Tuesday, April 25, 2017

All may yet be well...

I didn't pay much attention to the news while we were in the islands, and have been slow getting back into the habit since returning to the States. What news I do follow tends to do with advances in technology, cognitive science, and space exploration, which is how I ran across last week's “March for Science” protests. One picture I saw was of a protester carrying a sign that read, “I can't believe I am marching for facts.” That seemed kind of funny at first, but the more I thought of it the more it seemed to sum up the current dilemma / failure facing the US.

There is a portion of the population who looks upon current affairs with a dismay bordering on horror (hence the protests). But a larger portion appears to have little regard for facts, and therefore no regard for knowledge, understanding, truth, or wisdom. Many people are openly hostile to any facts that challenge their greed, ego, and grasp of power. Most of the nation's, and world's political, corporate, and religious leaders appear to be members of that group.

Perhaps is has always been so. We, as a species, have a need to be ruled, to be told what to think, how to act, and what to do. It is a characteristic bred from of our evolutionary path from tribal apes to modern humans. Born helpless and hapless, we are a species physically bred in dependency and submission. Virtually all of our social constructs are steeped in this deep seated, authoritarian history. Religious people accept the authority of their religion's prophets and holy writings, and no fact that might undermine that authority structure is readily accepted. It took the Pope more than 350 years to admit that Galileo was correct. There are Christians still today who reject evolution. Many of those who admit that evolution is how biology works, still insist that human kind is a special creation and the focus of attention for the entire universe. Followers of more secular ideologies are no less reluctant to accept inconvenient facts if they challenge the claim to having the right to rule. Tax cuts have never paid for themselves or led to job growth, communism has never been a viable economic model, regardless of the ideologies of right and left.

It gets even more muddled since people tend to mash incompatible ideologies together in odd ways, so long as the outcome supports the claim to power. In the US there are those who embrace both the authoritarianism of Donald Trump and that of Christianity as being one and the same thing. Others cling to the authority of their god while rejecting Donald Trump for his racism, misogyny, and love of violence. Some loath the economic ideology of “socialism” while crying for a bigger and more aggressive military, smooth roads, stout bridges, clean water, and a quality education. Others loath the economic ideology of consumer capitalism while insisting that they, personally, should be allowed to burn through all the resources they can afford.

This cognitive dissonance, this fundamental tendency to dismiss facts out of hand if we don't happen to care for the implications that come with them, has not mattered that much for most of our history. The cosmos is such a mystery that no human being has ever had much of a grasp of the facts of our existence. For all of our discoveries, we don't really understand how it is that we understand anything at all. A not-so-close approximation of what might really be happening may be the best that the evolution of  approximately 3 pounds worth of biologically supported quantum interactions will ever manage.

Be that as it may, our species has evolved to the point where we have overwhelmed the planet. Any individual or tribe that did manage to get themselves too unattached to the facts and understanding that formed the physical basis of their lives got themselves killed off rather quickly. Build a city at the base of a volcano, cut down all the trees on an isolated island, eat all of the mastodons... poof, gone. But no matter, there were other individuals and other tribes around to carry on. The children of those survivors, us, are now members of a deeply intertwined and co-dependent global society.

Thus evolution has brought human society to a cross roads, a turning point, a place in history from which there is no retreat and, perhaps, no way into the future. That sounds horrible but is likely a fundamental characteristic of evolution itself. For, in the space of just a few tens of thousands of years, we now stand at a place where facts, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, form the only doorway into the future. Oddly enough, much of human religion teaches a similar theme of a dividing line, a break point, where heaven is one choice, and hell the other.  Unfortunately much of religion also implies that it is an individual choice, that I can chose one while you chose the other. Maybe that works in an afterlife. But in this life it appears to be, almost, an all or nothing deal. History has unfolded to the point where everyone gets on board in the pursuit of wisdom, or no one survives. (More on that in a minute.)

But, perhaps, that ultimate fate has not yet arrived. We, as a global society, can begin to question our own authoritarian instincts, can couple what we have learned of the cosmos with our imagination, and look at ourselves from a different perspective. “Authority” can be shaped as cooperation and community. More importantly (and imperatively) ideology can be dismissed, replaced by knowledge gathered in the pursuit of wisdom.

