Emotional Reactions to Pandemic Times

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 27, 2020

Psychically, our nation, our world, has made an abrupt U-turn. The stock market was soaring, unemployment was at an all-time low, and everyone was running around the planet doing everything they dreamed. We thought we had a handle on the future. Then BAM! Now we’re all huddled in our homes fearing the grim reaper and hoarding ass-wipes. (Of course, this ignores all the other forms of endless suffering so many humans were already combatting.)

We all want to get back to those tomorrows we were planning just a few weeks ago. I imagine the emotional reactions to the pandemic vary greatly, especially by age. I am 68, going to turn 69 this year, and I was already feeling oddly emotional about getting close to my seventies. The growing aches and pains of aging, as well as the deterioration of my various organs and digestive system, was already leading me into gloomy thoughts about the future. Running out of time has become more and more inspirational, but when the plague hit, that emotion went into hyperdrive.

We are experiencing something very new and different. It’s not that humans haven’t been on the brink before, or that we don’t think about it often, but we’re getting to feel it for ourselves in a very intimate way. Last night I watched the first episode of The War of the Worlds on Epix, where billions of humans are wiped out by invading aliens. I’ve read books and seen shows about apocalyptic events countless times in my life, but watching this one last night felt more realistic than ever before. The worse this pandemic gets the harder it will be to vicariously enjoy fictional apocalypses in years to come. The Great Depression and WWII inspired a lot of fluffy fun films in the 1930s and 1940s.

We still don’t know what this plague will bring. It could be over in weeks, months, or years. We don’t know how many lives it will terminate, how it will change the economy, or how it will alter our future daily outlooks. Essentially, it’s fucking with our sense of the future. What I love, and I imagine most of my fellow humans do too, is normalcy. We want orderly lives that we can control and predict. Remember, “May you live in interesting times” is a curse. Sure, there is a percentage of the population that are thrill-seekers, but most of us are not.

I was already stressed out for political reasons. The plague has both trumped Trump and swept away the 2020 election. I realize if I had the psychic energy I would ignore both and get on with my plans. I can pursue all my old ambitions at home while sheltering in place. But the dark clouds of rapidly shifting futures disrupt my thoughts. I assume they do you too.

If I was Yoda I suppose I could separate thinking from my emotions, but I’m not. The fear of being put on a ventilator keeps me from mentally seeing straight. And the fear of Donald Trump being elected a second term still eats away at my sense of wellbeing. If I had Zen Master mind-control I’d phase out these psychic ripples caused Covid-19 and Trump and get on with business. Unlike Trump, I don’t think we should all plan to go out by Easter. On the other hand, until the virus grabs me, I don’t think I should sit around and wait for it either.

The reality is I’ve already got other age-related health problems. Worries about the pandemic just exacerbate them. My health is easily disturbed by disruptions in my diet, exercise, sleep, and thinking. That wasn’t true, or not apparently so when I was younger. All of this leads to the realization that controlling my emotional reactions to the daily news is vital to my health. At 68, staying positive is critical. Fearing the future is just as dangerous as actual viruses. What we want is to act on the now to bring about desired futures, rather than wait in the now for scary futures.

When I was young I used to tell people I never worried about getting old because I didn’t fear wrinkles and going bald. I thought being old was all on the outside. I never imagined the psychic components of aging. What getting old is teaching me is the breakdown of consciousness is scarier than the breakdown of the body. Of course, they go hand-in-hand, but ultimately we need to fight for mind over matter.

What the plague is teaching me is how positive emotions are tied to our planning. And experiencing a plague later in life combines two very similar storms of emotions. I used to think I was like Mr. Spock, all intellect and no emotion. That delusion was possible when I was young, healthy, and society was stable. But looking back, I realize society was seldom stable.

I have a hard time imagining how the young are reacting to the pandemic mentally and emotionally. Do their youth overpower their fears, or do their fears undermine their youth? I am too distant from them psychically to empathize. I assume it’s quite a trip being laid on them.

I live in the American South and all the reports tell us we’re next in line for major pandemic growth. Ignoring that is hard. The older I get the more I envy robots. Being a conscious mind on top of a soup of chemical and biological reactions is a razor’s edge of a tightrope to walk. The idea of just having discrete circuits and powerful fast emotion-free thinking is so damn appealing.

The reality is I’m not a robot, nor am I Yoda, and I’m definitely not a Zen Master, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it so. I also feel sorry for all the people who have faith in prayer or Donald Trump’s reality avoidance systems. Our emotions have a hard time when hard reality canes us viciously about the head and shoulders.

JWH

 

 

 

Our Cognitive Toolbox for Working with Reality

by James Wallace Harris,

All too often we think we know but we don’t. Why do so many people argue with 100% certainty against others who feel equally convinced? Often wisdom tells us the more we know the more we don’t know. Does that mean the person who claims to know nothing knows the most? Why is this reality so hard to understand? Even eyewitnesses are often fooled. And why is it so important to know thyself?

Reality is complex, but is it unknowable? Humans believe they are the crown of creation because all animals are ignorant of their own existence. Is our sentience really a quantum leap over all other life forms on this planet? If we compared ourselves to an amoeba, ant, or cat, we can see that awareness of reality has slowly gotten more complex and each of those animals perceives a larger portion of reality. Does that mean we see everything in reality, or are we just as blind to a much larger reality?

I believe we’ve evolved a number of cognitive tools to analyze reality, but it’s important to know the effectiveness of each.

