The Crag and the Chasm

Another annoying post about radical non-duality. But cool title, no?


Dave’s four worldviews, 1951-????

Since I started listening to, and speaking with, the radical non-duality speakers shown on my blog’s right sidebar, eight years ago, I have started exploring the nature of reality, and human nature, from its very different perspective. This “seeking journey” has taken me from a belief in free will (worldview I in the diagram above) to a belief that we have a self but it doesn’t have free will (worldview II), and then to a belief that we have neither a self nor free will (ie that they are both illusions, created by the brain in a mistaken attempt to make sense of the body’s perceptions — worldview III).

This was the only way I could find to ‘make sense’ of both the ‘glimpses‘ that have seemingly occurred at various times in my life, and the latest science and neuroscience about free will, about the illusory self, and about the nature of time and space. I’ve written about all of this ad nauseam, basically saying the same things (mostly out loud to my self, to be sure I really understand them and their implications) over and over.

But the obsessed seeker for the ultimate truth is never satisfied: I keep looking, with curiosity and some longing, at worldview IV, the full message that the radical non-duality speakers are articulating. The message is that there actually is no ‘real’ time or space, no causality, no ‘thing’ real or separate from everything, and nothing really happening — only “everything appearing”, only “just this”. ‘I’ can appreciate this message intellectually, and feel some resonance with it intuitively, but somehow I ‘know’ that ‘I’ can never actually ‘realize’ or ‘see’ the truth of this as ‘obvious’, as the (apparent) radical non-duality speakers (apparently) do.

I am not sure why this is so important to me. I suppose this is the nature of obsession — like when we can’t remember something but it’s right on the tip of our tongue, so that until we retrieve it we can’t think about anything else. The radical non-duality speakers assert that there is no “path” to this “realization”, and that it really doesn’t make any difference to anything — they insist they are not “enlightened” and are not “teaching” anything, just trying to illuminate what is obvious ‘there’, which is what I describe as worldview IV (though perhaps I should call it worldview zero). And they do not appear to be particularly happy, or relieved, or even passionate about what is now ‘obvious’ ‘there’.

Whatever the reason, and no matter how hopeless, I can’t shake my obsession with this message. I don’t particularly want to. It is at once infuriating and a source of endless curiosity and fascination. The message is so internally consistent (across speakers in five different languages, with very different backgrounds and different ways of describing things and different past belief systems), so effortless, such a (not-grand) “theory of everything”, and delivered with such sincerity, that I cannot shake the sense that it is simply true.

I hear them saying there is no “path” to “see” this, no practice or process for getting “closer” to it, but my gotta-make-sense-of-everything brain will not accept that. It cannot help but try. So much of science, and the glimpses, ‘fit’ with this message, that surely it’s just a matter of finding the rest of the pieces and it will all ‘fit’, surely.

But that thinking, I know, is pure folly. The more I explore it, the wider the chasm between worldview III (where I sit, impatiently, now) and worldview IV (which I impossibly aspire to ‘realize’) yawns. Every discovery just raises more unanswerable questions. So I am teased by discoveries in astrophysics that time does not actually exist — it’s just a mental placeholder and categorization tool for the brain’s desperate and futile sense-making. I am teased by the scientific theory that space is likewise just a conceptualization — that all that exists is an infinite “field of possibilities” where some of those possibilities ‘appear’ (there’s that word again) to ‘happen’. I am teased by Michael Pollan’s argument that the effect of some psychedelics and some deep meditation and some brain injuries is to disrupt the “default neural pathways” in the brain and open ourselves to an entirely different way of perceiving and conceiving of reality — and the possibility that the radical non-duality speakers have somehow permanently ‘slipped free’ of these conditioned, entrenched default neural pathways (and so maybe the rest of us could, too).

I am teased by the possibility that these default neural pathways that seemingly create what Tony Parsons has called the inescapable “prison of the self” arose due to an evolutionary misstep many millennia ago, first described by Julian Jaynes, which I’ve frequently elaborated on as the Entanglement Hypothesis. I am teased by growing evidence that no animals other than humans have this illusory sense of self and separation, and that furthermore they don’t require it to live completely full and functional lives.

I am teased by what my study of evolution has revealed about the immense variety of ways of ‘being in’ and ‘perceiving’ the world, and about how much it explains, and how much it fails to explain, the world as we seemingly separate self-afflicted humans see it. I am teased by how utterly the ‘loss’ of the sense of self and separation in radical non-duality speakers has seemingly changed ‘their’ way of perceiving reality, and how little it has seemingly changed their characters and behaviours. For example, they are absolutely clear that there is no perception of time or causality ‘there’ — everything is “always new” — yet they go on scheduling their meetings as if time and causality were real. And some still entertain (what to me are) conspiracy theories, and are quite entertained by (what to me are) inane programs, in spite of ‘their’ avowal that nothing is really happening, and nothing matters.

