Will We Reach Herd Intelligence Before We Crash Our Civilization?

by James Wallace Harris, 4/19/21

  • Collapsed: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  • Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben
  • Seaspiracy – a documentary on Netflix

All indicators point to the collapse of civilization sometimes this century. Despite all the press about this perfect storm of self destruction, few people are willing to worry, and even fewer willing to do anything. Must the conclusion be that failure is our only option?

Most of humanity is either preoccupied with personal problems, or if they contemplate the future at all, assume our species will muddle through as it always has in the past. All the evidence suggests otherwise, that the biosphere cannot absorb the impacts of Homo sapiens without a significant destabilization of its system, which in turn will alter the course of civilization.

Civilizations have always come and gone, and so have species. Nothing lasts forever, not even the Earth or the Sun. It’s rather disheartening to consider what we could have become. We almost had the intelligence to create a global civilization that could have lasted thousands, if not millions of years. Theoretically, we still have a chance, but few people who think about such things give that chance much hope. It would have required everyone pulling together towards a common cause, and we’re just not that kind of species.

However, don’t worry, don’t get depressed or do anything irrational. No need to become a prepper assuming an Armageddon is just around every corner. The collapse of civilization will probably be so slow you might not even notice it. Humans are very adaptable to hard times and excellent at rationalizing things aren’t what they seem. Just take every day one day at a time and enjoy the passing parade of history.

As an individual who reads many books and watch many documentaries like the ones above, I keep thinking we should be doing something. But I realize there’s a problem with that assumption. First, we all need to be doing the same thing, and second, we should all stop what we’ve been doing our whole lives. Now is that going to happen? Is humanity a ship that can be steered or a bullet on a trajectory? It really comes down to the Serenity Prayer,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

It’s the last line that’s so hard to achieve. What can we change, and what can’t we change? Theoretically we could change everything in society if we could just change ourselves. Is it Pollyannaish to think we could, and fatalistic to think we can’t? I wonder if people have always believed in God just to redirect that burden of responsibility?

If you read the above books maybe you will also ask who is smart enough to understand and solve these problems? If we built giant AI minds that could think their way through these immense challenges, would we take their advice? Aren’t we too egotistical to listen? Or even if a God spoke directly to the world would we obey? I’m not sure that’s in our nature either.

Maybe the only path an individual can take and stay sane is learning to accept and endure. But that doesn’t seem to be the way either because too many people today are angry. Anger means still trying to control. If you watch the news pay attention to anger. Too many hate what’s happening to them. And it’s on both sides of the political spectrum. All the people who fight for freedom and all the people who want rules and regulations are motivated by anger. That’s what I dread about the collapse of civilization, living with all these angry people. And the only solution to that is find a place away from them, but that’s not really possible either, is it?

This is a strange book review. But I find it’s getting harder and harder to review books like these by talking about the issues they cover. I’m down to evaluating their emotional impact. The penultimate question is: Can we do anything? The answer is yes. The ultimate question is: Will we? I used to hope that was a yes too, but my faith is fading.


Are You Sure You Want to Reject Science?

by James Wallace Harris

Trigger Warning: Do Not Read While Flying

I assume we live in an objective reality understandable by the scientific method. There is a growing movement to reject science. Does that mean those people believe reality is explainable by something other than science? Or do science deniers assume reality is subjective and mutable by our thoughts, desires, and fears? What happens if science doesn’t explain an objective reality? What happens if we really do live in a reality where mind over matter rules?

I know science can produce inconvenient results, but do you really want to reject it? I can understand why the faithful rejects science, science invalidates their theories about life after death. I can also sympathize with business people who fear following scientific research means losing money. But still, do you really want to reject science? Hasn’t science created more wealth than faith?

What happens to our reality when everyone believes whatever they want?

First off, if you have doubts about science don’t get on an airplane. For hundreds of thousand of years Homo sapiens did not fly. Then we discovered science and took to the skies. If we were wrong about science, maybe flying really doesn’t work. If reality works by believing and we stop believing, what happens? If enough people stop believing in science will planes start falling from the skies?

Religion is based on faith. That means believing in believing is how things work. Do you really want to believe that? What if you’re lying in bed at night and imagine a monster is going to grab you and wad you into a bloody ball? Doesn’t rational thinking protect you from such dangers?

Whenever I’ve stood next to a jetliner I’ve marveled at its immense size and weight. It boggles my mind that science can explain how lift works, especially with something so massive. Yet, I put my faith in science even when it’s hard to believe. Science succeeds in so many millions of ways that I can’t believe it could be wrong even when I can’t understand.

