Sunday, January 14, 2018

Epistemology of Earthsea: Is the Universe a Machine?

Above, two characters of the Earthsea world: Ged and Vetch (Ged is the one with the scars on his face). Behind Ged, the Shadow. A wonderful image by Paul Duffield

I propose here a modified version of a post that I published last year on "Chimeras".  I argue here that all our troubles are epistemological in nature: we don't know how to find the truth. In the Earthsea series, Ursula Le Guin gave us some hints - although no solution - about this dilemma. 

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Arthur C. Clarke)

Imagine that you have never been exposed to the thousands of years of accumulation of what we call "culture". Imagine that you are looking at the world with fresh eyes; as if seeing it for the first time. You see all sort of things: people, animals, rivers, rocks, building, mountains, and much more. And you try to make some sense of all that. So, you notice that some things move, grow, shrink, and change shape. There seems to be some hierarchy in this kind of entities; some move fast and some slow, some don't move at all, but that doesn't mean they never do (think of a volcano). You could think that all these things have a soul; that, in a way they are like you, there is a certain kinship in all things.

If things have a soul, there follows that you can speak to them. To people, you can talk and they talk back to you. Animals won't talk back to you but they may listen. You can talk to plants, streams, and rocks; who knows? They might be listening. You may well try to convince the sky to produce some rain when you need it. Praying, dancing, offering sacrifices. That's the origin of what we call "religion", that's a very, very old way of understanding the universe. The universe has a soul. It is a soul. It is a definition of God (or of the Gods).

But there is also another way of seeing the universe: it is to assume that it is a sort of a machine. A machine is not something you talk to; it is something you act upon. And if you act in the right way, it will react predictably and as expected. So, you may pray to get the benevolence of the soul of a great forest tree, but you may also chop it down with an axe. Predictably, the tree will fall after a sufficient number of chops. You can do the same with an enemy: if you hit his head with a battle axe, the results will be predictable. If you know the functioning of the machine, then you can make it behave as you want to. This is the origin of magic; that some also call "craft". Finding the rules that things follow gives you power on them. It is the origin of modern science.

Religion may be older than magic, but they seem to have been going in parallel in human history. Take one of the oldest Western pieces of literature, the Iliad, and you'll find Gods appearing on almost every page, but no wizard ever crosses them. Instead, in some of the earliest literature we have, the Sumerians left us plenty of healing recipes where they freely mix invocation to Gods with herbs and other substances that surely had some healing powers of their own.

In time, religion and magic diverged more and more to the point that most modern religions despise magic as evil (and some religions despise science for the same reason). Priests may well perform rituals to obtain something for the benefit of the faithful, but they are always careful to state that success or failure is never guaranteed. If you pray God you may ask to be cured of your ailment. If you are cured, then you are supposed to thank God for His benevolence. But if you get worse, then you are not supposed to blame God for that. The divine will is unfathomable and it may be argued that it is your fault because of some sin you committed that made you unworthy of God's benevolence.

Over history, magic took different paths. One was that of the Europan alchemists. They tended to renounce to all the dark incantations of old times and they became true empiricists, originators of what we call the "scientific method". Their theoretical basis was faulty and they lost a lot of time in tasks that today we recognize as impossible. But they were always in search of things that worked. Modern science is wary of recognizing their role, but the basic idea is the same: the world is a machine: you don't need Gods to operate on it. And, in a certain way, the daughter of alchemy, science, triumphed. In most of the Western World, people trust a doctor more than a priest; even though they may also pray God to give them a hand, just in case.

There is a problem with the universal machine, though. Magic, just as science, has no moral compass: the end result of magic doesn't depend on whether it is done for a good or a bad purpose. Science-based medicine will cure an evil person just as well as a good one, while the best modern technologies have created weapons that will kill anyone. And this is a big problem especially when science fails - and it does. While you can't sue priests (or God) for malpractice, you can and you do sue doctors. And modern science has been unable to maintain its promises and it can be seen as an evil form of black magic for having lost control on those that it did manage to deliver; think of nuclear energy while, at the same time, unable to reverse the damage it created in the form of climate change, pollution, and more disasters.

Now, let's go to Le Guin's series, Earthsea, and see what we can learn from a parallel world to ours. Earthsea is a society nearly fully based on magic, just as our modern world is nearly fully based on science. Earthsea is a machine all based on the "old speech" that plays the same role as mathematical models in our world. This old speech, in other words, is something like an instruction manual for the world machine. Then, the novel describes idealized scientists - portraited as wizards. They are benevolent, crafty, intelligent, and always worried about not doing damage to the equilibrium of things. One wishes our scientists were like that!