First-Hand Experience. Common thought claims we have five senses for perceiving reality, but we actually have many more. People often believe seeing and hearing things for themselves is a primary source of knowledge. However, our senses can deceive us. For example, the lady cop who shot a man in Texas because she thought he was a burglar in her apartment when she was in his apartment. Just pay attention to how often eye witness accounts fail. Or better yet, recall all the times your senses have fooled you.

Instinct and Intuition. Our genes and unconscious mind direct us to act without thinking. Many people prefer to go by gut reaction than thinking it through. But how often does gut reaction tell us to kill or take what we want?

Language. By breaking reality down into pieces and giving each part a name goes a long way into gaining useful insight. But language is imprecise and the parts of reality are many. People who know the different names for trees have a greater understanding than the person who only knows the word tree. Language has evolved tremendously giving us one of our best tools. Pay attention to how words help you to perceive how reality works, and observe how people with lesser or better language skills fare compared to you.

Word of Mouth. We learn from other people’s observations. When we were hunters and gatherers hearing from scouts describe where animals could be hunted was vital. On the other hand, if a seafarer told you about mermaids you ended up believing in an unreal being. Word of mouth is very unreliable. Remember the Kindergarten game of Telephone? Word of Mouth evolved into journalism, and we know how reliable that can be. Word of Mouth has always had a fake news problem. Gossip, innuendo, slander are also descendants of word of mouth.

Counting and Measuring. Simple arithmetic became a tool that lets us invent, build, grow crops, trade, and develop an economy. Counting and measuring evolved into mathematics.

Mysticism. Mystics are people who claim to acquire knowledge from a higher source. They became shamans and seers who influenced other people. They also speculated about how reality worked, inventing higher beings. Even today many people still give credence to mystical insight. However, mystical insight has produced an infinite variety of conflicting information. We have to assume its all suspect. Mysticism tries to be the first-person experience of the divine.

Religion. Religion is codified mystical insight that is retaught as the truth. Religion allowed us to create very complex social structures. However, its truth is suspect. If there are a thousand gods, most followers are atheists to 999 of them. Religion succeeds in creating artificial realities that may or may not interface well with actual reality. Religion spreads best through word of mouth.

Laws. Laws are an external tool to encourage consistent thinking. Religious laws attempt to force mystical insights onto a population. Secular laws attempt to get people to work together.

History. If you study the Old Testament you’ll see it’s more about a history of a people than spiritual instruction. We have always tried to remember the past to explain how we got here. Early histories were no better than word of mouth stories that could be highly inaccurate. And each succeeding generation of historians alters the histories. A good example is the New Testament. Whoever Jesus was, and whatever he taught, has been constantly changed by each new writer of the New Testament. It appears the historical Jesus advocated communal living and sharing that today would be called communistic. The historical Jesus was concerned about creating heaven on Earth. It was later writers that gave him superpowers and turned him into God. Studying the history of Christianity is an excellent way to understand how history constantly mutates. History is a worthy way of understanding reality but it has to be tempered by comparing multiple histories.

Philosophy. Where religion taught that knowledge came from God or other spiritual authorities, philosophy teaches us we can figure things out for ourselves. Using rhetoric, logic, and mathematics men and women observe reality and deduce what’s going on. This was a great paradigm shift away from religion. However, like the game Mastermind, it leads to a lot of false assumptions. Elaborate castles of logic can build imposing concepts but that often turns out to be illusions of great knowledge. Philosophy is a major tool for understanding reality but it also has major faults.

Ethics. Ethics, like laws, attempt to come to a consensus on what’s right and wrong. Ethics is based on philosophy. Although in recent years, some ethicists have tried to look for a scientific foundation.

Science. Science combines mathematics, statistics, observation, testing, and philosophy into a systematic way to evaluate reality. Science assumes if tested observations and measurements prove consistent by scientists from any nation or culture then they might be true. Science never assumes it finds the absolute truth, but just the current best guess based on all the existing data. Science is statistical. Some science is so refined that it works incredibly well with reality. Space probes visiting distant worlds validate hundreds of years of scientific endeavors.

Scholarship. We have made education into a major portion of our life. We spend our entire lives trying to figure things out. We study, we think, we make assumptions. Like philosophy, scholarship often builds vast models of speculation. Scholarship tends to endorse results from competing trends. However, scholarly theories can be deceptive and even dangerous.

The problem is we use all these tools to explain our version of reality. Unfortunately, most are unreliable or clash with other people’s version of reality. Science has proven to be the most consistent at explaining reality, but science doesn’t cover everything. For example, right and wrong. These two concepts are ancient, probably coming out of mysticism or an instinctive desire for justice. Both religion and philosophy have tried to perfect them, but our reality is completely indifferent to morality or ethics. We have invented many concepts that just don’t exist in reality.

This causes problems. Several million people might believe with absolute certainty in a particular concept and then try to impose that view on millions of others who are just as certain such a concept is invalid.

We live in a polarize society because we all embrace different ancient beliefs, most of which we can’t explain how they came about. We just accept them as true. Most people believe in God because it was something they learned as a little kid. They won’t let the idea of God go no matter how much other cognitive tools disprove God’s existence.

