I follow Nigel Warburton (@philosophybites) on Twitter (may have mentioned that already - there's a search feature here, I should probably learn to use it) because he often posts interesting things. This morning he posted a link to a BBC video at Aeon Magazine. It's a short video, well illustrated and worth your time.
But it's also important to think about the video too, because if you don't, you may be left with some misleading conclusions.
Spoiler alert: The video concludes with one modern psychological view that the "self" is an illusion. Which is fine with me, because the Buddha came to that conclusion a long time ago.
But that's not to say that there is no value in introspection. The "inner narrator" is an unreliable witness. It is always important to interrogate the inner narrator to see if what he or she is relating to you inside your head is really true. Since it occupies a privileged position in your experience, far too often we don't question it at all. But once you begin to, you'll discover that much of what he or she speaks is merely fiction.
Implicit in all that, in case you didn't catch it, is that the "inner narrator" is not you.
But the important thing is that it is through the process of vigorous introspection that one can learn that the inner narrator is an unreliable witness, not always to be trusted.
As to the "self" and whether or not we each have or are one, well, that's another layer of the onion, isn't it?
I've been getting up early and working out on the elliptical lately. Based on what's going on inside my head, I suspect my time might be better spent getting up early and meditating instead.
What a "self" is, and how that relates to your being in the world, is more of a process than a fixed answer. How that process works is, to some extent, accessible to us; and the direction it takes is subject to the choices we make. So, in some ways, it's as Hogarth Hughes learned from Dean McCoppin, "You are who you choose to be."
And there's your semi-obscure pop cultural allusion for this weekend. I'll give you a clue:
Repetition is the key to forming new habits. Not sure I'm repeating enough to make this a habit!
Mitzi (my lovely wife) and I watched The Imitation Game the other night. We'd seen it before, but I enjoy watching some movies more than once. (I think I've seen The Matrix more than 25 times. And I annoy Mitzi during many movies because I anticipate the dramatic dialog and utter it before the actor does. I'm not sure what's up with that, but I do it and I seem to enjoy it!)
Anyway, with social media basically corroding the foundations of society, I was kind of struck by Joan Collins' (Kiera Knightley) assurances to Turing that his work will make the world a better place. I'd link to the quote, but it's not at IMDB.
Honestly, computers have made many things better. Whether they amount to the world as a "better place," I'm not entirely sure. To the patient who lived because of the computer in "computer aided tomography," I'm sure it is. To people being harassed by trolls on Twitter, maybe not so much. To the victims of "revenge porn," maybe not so much. And so on, you get the idea. It'll be a century or more before historians, assuming we have a civilization that permits the study of history, will be able to assess the net value of the role of the computer. We will need them to survive the coming crisis, but it's not entirely clear that they may not also be one of the chief reasons we won't.
But I do seem to have some affinity for technology in general and computers in particular. My cameras are mostly computers with some glass and a sensor attached to them.
And I enjoy history. Perhaps because I'm getting old. History has never been so fascinating to me as it has become in this latter stage of my life. In some ways, the revelations are as startling as the ones I experienced in therapy. I'd ask my therapist, "Why didn't someone tell me this years ago?" And she'd smile, very kindly, and ask, "Would you have listened?"
I guess my point is, we should really be doing a better job teaching history. Though I still don't know how you can make anyone listen or learn.
All that aside, I'm reading an interesting book, Endless Loop — The History of the BASIC Programming Language, by Mark Jones Lorenzo. It's a short book, but Lorenzo is a good writer and it's an entertaining read. I'm profoundly impressed by the work of John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, and I'm not sure they get as much attention as they deserve in the history of computing.
I also had Bootstrapping — Douglas Englebart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing, by Thierry Bardin on my shelf, and I pulled it down as I was reading Endless Loop to see where Kemeny and Kurtz may have intersected with Englebart. Well, evidently they didn't. At all. I'm not sure that's true, at least they seem like they've been deliberately overlooked. Bardin writes about early efforts at computer time-sharing, and while it wasn't "invented" at Dartmouth, it was the first truly successful implementation, at least commercially. And it was Kurtz's vision that computing resources be freely available to all students at the university, regarding it as the same type of resource as the library. They called it "open stack computing." And it seems to me that the idea of truly "personal" computing is as much Kemeny and Kurtz's as Englebart's.
But, we all have our heroes and icons.
