Existential Global Risk and the Human mind: Are we in a process of evolution?
January 14, 2013 at 4:02 am #4129
“He who is ashamed of simple food and clothing is not yet ready to have a say.”
From what I can tell so far the discussion on this site is nowhere nearly radical enough to be up to the self assigned task. When I muse about where we (mankind) are right now from an outside (pale blue dot style) perspective, I think we might be a species that is going through a mental evolution – and has been slowly doing so during the last perhaps 3000 years. Let’s say the species with the self granted name Homo Sapiens has been around for 50.000 or 100.000 years, and then, suddenly, a few thousand years ago, civilizations sprang up, agriculture, commerce, writing, technology, architecture and a great philosophical and spiritual quest. There was much development in terms of commerce and technology and architecture. The progress on the “spiritual and philosophical” front still is somewhat limited. By and large humans are mentally unstable, and the intellectual abilities of humans across all ethnic groups span a range that is bordering on the unbelievable for a single species. It is hard to quantify, but probably it is safe to say that we talk about differences across orders of magnitude. Yet even among the most gifted and intelligent it is hard to come to an agreement on complex issues that simply cannot be solved analytically. Even when the facts are clear, there are those issues that are unsolvable. Ethics. Moral. To have, or to be? To summarize: We find highly ethical, friendly and helpful simpletons and extremely intelligent high IQ narcissists and psychopaths as extreme examples. The latter unfortunately may have (and have had) a significant impact on the fate of mankind. Also a wide spread desire for and adoration of strong leadership and material success probably favors the rise of such characters within hierarchies. History abounds with countless examples. Then there is weakness. Not evil, but merely weakness. Want. Fear. Lust. Desire to have, to be respected, to be something, someone – at the lowest to not be less than the neighbors, often expressed as not HAVING less than the neighbors. Fashion, make-believe makeup, brand stuff, big car, the latest “smartphone”. Entire cultures at their deep core revolve around showing off, around accumulating possessions, and so does the very system that runs our globalized economy (which is in no way behaving economically). Religions have sprung up that preach humility, that teach methods of prayer and meditation to help overcome the greedy and unstable animal inside of us. Confucius suggested that he who is ashamed of simple food and clothing is not yet ready to have a say. Buddha’s entire teaching revolves around overcoming unhealthy desires – let them go. Close the door behind them. We all know the story of King Midas who starves to death because his entire world is turned into Gold. Even back then money was not edible. Jesus prophesized that the meek will inherit the Earth, Sun Tsu understood that only who doesn’t fight can be truly victorious. There are countless examples resounding through three millenniums of philosophy, art and literature that have at their core the warning against greed, the warning against that final trap that dark side of our nature, that is likely to kill us in the end. The tale of Erisychthon who dared to take wood from the holy grove of Demeter being one of the most extreme, being struck by the curse of an eternal hunger eventually leading him to consume his own flesh. Goethe’s Faust is more subtle, more intricate, but it does express the very same warnings. Faust himself in the end remains deeply unhappy, despite owning almost everything – but not quite everything. The little bit that’s missing remains a sting in his tortured soul. As Goethe writes:Faust (Startled.):”Accursed ringing! Wounding meWith shame: a treacherous blow:My realm’s laid out there, endlessly,But, at my back, this vexes so,Proclaiming, with its jealous sound:My great estate is less than fine,The old hut, all the trees around,The crumbling chapel, are not mine.And even if I wished to rest there,A strange shadow makes me shudder,It’s a thorn in my eye, and deeper:Oh! Would I were somewhere other!” His greed was entirely out of control:”That’s the worst suffering can bring,Being rich, to feel we lack something.”Mephisto, the great tempter, is the inventor of the paper money, the bill of temptation. And he states elsewhere in the play:The ocean’s freedom frees the mindThere all thought is left behind!You only need a handy grip,You catch a fish, or take a ship,And once you are the lord of three,The fourth one’s tackled easily:The fifth one’s in an evil plight,You have the might, and so the right.You wonder what, and never how.I know a little of navigation:War, trade, and piracy, allow,Are