What We Lost (or How We Got Stuck): Part II of a Series of Essays Inspired by the Book, “The Dawn of Everything”

evolution cartoon

[Link to Part I, but you don’t need to read part I to understand this]

If I can look at my own history as a narrative with highs and lows, with periods of clarity and periods of confusion and frustration, then this also probably describes human history as well. Of course, this would contradict the typical historical narrative, which envisions nothing much happening in human development for almost all of our 200 or 300 thousand years, until the last few thousand years, when everything began to improve and become suddenly creative and “advanced”, thanks mostly to technology. This narrative ends up forcing us to look at earlier or less-technologically obsessed cultures as more primitive, and sometimes less intelligent or creative than we are now, as if our history was an escalator climb, and we’re standing quite a few floors above them now.

This picture of the past is a little too pat and conceited. It reminds me of the stages of human development envisioned by Ken Wilber and others (see “The Limits of Ken Wilber”). There’s insight in these stage development models, but the details seem to reflect patterns of development within a regressive culture. And this regression may tend to stretch individual development along lines of partial maturation. Slicing and dicing these stages of delay in our maturation is insightful, but when we begin to project these developmental patterns onto older cultures, I think we’re only repeating patterns of colonial conceit.

My inclination is to assume three fundamental stages of development, depicted in that old Zen saying – “first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” I understand this to mean, first we see the world without the lens of language, a pre-linguistic directness. Then language begins to form an interpretive gauze over the mental eye, which is insightful, practical, and necessary for functioning in the world. But the gauze also begins to obscure the “mountain”. It’s the elongation of this second stage that most of these stage development models are elaborating upon (insightfully, this is not a criticism, but a different angle to consider). Near the conclusion of this stage, post-modern insights such as “everything is language” or “there is no ‘thing’, only ‘thought’” erupt. Here, reality itself begins to seem doubtful. A kind of derealization crisis takes place. They can see that there is no mountain without the idea of a “mountain”. But the eruption of a third stage, which is actually not so much a stage, as a gateway into a larger form of life, erupts when the post-modern insight is completed, and the insight that “everything is a story” no longer stops us from seeing the mountain again. Now we’re no longer blinkered by our necessary interpretations. We can cease interpreting the world from the outside (when interpretations are not needed), and no longer relate to the mountain like an alien visitor. Now we “know” the mountain, not merely as a practical idea (all the time), but as an unnamable portion of eternity, a portion of our own fathomless Being.Read More »

Life, Death and Extinction: Part I of a Series of Essays Inspired by the Book, “The Dawn of Everything”

butterfly

I can’t understand the relationship (if any) between progress, growth and evolution. They’re entangled, but not equivalent.

The importance of this question will become clear – it’s not an academic issue, but a matter of life, death and extinction.

Let’s just play with this a moment.

(By the way, I refuse to “get to the point”. That’s because everything we “know” only describes a particular spectrum or color or frequency of the issue. We discover as many meaningful angles as possible by spinning the prism of perception around the issue (and around and around). This form of learning doesn’t tend towards conclusion (or points), but is constantly shifting its orientation as we learn, without end. I do this in honor of the Iroquois, on whose land I live. Talking around a subject until there is consensus by communion, not by force).

If pressed, most historians would probably agree that evolution is not equivalent to progress, improvement, advancement or any other comparative terms in any conclusive sense. We might say that a new species is better adapted to a particular niche, but outside that niche the species would no longer qualify as more advanced.

As the environmental situation shifts, the skills and intelligence we need also shift, forcing us to lose capacities in one direction while developing them in another. So every new skill reaches a point of diminishing returns. Every medicine becomes a poison.

This balanced lateral movement of development and decline is part of evolution. So evolution can’t be conflated with improvement or progress alone. Something needs to die in order for something new to emerge (See “Giving Up and Going On”). This is why we resist change, the half-felt realization that one way or another, if we change, we’ll stop being who we thought we were. Of course, we could also project our identity into the new form of humanity that might emerge and come away feeling optimistic. But the projection of personal identity may be the very quality that the new species drops in order to enter into a wider relationship with the world. So who we think we are ends here one way or another.