What if the faithful are right, and it’s faith that makes things happen. If we lose faith in science, will that mean jets, televisions, computers, telephones, medicines, cars, and so on will stop working? Do you want to return to horses and plows? Do you want to bring back ghosts, demons, angels, pixies, devils, and all those other beings that science disproved? Do you want the world be be flat and just a few thousand years old?

What if mind over matter is true? What if technology works because we live in an age where Faith in Science works? Do you really want to stop believing in science and create a new age? I don’t believe it, but if you deny science, aren’t you believing that?

Back in the 1970s I got into a lot of New Age ideas. The foundation of those beliefs was mind over matter. Religions are based on the same principle. God created the world with the Word. If you take that to its logical conclusion, reality could be anything we imagined. That’s fine as long as you can maintain happy thoughts, but if your minds veers into darker ideas, it can get pretty damn scary. Think about the next time you’re 40,000 feet in the air. Don’t you actually prefer embracing cause and effect over the power of thoughts?

I decided way back then that I didn’t want to live in a reality ruled by mental power. I wanted reality to be objective rather than subjective. Of course, maybe I live in an objective reality because my mind subjectively built it that way, but I prefer not to even believe that. I want planes to fly because of the laws of nature, and not because of our shared beliefs.

Our species has a history of inventing explanations for reality. The only cognitive tool we’ve ever discovered that works in a consistent fashion is science. Magic, faith, religion, philosophy, gossip, conspiracy theories – all fail to produce consistent results – no matter how much we wish they could. Science has transformed our relationship with reality. Science isn’t easy to understand because reality is complex and thus hard to predict. Often the number of variables involve make it difficult for the statistical nature of science to be definite. But just look how we’ve improved weather prediction over the last several decades. Just consider how many diseases we’ve conquered. Just contemplate the marvels of technology. We can fly. Doesn’t the continual success of science validate it?

Just because science implies something you don’t want doesn’t mean disbelieving will alter the results. You don’t want to believe that – especially if you’re flying.

For those who believe in God, what if science is the way God works? In all religious texts, God or gods succeed because of magical abilities their believers can’t fathom. Faith is belief in the power of that magic. What if the belief in magic is wrong? What if reality isn’t ruled by magic, but science? People who reject science are people who believe in magical thinking.

The next time you’re flying in a jetliner, think about magical thinking. Does magic make it fly, or science.

But, like I said, decide before you get on the plane. Don’t think about it in flight – what if you decide wrong?


Can I Discipline Myself to Be More Disciplined?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 3, 2020

The older I get the more undisciplined I get, but it’s an age when I need to be the most disciplined in life. As anyone who is getting older knows, the body begins to fall apart and the mind unravels. One way to counter this natural tendency is to get disciplined. But there’s a Catch-22. There’s also a growing impulse with aging to not give a fuck.

It’s taken me years to give up junk food — well, mostly. But I’m not sure if it’s being disciplined. If I indulge my body finds various ways to beat me up. So I’ve learned to mostly not do the things that cause immediate suffering. However, I can’t seem to learn to do the things that will improve my health or allow me to do more. I feel like I’m in a never ending trench war — I can’t take any new territory, and for the moment, I’m barely holding what territory I’ve have. Aging means losing territory. Discipline determines how fast.

I know defeat is the ultimate outcome. Death will eventually be the light at the end of the damn tunnel. But until then I have a finite number of days and I’m positive if I was more disciplined I could get greater use out of those days. The trouble is, when you’re old you just want to relax and take it easy, to float downstream. To get more out of life has always required paddling upstream against the current. That requires discipline.

For example I want to lose weight. I’ve been fighting the Battles of the Bulge for decades. I should just give up. I know plenty of people who have. But I have health problems and I know if I can lose weight it will counteract those health issues to a degree, or help delay them getting worse. For the past two years I’ve been doing the 16:8 intermittent fasting. Years ago I lost 30 pounds by going vegan, but I just couldn’t maintain that diet. When I went back to just being vegetarian I started gaining my weight back. When I saw that happening I switched to the 16:8 intermittent fasting, and stopped gaining weight. But I had already gained back 25 pounds. 16:8 means I eat 8 hours during the day and fast 16. If I do it without eating junk food I’ll even lose about 1 pound a month. However, I usually can’t avoid completely junk food, so I don’t lose that pound.

I’ve recently started throwing in a whole fasting day, and I’ve fought my way back down the scales by 7-8 pounds in a couple months. That’s very encouraging. If I can maintain that discipline I might be able to fight my way back down to my previous low, and even lose more weight. That could help a lot. But to go that day (actually 40 hours) without eating takes so much effort. I’m writing this today to help me get through not eating until tomorrow. (By the way, fasting actually makes me feel better in many ways — except for the not eating part.)