three in one, no separation.”We have three milleniums of warnings against pretty much the type of globalized greed machine we now have created. A machine that basically is a generator of money where world is fed on one side to create electronic symbols, virtual book money, on the other and those who possess these symbols are granted near infinite power of the fate of the world, while all rests on the claim, the hope, that “somehow” everyone will benefitby means of trickle down. Am I the only one thinking of masses of mounring starving pale and sick humans in dark and overcrowded caves, their heads tilted backwards, mouths opened waiting for a drop of water trickling down? I see a version Erisychthon, Midas and Faust in the Computer and Space age. And we have our modern day warners, too, whobase their assessment not on philosophy but on physics and empirical science. The limits to growth. Global environmental change. The insight that we entered the anthropocene. Musings about loads of newly discovered extrasolar planets. Popular books like Jared Diamonds “Collapse”. Prof. Ehrlich’s work, and many others. I believe we must seriously analyze why we systematically ignore the warning and wisdom at the core of all our major religions and a great many of artists and philosophers we adore and instead, by and large, behave exactly the opposite way and all too often even kill our wise men and women. What is so tempting about “having”?My wild guess (I dare not say hypothesis) is that we are not what we claim to be. We are not Homo Sapiens Sapiens. We are, at best, Homo Sapiens Potentialis. We are not there yet. We are more an unstable in-between between what we like to be and what we define as human and that which we tend to define as animals. When I am at work doing technical things my human mind is performing technical tricks, but my motivations and emotions – especially under stress – are dominated by that greedy little monkey inside of me. We all can feel it. Keeping it under control is hard work. I feel it jumping in his cage when I see that new Camera of a certain manufacturer. An idiotic feeling of want, because I already have a beautiful one that suits all my needs. Now the money system that underlies all our economic activities and ultimately defines the incentives is a direct projection of that silly little greedy monkey. Fiat money born with compound interest. I imagine the little monkey sitting on a rotting planetary sized pile of exponentially self replicating bananas… If I look at the religious stories I get the feeling that there is an aspect of realization, of insight into the true nature of man, and a prescription on how to grow beyond it. What generally is referred to as “mystic insight” might be an even empirically objectifiable process in the brain, and perhaps – this is a very long shot – the ability to reach this stage of integration, the ability to truly abstract from oneself and become objective about the own self – is part of an evolutionary step the species of man is going though. If I project the concept in a science fiction sense, we might see a creature at the end that is quasi enlightened, intelligent, calm and compassionate. And yet perhaps what we call psychopathy is also an evolutionary step beyond the animal nature. Dis-compassionate and fearless predators… who knows…In any case the answer is not in economics – certainly as long as economics removes itself from reality and dwells in an entirely artificial dreamworld of virtual ideas and models. The warnings are on the table. Even officially. Quite some time ago the European Union published a report titled “Late Lessons from Early Warnings” http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/environmental_issue_report_2001_22. Many examples there on where lack of precaution led to disaster. Oxford University has an institute for the Future of Humanity, headed by Nick Bostrom. One core theme: existential (global) risk. See fore example: http://www.existential-risk.org/concept.htmlThe cards are on the table. Renewable energy alone or tinkering a bit with new banking regulations or off shore investment controls will make no major difference whatsoever. The theme is ages old. And if the roots are not taken out the weeds will continue to spread. Unfortunately there is no gardener to do that. No grown up to take our dangerous toys away. But there was advice from wise men and women throughout history who seem to have been somewhat more grown up than the rest of us. Either mankind listens, or perishes. Both is fine for nature…. But – what is the answer?
January 14, 2013 at 2:08 pm #4143
As a practicing Buddhist, I see the wisdom of Buddha’s characterizing our species as one filled with greed, hatred and delusion, which he did 2500 years ago. What has changed is that we now can practice our greed with global effect and internet speed.
