. One thing that comes with academic acceleration from undergrad to post-grad, at least in my case, is that there is a lot of catching up to do in terms of daily research level string physics and computation. It is not too difficult; rather it is the sheer amount literature. I’ve managed to cover so much in a short time, which has been satisfying, and I’m delighted to have reached a point where it seems each day I am growing increasingly comfortable with the bigger research picture and my place within it. The word ‘orientation’ is perhaps fitting; but how I’ve spent my time is probably more than some typical orientation process. It’s not only about going over foundations as well as contemporary literature and trends of thought, I also find great urgency to go back to the earliest and significant historical string papers and build up as much as I can from first-principles – to deepen my understanding and intuition of the issues and where we need to be.

In the last month or so, I’ve also been working on my MRes thesis, mostly thinking through a lot of double sigma model stuff and generally just putting a lot of energy into maintaining focus on this particular project. Of course, as my professor will attest, numerous things are constantly pulling at my attention and slowly I am finding my way. As for my thesis project, it has been enjoyable. Proficiency in double sigma models is important for future work as well, particularly with my interest in generalised geometry sharpening (among a list of questions from which I may entertain), so I’ve managed to properly sink in to the work allowing the occasional distraction: such as, for instance, Ashoke Sen’s deeply interesting paper on string field theory plus a lot of non-geometry stuff. I often tweet samples of thoughts or references, but I will likely start blogging about all this cool stuff as well.

There is much to write about in string theory and quantum gravity, with some absolutely brilliant papers sitting on my desk. I also have a stack of maths papers I would like to discuss at some point, also not at all irrelevant to string theory. All in good time I’m sure.

For now, as a gentle return, I wanted to make one last comment: with the murder of George Floyd and the re-emergence of Black Lives Matter, there has been a lot of discussion again about racism and racial injustice. There is quite a bit of science behind understanding how bias and prejudice plays notable roles in human experience, including in the sort of cognitive processes that operate in the form bigoted and racist attitudes. As many have highlighted, education is certainly one important strategy as a lot of studies indicate the role of environment in relation to subject development. To that end, I’ve seen a lot of people sharing books and important literature on things like the history of slavery and civil rights. When I was young, about the age of 7 or so, I remember studying the history of slavery in the UK as well as slavery in America, including the Underground Railroad and the life of Harriet Tubman (I can’t recall the books we read, but see for instance this biography by Catherine Clinton). This of course also coincided with studying the American Civil War and other events in Europe. Over time I’ve also read a number of books, like Stephen Bronner’s ‘The Bigot’, which formulates the persistance of racism and bigotry as a sort of anti-modernity. It is an interesting philosophical read. Somewhat relatedly, a couple of weeks ago I tweeted about some of my recollections of Olaudah Equiano (extracts of his memoirs have been digitalised by the British library), a former slave and prominent abolitionist in Britain. In the time of the 18th century enlightenment, he was very much a man of letters. There were also a number of other prominent voices during this period, and, if I remember correctly, a key to generating popular repulsion toward slavery was the industrial workers movement of the time, of which I believe Equiano was a part. Among whites, English Quakers were one a notable organised support. A historian will certainly be able to offer many more details. When one studies this history – take the end of the 18th century in Britain for example, where there was popular support for abolition – it is easy to slip into a view that slavery was abolished and that is the end of it. But it was, and continues to be, a messy and complex moral picture. Indeed, even among enlightenment thinkers of the time, there were several notable secular philosophers supporting abolitionism; but it was certainly morally convoluted and not at all universal. It is fair to say that the actual abolition of slavery in the 19th century also did not mean an end of social-racial thinking; in fact, it is well documented how new forms of formalised racial thought emerged, including new theories of formal racial hierarchy and the formalisation of systems of belief based on eugenics. There is an article in the UN Chronicle that summarises a bit of this history. In terms of books, I’ve recently learned of two that sound informative and interesting: George M. Fredrickson’s ‘Racism: A Short History‘ is often cited. I also recently learned of a book by Timothy C. Winegard entitled, ‘The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator’. This is not a book on epidemiology, nor is it a work of biology, virology, or for that matter even anthropology. It is a popular history book, the sort I tend to try and avoid; but I’ve heard it offers a fairly detailed history of the slave trade as it relates to mosquito-borne diseases during European colonisation.