Donald Trump seems to base most of his knowledge from first-hand experience and word of mouth information. Twitter is the perfect tool for word of mouth. Trump is neither religious, philosophical, or scientific. But this isn’t an uncommon way of dealing with reality. Few people are philosophical or scientific. Too many people only want to trust first-hand experience and instinct, but we know how unreliable those cognitive tools are. People who rely heavily on first-person experience and word of mouth tend to disbelieve science.

There have been various disciplines that try to teach self-programming that jettisons cognitive bullshit. Zen Buddhism is one. Meditation can be used to seek mystical insight or to observe the working of our own being.

The reason I wrote this essay was to help me think clearer. I’ve been reading books on Greek philosophy, and early Christian history. They are teaching me what people 2,000-2,500 years ago thought. I can see those ancient people struggled to make sense of reality without science. I can also see the same struggles today in people. We just don’t think clearly. We’re too influenced by low-level cognitive tools that deceive us. We base our existence on illusions created by those most primal cognitive tools.

I keep hoping the human race will get its act together and create a sane society that coexists with reality, and not on insane illusions and delusions. I realize until everyone becomes a master of their various cognitive tools, and learn the limits and limitations of each, we can’t start working on that sane society. We can’t start learning what’s real until we learn how to perceive what’s not real.

JWH

 

 

A Tale of Two Angels

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 25, 2019

This month I’ve watched two films about angels: The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Wings of Desire (1987). I happen to be an atheist who enjoys movies about angels. Angels are a weird conceptual race of beings that constantly mutates for our fictional needs. In the old days, angels were not human or ever human and existed on another celestial sphere with God. They were God’s messengers in the Old Testament. Humans keep making up stories about angels changing them each time. In the forty years between The Bishop’s Wife and Wings of Desire, what the angels represent are starkly different.

Cary Grant plays Dudley in 1947. Bruno Ganz plays Damiel in 1987. By the way, Bruno Ganz died this year, so it was sad seeing Wings of Desire again. I believe this is the fourth or fifth time seeing The Bishop’s Wife.

With last night’s viewing, I started questioning Dudley’s role in the story. In modern times we think of angels as guardians. Dudley appears to Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) in answer to his prayer for help. Henry is troubled because he wants to build a cathedral and his primary doner wants to pull the plug unless Henry makes the cathedral a monument to her dead husband. Henry believes he’s doing divine work by building an edifice to God’s magnificent and doesn’t want it tarnished by such egotism.

But Dudley doesn’t seem interested in the cathedral. He’s interested in Julia (Loretta Young), the Bishop’s Wife. Last night, I began to wonder just how honest Dudley is in this film. He claims angels are the reason why people do good, implying they work behind us like puppeteers. But he also deceives humans. He arranges for Henry to get stuck to a chair so he can take Julia out. He tells Debby, Henry and Julia little girl, she can throw snowballs when she can’t, he makes boys magically show up for choir practice when they’ve obviously chosen to be elsewhere, and in the end, destroys Henry’s plans for the cathedral. Everywhere Dudley goes in this film, he pulls angelic wool over people’s eyes. Yes, they become happier, but they are still being deceived.

In the end, Dudley goes away and erases all memory of his visit. What has he changed? Will the happiness he arranged for Julia, Debby, and the old Professor continue in their life. Will Henry devote more time to Julia even though he’s been given another big job? Will Sylvestor the cab driver have as much fun with Julia and Henry as he did with Julia and Dudley?

Most of The Bishop’s Wife is depended on the charm of Cary Grant. Every last woman in this picture glows when Cary Grant is in the scene. We assume they feel the presence of an angel, but it appears they are all fawning over a hot guy.

For my last two viewings of The Bishop’s Wife, I’ve wished that David Niven played Dudley and Cary Grant played Henry. The casting was too obvious. They should have reversed the roles and made Grant and Niven act against type. The charm of the angel shouldn’t have been confused with physical beauty.

The Bishop’s Wife is a charming film if you don’t think about it too much. Basically, Hollywood puts two outstandingly beautiful humans together for us to watch. They added some Christmas decorations and an angel but in a philosophically iffy way. It’s not like It’s A Wonderful Life, where an angel merely shows George Baily how much good he accomplished in his life. I’m not sure we’re shown any human doing good in The Bishop’s Wife. Julie wants a husband that pays attention to her, the Old Professor wants to write his book. Henry wants to build a cathedral. None of the humans want to sacrifice for others, and the story implies we need an angel to give us what we want.

In Wings of Desire, the angels are all around us humans. We can’t see or hear them, except sometimes young children can. The angels are immortal and have been on Earth forever. They merely watch. In a way, the angels witness reality, and maybe even give it meaning by their observations. The angels feel great empathy for us and listen to our thoughts. And when they detect a particularly troubled human put a hand on the human’s shoulder. This seems to bring a slight sense of comfort, but that’s all. The angels don’t work magic. They just care.

Damiel eventually falls in love with Marion, a lonely trapeze artist and decides to become mortal. Marion has friends but can’t connect with them. However, this love story comes at the end of a long film, so most of the movie is about listening to people’s inner thoughts. Watching the movie makes us like the angels, we watch and listen, in other words, we get to be angels too. Wings of Desire is a very slow philosophical film. The film doesn’t work unless you have the empathy to feel for the suffering of the human characters.

