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Jan 9, 2023

Weather and the human condition

The stormy, rainy days we've recently experienced have led me to contemplate how our planet's weather has shaped our evolution as a species. We learned to adapt to annual cycles, which are simply due to our planet's tilted axis. Furthermore, we developed resilience to the unpredictability of weather, knowing that any given day could be cold or warm, sunny or cloudy, calm or windy. One could easily imagine a different planet with no yearly patterns and a much more predictable weather system. Would such a planet cultivate a different kind of intelligence? However, it's our specific mix of predictable annual cycles and unpredictable daily variations that gave rise to our species. We mark our lives in years and take pleasure in being surprised by the shifting weather. Our civilization was largely shaped by our struggles to control these predictable and random changes. Our houses and clothes are just protective measures against adverse weather.

Perhaps the most profound consequence of our astronomical circumstances is this: we can predict with certainty the future weather for the next few months, but anything beyond a week or so remains unclear. For example, we know for sure that Sacramento will be hot by May, but no one can accurately predict the weather two weeks from now. Weather forecasts have slightly altered this situation, but not drastically. Our brains are pattern-seeking machines, yet they are consistently exposed to instances of pure randomness. The very need for free will may stem from weather unpredictability: when things are uncertain, we need to make decisions, which invariably involve assessing risks. It makes me wonder if intelligent life could exist on a planet without weather.

Weather teaches us to be adaptable, to change plans, and to always have a backup plan "in the event of inclement weather". The term "inclement" literally means "unmerciful". The unpredictability of atmospheric events planted a deep-seated belief in us that some divine force is behind a storm or a drought. However, it's more likely the other way around – weather has taught us that we can be unpredictable and random. The concept of free will likely mirrors the weather. We aspire to mirror the unpredictability of the skies. In many respects, we are merely reflections of our planet, despite our foolish belief in our own autonomy.

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