Professor Ehrlich published a rather stark challenge in his article “Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided?” which was a hopefully wakening report on a possible future for our civilization. Many indications are that significant changes are hard wired into the geosphere, with 2C+ possibly occurring by mid century. These alone are going to change civilization remarkably. And, without global resolve, generations to come will experience much worse.
Many people will continue and indeed redouble efforts to slow down this race to oblivion. And, what influence we may make may not be seen during our lifetimes. It would seem that while seeking to mitigate, we must also look far ahead and prepare those to come to be able to live in a far different world. My question is what seeds do we plant that will enable the phoenix to rise after a partial or total collapse?
January 15, 2013 at 4:35 am #4157
John: It is clear that a buddhist approach to the world would make a huge difference. The German catholic abboty and Zen Master Willigis Jaeger once suggested that we all have to become mystics in order to survive. He meant by this, of course, that we have to become integrated individuals that grew beyond their desires and understand fully who and what they are. I’d say that is a stark challenge if mankinds survival would depend on it. A few years ago I asked Rupert Sheldrake for his opinion about this statement, and he (drawing from his experience of living in India) thinks it is unlikely that a significant fraction of people will ever achieve that – or will want to do so. I am currently in a loom and doom mood, because I have a closer look at the situation in the Philippines, which already has a population way beyond the countries carrying capacity even for rice production, and hardly anyone is aware of it. A prominent Bishop recently announced publicly that the Typhoon that hit Mindanao Island this fall and killed hundreds was sent by God as a punishment for discussing a health reform (including laws regulating abortion and contraception) in parliament – and that more than 40 years after a man saw the Earth rising from another planetary body, and more than 20 years after “The Pale Blue Dot” was photographed. I recently read a report stating that 1/3 of the world population has never even heard about global climate change, and the majority in Asia and the former Soviet Republics consider it either a hoax or irrelevant. In other populations, including the US, the attitude towards the issue appears to be more fashion than knowledge based, at least in part due to massive dis-information by the notorious interest groups. So one seed that is to be sown most likely was sown by the Buddha in the Kalama Sutta. Explore yourself! Develop your own opinion. Open mindedly. And without fear. Another stark challenge because all too often we only seek what confirms our bias and/or calms our emotional monkey circus. What disturbs me deeply is that, as I mentioned, the insight is ages old and the warnings echo through millenia, and yet “civilization” mainly focuses at material gain. It is like a hungry individual who starved a long time and then focuses on feeding, but somehow fails to stop when an age of abundance arrives. Our entire civilization reminds me of my grandfather, who was an ordinary soldier in Stalingrad, a cable layer, and who later was one of the few who survived almost a decade in a Siberian Gulag. For the rest of his life he would collect things. Every nail, every small piece of metal sheet was incredibly valuable to him. When he died his house was a collection of careful stored and kept things other people would consider garbage, beginning with thoroughly straightened and cleansed rusty nails… Back in Siberia his survival could depend on one small thing he kept. In his later life of abundance his collecting habit suffocated him and his family. And somehow our modern economic system reflects this habit of collecting in bad times. More. Ever more. Even when there is more than enough. And even if it means to actually degrade life. I always recommend the book “Learning from Ladakh” by Helena Norberg Hodge in this context. The movie is online, too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvlqR2908TE
The following is taken from “Chang Po Tuan: Understanding Reality”, written approx. 1000 years ago and translated by Thomas Cleary.
“If you do not seek the great way to leave the path of delusion, even if you are intelligent and talented, you are not great. A hundred years is like a spark, a lifetime is like a bubble. If you only crave material gain and prominence without considering the deterioration of your body, I ask you, even if you accumulate a mountain of gold: can you buy off impermanence? The realm of dust is the world of sound and form, the land of name and gain, where misery is taken for pleasure, where the artificial is taken to be real. Diminishing vitality, wearing out the energy, destroying essence and life, in it there is death only.”
January 16, 2013 at 6:32 pm #4171
We are unstable, but so are all complex processes. Biology deals with this by constantly resetting, ie. death and birth.
Personally I think there are three main misconceptions that are foundational to western civilization, but which the reconsideration of, might serve to “reset” our mindset.