Wings of Desire is a much more spiritual film than The Bishop’s Wife. However, it’s much harder to watch. I love The Bishop’s Wife because of nostalgia, but as a spiritual message, it is lacking. It leaves me unconsciously wishing I was Cary Grant scoring with Loretta Young. It makes me wish there was magic to solve any bothersome problem that might come up in life. The Bishop’s Wife feel-good nature comes from making us want to live out a Hollywood fantasy. It’s now making me question the value of a guardian angel. We should be better people from an inner drive and not an outer influence. Magic is corrupting. But then, we don’t see the evil of magic.

JWH

 

Deception, Self-Deception, Confabulation, Bullshit, Narrative Fallacy, Dunning-Kruger Effect, and Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 23, 2019

I’ve been studying Plato. Plato is good for the soul but hard on the ego. Humans often lack the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Our superpower is self-deception. As children, we are told stories that we desperately cling to for the rest of our lives. We adapt to reality by making up explanations that usually end up being fictional. And when our stories clash with reality, the odds are we embrace the story. We aren’t rational. We are rationalizing creatures. We seek what we want by lying to ourselves and the people around us.

Anyone who follows the news knows this.

If a noise wakes us up in the middle of the night we don’t rush outside to investigate it. We start making up explanations trying to imagine what the noise could be. We tell ourselves its a burglar. Or if we’ve seen a raccoon lately, we’ll say to ourselves that Rocky is in the garbage can. Or its the wind, or a fallen tree limb. We can’t help ourselves. Instead of saying we don’t know we imagine that we do. Generally, we imagine wrong.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb called this tendency the narrative fallacy in his book The Black Swan. Neuroscientists call it confabulation. As children, we ask how the world was created and our parents tell us answers to the best of their abilities. How we are raised determines a lot of what we believe. If you were brought up a Southern Baptist more than likely their ideas about God are what you’ll believe for the rest of your life. However, if you were kidnapped at birth and given to a Muslim family in Saudi Arabia you’d grow up believing their local variation of the origin story.

Psychologists and philosophers talk about deception and self-deception. We like to think this problem belongs to other people. Our intuition tells us we’re right. We feel right. But are we?

We want to believe what we learn growing up is the truth. Few people are intellectual rebels that reject their upbringing. Not only will you maintain your beliefs, but you will also rationalize and lie to defend those beliefs.

A good percentage of humans learn to lie to get what they want. Conscious lying sometimes involves knowing the truth but working to suppress it. Liars are different from bullshitters. To a degree, liars are conscious of their lying. Bullshitters, as defined by Harry G. Frankfurt in his philosophical essay “On Bullshit” often don’t know they are lying, or even know what is true. Their grasp of reality is usually tenuous. They have told so many lies they don’t know what’s true anymore, but they have learned they can say anything to get what they want. Their concept of reality is so fluid that it changes from moment to moment.

The trouble is we bullshit ourselves all the time. We are especially dangerous to ourselves and others when we think we know more than we do. This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. People who suffer from this cognitive ailment are clueless about their own lack of knowledge. They firmly believe they are smart and wise.

We have so many built-in brain functions for fooling ourselves that I have to wonder if it’s even possible to know the truth if it came up and tapped us on the shoulder.

Most people dismiss philosophy as abstract useless wordplay. I just finished reading Plato in the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein and I’ve developed a new respect for Plato and philosophy. Goldstein came up with a very clever gimmick for presenting Plato’s philosophy. She imagines him alive today going on a book tour in America. She has his ancient words respond to our modern conundrums by fictionalizing Plato in different settings arguing with people of varying beliefs. I really recommend listening to this book on audio because these discussions are quite dramatic and effective. When Plato goes on a conservative talk radio show it’s hilarious. But I think my favorite encounter was between Plato and a neuroscientist who was going to scan his brain. The section where he’s on a panel with two opposing authors dealing with education was also quite brilliant.

However, the gist of Plato at the Googleplex is to question what we know and think we know. I’ve been lucky to be the kind of person that’s usually gone against the current, but I realized in later years my skepticism has not always protected me from bullshit. I’m acquiring new levels of doubt as I age realizing my own persistent gullibility.

For example, as a life-long science fiction fan, I’ve had high hopes for the future. I realize now that many of my cherished science-fictional beliefs are no better than what the faithful believe about God, Heaven, angels, and life-after-death.

And there is one cherished concept I have to reevaluate. I’ve always believed that humans would one day overcome their problems with confabulation. 2,400 years ago Plato concluded that only a small percentage of humans would ever be able to tell shit from Shinola.  He felt only a few could ever understand what philosophy teaches. I’ve always wanted to assume that we’re evolving, our knowledge is growing, and our abilities to educate are improving, so eventually, that percentage would be much greater.

That belief might be self-deception. But it might not.

We have to honestly ask ourselves can philosophy be integrated into the PreK-12 educational system so the majority of the population understands their problem with confabulation? This is to assume we can be totally different from who we are now as a species. Are we hardwired so we can’t change, or are we adaptable to change if we can find the right educational path?

This experiment would require raising a generation without fiction. That includes both God and Harry Potter. No Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. We’d have to stop lying to our children, or letting them play with lies and fiction. They’d have to grow up on nonfiction and documentaries instead of fiction, television, and movies.

Children’s entertainment would be limited to sports, games without a fictional narrative component, arts, crafts, and other hobbies. When kids ask why we can only give them answers that we know. For example, if they ask why everything is here we can only answer we don’t know. If they ask who made the world, we can only answer what we know from observable cosmology and geology.