When notions of evolution tie themselves too closely to notions of continual advancement we forget to watch for signs of death and decline. Evolution isn’t impressed by big brains, if those brains aren’t capable of changing direction (which requires death). So let’s distinguish extinction from death. There is no evolution without death. For those who change, the old form dies. But extinction is when the old form is entirely eliminated, and no new form crawls out of the tarpit in its place. Extinction is the absence of life and death.Read More »

A Hidden Optimism: Going On from the Last Essay

From Funny Times

In the last essay I seemed to compare people to primordial mud. Of course, I wrote it as a comedy, which is to say, the entire essay is excessively optimistic about people, and is only making a generously indulged joke on behalf of a gifted species at the verge of developing into a new form of life and intelligence. But if people approach it pessimistically (I don’t see how they can, given the parameters of my essays in general), then it would be received as ridicule. But I was writing this in resonance with Beckett’s approach. He also tempts people to read him pessimistically. But everything he wrote was a double-entendre. A different kind of humor is revealed when you discover his hidden optimism.

These essays presume several optimistic things (and I don’t expect agreement and I’m not looking for debate, only the willingness to entertain the angle of vision as long as it lasts):

1) that human beings are troubled, but gifted animals; and

2) That human beings are at the verge of realizing a new form of intelligence, a new way of being.

Hence, the metaphor of a primordial awakening.

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Problem and Resolution: Why Optimism Is Not Necessarily Personal

bird cage

Anything and everything, depending on how one sees it, is a marvel or a hindrance, an all or a nothing, a path or a problem (Fernando Pessoa)

Why are problems sometimes interesting and sometimes frustrating?

I think if we’re too focused on obtaining a solution, a way past the problem, then the persistence of the problem can lead to despair and frustration. But if the problem itself is interesting, if its persistence is seen as the unfoldment of a mystery, then the problem is something we’re enjoying and we’re not merely trying to get rid of the problem.

When it comes to the “problem of Literalism” — which is the problem of thought, of being confused by our projections, as humanity has tended to be — the “solution” to the problem of Literalism is so rare that it either gets dismissed outright as an impossibility, or it tends to get labeled as “enlightenment” or “grace” or some other pedestaled conjecture, which are various forms of escape from the problem itself.

Most reasonable people will try to avoid tackling a problem that almost nobody in history has resolved, such as Literalism. From this personal angle, their hope of resolution is squashed immediately by realizing that almost nobody has ever solved this problem of thought, so why should they? Who are they to imagine that the solution is within reach? To avoid embarrassing delusions of grandeur and inevitable failure a seemingly humbler response would be to ignore the problem.

But this reaction is premised on the desire to get past the problem, rather than enjoy the problem.

But reasonable people don’t enjoy the problem. If they can’t get past it, they don’t want to consider it.

The problem is, we can’t enjoy a problem if we don’t recognize a possibility of resolution. But if we focus too much on resolving a problem, then we’re trying to get past the problem too ambitiously, which means we don’t enjoy the problem, which means the problem never resolves!

So most reasonable people get stuck between these two poles, hoisted on a double-bind that not only blocks any further interest but also wears them out.Read More »

The Immaterial Origins of Life and Intelligence: an imaginary interview

 

Is the Self an illusion?

On one level I’d say no, because the Self is merely the means by which the body refers to itself. So the Self isn’t delusional from that perspective, because the word and image are grounded in a real referent (the body). However, this projection of a bodily image quickly morphs into a sense of Self that controls the body, or is trapped within the body, as if it were a spirit or separate entity. This is where the illusion starts.