We can, for example, replace our ideology of war. Right now many political and religious ideologies insists that war is inevitable and, even worse, winnable. But if we ignore the ideology and look, instead, to understanding and wisdom, it may prove that it is neither. Wars are, first and foremost, a failure; an exercise of the very worst of what evolution has bequeathed us, a twisted expression of the instinct to survive. Uncounted millions have died to defend religious ideologies that have long since faded and empires that have long since crumbled into dust. Today thousands are killed, maimed, and rendered homeless in orgies of destruction that have no goal and no purpose. Violence piled upon violence by shear force of habit.

An honest reflection will also, and easily, lead to the conclusion that any of these “local” wars could well erupt into an all out war between major nuclear armed nations.  Such would likely lead to the end of modern civilization. It is an important bit of wisdom that appears to be beyond the grasp of some, including five in particular; Trump, Putin, Assad, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un. Five people fanning the flames of war for their own ego, their lust for power. Five people whose failure to look to wisdom and understanding could portend the deaths of billions.

Evolution has, indeed, brought us to the very edge, where the seeking of wisdom by every individual is the dividing line between having a future or being forgotten.

Photo courtesy of Amber Rennier Photography
That just five deluded men in a world of billions could bring down the curtain on human history would seem rather grim odds but, then again, it hasn't happened yet. Maybe, having survived since August 6, 1945, human kind has learned how to live with its nuclear arsenal locked and loaded. Maybe environmental degradation and resource depletion will be evolution's way of breeding a desire for wisdom into us. They are longer term disasters that will unfold at a much slower pace than the 30 minute flight of a ballistic missile and a flash of nuclear fire. Slow enough, perhaps, for knowledge and wisdom to prevail. For, though evolution of the cosmos has brought us to the cross roads of cherishing wisdom or being cast aside, it may be that we can linger here for a few more lifetimes, a few more generations. Long enough, maybe, that our kids or grand kids get to be the ones who make the call.

In which case all may yet be well.


Keith Wolfe said...

I disagree with many of your ideas, however, I will say your post was well written and much better than most. I think that because each of those 5 men has family we as a human race will continue to stumble forward for quite some time more. Even Kim Jung-un has family he hasn't yet killed.

Children and grand-children are the great humblers of proud men and a common denominator of us all. They often give us the wisdom to temper our pride and need for vengeance.

Yet... scary times indeed.

TJ said...

Keith, for me it is more sad than scary. (Kim Jung-u n has some family that he hasn't killed...yet.) The world isn't likely to end for a few millions of years at least, so human kind still has a chance of evolving, or growing if you prefer, into a species with an amazing future. And, of course, each of us has the individual chance to live in a way that touches those around us in a good way. A personal oppotunity to contribute to that evolution, or growth. I think it a given that in just a few (2 - 10) generations the total human population will be some fraction of what it is now. That fraction will be either be the foundation for a new and better future or the last remnants of a lost opportunity for wisdom and compassion to spread through this little corner of the cosmos. Either way I suspect we weren't the first such opportunity, as I hope / suspect the universe is home to beings so much further down the evolutionary path of wisdom and compassion than we are that we would be hard pressed to look them square in the eye. Nor will we be the last. In any case it seems clear to me that any species that blends intelligence, tool building, and advanced technology will either nurture wisdom and compassion into its defining characteristics or kill itself off. We are balanced on the knife's edge at the moment.

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Tod Germanica said...

It seems people forget how bad war is every few generations. I was surprised how little notice the 100th anniversary of WWI, the original world bloodbath, gathered. Our soldier worship in the USA is like 1913 in Europe and could lead to worse results, with 21st century weapons being more lethal than mustard gas or howitzers. I'm cheered that the surviving 'left' (fka the center) is fighting back but we (non-trump cultists) are still losing as far as I can tell, and trump could lose us western civilization by pushing the 'launch' button instead of the 'coke butler' button.