Most elementally I think we see time backward. It is not the present which “moves” from past to future, but the changing configuration of what exists, that turns future potential into actuality, then residual. To wit, the earth isn’t traveling a fourth dimension from yesterday to tomorrow, but tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth rotates. Why is this psychologically important? Because this singular, linear concept is foundational to the basic particle/atomized view of reality that defines western civilization. Eastern civilizations view the past as in front of the observer, because it is known and can be seen, while the future is behind and is unseen. Consequently easterners tend to be context oriented, while westerners are object oriented. Rather than go into all the conceptual history, to the extent I’ve learned it, consider that if you simply view time as emergent from action, thus creating these events which come into being and then recede into memory and residue, then one’s actions and existence are intertwined with and part of the larger context. On the other hand, if you view time as a physical vector through a series of events, then the point of reference is moving against and is separate from this context. There is a great deal of psychological complexity in this, that is beyond the scope of this posting, but that is a small sample.
The next issue is monotheism. Logically a spiritual absolute would be the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell. It just doesn’t make a convenient social and political model. Much better to insist divine validation is top down. Remember though, democracy was not formalized by monotheists, but by polytheists. If you have a religion of Gods arguing, it gets reflected in the political models. Monotheism has mostly served, historically, to validate monarchy and other forms of top down authority, from divine right of kings to Bush2 thinking God put him in charge.
These two points are very much intertwined. Religions and nations necessarily use a public narrative to both validate their existence and dictate a group direction. The actual reality of time is much more a tapestry of interlocking narrative, than a single path.
Religion is vision, while government is management. They frequently intersect, but come from opposite sides of the brain.
The third point is that we are taught money is a form of commodity, when it is a contract. This I go into in the thread I started; What is Your Occupation.
These are just my thoughts on the current situation. Yes, I do see it as somewhat dire in many ways, but I also see that as necessary to stop humanity from continuing in the direction it is going. Complexity is inherently unstable and it will fall back to a more stable level. After the big reset, hopefully we will rise up a little smarter and more contrite.
January 29, 2013 at 2:54 pm #4267
@John Merryman: I wonder whether complexity per se is inherently unstable. A complex system me be held in equilibrium by means of redundant sub systems. Homeostasis and resilience also are hallmarks of complex systems – as are chaos, instabilities, back propagations or phase changes. The Yin and Yang of complexity, so to say. My statement that “we” (humans) are unstable of course was not very precise. There have been – and are – human societies that have been stable for long time periods. If I interpret anthropologists and ethnologists correctly it seems that we evolved to optimally function within certain environments connected to certain lifestyles. Sitting in an office in front of a computer screen for 10 hours a day handling dozens of partly complex and highly intellectual partly boring and repetitive parallel tasks while constantly being interrupted and to live up to father and mother and husband and wive roles in the spare time is not what evolution prepared us for. As a result we tend to – if you forgive my sloppy language – go bonkers. Mental and emotional ailments have reached epidemic proportions in Western countries, and probably elsewhere, too, only the statistical data base doesn’t exist. When I read studies of native people, for example Helena Norberg Hodge’s book “Ancient Futures, Learning from Ladakh”, I get the very strong impression that humans are not naturally unstable – they only become unstable when not in their natural environment, and that’s a small village, not a corporation and a suburb. And no matter how much it tries: even the most well meaning company cannot do more than simulate the village feeling. It always remains nothing more than an emulation, an illusion. It still is about money. It still is about leasing our thoughts and ideas and basically our lives to someone else. And we still know that we can get fired, tomorrow. And nothing prepared us to function in a world of constant information overload and constant demands doing things that are not even our own. I somewhere recently read that a single weekend edition of the NY Times contains more information than a Victorian peasant had to process in his entire life. No surprise that most of us are constantly dizzied and half spaced out. But the main issue, if I am asked, is a feeling of insecurity. To use an example from pop-culture fiction: the people in Star Trek are dealing with complex tasks comparable to ours and face life threatening dangers day in, day out, and yet everyone is nearly as relaxed as Zen monks. Of course it is fiction, but I could imagine that real people would be nearly as relaxed if they would not face any existential and especially emotional insecurities. Usually nobody is fired from Starship Enterprise and even if so, nobody would loose their house and have to move to a tent city. That’s why they can be relaxed. The village community feeling is real and not fake. I suppose that’s also a part of the appeal of religious communities, of fan-clubs, of sports clubs, of “secret lodges” – you name it. The search for the real family, the real village spirit. The search for Terra Firma, for a steady, rock solid motionless guiding star.