Of course, one can easily find online a list of important and widely cited books on the topic. These are two new ones that I’ve highlighted for myself. I’m currently putting together what would be my summer reading list, although my break is delayed until after my thesis is submitted (likely during the autumn before my PhD in December or January). That could be a topic for another post :)

Philosophy and General Reading

Review: Bertrand Russell’s ‘In Praise of Idleness’

In Praise of Idleness and Other EssaysIn Praise of Idleness and Other Essays by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

To some, or perhaps to many, it may seem a radical idea: idleness. But for the great British logician, mathematician, and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, idleness is seen as a historically rooted concept which ties intimately together the bonds of labour, leisure, and the prospect of human rationality. Or, at least that is my reading of his famously titled composition, ‘In Praise of Idleness’.

So, what does Russell mean by ‘idleness’? In some sense, it infers a socially organised definition of time that is economically independent of professional labour, in which one may instead expend their energy to fulfil personally meaningful pursuits. This could be, for example, a time for a person to explore painting or to explore a scientific pursuit or any number of interests. In some bodies of literature, such projects are called ‘existential projects’ to convey the personalisation of their meaning in one’s life. One may also call them ‘special interests’. In this sense, one can think of idleness simply as being the economically independent pursuit of a subject, activity, or quality for no other reason than it evokes the state of personal interest. Study for study sake, or a painter to paint without the pressure of starving – these are the sorts of examples that Russell evokes.

Russell_In Praise of Idleness

Idleness should thus not infer or be confused with one’s being disinclined to work or with simplistic views pertaining to individual laziness. Idleness should also not be seen as ‘the root of all evil’, as the idiom would have it. If we are to follow Russell’s arguments, idleness has substantial roots in positive human traits, such as curiosity, exploration, and invention. We also read how the notion of idleness is based on ethical, moral and empirical economic arguments. For Russell, social consumption can mean something very different, both existentially and socially, and thus humanistically. He also speaks of economic production and the way in which work and leisure cycles could generally mean something altogether more philosophically transformed in conception, particularly in terms of the meaning of leisure and its tradition and practical cultural configuration.

It is interesting to consider, on that note, how for thousands of years human beings have established traditions of celebrating different sorts of festivals – Judeo-Christian, Pagan, and so on. Think, for instance, of midwinter festivals based on the solstice or on religious themes. With these traditions follows also a deep historical relation between festivity and work. The festival represents, to frame it in terms of economic history, an interruption of daily labour cycles, with its concept rooted primarily in principles of free time for enjoyment [1]. Thinking of this, it is also interesting to recall that, using Christmas as an example, it was during the Victorian era that a formal socioeconomic relation developed between festivity, worker rights, and the commercial profit motive, particularly as middle-class families were afforded time off work with the financial means for surplus consumption. But if festivity and leisure – or idleness – are intricately related with labour by their very definition, and thus with economics, Russell’s account would seem to carry a certain diametric opposition to work patterns that exhaust the possibility of what he describes as energetic leisure.

In this sense, I read Russell’s essay as having some classical enlightenment motivation. Thoughtfulness – indeed, the time to practice thought and to explore intellectually – this seems a theme to Russell’s social philosophical view of which an advanced and aspiring rational society should strive to achieve. In other words, if idleness is a positive human experience, one which supports or fosters the individual subject to flourish rationally and, perhaps, self-actualise existentially, Russell ties this concept with the possibility of continued self-education and self-betterment, among other things. At the same time, while he celebrates the concept and experience of idleness, he also laments the loss of its broader social-economic and cultural realisation. It is argued that leisure time is expunged of idleness much as in the present-day example of Christmas, which is hyper-commercialised and seemingly increasingly filled with passive entertainments, as active energies are instead exhausted by work, intensely driven consumer cycles, and various other contemporary social behavioural patterns rigidified in such a way to maintain systemic mores. Russell’s arguments are based on traditional views of social-economic class structures, and he seems to suggest that the logic of social economy has been skewed; contemporary societies have in some ways lost sight of the meaningful idea of social production and the social purpose of consumption that may foster a more enlightened and rational society.