I’m fighting several other battles that require greater discipline. I’ve had a dream of getting a science fiction story published almost my whole life. The odds of succeeding at my age are extremely tiny, but I haven’t let the dream die yet. I know what’s required to do the work. It’s the discipline to stick to writing. Writing fiction is hard. I can write blog essays all day long with no trouble, but then I’ve put in my ten thousand hours. I’ve only logged several hundred hours writing fiction, and I need to put in several thousand more to take off. That will require developing a routine like I have with intermittent fasting.

The last thing I’ll mention, because I don’t want this essay to go on forever, is the idea of disciplined learning. I’ve written before how I’m a news junky, but I realize that’s not getting me where I want to go. A steady diet of constantly changing news items is a wasteful way of using my time. I do learn stuff, and I’m better informed than when not reading the news, but it’s like eating potato chips, not very nutritious.

I’ve been developing a new theory about news and learning. Instead of trying to cover any topic that comes along, I should pick just the topics I want to get know better. For example, I’m reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, a well-written, carefully thought out book about a specific subject. What’s impressive about Oluo’s book is she set out to write something useful and worked to clearly define the problem of race. Her book made me realize I should focus on specific topics, such as Black Lives Matter, but go deeper than reading daily news reports.

I need to pick the newsworthy subjects I want to embrace and focus on them, while ignoring the firehose of all the rest. Logically, I know I neither have the time or energy to study many subjects. Since I realized that I’ve been paying attention to the news items I read each day. Most are quickly forgotten. Most are not worth my time on in the first place — they are like the evil calories of junk food. But disciplining my news intake is a lot like dieting — I need to give up junk news. That’s going to be hard. I have no practice at that, and I know from dieting that it takes a lot of failures before I can develop any discipline momentum.

It would be so much easier to kick back in my La-Z-Boy, eat oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from the deli at Sprouts, and watch old episodes of Gunsmoke. It’s pleasant, it’s enjoyable, it’s fun. But what does it get me beyond that? There are still things I want out of life, and to get them I must start paddling upstream against the current again.

[This is for my wife Susan, who I think needs to get back to paddling too.]


If I Had Free Will, I’d …

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 24, 2020

After watching the TV show Devs, I’ve been thinking about free will and determinism.

If I had free will, I’d:

  • Do what I decide to do
  • Keep my house clean and orderly
  • Eat only healthy food
  • Exercise just the right amount
  • Weigh sixty pounds less
  • Own only what sparked joy
  • Finish every writing idea
  • Complete my To-Do list daily
  • Open my mail and not let it pile up
  • Master a few hobbies
  • Remember all the important details
  • Be kind, generous, charitable, and helpful
  • Not waste time on useless fantasies
  • Be more active

I have to assume because I can’t achieve any of these goals that I lack free will. But is free will only about self-control? Did I choose to write this essay or did I write out of determinism? I think of having free will as being disciplined, but does that mean that people who are discipline have free will? What if being lazy and undiscipline is what I chose with my free will?

Other people think that free will as being able to choose between right and wrong. It seems much easier to not kill someone than it does to vacuum the house. It takes no effort not to lie, but a lot of effort to be creative. Maybe there are levels of free will, and I’ve got enough free will to not steal, but not enough to lose weight.

I once read that success in life was getting to be sixty-five without becoming a drunkard or living in a mental institution. I think James Mitchner said that. Maybe free will isn’t more than not giving up?


My wife Susan says I just don’t have any will power.


Lessons From Black Swans

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 18, 2020

We always learn something from black swan events, such as the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 financial collapse. First, we’re always shocked by changes that many predicted and see the obvious warnings in hindsight. With the current pandemic, we’re now realizing just how many books and movies imagined an event like this one, and we asked ourselves “Why weren’t we prepared?” There were those who warned us about terrorist attacks and economic bubbles but we didn’t listen to them either.

Basically, people are hopeful. Or at least, they need to turn a blind eye to fear of the future. After the black swan lands, we become so fearful of another similar landing that we become paranoid for decades. We’ve spent trillions on worrying about terrorism since 9/11, and whenever Wall Street got the sniffles we’ve freaked out worrying about another giant economic downturn. Singapore was better prepared for COVID-19 because it had already experienced a SARS outbreak. We do learn, it just takes a big kick in the head first. On the other hand, some groups like Boomers and the Faithful are still living in denial about the current black swan. And preppers are having a big “I told you so” moment.

