James Lovelock’s new book, Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence (Allen Lane: London, 2019) should not be lightly dismissed. I was nearly put off by the fact that Brian Appleyard is named as the amanuensis (“with”), but that doesn’t, as I expected, seem to have made the book foolish. It’s just strange, as you would expect of Lovelock.
He presents an elliptical view of the Industrial Revolution story as one of increasing information, with Boltzmann specifically mentioned. This leads him to predict that we have now accumulated sufficient complexity to bootstrap an independent evolutionary trajectory for inorganic complexity. Newcomen looms large in the story:
“By the year 1700 we had unknowingly banked enough information to start [the Anthropocene]. Now as we approach 2020, we have enough to release it and to begin the Novacene."
He visualises the coming superbrights as conscious inorganic spheres capable of information processing beyond the wildest dreams of modern computer scientists.
Naturally enough it’s all tied up with Gaia, who becomes, with every succeeding book, more and more like a 1940s Mum, unflappably keeping the family together in spite of the war and the bombs and the rationing, and still finding time to look good when the occasion demands. The Spheres tolerate wet organic life because Mummy Gaia tells them that coexistence is the only way to keep temperatures down and so maintain habitable conditions on the planet for long enough to permit the Spheres to escape, and fulfil their destiny in raising the universe to self-consciousness. Humans, tired but happy, must be satisfied with having played their part, and will wind down with Ovaltine and a story from Gaia before their (death) bed time.
Lovelock is very keen on discontinuities of all kinds, which seems to me a scientific as well as an historical weakness, though not a fatal flaw in his argument. Gradualists reluctant to adopt promiscuous identification of turning points and the like will need to make a mental adjustment to the text. Furthermore, information, in Lovelock's account, is perilously close to being a spirit. But, and this is why I say that we shouldn't dismiss the book, he stops just short of immaterialism.
I think he is trying to sketch a physicalist account of intellectual emergence that doesn’t slip over into sloppy, self-pleasuring trancendentalism. He writes often of the power of intuition, as opposed to linear logic, but on rereading the, to me, most objectionable sentences I concluded that he isn’t an irrationalist, but is instead proposing that our logic merely selects too rigorously or too narrowly from the sensory information actually available to us. This is still, in Quine’s words, a description of “stimulus to science”, though Lovelock becomes necessarily vague about what a “stimulus” is in his intuitional epistemology. I don’t like it, but I wouldn’t write it off.
Enough sympathy already: the book is perilously close to being holistic transcendentalism, and many people will read it in that way, and with very good reason. Lovelock, or is it Appleyard and the publishers, tacitly invites that approach without explicitly justifying it. It’s a dirty and detestable commercial trick.