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June 11, 2009

Back to the Future

Although “recorded” human history implies written language and we tend to think of the first humans to devise writing systems some six thousand years ago as “ancients,” modern science has revealed that Homo sapiens, a species that's been around for only a few hundred thousand years, and is thus new as species go, are probably descendants of Miocene Apes that didn't make their appearance until about nine million years ago. Beyond that, the techniques of Science are such that much of what we now consider “progress” had to wait until certain widely believed assumptions about the physical world could be subjected to critical scrutiny, a process that has been shaping the modern world at an increasing rate since the beginning of what we now call the Industrial Revolution.

In other words, most of what we now (think) we know about the Universe (Cosmos, Metaverse) has been learned since George Washington was born in 1732, not quite three hundred years ago. To belabor that example a bit further: just as we now realize he was just another fallible human, Washington's limitations didn’t prevent him from leading an improbably successful rebellion against the dominant imperial power of his time. Further, like every other major historical figure, his impact on history depended mostly on chance, in the sense that it could not have been accurately predicted in advance. Beyond that, the consequences of his leadership have become inextricably intertwined with countless other events. Yet; somewhat paradoxically, to the extent we do understand the cosmos, the evidence that it behaves in discernible repetitive patterns (“natural laws”) has been growing, as has the influence of our own species in shaping events on our home planet.

The origins of what is now loosely defined as the Scientific Method go back to the work of Galileo and Newton in devising experiments by which the then-heretical postulates of Kepler and Copernicus could be tested. In essence, the beliefs of Science and (monotheistic) Religions have been in conflict ever since then, and can be seen as foreshadowing much of the strife that has plagued the world since before the turn of the Twentieth Century (and well before).

Our modern paradox is that ever since humans became the only species able to employ cognition to make choices and fabricate complex tools, we have been exerting a significant impact upon our planet's other life forms. Through Science, that impact has been magnified to a point where we may now be altering the weather patterns those life forms depend on for sustenance.

At the same time, the continued domination of human cognition by religious thinking, together with our appetite the artifacts made possible only through science, are competing in ways that are forcing human behavior into directions that do not auger well for either short or long term species survival.

One may well ask why a "pot doc" who only recently became preoccupied with the human use of cannabis would be writing about such abstruse concepts. An answer is hinted at in two recent periodicals; first the July-August issue of Atlantic (not yet online) that arrived only yesterday. What caught my eye was Jamais Cascio’s response a question Nick Carr raised in the same magazine just a year ago: Is Google making us “stoopid.” Cascio's answer seems to be far from it; but Google- and the web in general- are definitely having an impact on how we choose to exert our cognitive influence.

To frame the issue in terms of cannabis, its popularity as an illegal drug has clearly increased in parallel with the incidence of the ADD behavior Carr so eloquently describes and Cascio refers to repeatedly. From my clinical perspective, the absurd federal insistence that pot must remain forever illegal was first tested by California’s Proposition 215 in 1996 and is still staunchly defended by most police agencies and the Obama Administration. In the second timely item, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that "legalization" may well be tested more directly in 2010.

Thus, we may still be on track to accomplish the general intent of Proposition 215; although by a route its 1996 backers could not have predicted. In another entry, I’ll explain why whatever initiative voters get to vote on will probably also be “stoopid.”

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at June 11, 2009 10:54 PM