The Arcane

Here I am going to ramble a little about patterns of human behavior. "Arcane" is one of those words sorely abused by generations of people involved in the most fanciful of modern pastimes, which is to say the creation of alternative magical and religious beliefs and practices, both in earnest and for fun. As a consequence it has gathered a broad wake of connotations and cultural baggage. Cut all that away and it has an unbiased, simple, and straightforward meaning, however. To be arcane is to be obscure, to be hidden, to be known only to a few.

We humans have evolved a strong urge to pattern recognition. It is a key part of our intelligence as it applies to the business of surviving the rigors of natural selection. Clearly the benefits of identifying and acting on real patterns far outweighed the disadvantages of incorrectly seeing patterns that are not real. How else to explain magical thinking, the tendency for people to fit everything they observe into simple models of cause and effect regardless of accuracy, and then search for the truth later, if at all? The world about us is so very complex that there will always be things that any given group of people cannot understand or model accurately with the resources at their disposal, but put in that situation they will build the models anyway, because that is more comfortable than acknowledging ignorance. So we have religion, magical traditions, the ridiculous marketing that emerges from the snakeoil "anti-aging" marketplace, and generations of people attaching extra saddlebags of meaning to workhorse words such as "arcane," "esoteric," and the like.

Every present culture has very deep roots, stretching back at least centuries into eras in which it was universally accepted that an arcane world lies underneath the mundane, steering it, providing the rules that make sense of what seems senseless. In search of patterns, any patterns, people looked for guidance to whomever was bold enough to claim to see into the arcane world, and since we are a hierarchical species, like our fellow primates, that form of leadership was institutionalized into power structures very early on. Thus we have a history of shamans, priesthoods, temples, the Hero's Journey, and the endless, ever more baroque theology that commenced as soon as things advanced to the point of fighting with words and concepts rather than weapons. All of that lies underneath the thin veneer of modernism, a bone mountain, the legacy of the dead.

Now, here is an interesting thing about modern science and technology: its complexity and importance has in effect created a real arcane world that lies alongside the mundane, steering its future, determining who will live and who will die, what changes and what persists, how the rules of everyday life will differ tomorrow. The present state of technology is the greatest determinant of how we live our mundane lives, and technological progress is the greatest determinant of what tomorrow will bring. Yet few people choose to undertake the work needed to peer from their daily grind into the arcana of technology, even in this age of enormously rapid change, in which the formative lives of each new generation are appreciably different from those of their parents.

Medicine and medical research, especially into aging, shape the rules that will determine the portents for the rest of our lives. How long will we live, will we suffer, what must we do to have the best odds of success? Two thousand years ago people went to priests and burned offerings. A thousand years ago they petitioned physicians who had more in common with priests than with today's practitioners. Today they go clinics and understand about as much of the underpinnings of what they are told to do, for all that it is a lot more effective. The behaviors and organizations laid down to deal with the imaginary arcana of mysticism and religion continue for the real arcana of technology. Very few people go beyond talking to researchers to lift the veil and seek to understand why medicine is the way it is, why the answers to their questions are what they are. They accept the patterns that are explained in shorthand, and are comforted by them, right or wrong. That the patterns offered are better and more effective because of the changing tides of the arcane world of medical research is almost beside the point.

It is always too easy to castigate, however. We who do look further, who place ourselves with a foot in the arcane and a foot in the mundane, drifting from day to day activities on the one hand to presenting the logical outcome of human agelessness resulting from effectively treating aging as a medical condition on the other - we can forget just how distantly removed from all this we once were, or how much of an accident it is that we are where we are today. Ponder just how little thought you gave to medicine and where it came from when you were young, immersed in the mundane: back when you thought aging was set in stone, and the sum of the world was school, shopping, relationships, the changing of the seasons, a job, a hobby. The sum of an unremarkable, unique life. That is most people, unaware of what actually sways their futures.

All of this is why you see similar patterns of human organization at the high level emerging at the boundary of medical science and the world at large as at the boundary of organized religion and the world at large. The data is vastly different, and the importance vastly different. But the same underlying incentives and facets of human nature are at work, driving the small decisions that snowball into organizations and initiatives. For preference I'd like to see this change. The arcane world of medical research, and particularly that related to ending frailty and disease in aging, cannot continue to be as arcane as it is today if we are to see the growth we need in funding and support. The scale of applied resources and pace of progress that is justified by the grand panoply of suffering caused by disease and aging is hard to sustain when no-one thinks about medicine until they are sick. Research and development of new therapies is slow, and leaving education and support for that process until it is needed is leaving it far too late to make a difference.

If we could just bootstrap medicine to much the same position in the public eye as the automobile or the personal computer, where there is some breakdown of the veil between the arcane world of progress and development and the mundane world of use, even that would be a great gain. Unfortunately doing this is an uphill battle against our own evolutionary history and evolved preferences: threatened by complexity, and worse, by the time needed to make a dent in that complexity, most people retreat and direct their limited attention elsewhere. It is a hard sell to persuade anyone to outlay their precious time to understand something that will be important a decade or two from now. In effect those of us closer to the inside of the veil of the arcane for medical research are something like reverse Cassandras: knowing that wondrous, golden futures lie ahead, if only people will listen, understand, and help. More are taking notice with each passing year, but it still far more slowly than they might. Changing the world is not easy.


Thank you for tirelessly putting the word out there, you are really doing a great service to humanity :)

Posted by: Naufrage at October 9th, 2015 2:35 AM

This is a big problem of our current world. Many people are opposing things that they don't know well or that they don't have the knowledge to understand, like nuclear energy, GMO, vaccines, modern agriculture (instead of organic farming), medicine (instead of homeopathy, acupuncture, etc.), fracking, .... Life extension is only one of them.

Posted by: Antonio at October 9th, 2015 4:17 AM

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