The Greatest Paradox: Why Change is Possible but Why We Can’t Change on Purpose

Let me clarify the last essay, I think we can emerge from this trap of thought in time for the earth to heal. I do believe it, for what it’s worth. I’m not saying this as a spur to change, but as an observation of the nature of the problem itself. It’s not unresolvable.

We can change because the problem driving the world to the brink of collapse is a runaway imagination, thought that has no sense of itself as a creative fiction, which means we get fooled by all the red herrings that this imagination produces. Not just the usual evils such as status, power, money, but also suckered by all the well-intentioned solutions that are invented to counteract these evils.

However, we aren’t even coming close to realizing what this change demands from us. This is not the usual crisis we’re facing.

Every previous crisis in human history could be surmounted by applying our extraordinary capacity for imagination. This time we can’t.

Any species that develops this far in this direction would face the same dilemma. It’s a dangerous new power and we haven’t learned to use it in proper measure.

These dangers weren’t obvious over the vast course of human history. Population pressures weren’t enough to incite the imagination into hyperdrive. But as these pressures grew, more complicated products of the imagination appeared, such as agriculture, cities, governments, writing, and on and on. Products of the imagination became increasingly complicated, causing new problems faster than the imagination could be used to solve them. [Note, I have somewhat changed my mind on the inevitability of this problem, see comment below and “Notes on Closed and Open Views of Evolution”].

Essentially we entered into a predator/prey developmental relationship with our own imagination, inventing new forms to solve the problems caused by unforeseen complications arising in previous forms. And this has led to a logarithmic increase in products of the imagination and in the kinds of problems we face.

So up to this point we could say that we’ve only faced problems that the imagination was capable of solving, albeit by kicking the can of ever more complicated problems farther down the road. We are keeping one step ahead of a shadow that keeps growing larger and more menacing.

But now that road has shortened to a dead end. There is no room to kick the can anymore.

In other words, we’re beginning to realize that this two edged sword of imaginative development has grown into such a large sword that it’s going to kill us on the next swing.

Some don’t realize the implications of this development yet. They either fail to see the double-edged quality of so-called progress, concentrating only on the promises and not the perils of every new development of the imagination; or they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that this is not a problem like previous problems. They can’t see that we’re engaged in a logarithmic growth in products of the imagination, and that this has become a momentum that imprisons us. Technology is a steroid in this development, but not the real problem. The problem isn’t merely that we work for machines now, and not vice versa. The underlying reason why we’re susceptible to this enslavement is because we were already trapped within the products of our imagination.

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Optimistic Despair: Why there Are No Real Problems in the World, and What to Do About It

“Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still”

“Ash Wednesday”, Eliot

There is no problem with the world. Only thought makes problems. Every single human problem is only the result of how we imagined things in a crazy way.

Life does have challenges, but every stubbornly knotted predicament, such as mass hunger, war, greed, selfishness itself (internecine competition), are responses to a problematic way of imagining things.

Dropping bombs is not a quality of the earth itself or of life itself, but only a quality of human imagination. War doesn’t exist until we imagine borders, identities, competitive economic systems, hierarchy and status. Mass starvation doesn’t exist until we imagine competition, ownership, and hierarchies that undermine sensible ways of distributing food, as well as monocultural, soil-depleting, destructive ways of growing food.

Even selfishness itself is only a radicalized response to the world, not a quality of the world or of humans by nature. As soon as we begin to imagine the world, and create stories to make sense of it, we have left behind a static vision of human nature and have entered the realm of an infinite plasticity. We can’t hide behind the excuse of nature. Nature is not causing our problems. The imagination is doing that.

Our needs are not problems either. I’ve heard people say that testosterone is a terrible chemical. But testosterone is not a problem. It’s the way this natural energy, this necessary desire, gets perverted into bizarre shapes by our vision of the world, our ways of thinking.

The need for shelter, love, food and sex doesn’t necessitate the problems of identity (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth). The infamous seven deadly sins derive directly from a staked identity (from taking our self concepts too seriously). These seven varieties of selfishness are only secondary qualities of the way we’ve fetishized those simple necessities through an overpowerful or too literal sense of identity. A fetish arises only because something has gone haywire in the way we imagine ourselves and our relation to the world.

But the earth itself, life itself, has no problems, only challenges. These challenges are presented to us open-endedly. How we respond to the conditions of life is up to us.

This is why it’s a waste of time and energy to try solving human political, social and technical problems one at a time. Problems are only getting more complicated because we’re empowering illusions by trying to solve them. It’s the imagination that has to be resolved (clarified). We have to unearth our own compulsion of making a fetish out of simple necessities, step out of the momentum driving us to imagine ourselves in such isolated and alienating forms, as if we were each individually the center of the universe.

By spending so much energy working to solve specific problems we spread the virus of fetishistic thinking, which merely grows the canopy of problems and never digs towards that root, which is in our confused relationship to the imagination.

Turning attention to thought is far more practical and leads to far quicker changes than attending to every problematic symptom of thought. The practical approach to life is sleepwalking into a maze of ever-growing problems.

Looking more honestly at our confused relationship to the imagination is the only chance.

But chance for what? For personal salvation? Hardly.

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