My entry is part of a brain storming process. My impression is that many of the fundamental propositions upon which the modern globalized western society and economy are built are entirely wrong. Your perception of time question is an interesting approach. In the context of our (human) evolutionary stage however I think it is helpful to look into both “directions” of time and see us as what we are: one stage, at one point, in an ongoing development. One step of evolution, and in an evolutionary stage largely unfit for the type of world we have created for ourselves. And yet the future is not before us – in a way it is even funny to consider something that does not even exist as being “before” us. That’s not even a really good metaphor. It is a cultural construct. The future is unfolding. A bundle of untied ends of trajectories of possibilities and probabilities cut off by the laser sharp knife we call the present.
Religion is vision, you said. Vision… to see, or foresight? Doesn’t good government require foresight, i.e. the ability to anticipate the result of actions? Management necessitates a framework within to manage, and that framework should be related to the common goals of society, of – in the big scheme of things – the population of planet earth. Who are we? What is good for us? How can we live on without causing too much harm to ourselves and our fellow earthlings? I see such vision in all religions – but also a lot of unhelpful structures and outright nonsense. But the simple questions who and what are we, how do we want to live, and what actually is going on, feel legitimate to me. We are not divine, not the crown of creation, nothing special. Just another animal, one that knows a bag full of technological tricks. It has a talent for gadgets. Otherwise it is pretty mediocre and tends to drastically overestimate its own understanding (that I know from experience!).
The current state of affairs is, for example, that an economic analysis of a country usually is carried out without paying much – if any – attention to its culture, history, ethnicity, its religion, its traditions. Very intelligent people behave unintelligibly… we desperately need integrative thinking and analysis on every level of science, technology, economy and policy making. Visions. Birds eye views. That should help ending diseased delusions of constant exponential economic growth, of constant acceleration – the logics of a system that has to grow merely to keep the system growing. We….need….to….slow….down.
January 31, 2013 at 7:27 pm #4283
Good post, good questions. The way I see it may be a bit reductive and pavlovian, but when you think of the way animals learn or are trained, we see certain behaviors (thinking) rewarded and others punished. Our way of life operates according to the same principles. The transactional system paradigm that we live under is a recursive algorithm, a self-perpetuating feedback loop leading always and inevitably toward one kind of result. If we want a different result, we need a different paradigm based in a system of relational thought and relational exchange. To paraphrase Derrick Jensen, as long as nearly everything we want and need is obtained as a result of a transactional exchange, we will see and understand no other kind of world.