It now looks like this pandemic will hurt more Americans than terrorisms and wars, and damage the economy far more than any shenanigans of big business. We hope the coronavirus will clear up in weeks, but it could change the country for decades, just like other black swans. Events like this pandemic will also identify the grasshoppers and ants in society. Aesop’s fable told us not to always party and put away for tomorrow. This plague is going to sicken more people financially than medically. Far from everyone heeded the advice to set aside six months of living expenses, but really, how many ever imagined they would be told to stay home for months? I expect the lessons learned from surviving this pandemic will affect how people live for decades to come. And that too could affect the long term economic outlook. And I bet getting vaccinated for everything offered will become a lot more popular.

You’d think we’d start learning how to handle black swans. We’ve known for a very long time that if some people eat bats in China or monkeys in Africa diseases that previously only existed in animal reservoirs would jump the dam to dwell in us. We’ve had decades of experience containing these pathogen breakouts, knocking them back, and knowing if we failed the disease would become part of our regular lives. Every year cold and flu viruses flare up and travel around the world because so viruses are entrenched in us. If we don’t contain the coronavirus it could house itself permanently in Homo sapiens and either become an annual flareup or a chronic problem like TB. We don’t know enough yet, to say which.

For the year 2017, the CDC said these were the leading causes of deaths in the U.S.:

  • Heart disease: 647,457
  • Cancer: 599,108
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 169,936
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 160,201
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 146,383
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 121,404
  • Diabetes: 83,564
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 55,672
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,633
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 47,173

If the coronavirus isn’t contained, and it looks like it won’t be, it could become another regular item on this list. The $64,000 question is where it will rank. Until we develop herd immunity and the experience of many years of living with mutated versions of the SARS/coronavirus, we won’t know. Eventually, it might become no more deadly than the other annual influenzas. But if it is truly ten times more deadly than the flu, it will come in at #3 behind heart disease and cancer. To handle that will require a complete transformation of our medical system. My guess is coronaviruses won’t be that deadly once humans develop natural and vaccinated immunities, but it will rank above Influenza and Pneumonia, or it will expand that category greatly.

What we have to do now is learn how to avoid COVID-19 until a vaccine can be developed. That means avoiding people for the next one to two years. I’m not sure we’re prepared to do that. But it also means learning to live in a new way — a much more germ conscious way. Should we allow so much airline travel if it confers such potential danger? So many economies depend on tourism. China has already announced bans on eating wild animals, but can they make hundreds of millions of people give up a multi-billion dollar industry that people have relished for centuries?

Can we invent personal bunny suits that protect us from diseases? Ones that are reusable, machine washable, and even fashionable? Can we invent vaccines that anticipate new diseases? Do we really need to congregate by the thousands? Will we just accept a certain level of death in society for the activities we love? We embrace cars knowing that 1.25 million people are killed by them every year — so maybe we’ll embrace gathering in sports arenas for ball games and rock concerts and just accept the related fatalities. Who knows what we will decide.

At first, I thought we were overreacting to the coronavirus. Everything is shutting down in my city which has only two infected people. I worried that thousands of people will be crushed financially. But the more I read about how European hospitals are being overrun by pandemic patients, and what it’s like to need a respirator to survive, that I now worry that we’re not panicking enough. I also assume if political leaders are freaked out enough to do all the things they are doing, then it’s probably going to be much worse than I feared. Political leaders aren’t known for quick action.

The die has been cast. Our society has committed to sheltering in place. Some people are thinking it will be for three weeks, but I don’t see how that’s possible. If the disease disappears with summer, I can see us getting a reprieve until next winter, but that means we need to hunker down for three months. Then we can run around for four months before taking shelter again. The goal is to wait it out until a vaccine is tested and distributed. Can we shelter in place for that long?

What if vaccines aren’t ready until Fall 2021? It means we have to learn a new way to live. How do we do our food shopping? How do people work and get paid? How do you go to the dentist or get your car repaired in the middle of a pandemic? If you need non-critical cataract or prostate surgery do you still go? It’s not going to be as bad as living through the Blitz in London or surviving Stalingrad, but it might be as challenging and inconvenient as living in America during WWII.

That’s the shocking thing about black swans — normalcy is suddenly disrupted — but we adapt. At least the people in history have. I’m already skilled at staying home for days at a time, so I don’t see learning to do it for weeks or months being a problem. But I do know most people might go crazy with cabin fever. And I worry about all my single friends. Sheltering at home for long periods by yourself might be deeply psychologically damaging. Many of my single friends also sneer at Facebook, but it might be a great social outlet during the plague months.

I’m lucky Susan moved back home last year after working a decade out of town. I’m also lucky that I have a wide-ranging set of internet friendships to keep me socially active. And I’m further lucky in that I have a long list of things I’ve been meaning to do. I generally ignore my to-do lists in favor of socializing, so maybe I’ll actually get some of the things done from those lists.

The most fascinating thing is we don’t know how this will change us. It’s another black swan about to land.