The brain tends to be imagined as a seat of consciousness (also semi-independent from the rest of the body) – wobbling up there like a big, fat turkey on a telephone pole. But this image of a body/brain dichotomy easily morphs into a projection of an even more independent-seeming “mind” drifting above the body like a balloon on a long string. And this “mind” tends to become a synonym for the Self, which sits at its desk behind the eyes and acts like a CEO of the in-corporation, or an overlord of sorts. The varieties of imagery are endless. And even among atheists, this Self tends to take on the qualities of a “soul” as well, a lively essence possessing or inhabiting the body.

But these are not minds, Selves or souls, but merely images — masks that have lured this bodily intelligence into dreams of an autonomous existence over and above the comparatively material level of biology. They are deceptive illusions of minds and souls, illusions of identity.
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The Stupidity of Greatness and the Absurdity of Conflict

Intro

Does this curve depict an abrupt change?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is picture-1.png

I think this is an unexpectedly meaningful question. It pertains to why human beings tend to differ so violently in our interpretations of reality; whether or not we can come to understand two divergent visions (of anything, even this simple arrow) simultaneously without conflict; or whether we’re forced to take sides and stick to our positions until one of us submits (i.e., plots revenge).

Even the resolution of this simple question depends on finding a view wider than the widest view of the question – not merely a wider interpretation, but an awareness that encompasses the limits (and therefore valid extent) of every interpretation that is encountered. (It’s always a little startling how this “negative awareness of limits” is precisely what adds clarity to an interpretation. Until I know the limits of something I don’t know it’s real shape and function. Two sides of the same coin).

(Whether the arrow describes something abrupt or gradual looks meaningless, I grant you. But I think it matters because climate catastrophe and political rebellions, are all nudging this civilization to an abrupt end, or at least to abrupt changes in direction. But we tend towards despair when we see the magnitude of change that’s necessary, which is why the gradual interpretation of change is still more popular, which means we’re not alert to the more optimistic possibility of rapidly shifting our whole approach to life. I suspect, in other words, that we get comfortable with an illusion of gentle progression, which shuts down the possibility of seeing a new potential for learning and changing astonishingly fast. So that’s probably why this feels like a necessary question, a way of waking myself up from this sleepwalk to extinction).Read More »

Preface to the Essay “The Stupidity of Greatness and the Absurdity of Conflict”

I’m tempted to apologize for the difficulty of the next essay. There are too many links between seemingly unrelated and perhaps even initially uninteresting or irrelevant ideas. For instance, there are links between the potential for abrupt psychological shifts, self-generated extinction, relativity and evolution. I don’t operate by rationally trying to link these disparate issues. An amorphous lump of loose ends (a chaos hiding an implicit order) involving these various issues grows into an uncomfortable tumor of churning thought. And it’s only when I sit down to write (or contrariwise, if I stumble into an alert and wordless frame of mind) that this amorphous conglomerate of disjointed issues begins to unravel and sort itself out into a more orderly arrangement.

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A Non-Dogmatic Structure of Thinking

The Buddha Gate

 

I wanted to write because I needed to bring some order to the swirling fog of my own experience. Not a belief system that pins thought down too tightly, but a lattice of sorts it can safely grow, so it knows its place and doesn’t keep sprawling chaotically like Kudzu over every aspect of life, drowning out the world in this relentless voice, which is perpetual self-deception.

It’s not easy to look for the source of this restlessness. It’s easier to find a job or some other way of occupying our thoughts at a safe level of magnification. It’s easier to focus on the practical necessities of navigating this crazy highway of life, a perpetual state of semi-emergency that becomes routine, but a tenuous routine that can’t afford to be interrupted by larger questions about the underlying infrastructure of belief we’re riding upon. Accept the crazy beliefs, the nationalism, the war-state, the cut-throat economic system, the values and goals this emergency approach to life forces on us — accept all that at face value and call our subjugation to this mad system of thought “a practical approach.”