The thing that Kemeny, Kurtz and Englebart all seemed to have in common was this idea that computers would be of value to all people, not just mathematicians, scientists and engineers. Englebart's was perhaps the most sophisticated, including networking collaboration, and symbolic manipulation. But Kemeny and Kurtz made a huge stride toward making computers accessible with BASIC.
By one of those happy coincidences that make life interesting, I attended a meeting of my local Democrats club on Tuesday. At the meeting, one of the members gave a little preview of a talk he's going to present at the May meeting. It turns out he's an elderly gentleman who was born in Nazi Germany, and grew up there during the war. His talk is going to be about propaganda, and in the teaser, he mentioned Goebbel's admiration of Edward Bernays who was born in 1891 and lived more than a century, dying in 1995! (You can google all that. I'm running behind or I'd link to it.)
And so it's interesting to me that we have Kemeny and Kurtz and Englebart, all believing that computers can empower people, giving them a powerful cognitive tool. But the power of cognition is dependent on the faculty of attention, and it is the interactive nature of modern computing that has been harnessed by advertising to seize and hold our attention.
But that's a topic for another day. I've got to get going this morning. I walk every morning to my local supermarket to buy a couple of Diet Mountain Dews ("Contains no ingredients found in nature!") to deliver my daily dose of caffeine, and really to get me off my ass and moving a bit. I'm always alert as I'm crossing the roads or walking through the parking lot to pay attention to the drivers staring at their "smart" phones so I don't get hit.
When I get back, I'm going to finally do my taxes. I don't resent paying taxes, but I do hate paperwork and I've procrastinated about as long as I care to.
Okay, check-in complete! Rogers out.
I got an email yesterday from an old blogging friend who shared that he that feels the same sense of despair that I wrote about yesterday.
I wrote back to him this morning, and this is what I sent (with a couple of edits, because I don't proofread my emails very well):
Thanks for the note.
Well, since you mention Zen, I have to tell you what I believe I know, which falls into the same category of "things that I know, that I don't practice," like "regular exercise," and "eating right." ;^)
Despair is a feeling, and feelings pass. And it's a feeling based on something I "think," i.e. that I know the future.
When I had my moment of "enlightenment," I realized that everything is exactly the way it is supposed to be. Zen says to inhabit this moment, and to inhabit one's own experience. And what's so bad about that? Well, truthfully, not very much. I'm well, mostly. I have everything I need.
Suffering is the difference between the way things are, and the way we want them to be.
It's possible that all this nonsense is a necessary stage in the transition to something "better." Or, I suppose it's equally possible that all this nonsense really is just part of a long slow-motion train wreck that spells the end of civilization, and why should that be a "bad" thing? Well, because billions of people will suffer of course. But billions of people suffer today already. Why is "civilization" something that deserves to survive?
I suppose that's the $64,000 question for the people, like me, who hope to see it survive; and it should probably inform and energize whatever efforts we make toward that end.
I've been thinking, with greater frequency though perhaps no greater urgency, that I really should resume a regular practice of meditation.
But a feeling of equanimity doesn't offer a great deal of motivation for blogging. ;^)
Things are probably as bad as they've ever been in our lifetimes, at least in the sense of feeling as though we have some agency over the course of the future. It was likely worse in other parts of the world, in other years. Europe in WWI and WW II. Cambodia in the 70s. Russia, forever maybe. Perhaps we've been spoiled. But I think this current time threatens all the world. That things "got better" in other times and in other places happened because "other" places offered energy and opportunity for change. That seems less likely to happen now, if the entire world is thrown into chaos as we try to cope with cascading climate catastrophes. But again, this is something I don't "know," and it probably isn't wise to believe too strongly in my own power of prophecy.
But it does give me something to write about.
Anyway, I'm unhappy about the course of events. I'm not optimistic about our chances. And if I think about the feeling, it is one of despair. But I'm not "depressed." I'm enjoying my life, if not giddily. I'm grateful for what I have, and I'm not unhappy about the fact that I'm likely to be dead before the worst of it all. I feel sorry for my children, and my grandchildren; but every generation has their own challenges. And there will be heroes and saints among those generations, opportunities to transcend the human condition and experience something sublime amidst the tragedy. And that's the way it has always been, I suppose.
Not sure all that helps. Every day I feel more and more like a "grumpy old man." I suppose because I feel less empowered to effect change and that the best I can hope for is that the damn kids get off my lawn!
But it's okay. Everything is exactly the way it's supposed to be.
Thanks for the note, it was good to hear from you.