For these reasons, we read how with more energetic and thoughtful leisure one would then be better able to enjoy pleasures in which it was possible to take an active part. The central thrust of Russell’s argument in this regard is not so different than in present-day concepts of economic democracy and automation, in which in advanced technological society it is argued individuals should be increasingly afforded the freedom from necessary labour in order to pursue the many positive possibilities that life has to offer, including education and learning.

Reading his essay, I was reminded of a few historical examples. Think, for instance, about the development and evolution of writing and of our early mathematical ideas – a history that is intimately entwined with the genesis of civilisation. A good example comes from the ancient Babylonians. To Russell’s larger point, the early development of mathematics, much like writing, can be seen to be owed to the economic development of agriculture; because with agriculture one result was increased freedom from the precariousness of sustenance living in which people were then allowed more free time, with greater access to resources. As new technologies were conceived, and human pursuit was increasingly freed from the limits of basic survival to expand beyond that which was unavailable to hunter-gathers, the time available to explore, experiment with, and create things like writing became possible. The study of mathematics could also be pursued and formalised.

Indeed, to offer another example, the entire history of physics is riddled with such stories, like Michael Faraday playing with his magnets on a park bench in London or Issac Newton watching apples fall from trees, contemplating the nature of gravity. To the point of anthropologists and biologists who study human play, as another example that we may interpret in the frame of idleness, there is an argument to be made that what Russell is describing is in fact a fundamental biological and cognitive feature of universal human experience that is very much tied to inventiveness.

At this point, we may enter into various complex social, economic, and political arguments. Instead, as there are already many terrific reviews of Russell’s essay, both positive and critical, to close this discussion I instead want to focus on two things that struck me when recently rereading ‘In Praise of Idleness’. One playful thought was the potentially interesting applications in relation to a physics of society and of human beings, particularly regarding energetics. This has to do with the study of energy under transformation, and one may think of such transformation particularly between the individual and their labour under the fairly universal economic notion of the work-leisure trade-off. For the author, he argues that there is a sort of fetishisation of labour, especially manual labour, and he seems to want to argue that how we use labour energy is not efficient or optimised in the best ways. From the standpoint of a physics of humans and of society, it would be fascinating to see if some of his ideas are quantitatively grounded.

There are also many interesting economic points of consideration. First, it is worth noting that the contents of ‘In Praise of Idleness’ remain quite relevant today, given the resurgence of the idea of a shortened work week, especially in the UK and Europe. Some would argue that there is empirical evidence and many qualitative arguments about why the current configuration of work hours is not optimised for the benefit of both productivity and well-being [3, 4], supporting his view. Take a quantitative and qualitative view: work hours, commuting time, modern pressures of digital communication in which it is well studied that people also now routinely answer work emails in their leisure time – all of this and more matches data that substantiates the claim of an emerging culture of longer working hours [5]. Are the effects, psychological or otherwise, just as Russell observed or predicted?

On the other hand, inasmuch that the philosophical idea of idleness is tied with the economic argument of a shortened work week, how economically substantiated and viable is his argument? Some examples are as follows. If as a general rule of labour economics working more hours correlates with higher hourly rates of pay, and if as a general rule from a behavioural perspective higher rates of pay are one motivation for people in their social and economic life, then one may ask whether an economic conception of idleness is realistic. For instance, if the introduction of a shortened work week were to correspond to a cut in pay, would people be dissuaded to pursue the possibility of increased free time for the benefit of obtaining greater earnings? As this is a question about human behaviour and behavioural regulators, and hence agency, it is not so easy to model. Having said that, we observed major strikes by German steel workers in 2018 that saw them secure the right to work less at the cost of a drop in weekly earnings – although this also came with flexibility where workers may work longer hours if they choose. Perhaps agency and choice matter in this discussion.

Another point one may consider is that some economists argue that a shortened work week will likely result in an increase in earnings differentials and inequality. If, in general, those who work longer hours have higher hourly earnings than those who work shorter hours, then one would expect increased disparity in the earnings structure. Additionally, in a UK study of the public sector, a shortened work week was approximated to cost upwards of £45 billion, depending on some modelling assumptions including no increase in productivity [6].