(By the way, some people like to say that they’re not philosophers. Still, we’re all running on vast infrastructures of metaphysics unconsciously, in the same way that anyone driving on an interstate is unconsciously following the infrastructure of road-building ideas. We may not consciously reflect on why we’re heading in this or that direction, but our lives are following patterns of an infrastructure of belief nevertheless. So we may not be capable of understanding the descriptions of these philosophies, but they’re still under-girding the way we live).

The restlessness is the same for me, but the practical approach wasn’t helpful. And leaving behind the highway metaphor, the practical approach constructs a solid floor to everyday life, and all the restless energy of a constantly swirling brain gets kept in the crawlspace. Then it becomes a taboo or “simply uninteresting and pointless” to look beneath the floorboards at one’s own churning mind. And this is a clever tactic if all you want from life is the kind of happiness that remains circumscribed by a repressed turmoil. And what goes missing in life isn’t missed, because nobody misses what they don’t notice.

But still they compensate themselves for everything that gets left out by making an art out of the minutiae of life, appreciating the “little things” as you would admire a knick-knack shelf, but always remembering that what’s important are the practical necessities of maintaining this bubble of unconscious repression wherein happiness can reign. In fact, the rule is, don’t indulge in any larger questions, which tend to pry open the floor boards and release all sorts of religious and political demons that ruin dinner parties. 

Now and then, of course, a few pressing questions and confusions nevertheless erupt from the floorboards and circle the brain in repetitive patterns all night like giant mosquitos. And until a distraction is found (a way to nail the boards down again), the person is forced to see themselves as powerless victims of these escaped thoughts. And this reinforces the conviction that our own turmoil is something external to us, a fact of nature that can’t change. That’s one of the strongest nails keeping the flooring in place: we’re helpless victims of our own brains, so ignore the brain and just focus on this nice little space we’ve created.

If any readers have made it this far then they also probably can’t ignore the racket from beneath the flooring any more than I can. The pursuit of happiness begins to feel like a shallow sitcom, devoid of all real adventure and danger. 

So you and I (the nervous ones essentially) couldn’t follow their lead and rest comfortably while the floor kept popping and creaking all day. Every belief that was designed to nail down those loose boards — whether it was religious or patriotic or careerist beliefs —  included the same taboo against questioning the framing, which made them feel deceptive.Read More »

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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A New World Is Only a New Mind

I’m picturing a mostly unconscious human being – a mind occupied all day by video games, food, sex, drink, and sleep. Or I could picture a corporate executive who has utterly surrendered to the sociopathic profit motive, perhaps somebody at Shell who has helped to bury the science on climate change. Or even myself more often than I care to admit – my thoughts like mice constantly scurrying to the higher end of a perpetually sinking ship.

But it’s all the same state of mind in one fundamental way at least – a mind perpetually busy trying to outrun itself, trying not to notice the unfathomed compulsion that keeps it busy. In this state of mind (if there aren’t sufficient distractions available) the tendency is to feel subjected to thought, tossed and turned by thought. To avoid the sensation of drowning in this tumult, an inner director, a thinker in charge, a focus of Self, is created, which seems to be a retroactive gloss that thought itself compulsively places over its own shenanigans to retain an illusion of order and control. But in this state of mind there is only a running script (though ad libbed) in which this fantasy of a director (a Me playing the starring role) ends up organizing what is still only a compulsive escape from its own unfathomed turmoil.

I need to emphasize this distinction between people and the habits of thought that hold them captive, otherwise I fall into the common misconception that people who think and do ugly, evil things are inherently (in their blood and bones) ugly and evil, and not merely ill with thought. If I blame the person — even my own starring Self — too much (and I often do) I become susceptible to the illness itself, willing to injure that person just to stop the ridiculous ideas driving them (or me). Then the distinction between these dimensions of life (between the actual human being and the thoughts driving them, between territory and map) is lost, and then I’m driven by the unfathomed compulsions of thought, and capable of ugly, evil things.

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