It’s too late for me. I can’t give up fiction. I love it too much. I too addicted. I should be building my own robots and programming them instead of reading science fiction about robots. I wish I was, but it’s so much easier just to dwell in fictional worlds where intelligent robots exist, or we’re colonizing the solar system, or we’re creating utopias.

Fiction offers an infinity of virtual realities we prefer over actual reality. I believe our chronic confabulation is caused by wanting reality to be different from what it is. Buddhists call that desire. Eastern religions teach we should accept reality, whereas western philosophes promote shaping reality to our needs and wants. Western thought is active, it’s all about conquering reality. When we fail we lie to ourselves. Probably we suffer from such great confabulation because we seldom get what we want. It’s easier to have romantic fantasies or watch porn than date than to actually seek out our perfect match.

I think the path lies between the East and West. We shouldn’t be completely passive in our acceptance, but we shouldn’t want absolute control either. It would be interesting to know how people think a thousand years from now. Will they have a more honest relationship with reality? There could be a good science fiction story in that, but then it would be fiction. Maybe there’s another kind of acceptance too. Maybe we have to accept that we are amazing confabulating creatures. It will be a shame when such an imaginative species goes extinct.

And I’m not excusing myself from self-delusion either. My liberal friends and I believe Republicans are only out to reduce taxes and regulations at any cost. That they are either deluded about Trump, consciously lying to get what they want, or they are confabulated by his bullshit. Anyway, they ware willing to back Trump at any cost because Trump gets them what they want.

Like I said, I’m willing to consider this a liberal narrative fallacy. I believe its possible Republicans could be seeing a truth we liberals don’t. However, their stance on climate change suggests they are blind to science. I believe scientific consensus is as close as we ever get to the truth, and I could be wrong about that too. I also know that even though I accept what science says about climate change I don’t act on their conclusions. Oh, I do a token amount, what’s convenient for my consciousness. But if climate change is real, then none of us are doing what it takes to avoid it.

Looking in the mirror and seeing who we really are is hard. That’s what Plato was all about.

JWH

 

 

Maybe Common Assumptions Are Wrong

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 10, 2019

We make a lot of assumptions that we believe are true. That life will get better. That our children will have more than we did. That every kid should go to college and achieve all their dreams. That technology will solve our ecological problems. That humanity is destined to spread across space and colonize the galaxy. Overall, we think positive and assume we have unlimited potential. But what if these are false assumptions?

Today on Mike Brotherton’s Facebook page he linked to “Humans will not ‘migrate’ to other planets, Nobel winner says.” Brotherton is a professor of science and a science fiction author and he didn’t like what Michel Mayor said about our chances of interstellar travel. Whenever scientists, including some science fiction fans, question our final frontier destiny, many science fiction fans will quote Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Three Laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It’s their trump card to play against any skepticism about an unlimited future. The common assumption among science fiction fans is we’re destined to colonize the galaxy and we’ll overcome all the obstacles of physics to do so. There are no limits to our hubris. I had faith in that space travel destiny when I was young but I’m losing it in my old age.

What if belief in a Star Trek destiny is delusional? What if our species is destined to always live on Earth, or maybe colonize Mars, a few moons, and build some space habitats? Why is it so important to believe we’ll eventually create a galactic civilization? Why is it so important to believe humans have unlimited potential when everything in this reality has limitations? Are science fiction fans behaving like the faithful believing in miracles?

The more we study the problems of space travel the more it seems an unlikely enterprise for biological creatures. However, space seems perfect for robots with artificial intelligence. Maybe our children won’t colonize space, but our digital descendants will.

If you study history it’s obvious that things constantly change. Even in my life much has changed. It’s hard to predict anything. I replied to Brotherton that I thought the odds are 99.99999% we won’t colonize exoplanets. He said, show my work. I wish I could. I’m not like Mayor, I’m not saying it won’t happen, but my hunch is it’s very unlikely. I’m not good at math, but I think my reply suggests 1 chance in 100,000,000. One in a hundred million events happen. It’s like winning a big lottery. So maybe, I was being overly optimistic. I probably should have added two or three more nines. All I can say is after a lifetime of reading about how hard interstellar travel will be, and how hard it is for the human body to adapt to an environment that it wasn’t designed for, my gut hunch is our species is destined to live out its entire existence on Earth. That means most space opera is no more scientific than Tolkien.

I feel that’s a crushing thought to science fiction fans. I assume it’s like Christians hearing from atheists that God and heaven don’t exist. I didn’t take to Christianity when growing up but embraced science fiction as my religion. I’m now becoming an atheist to my religion. However, I am getting old, and skepticism clouds my thoughts. I no longer believe free-market capitalism is sustainable. I no longer believe every kid should go to college. I no longer believe our children should be bigger consumers than we were. Our species is very adaptable. I think whatever changes increased CO2 brings we’ll adapt. I also believe our human nature doesn’t change, so I also expect we’ll keep consuming everything in sight even though it will lead to our self-destruction.

We’re about to reach the limits of growth by our current methods of growing. That doesn’t mean we won’t adapt to a new way of growing. If the world doesn’t need seven billion people with college degrees we’ll find out what it does need. If Earth can’t handle seven billion people all living the American standard of living, we’ll adapt to something new too. Humans might even adapt to living in microgravity or in lower and higher 1G gravity. We might even create life extension or cold sleep allowing for slow travel to the stars. It’s technically possible to get humans to another star system, but the odds are going to be tremendous. It’s not a given. I don’t think Mike Brotherton realized a 99.99999% chance is like a person winning a billion-dollar Lotto jackpot. It has happened.