And I am teased by the very compelling arguments that all our behaviour is conditioned (which some radical non-duality speakers confirm, with the ubiquitous “apparently” qualifier), even though (apparent) conditioning would seem to absolutely require the existence of (apparent?) time and (apparent?) causality.

The realization that ‘we’ are not “all of a piece”, but rather just collective labels for the trillions of creatures that comprise what we label as “our bodies”, and that it is their conditioning, not ‘ours’ that determines what we do, had me, once again, foolishly and hopelessly, trying to discover or construct a crag, a branch, a perilous path, that would take me from worldview III to worldview IV.

So I felt a recent compulsion to call Tim Cliss, the radical non-duality (he hates the term) speaker with whom I’ve probably had the most extensive conversations, and ask him for his ‘take’ on all of the above discoveries — his take on evolution, on the “field of possibilities” theory, on the “default neural pathways” theory, on the Entanglement Hypothesis, on the possibility of conditioning when there is no time and no causality, and all the other possible footholds, and apparent gaps, in the crag that I am trying to build and use to make my way to worldview IV.

But I know Tim, and the other radical non-duality speakers, have already been asked, in one way or another, about these ideas and connections and apparent inconsistencies in the message. And their answer has always been the same: In essence, it is “I haven’t the faintest idea. (And it doesn’t matter.)”

If I were to ask Tim about all of these things, that’s what he would answer, I am sure, to all of them. He would do so in the most kindly possible way: He’s a softie, and ‘his’ life experiences prior to the (apparent) loss of ‘his’ (illusory) self parallel mine in many ways.

He would be telling me, gently, that there is no way of getting from worldview III to worldview IV, no matter how meticulously the crag that seems to partly bridge them is crafted and cultivated, no matter how maddeningly well all the amazing revelations that came with reaching worldview III resonate with the message of worldview IV. ‘You’ can’t get there from here.

There’s a joke going around about rural wisdom, and it goes like this: A carful of tourists are desperately trying to find some tourist destination, and end up on a lonely country road. They roll down their window and ask a passing farmer for directions. The farmer answers: “If that’s where you’re trying to get to, I wouldn’t recommend starting from here.”

So here I sit, on my largely self-manufactured crag, looking across the chasm at a destination that seems, the closer I try to get to it, ever farther and farther away. And that’s OK. Einstein said he could never understand it all. And if he couldn’t, there is no hope for me. But my conditioning, if that’s what it is, won’t let me turn back from the crag. The view’s pretty good, despite a bit of fog. Just happy to have come this far. Think I’ll hang out here for a while.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will | 4 Comments

Acceptance, Forgiveness, Gratitude


Since I’ve come to the (tentative) conclusion that we have no free will (and that in fact there is no ‘self’ to have free will), it’s utterly changed the lens through which I see the world. I now see that our behaviour is completely conditioned by our biology and our culture, given the circumstances of the moment, and that ‘we’ have no ‘choice’ but to do what we do. We are all doing our best (though that is often, seemingly, pretty awful), and no one is to ‘blame’. For anything. Even though our conditioning, so often, causes us to inflict, and to suffer, horrible violence and trauma.

As I’ve internalized this, my writing has morphed from describing what I think ‘should’ be done to instead just trying to understand why (ie as a result of what conditioning and what circumstances) things are as they are. So I now use the ‘reminders’ list above, to cope with the accelerating collapse of our civilization and its component systems, instead of any action or preparation list. We can’t act, after all, other that how we’re conditioned, and we can’t prepare for something we cannot possibly predict.

Still, even this list is really wishful thinking. I cannot ‘choose’ to do or not do these things. I can, perhaps, by keeping it in front of me, track the degree to which my behaviour does or does not align with these ‘reminders’. If that helps me to cohere somewhat to these reminders, it is only because that is what my conditioning already inclines me to do. Everything is determined (ie a consequence of our conditioning, and of the circumstances of each moment, neither of which we have any agency over), but nothing is determinable (ie predictable, because, unless we are gods, we cannot know how we are next going to be conditioned, nor what the circumstances of each moment will be).

The other day I watched a concert by Shari Ulrich, who was performing with Cara Luft, and I was particularly blown away by their performance of Shari’s song A Bit of Forgiveness. It’s a song about divorce, but its message runs much deeper:

If I had wishes, only three, well I’d use them up so easily,
I’d need at least a dozen, maybe more;
Surely first would be peace on earth, and probably third that I hadn’t hurt you —
Seems in every wish there’s a bit of forgiveness…

If I were granted all my wishes, none would be for gold or riches —
I’d need at least a hundred, maybe more;
Fourth or fifth I can’t admit to; down the list is that I didn’t miss you;
Seems in every wish there’s a bit of forgiveness.