For these reasons, when it comes to recent debates in the UK, should a shortened work week be considered some studies have shown that this reduction in time would need to be matched with an increase in productivity during work hours. There are some empirical examples where businesses that trialled shortened work hours saw productivity remain as it was or effectively increase. Although the sample is small, the argument here is that work hours – maximal output of energy during those hours – is better optimised and maintained when shortened and focused. This ties into arguments about the inefficiency of work hours within the current model – that, in the sense of Russell’s energy economics, maximum productivity and the maximum time of energetic labour – i.e., maximum labour hours – do not contradict an increase in leisure. This is partly why I think a physical theory would be interesting, if we could even construct the appropriate Hamiltonian. In empirical sociology, observations of phenomena like ’empty labour’ may also serve as an illustration of what some interpret as the outdated nature of present economic values and of modern conceptions of work [7]. Do these types of studies offer clues or evidence as to how and why economy may be reconfigured in ways in which Russell seems to indicate? It would furthermore be interesting to learn, in using separation theorem or something similar in the study of labour economics [8], whether energetic leisure serves as a positive argument in the utility function of the individual.

The problem when it comes to these sorts of economic ideas and debates is that, in many cases, we require much more accurate modelling. Current mainstream economics is quite inept at understanding the reality of human behaviour. If one considers the likes of Paul Romer’s contentions on macroeconomics (as well as notable research by many other contemporary economists), it is not controversial to say that the current economic model and its established ideas may be challenged quantitatively and qualitatively [9]. From what I can see at the present time, some arguments are emerging about the need for an interdisciplinary theory. Much like a physics of society, in which it has been suggested that a physical theory of society will not achieve systematic and objective clarity without an interdisciplinary form of research [2], in economics agent-based models are issuing similar demands. If the challenge of an objective economics is to look for the cause of instabilities inside the system, some argue that this means that what one inevitably comes up against are the details of human decision making, which, in principle, drives one toward the randomisation of decisions based on both rational and irrational processes. But it also seems more than that: it’s about thinking systemically – not just about economic models in the abstract sense but also the incentive structure and the problem that economics faces in terms of an orientation of ethics. A trivial example is as follows: if a model fosters the pathology of a simplified self-preservation worldview, and if I am one of the only two bakers in town, am I not incentivised in some way to run the other baker out of town by whatever means justified by that very principle of my own preservation? The point to be drilled into is that in social-economic modelling, simplified arguments and narratives about agents engaging in free or purely voluntary trade can, and often do, end up moralising what are otherwise deeply systemic issues. I think, in certain respects, this takes us some way toward the message in Russell’s essay about realistic economic models.

Given the transformation of the incentive structure, perhaps energetic and thoughtful leisure would be realised as an important feature of a healthy system. In terms of Russell’s arguments, framed in a systems way, the benefits would be in reducing the social deficit of reason by maximising the subject’s energetic capabilities to reason, in which education may then be ‘carried farther than it usually is at present’, fostering the provision of ‘tastes which would enable a man to use leisure intelligently’. As I read it, his argument implies the enlightenment ideal that the individual would be better scientifically informed (eg., against myths); they would potentially be better politically informed about policies and more engaged when fulfilling their democratic duties; they would make thoughtful economic decisions; and, perhaps ideally, they would approach social debates with greater consideration and in greater awareness of their own biases.


[1] Josef Pieper, 1999, ‘In tune with the world‘. St. Augustines Press.

[2] Guido Caldarelli, Sarah Wolf, Yamir Moreno, ‘Physics of humans, physics for society’. Nature Physics Volume 14, p. 870. DOI:10.1038/s41567-018-0266-x.

[3] Will Stronge and Aidan Harper (ed.), ‘Report: The Shorter Work Week’ []

[4] Lord Skidelsky, ‘Report: How to achieve shorter working hours’ []

[5] Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano, ‘The Expanding Workweek? Understanding Trends in Long Work Hours among U.S. Men, 1979-2006’. Journal of Labor Economics, 26 (2) April 2008: 311-43.

[6] Centre for Policy Studies, ‘The Costs of a Four-Day Week to the Public Sector’ []

[7] Roland Paulsen, 2014, ‘Empty Labor: Idleness and Workplace Resistance’. Cambridge University Press.

[8] Daron Acemoglu and David Autor, ‘Lectures in Labour Economics’ []

[9] Paul Romer, 2016, ‘The Trouble with Macroeconomics’. [].