That allows Le Guin to dissect the dilemmas of science in a variety of narrative plots. The key of the whole series of Earthsea is that even wise mages have problems. One is that they can do very little; we see them mending broken vases, curing goats' infected udders, raising - sometimes - the 'magewind' to push boats onward, and curing human ailments only when they are not too serious. So, wizards are at times considered useless and rejected. One of the stories of the series deals with an age in which wizardry had fell from grace and was widely despised. Just like what may soon happen to science in our world.

True, the protagonist of most of the stories, Ged, also fights dragons, but dragons are not the real problem with magery in Earthsea. The problem is the same we have with science in our world: the lack of a moral compass. So, in the first story of the series, Ged's enemy is not a dragon but himself. And, later on, it will be another mage, turned evil.

Over and over, the mages of Earthsea are at loss on how to deal with the Otherworld; the realm of the dead. A realm that's alien to magic and to science, but that's the natural domain of religion. So, Earthsea is not a Godless world; it can't be. We are told that it was created by an entity called "Segoy" who may be is a dragon, or maybe a God. And it is hinted that there is something more; much more than that and at least one region of Earthsea, the Kargad Lands in the North, are described as dominated by a religious vision of the world. Initially, the Kargish are just pirates and barbarians, but then they take up power and importance in the stories, hinting that their view may be on a par - perhaps superior - to their crafty Southern Neighbors. It is like that: Earthsea is a real world, it is alive.

Maybe we should just read about Earthsea for the pure joy of doing that. Or, maybe, we can read it in order to learn something about the contradictions and the problems of our world. What's all our science for? Can it solve problems or does it just create more of them? Can we attain the "balance" that the wizards of Earthsea keep striving for? How can we keep our nuclear dragons for burning all of us to cinders? Can we survive the great transformation that we call "climate change" that was created by our scientists but that our scientists are unable to control, now? What should we do with our dull and arrogant wizards who think they know more than anyone else?

Will we ever know if the universe is a soul or a machine? Maybe not. Like Ged in his little ship, the Lookfar, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" (*). It is our destiny to follow the great current that's taking us across the ocean of time to an unknown destination. Or maybe toward Earthsea.

(*) For those readers who live in Earthsea and may not have heard of "The Great Gatsby" by Scott Fitzgerald, that's where the quote comes from.

About Earthsea, see also this post of mine on Chimeras.


  1. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature. Hence the biosphere is considered natural.

    Any sufiiciently advanced sentience is indistinguishable from emergence. Hence emergence is considered an epiphenomenon.

  2. Being a bit slow, I'm likely missing the point, but isn't it techology that has given us climate change? Science is giving us the ability to understand and detect it, no?

    All we really need for climate change is the massive burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. The basic tools for both were developed by technologists. Blacksmiths, machinists, assorted inverters and clever tradespeople. They gave us steel, axes, steam engines, and internal cumbustions engines.

    In any event, I suspect people will not make the distinction between science and technology. Blame will be place on science all the while everyone will push for more, better, newer technology which is the real driving force of all these changes we are seeing and measuring with the scientific eye.

  3. Sorry, a poorly written sentence in the post. Now it should be understandable. About your other comment, I think we may reach a point in which people will start despising everything that has to do with "science". But it will take a while

  4. What if the universe is a soul AND a machine?

    After all, "you" - the subject who experiences things, exists, but we can still understand the human body as an exquisitely complex machine. How or whether one begets the other is a hard question though.

    We are part of the universe - why would it be any different for other parts of the universe, or all of it?


  5. Isn't science a specialised technology, originally?

    A blacksmith trying to get around intuitively but with a lot of work to do; finally paying an alchemist and later a chemist to do the same job in an increasingly systematic fashion: it wasn't lumberers but engineers who made the industrial revolution.

    The result of course is a considerable number of people are also paid to do wonderful, useless research, but they are parasites on technology, aren't they?

    1. it was the availability of cheap surplus fossil fuel energy that made the industrial revolution

      Leonardo da vinci figured out many of the ''engineering'' problems, all he lacked was an engine--had an engine been availabilty, humankind would be 500 years ahead of where we are now.

      which is to say we would have burned through our fossil fuel stores by about 1700, and now be back to square one

  6. Yes, indeed it is an epistemological issue

    In Bateson's words:

    "As you know, the difficulty is always in bringing people to face formal analysis of the mind with a similar or even open epistemology. Many people say they do not have an epistemology and one must always overcome their optimism. Only then can the particular type of epistemology that I propose be addressed. In other words, the reader requires at least two jumps and, of the two, the most difficult is precisely this initial. We all tend to slip quickly into the illusion of being capable of direct perception, uncoded and not mediated by any epistemology."

  7. Walter Benjamin might be worth a footnote. (His death is worth recalling.) Out of many quotes the following seems to have a certain resonance: "A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)