That got me thinking about wishes, regrets, hopes, and some of the ‘soft skills’ I have (been conditioned to) try to cultivate, in point 3 of my ‘reminders’ list — specifically acceptance, forgiveness, and gratitude.

What are our ‘wishes’, anyway? They are, mostly, hopes for the future and regrets about the past.

How crazy is that? Hoping the future might be something different from what it inevitably will be (once the uncontrollable conditioning and uncontrollable emergent circumstances play out), and regretting what inevitably happened in the past.

So why do we do it? It is, of course, our conditioning. We get a dopamine hit anticipating something (either good or bad) happening in the future, as a means of conditioning us to behave in ways that will bring about, or avert, what is anticipated. Though only humans, it seems, do so for a period in the future so far ahead that what will actually happen can’t possibly be predicted. Wild creatures will only anticipate a moment or so into the future (being given a treat, for example, or being eaten by a tiger).

It is our imaginations that allow us, uniquely, both to imagine what ‘might’ happen in a distant future and to regret the past (ie to imagine how the past ‘might have’ been different). Neither of these imaginings has any evolutionary value whatsoever. We won’t ‘learn’ from a past mistake by imagining ourselves not having made it — if it is in our conditioning, given the future circumstances, we will make that mistake again.

Likewise, we can imagine a whole range of potential future outcomes, but none of this intellectual cogitation will change our behaviour one iota from what it was already inevitably going to be. Its only ‘value’ is to ‘make sense’ of what happened, after the fact. And that sense-making, based on the illusory sense of free will and control, is inherently totally flawed, since it presumes there is more than one possible outcome that our ‘selves’ can somehow influence.

That’s why I argue that the brain’s development of the sense of having a self with some degree of free will and control over the body it presumes to inhabit, is an evolutionary misstep, a misunderstanding of the nature of reality that grew out of the entanglement of our human brains’ circuitry, imagining things to be ‘real’ when they are not. The evolution of this misunderstanding in the entangled human brain is completely understandable, but such a misunderstanding is completely impossible in the brain of any creature that simply ‘knows’ the absolute difference between reality and an imagining. So our possible futures are, to us, ‘real’ possibilities, worth wishing and hoping for, and what might have ‘really’ happened in the past that did not, gives us something to regret. No other creature, I believe, is so afflicted.

Lately when I first climb into bed at night, and peer out the window at the astonishing panorama of lights and beauty that stretches as far as the eye can see, I have found myself filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

But why? If what has happened is the only thing that could have happened, what in the world do I have to be grateful for? That my life is so easy and peaceful, and not filled with fear, anguish, rage, violence, deprivation and trauma like so many others’? But it couldn’t have turned out otherwise. Why be grateful for what didn’t happen, for what isn’t? Gratitude, it seems, is a kind of feeling of relief, that things didn’t turn ‘otherwise’, which they could never have done.

So the joyful puppy that is rescued from a life of misery is not grateful for having been rescued, because it ‘understands’, thanks to its ‘clear-headed’ unentangled brain, that it could not possibly have been otherwise. It is joyful for what is, not for what ‘might’ have been that is not.

My poor entangled brain, however, can’t make such distinctions. It is full of joy and relief and gratitude at my current circumstances. It’s a form of insanity, really, but there it is. I laugh at the sheer folly of it, as I lie in bed with tears in my eyes. The feeling of gratitude does not abate, whatsoever, despite my intellectual ‘realization’ that that feeling is unwarranted. That it’s this body’s conditioning, with its befuddled brain, playing out the only way it possibly could. Given the amazing, wonderful circumstances of this beautiful moment I am so helplessly, hopelessly, insanely grateful for.

And it’s the same, I would assert, when it comes to acceptance, and forgiveness, and all those other sort-of-equanimous characteristics that we esteem so highly through the fog of our brains’ sense-making. They are misplaced feelings and sensations, but still our confused, entangled brains cannot help but feel them.

We think of forgiveness, often, as an act of charity, of generosity — as a virtue. It opens the door to reconciliation, to “coming to terms”, and to acceptance, we think. And of course, if that’s what we think, and want to believe, it can seem to achieve those ends. We even use the term “forgive and forget”, whereas for wild creatures (and apparently for some human cultures that have moved past trauma without confronting and insisting on acknowledgement of guilt and blame and responsibility and regret and apology and atonement), there is only forgetting. And for them, forgetting is simple — after all, it is the only thing that could have happened, and it is done, past. There is nothing for them to ‘hold on’ to.