Quoting Clarke’s Third law is no more valid than saying “Believing in Jesus will get you to heaven.” Faith does not change reality. Clarke’s laws aren’t science, but hunches, like my figure of doubt. From everything we know now, migrating to other planets is an extreme long shot. We can’t calculate the odds, but any figure we give should be daunting. Anyone assuming it’s 100% to happen is in just as much scientific statistical trouble as saying it’s a 100% chance it won’t happen.

I’m just a doubter. In my old age, I realize now that if science fiction wanted to be more positive, more enlightened, and more encouraging, it should imagine how our species could live on Earth without going anywhere. Even if a few of us go to the stars, most of us will stay here. Dreaming of greener pastures on the far side of Orion might not be our ultimate destiny. Maybe our final frontier is figuring out how to live on Earth.

JWH

 

Jesus and Christ

by James Wallace Harris

For decades I’ve wondered how Christianity could be so closely associated with Republicans. It seems that Democrats are more concerned with feeding the poor, healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger, all issues generally linked with the teachings of Jesus. But recently, I had a revelation – not from God, because I’m an atheist, but just an ordinary light bulb going off in the head kind.

Republicans worship Christ and not Jesus. Of course, most people are going to claim that Jesus and Christ are the same, but I don’t. And maybe at an unconscious level neither do Democrats and Republicans. I consider Jesus a man, a human being, a member of the Homo sapiens, whereas believers in Christ believe Jesus was and is a God. Because I’m an atheist, I don’t see Christ, but I do see Jesus. Jesus was a man who had philosophical ideas about a compassionate society. I see Jesus like Socrates, and Paul was his Plato. Unfortunately, Paul was tainted by a lot of magical thinking – to put it kindly – so it’s hard to know how much magical thinking Jesus the man also believed.

I’m going to make a lot of generalizations in this essay that have no scientific basis, but I do think they have some rough validity. It’s like going outside at night and seeing a mercury-vapor streetlamp and a yellow incandescent houselight and noticing that each attracts different kinds of bugs. Developing a theory that bugs are attracted to different wavelengths of light isn’t farfetched, but it isn’t scientific proof either. I’m saying that Christians, who should have a consistent moral philosophy, are attracted to both the Democratic and Republican parties, which seems to me to have opposing moral philosophies. Is it so strange to ask why? Here are my guesses.

Republicans see Christ. They like father figures. They like authority and power. They also like patriarchy. Jesus was meek, kind of wimpy, a hippie preaching peace, love, and happiness with socialistic leanings, who hung out with the poor, the losers, the powerless. After he died, his image was made over, giving him superpowers, eventually elevating him to equality with God. I never understood the Trinity business but that’s what it appears to rationalize. But the PR experts of the early church needed their guy to compete with other so-called gods of their day, and they gave Jesus more and more superpowers. That whole died for your sins and immortal life in heaven was just brilliant marketing. No wonder it became the dominant religion.

It makes sense to me that Republicans consider their party the party of Christians. Then what are the Democrats? I guess I’ll call them Jesuits. I know that the label has been trademarked by the Society of Jesus, but it works well for my purpose. If you look at history, I feel I can trace liberal philosophy and humanism back to Jesus, but not to Christ. Christ the God is just a repackaged Jehovah. Conservative philosophy goes way back, well before Jesus. See, that’s another insight I had. The Old Testament is all about nation-building. It’s us vs. them. The Old Testament is dominated by following the rules, about might makes right, the end justifies the means. It’s a very Republican kind of book. The New Testament is all about love and forgiveness, the Golden Rule, power-to-the-people, all about embracing diversity. Paul worked to bring globalization to the teachings of Jesus.

Christ is really a transformation of Jesus the man into the Old Testament God. The early Christians, the ones that became the orthodox Christians competed with the traditional Hebrew religion, and they owned the copyright on God because they had invented the monotheistic God. At first, the Christians just claimed their guy was the son of God, but eventually, they had to make him equal to God, otherwise. how could their movement succeed?

I believe Jesus was a man, a philosopher, and died. Because I’m a liberal I’m somewhat of a Jesuit, even though I’m also an atheist. I believe his philosophy continued on, but not him. Christ is an idea created by the early followers of Jesus. I believe Jesus would have been shocked by all these miracles and superpowers given to him. But it’s hard to know. Paul really created Jesus for us, and like I said, Paul had a lot of magical thinking ideas.

All we have of Jesus is the red letter text in the New Testament. Many Biblical scholars have expressed doubt that all the sayings of Jesus were really spoken by him. We have to assume Jesus was illiterate. He didn’t write his philosophy down like Plato, he was like Socrates and went around speaking to people. His friends and followers appeared to have remembered his sayings and passed them down by word of mouth in the early years after he died. Eventually, they were collected by followers who could write. And those collections of sayings were used by the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, written decades later in another language to compose the gospels. Time filters and alters all memory. Each gospel was written years apart and show a changing, evolving, Christ. Jesus is most human in Matthew and most God-like in John.

Paul’s writing is the oldest we have about Jesus, and he wrote his epistles a couple decades after Jesus’ death. You can see the earliest ideas about Christ forming in Paul’s writings, but far from all. They were added with each gospel. By the time we get to the Gospel of John, Christ has amazing god-like powers. But it wasn’t until a couple centuries later, by several generations of church theologians did Christ become completely God. During those hundreds of years, the early church, the church we now call the Catholic Church, had theological wars with other sects or branches of Christianity and Jesuits.