P.S. I'll omit the salutation and post this as a blog entry with a small intro. I hope you don't mind. I think it's a good post. Maybe. What do I know?
Sometimes I struggle a bit with whether or what to write here. I like to write. But the things I feel most strongly about writing make me unhappy.
Strangely, the time when I was probably most prolific here was when I was the unhappiest; and that was the period between the end of my first marriage, the separation and the divorce. I couldn't really write about the things that I was unhappy about, as it involved other people, but I was learning a great deal at the time, and I could share that.
This is not as simple.
We are in a lot of trouble. Trouble made exponentially worse by our inability to acknowledge or even agree what trouble we face. We're in trouble on so many fronts, any one of which poses enormous challenges, that together they will likely spell the end of this civilization. And I suppose they're all related, but that doesn't make them any easier to confront.
I suppose that it comes down, in many ways, to wealth inequality. Or just "wealth." The wealthy today are super-wealthy. Not only are they wealthier than ever (And I'm sure someone's going to point out that by historical standards, certain monarchs or the robber-barons of the 19th century were comparatively wealthier in inflation-adjusted terms, and that's probably so; but still, they didn't have 21st century technology amplifying all that wealth.), but they have the means and motivation to ensure that their wealth is preserved. The more you have, the more you fear you have to lose.
The wealthy seem to feel as though their wealth insulates them in some way from the consequences of the unanswered challenges hurtling headlong at us. If sea level rise makes living at the coast less attractive, they'll move to the mountains. If the breakdown in civil order threatens their security, they'll just build secure enclaves for themselves. If mass migration stresses the national resources of their country, they'll move to another one. If clean water supplies are threatened, they'll just buy filtration systems. There's no problem they can't buy a solution for themselves.
And that'll work, too. For a while. But eventually, all this is going to catch up with even the super-rich. But until then, it's in their self-interest to preserve the status quo, and ensure the security of their wealth. If that means undermining public institutions, well then, by all means, get digging!
And they're aided and abetted by the aspirational super-wealthy. The folks who believe there are still fortunes to be made in the "attention economy," or by "disrupting" the old economy. What value is the truth in a market that competes for attention? Time and attention are finite resources, and if it looks like we may be facing trouble, then there's even less time to lose in the race to climb the wealth ladder. Time spent pursuing solutions that may not work is likely better spent acquiring wealth to protect or insulate from the effects of the problems.
That's why I think we're all watching the end of this civilization. No one feels "responsible" for civilization. It's all just taken for granted. And if there are "problems," well, they're not mine.
The super-wealthy will suffer less than the rest of humanity, but eventually, their children, if they have any, will suffer just as much. All this technology that they seem to think money can buy depends on a functioning civilization to be manufactured and distributed. Now, I suppose there's a scenario where the mega-rich become a form of governing body, and the bulk of humanity simply becomes a resource to be plundered. (Well, yeah, that is kind of the way it is now. But it's much more comfortable being plundered today. Just ask Steven Pinker.) Perhaps some kind of future where private armies take on the role of providing "order," and keep the mines and the factories running. But I don't think that's likely to happen. Maybe it'll be a "transitional phase," in the decline and fall.
No, I think we're in the process of destroying the means by which we might set about facing our problems, choosing courses of action, and putting those in place. We're destroying faith in public institutions. We're destroying all hope of having any kind of "civil discourse," where we can debate different courses of action without demonizing one another. We're undermining faith in science, trashing the notion of "expertise" ("Elitists!"), elevating celebrity and demonizing "the other."
So, yeah, I'm pretty unhappy.
But I do like the kids from Parkland. And the teachers from West Virginia and Oklahoma. They make me happy. But I don't think they're enough to make me optimistic about the future.
There will be heroic efforts by intelligent people of good will throughout this calamity. They will be opposed by wealth and ignorance, and they will in all likelihood ultimately be overcome by them.
And the saddest thing of all will be otherwise intelligent people who embrace willful ignorance because of unresolved emotional issues and the unwillingness or lack of capacity for introspection and understanding. The people who embrace the lies and the fabrications by the fabulists because it validates their feelings of resentment or anger.
Climate change scientists worry and debate about how to frame the implications of what the data is showing. They worry about creating "despair." Well, if it was just climate, I'd say that's a good debate to have. But it's not just climate. It's the power of the super-rich to destroy anything that threatens their wealth and place.
Now I'd say despair is the appropriate response.
Turn the page...
No April fool, I'm still here. Regular programming will resume shortly.