**Cover image: ‘Woman Reading in a Landscape’ by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

Philosophy and General Reading

New Home, New LaTeX Problems

It has been two weeks since my last post. At the time, I was preparing to travel to Universidad Autonoma de Madrid for SiftS 2019. In my note I also mentioned that I was enjoying a brief pause from active blogging, mostly to take some time to revise, edit and reorganise the collection of string theory notes that I had already uploaded. I also mentioned that I wanted to take some time to reflect more generally on my first few months as a blogger, particularly about what I might change and improve.

The regular reader will have noticed that a lot has indeed changed. For one, my blog has moved to new home.

One problem that I was having with the old website concerned how it was configured in the backend. It was incredibly inefficient to upload LaTeX, which proved a hindrance considering most posts that I write use LaTeX. This is actually one reason why, before leaving for my summer string theory and holography engagement in Spain, I was not posting regularly; between finishing my paper and my ongoing research, it took too much time to transfer work from my usual LaTeX environment to my blogging environment each time I wanted to post something.

While away in Spain, I have since restructured everything. In addition to the new backend configuration, I am now also using LaTeX to WordPress in conjunction with Python. This software should hopefully enable me to transfer work directly and efficiently from my everyday LaTeX environment to my blogging environment.

Unfortunately, the new set-up also means that all of my old posts using LaTeX are broken and need to be re-written / re-uploaded one-by-one. This includes all of my string notes.

As I work on this issue, I am eager to return to active blogging. There is much to write about and discuss from SiftS 2019, and I am also eager to write about more pure string theory matters that I have been researching of late. I also will close by saying that I want to continue sharing more string notes over the course of the summer, hopefully up to and through the textbook contents of superstring theory. How it all gets organised on the new site, however, remains an open question.

Philosophy and General Reading

Learning to Write for Others: String Notes and Future Posts

It is fitting that I write this post on National Writing Day. A few months ago, following some encouraging nudges by others, I decided to commit to active blogging. I already had this website designed and online, but it was mostly left idle. The odd time I would post a note, or share a short essay. But for the most part, my struggle with writing was so much that it took too much energy to find the courage to write on a regular basis. Besides, as much as I genuinely enjoy the idea of writing, in practice I find it uncomfortable.

In reflection, these may seem like odd things to say because over the years I have written a lot of things. Essays, articles, and academic papers. Two years ago I also had a book published. But as a writer I have never been more than barely functional, driven primarily by my enthusiasm and penchant for the written word. Writing, not to mention communication in general, has never come naturally to me. As much as I read and spend my days studying, method in writing is a completely different matter.

To be a good writer, I think one needs to have access to understanding the reader. Empathy, in other words, seems important. In the world of Asperger’s, we talk about “strategies”. And there are a lot of support organisations and groups, including at my university, who help people with Asperger’s like myself learn effective strategies to be a good writer. Part of the strategy for me involves developing a consistent sense of structure – a logically ordered and intelligible set of rules – that assist in navigating the writing process, such that the communication extended to the other person is received as lucid, apprehensible and overall pedagogically cogent. Or, that is the idea and what I am trying to attain. In general, subjective concepts and practices are difficult for me to understand. What defines the objective criteria in which one may assess the art of a piece of writing? What makes a good piece of writing? Or, perhaps more pointedly, what makes for effective writing and communication? As a person with Asperger’s, writing is very much like floundering in the dark.

Since developing this little space on the internet – and with much encouragement – I have been working hard on trying to understand how to write for others. It’s like with my maths/physics – I have become aware since joining university that I am no longer writing my maths/physics for myself, where I can do as I please with my notation. On my whiteboard at home, or on the back of a scrap piece of paper, I may write my equations as I please, as long as I am following the rules. When I write my maths/physics for myself, I don’t need to explain or communicate anyone else. I can change my indices or for convenience suddenly switch notation, without needing to contemplate the legibility for another set of eyes. But to another person, it might not communicate or it might be difficult to follow. And so, to function as a professional physicist, it means I must learn to write my maths/physics for another and thus to ensure consistency and effective communication for the student or external reader. It is the same when it comes to the writing process. Like with the rules of mathematics and, indeed, the basic set of rules that we practice in mathematical physics, it is not so much a problem in the sense of grammar, syntax and spelling. It is more about what makes for good transmission – how people communicate, with use of signposting and other mechanisms.