To me, Christianity became Judaism 2.0 because it carefully incorporated the Old Testament into its philosophy. But that was common back then when one religion supplanted another. Christianity became orthodox. It became a conservative philosophy. It decided the hierarchy. It decided the role of men and women. It was patriarchal. God was the father, the church was next in power, and ordinary people were the children. The family was very important because it was designed to mirror the structure of the church, with the husband being the God/father of the family. Christ is a God who is easy to understand because he looked like us, but he also had all the powers of the supreme creator in the Book of Genesis. Any man wanting ruling power on Earth had to align their quest with the orthodox Christian church.

If you think about this, it all makes sense why Republicans hang on so tightly to Christianity. But it also explains Democrats. Their political platform follows the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, the commandment to love each other. It also explains why there has always been a polarized split between liberals and conservatives. Some people naturally are Jesuits, while others are Christians. If you look at the Apocrypha and Gnostic Gospels you can see that other followers of Jesus tried to form opposing religions to orthodox Christianity. At one level that same conflict is still going on between Democrats and Republicans.

Democrats are still trying to divide the fishes and loaves. Democrats believe everyone should have a healer. Democrats believe everyone should have shelter, and strangers should be welcomed. Democrats believe we should help each other. Republicans believe its God’s duty to decide what to do with the poor, the sick, and the homeless. If God sends a hurricane to Puerto Rico then why should we pay to rebuild it?

The followers of the human Jesus, the philosopher, see building the Kingdom of Heaven is our job, not God’s, and we’re to build it here on Earth. Jesuits feel we are responsible for Earth, not God. That’s why Republicans hate the idea that climate change is caused by human activity. By their way of thinking, the power of weather belongs to God. If they admit that climate change is our fault, it means it’s within our power. It destroys their sense of hierarchy. It undermines the conservative philosophy. It lets the Jesuits win a battle, and they can’t let that happen.

Christianity has a subservient role for women, one that’s part of the hierarchical structure. Making women equal to men devalues the hierarchy. Many of the apocryphal gospels had Jesus giving power to women followers. The power structure is very important to Republicans. If Jesus was just another philosopher, he has no power. If he has no power, he has no authority. Democracy came later, and I think Jesus would have been a big believer in true democracy. Republicans don’t want a true democracy. They want a power structure, and they want to be part of the power structure. They don’t want equality because if everyone was equal no one would have power. If God is on your side you have the power. If a philosopher is on your side, all you got is a wordy guy.

Before democracy, the practical thing for the average citizen to do was to align themselves with the most powerful person around. Conservatives still have that urge. With democracy people are the power and leaders should only be the administrators of our power. That goes against the natural Darwinian reality of the strong taking control. In our world, the rich are the strongest. Now that’s quite amusing because Republicans are generally against Darwin. They want to believe power is top-down from God, whereas Darwin claims it’s a bottom-up thing from nothing.

That might explain another reason why the orthodox made Jesus the man into God. They don’t like bottom-up power paths. That would mean any mere mortal human could start a revolution and disrupt the harmony of the hierarchy.

I know all of this is a bunch of weird ideas, but I do think it’s an interesting way to explain our political polarization. I don’t think it changes anything. I’m not sure we can change. I think some people are naturally drawn towards conservative philosophy and others towards liberal ideas. Genetics might explain it, but it would involve too many different genes and other variables. It’s sort of like gender identity. Some folks identify as male and others as female and some people with all kinds of combinations in between. It’s a spectrum. I assume some people are liberal, others are conservative, and lots of people with different variations. There is a certain percentage of the population that are Yellow Dog Democrats, and another percentage that always votes the straight Republican ticket. While there a bunch of people who swing back and forth. I doubt logical persuasion changes the way they think politically. I’m not sure we have free will when it comes to our political and religious choices any more than people have with their gender identity.

All I’m suggesting is the word Christian isn’t exact enough. Of course, Christians split into a zillion different sects. For my purposes, I’m going to label them Jesuits and Christians, for followers of Jesus and followers of Christ. I know most of my readers will think I’m pursuing painful hairsplitting. But for me, it’s helped me understand Republicans who embrace Trump and claim he’s the best President ever for helping Christians. Using the above perspectives let me understand how they could think that, and I now believe them. But maybe they will understand why I believe Trump is the worst president ever for Jesuits.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can We Elect a Leader That Will Make Us Better People?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 26, 2019

If Democrats win the 2020 election will we become better people? We assume whoever we elect will change the country for the better but isn’t it “we the people” rather than a single leader that will make that happen? Liberals believe Donald Trump has brought out the worst in us. But conservatives feel the future is brighter than its been in years. Which is it? Trump gave the rich a gigantic tax cut but added a staggering amount to the national debt. Trump is fighting for economic fairness with our trading partners yet Wall Street is in a panic, our farmers are going broke, and our allies think we’ve gone nuts. Trump has rolled back on all kinds of regulations just when we need more regulations to save the environment. Trump has revealed the hidden racism and xenophobia we thought we’d had overcome.

However, if a Democrat is elected in 2020 will any of this change? Can a new president pass sweeping laws that will halt climate change, stop greed, or end hatred of other people?