February 1, 2013 at 3:30 am #4293
@Matthew – first of all you made me change my Avatar – to remind me what we are all here for, if anything. What you say is right – we can see our behavior as a recursive feedback system, but the peculiar nature of this system, our mind, is that it is not entirely helpless. There are many examples of humans growing beyond their limitations, and we don’t even have to look far: in this forum the word “we” is generally meant to mean “man” or “mankind” or “the hum an species”. Most people here have some kind of technical and/or scientific training and a certain level of maturity – plus a generally “planetary” view. On want and need… It wasn’t so long ago that the ethos in the West was “You get what you want by… hard work.” Hard work is not a transaction, but something that requires inner strength. The hard work of the craftsman, the farmer, but also the hard work of an athlete, all overcoming their inner inertia. And what is it that we want? Things? Things merely fill the gap, the hollow, the black hole left behind by a lifestyle that keeps that which we want (according to our nature) away from us. Marketing experts know that. Every good TV commercial connects essential human emotional needs and desires to products. At the same time the logics of a debt and credit based economy that collapses without exponential growth are hammered into us, and yet – it is not US. Many realize that it is flawed thinking, certainly from a planetary perspective, certainly when thinking in historical dimensions. We, mankind, are not uniform. There are many traditions where individual success is not measured by riches – or where individual success is not really a category in the first place. There are sectors within our own society where ability counts more and is an end in itself – music for example. I have met few overly materialistic classical musicians. But – hard working they are. Humans can break out their own encrusted feedback loops. Warriors and Soldiers of all times were trained to overcome even their most deeply hard wired instincts – often at a high price. Various contemplative practices teach to virtually – or even literally – get out of those recursive trajectories of thinking and feeling (I actually pictured myself moving out of a Lorenz attractor type system and watching it from the outside). Zen teachers talk about “observing your thoughts like clouds in the wind”, or about “monkey training”, picturing your own thoughts as squirming monkey in a cage. Rigorous, systematic thinking as in science or engineering can help to step out of the system. Knowledge can do that. Training to keep an open mind can do that. And training to stop thinking altogether. What I want to say: we are not helpless. Many stories in Christian tradition make it clear that the Devil only gets a chance when we let him, and in Buddhism there is no Devil – there is Mara, which is our own dark side, our own sloth, laziness, weakness. The interesting thing in Buddhism is the idea that you cannot fight it. It gets stronger by being fought. You can only look it in the eyes with a friendly, compassionate smile – and let it pass. Cloud in the wind. Our entire Western lifestyle however caters to the dark and weak aspects. The feedback mechanisms you mention constantly reward our dark side. “And lead me not into temptation” Christians say in the Lord’s prayer, but our entire western society (built largely by Christians) consists of temptations, our economy is based upon leading others into temptation. I once participated in a marketing seminar where the trainer said that roughly 50% to 60% of all people can be convinced to buy anything, while the remainder cannot be convinced at all, so any effort is wasted on them (i.e. they generally decide based upon hard criteria and in unpredictable ways).
We (mankind) should become more aware of what we are and why we want what. At the beginning of the 21st century we have a rough picture of who and what we are, how and where we evolved and even how the planet and the universe at large came about. We live more than 200 years after Immanuel Kant who said ““Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” (actually he said selbstverschuldete Unmündigkeit, which, in the context, I would translate as “self-inflicted mental dependence”. Sapere aude. It is not done. And all planetary systems of governance have to take into account our tendency to be irrational and caught in illusions – our tendency to escape from reality into dreamworlds and base our decisions and actions upon fantasies. Yet – humans are able to transcend themselves. We can do it. I presume all of us. Potentially. But not all of us can learn calculus. That is just so.
February 1, 2013 at 7:24 pm #4295
By unstable, I simply mean we are inherently impermanent. A true (happy) medium would be a flat line on the old heart monitor. Death and birth are how life resets.
The problem with your view of life is that you are seeking ideals and not finding any that are not illusionary. The problem is the absolute is essence, not ideal. It is what we rise from, not what we fell from. The purpose of life is to have purpose. Otherwise you fade away. When you are gaining energy, you are climbing up and when you are losing energy, you are fading away. The situation now is something of a peak, in many ways. It’s like the crest of a wave, mostly foam and bubbles.
So vision is necessarily subjective. It’s the intuitive right brain to the logical management of the left brain. The left brain sees the distinctions, while the right brain sees the connections. So it’s more wholistic, while management is putting the parts together.
To think in a more connected fashion, consider your brain as a magnifying glass. When you focus the light to a point, it creates shadow around it, as the attention is concentrated. While it creates focused awareness, it also causes isolation. So back up on occasion and let the light be distributed. As in chill out. Let the connections to other people grow like grass. After awhile you get this sense around other people that you are all the same being, looking out through different filters. It’s only the details that create distinction. The spiritual absolute is the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell. So we fall down on occasion. It’s just an excuse to get back up again.