In the few months since actively maintaining this blog, I’ve learned a lot about writing, and I have started to make small steps in understanding in my own way how to think about communicating through the written word, thanks to feedback from others and from my own support networks. There is still a lot of work to be done. But never before have I felt more confident that I am on track to obtaining a clear sense of consistent structure when communicating through writing – how to think about referencing for the reader, being more concise when explaining an idea, and how to convey a building of logic for another person. I find it exciting, and for once I look forward to writing more and to continued practise on my blog.

Having said that, I would like to highlight that over the coming weeks I may not publish anything new. The reason for this is because I want to take some time to revise, edit and perhaps even reorganise the collection of string theory notes I have already posted. It will also be a time for me to reflect. In some cases, I may even perform a complete rewrite of a particular article in my string theory series (each reviewed article will be timestamped from this day forward). I want to make sure these articles are clear and communicate the inspiring and wondrous ideas of string theory, both technically and pedagogically.

Another reason this blog will be quiet for the next month or so is because I will be away for three weeks in July, visiting the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid for a string theory and holography engagement (SiftS 2019).

But while it may be a few weeks until my next post appears, I very much look forward to regularly contributing to this blog and to continuing to share with whoever may visit this space. In addition to the continuation of my string theory notes, and other writings in fundamental physics, I would also like to think about writing a few new essays – perhaps even a paper or two – on history and other subjects.

Until then, thanks for reading.

Philosophy and General Reading

As a substitute for Christmas tales, let’s talk evolution

Some time ago I wrote a post on human evolution and civilisation. It was one of my first contributions to my general reading blog. But I feel it is worth thinking about this morning, as, generally, this is what I tend remind myself of at Christmas: our immaturity as a species. Instead of fanciful tales of miraculous birth, I think of the hard grind of evolution and our general cosmological insignificance.

This might sound gloomy and depressing, but it’s lesson is the opposite.

Human evolution is a process over millions of years, and still that is nothing in contrast to geological and cosmological time. With early migrations estimated to be between 2 and 1.8 million years ago, current best approximations place first arrivals to Australia as 60,000 years from present and 30,000 years from present for the Americas. And yet, if we maintain a macroscopic view, agriculture and civilisation only began to emerge approximately 12,000 years from present. In the greater context of reality, this timeline is not even a mark on Earth’s total history.

In our current history, we tend to issue the belief of advanced civilisation. But this notion of advancement is only relative to a microscopic history that, in the grand scheme of things, is puerile or callow. Social-historical, moral and technological progress are both micro and macro in scale. Our systems, knowledge, even the genesis of such concepts as reason and human rationality are at best fledgling, should we take seriously the idea of evolutionary process. General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are only about 100 years old, while our theory of the Standard Model of Particle Physics is much less than that. Physics is young. Science, while having made significant progress in a few hundred years, is far from complete. Still, today, human beings believe in myth and remain governed by prejudices and tribalisms, from arbitrary nationalistic identities to fear-driven impulses of racist and bigoted behaviourism. The total of what we know is little, and the extent of genuine progress of our systems is morally and ethically debatable.

As far as human beings have come as a species, as much as the historically recent modern enlightenment traditions have stoked the fires of human intelligence, reason and science – our systems, our ideas, the genesis of our concepts and the macroscopic patterns in our behaviours and beliefs are the mark of a species still very much young and undeveloped. The continued persistence of irrationality in addition to the microscopic pathology of our societies, dating as far back as the earliest tribalisitic identifications along with the continuation of the constituent psychologies of Myth in both shamen and totem, attest only to this immaturity. But these also serve as healthy reminders.

If Christmas is generally a story entwined with narratives of the divine, encompassing also a greater historical tale spanning just a few thousand years in which human beings are said to be of special rank touched by God (see creationism), I prefer instead to remind myself of the actual reality that human beings are in fact cosmologically insignificant. We’re a product of millions of years of evolution. Our knowledge is fledgling, and the total body of that which we know scientifically is not that much at all. Hurling through space on a rock, in the context of our own micro-scale history of life, the lesson of science is that culturally and morally we have only our humanism. I think this reminder contributes more to one’s ethics and morality than any tale of miraculous birth.