I’ve been reading two books that are so positive about the future I almost think they were written by someone named Pollyanna: The Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku and Moonshots: Creating a World of Abundance by Naveen Jain. Kaku is a physicist that sees a glowing science-fictional future of mankind colonizing the Moon and Mars. Jain is an entrepreneur that pleads with us to think positive and overcome our self-fulfilling pessimism.

Positive books

I have to wonder if Jain is right. Can we be better people if we think positive? His book is quite inspirational, but I wonder if he isn’t selling snake oil. There’s a huge industry out there selling success, with costly seminars, courses, and books that people buy to convince themselves to become rich by willpower. Both books show how we’ve accomplished so much in the past so why not believe we’ll do the same tomorrow.

Doesn’t chasing abundance ignore the price of abundance? Trump says I can make you richer by cutting taxes. That appears to be true. But how rich will we all be if he runs the economy into the ground? When the Republicans deny climate change are they saying, “Don’t spoil the magic of abundance by bringing in reality!”

And I’m not just questioning the conservatives. If we elect a Democrat will that person stop global warming, halt illegal immigration, eliminate gun violence, dissolve racism and reduce xenophobia? Isn’t that also magical thinking? What Trump revealed is society can make people speak and act politically correct but still think political incorrectness in their hearts.

The only way to stop climate change is for everyone to use 90% less of fossil fuels. That means driving less, flying less, eating less meat, heating and air conditioning less, and I mean a whole lot less. The only way to keep the oceans from filling up with plastics is to stop using 90% of the plastics we use now. The only way to end racism is to fully integrate, make everyone truly equal under the law, and bring about economic equality. The only way to end sexism is for everyone to live by the Golden Rule.

However, if we quit using fossil fuels the economy will collapse. How do we shop when practically everything comes in a plastic container? The government has been trying to bring about integration for decades and we haven’t allowed it. And who really lives by the Golden Rule? I don’t think Elizabeth, Kamala, or Bernie can pass laws to change these traits. We have to change ourselves. But if we could do that wouldn’t we have done so already?

I’m an atheist, but I do read the Bible. The most common thread in the Old Testament is the prophets constantly pleading with the people to follow God’s will. They never do. The Bible is one long story of people failing to live righteously, failing to change. Hasn’t laws replaced scripture as a method of social engineering? Can we vote in righteousness? Haven’t we already decided religion failed and our best hope is law and order?

If you look at history, people are better under laws. Isn’t the social unrest we’re seeing, the mad shooters, the road rages, the street gangs, the political corruption really a rebellion against laws? Republicans hate regulations but isn’t that because those laws hinder their greed? Conservatives want libertarian laws for themselves, but law and order for everyone else.

One interesting insight that Naveen Jain points out in his book is Americans are extremely pessimistic about the future, but the Chinese are practically glowing with optimism. Why would that be? Isn’t China an extremely regulated society with a rigid Big Brother government? Shouldn’t living under an Orwellian rule crush the Chinese people’s spirit? Why do they have hope when we don’t?

I don’t think people are going to change. But I do think society changes. And I think society suppresses human nature, controls greed, and codifies the Golden Rule. I wonder if the followers of Trump love him because he apparently frees them from the growing burden of rules. Trump is all for regulating people he doesn’t like but isn’t he loved for deregulating human nature in his true believers?

Essayists are those folks making running commentary on the side-lines of history. We don’t have the answers. We’re just trying to guess what’s happening from making consistent observations. I believe both conservatives and liberals wished the world was more orderly, just, and fair. The conservatives want to be free to pursue their dreams of abundance and hate regulations that hinder their success. They don’t want to see limitations. Liberals see life on Earth like being in a lifeboat. We must share our resources fairly. Conservatives hate that attitude because it assumes there isn’t unlimited abundance for all. How does picking a new leader change this dynamic?

Have we reached a stage in society where laws are no longer effective? Many people will say they were never effective, but if you study history and other societies around the globe it’s obvious that’s not true. What might be true is we’ve reached a new stage where they are becoming ineffective because too many people are ready to revolt. We are getting very close to “It’s every man for themselves” panic. (I wanted to rephrase that old saying to not show gender bias, but when society collapses, women will lose all their political gains and the bias will be true again.)

I got a clue from this New York Times article, “How Guilty Should You Feel About Your Vacation?” In Sweden, air travel is down because enough of their citizens worry about its impact on the climate. Some of their citizens have voluntarily acted on their own for the good of all. But that’s from a smaller, less dense country than ours, and one that’s socialistic, which means they are more concerned with the common good. We are more concerned with individual freedoms and opportunity. Our nationalistic psyche is different. We believe we should grab all we can take, to go for the gusto. We have revised greed from sin into a virtue. Are Americas fundamentally different from citizens of other societies?

I’m not sure if we vote in Harris, Sanders or Warren that will change. I’ve been thinking about how I’d have to live to walk my talk. I already feel I do a great deal to be environmental, but I doubt its enough. If I used 1/7,000,000,000 of my share of sustainable resources, what would that be? And if I polluted 1/7,000,000,000 share of sustainable waste, what would it be? And what’s the difference between choosing on my own to live environmentally, and voting in a person that will pass laws that make us?

Even though I’m an atheist, I would say that difference would be finding the Kingdom of Heaven within, and being a slave in Paradise.

JWH

[Damn, I write about weird shit sometimes, don’t I? No wonder some writers feel they are channeling a muse. Sometimes I feel its all pointless philosophy and I should go play in my science fictional worlds.]