I’m not saying that our insistence, in most human cultures, on calling past actions to account and confronting them is wrong. Given the way our brains work, it is, for most of us, the only way we can deal with what we imagine and judge to have been avoidable, deliberate, unjust, unforgivable, unforgettable actions, and hence hopefully move past the trauma that resulted.

Except there’s lots of evidence that it doesn’t work, as I’ve tried to explain in my writing about the trauma cycle:

Given this cycle, and our brains’ (IMO mistaken) insistence on ascribing free will and choice to actions past and imagining what might otherwise have been, the best we can possibly do is seek and offer forgiveness — and be grateful for what we imagine might have but did not happen.

But this never comes easily: I would never attempt to argue that those currently suffering genocides, wars, prisons and other excruciating forms of severe and chronic violence and abuse, should or could be anything but outraged, vengeful and hate-filled as a result of their situation. The human trauma cycle self-perpetuates, and we have been dealing with the consequences since the dawn of human civilization. The thing about vicious cycles is that there is no way out. Until our civilization collapses, anyway, and until enough time passes that no one remembers, even in their DNA, the trauma that accompanied it.

Acceptance, forgiveness, and gratitude, then, are really more what is left in the absence of fear, anxiety, rage, hatred, grief, resentment, jealousy, envy, shame, blame, disgruntlement, outrage, indignation, the bristling at perceived unfairness or injustice, and the trauma that their acting out produces — all those emotions that are roiled up uniquely in the entangled human brain. If we ‘feel’ accepting, forgiving, and grateful, that isn’t because we are virtuous; it’s because we have had the good fortune not to have been (at least recently) on the receiving end of unbearable, unforgivable, unforgettable, violent events and actions.

Except there is no ‘good fortune’ — there is only what was inevitably going to happen anyway.

Should we aspire to be (more) forgiving, accepting, and grateful? Why not? At least when we try it seems to help us get along better with other humans, and make us feel a bit better, as we struggle together with the human brain’s unique miasma of entangled emotions, and our uniquely human incapacity to separate what is ‘real’ from what’s imagined. Not that we have any choice in the matter. It’s hard to give, it’s hard to get, but everybody, it seems, needs a little forgiveness.

Watching our behaviour, wild creatures must be wondering what can possibly be going through our heads.

Luckily for them, they can’t imagine.

Posted in Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

Several Short Sentences About… Evolution

Over the years I’ve written several articles summarizing some of the most amazing things I’ve learned about the natural world, using the “several short sentences” format (though I confess my sentences, including this one, are generally anything but short):

  • Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
  • Several Short Sentences About Bats
  • Several Short Sentences About (Greenland) Sharks
  • Several Short Sentences About Seeds

Since I’m constantly amazed about the strange things that have evolved over the 4.5B years since life first appeared on the planet, I thought I’d do one about evolution.

  1. Life started in the ocean, but there are still some creatures coming ashore, and some other creatures migrating back to the water. Until about 500my ago, there was nothing much on land to eat except algae, bacteria, and mushrooms. So perhaps it’s no surprise that sharks have been around much longer than trees. When climate change finally enabled the growth of land plants (about 400my ago), near-shore aquatic animals evolved to be able to walk on land to be able to eat them (and to be able to escape marine predators). They mostly kept their gills but also evolved lungs to breathe in both environments (amphibians still have both). But in some cases animals that evolved on land have now evolved to live back in the water instead — notably whales and dolphins. An early mammal called Pakicetus (50my ago; image below left) evolved over the next 15my into a mammal called Dorudon (ancestor of modern whales; image below right) as it slowly migrated back to the ocean (images from UK Natural History Museum). Today’s hippos — much closer in their DNA to whales than to ruminant mammals — appear to be slowly migrating back to the water as their eyes and nostrils migrate up and back in their bodies.

  1. The capacity of some animals to generate and detect electric fields evolved about 500my ago. It independently evolved eight times in evolutionary history (that we know of), and works differently in each case. Many marine animals like sharks can sense electric fields in order to detect the presence of objects, including predators and prey. Some electro-receptive fish can see these fields so clearly that they can swim backwards, ‘seeing’ as well with these fields as with their eyes. Others send out electric pulses (“active electroreception”) to detect objects in the electric fields they create. Still others, like the electric eel (not actually an eel) and some rays, can generate electric pulses strong enough to stun or kill predators and prey. And some can generate electric fields defensively, just to scare off predators into believing they could be harmful when they aren’t. Scientists are discovering that many of these creatures also use these electric fields as a communication device, modulating the waveforms of their electric pulses to send different messages. While mostly appearing in fish, this capacity survives in animals like dolphins and platypuses. And bees have recently been discovered to be able to detect electrostatic charges in flowers. And of course, there’s birds’ navigation abilities, which entail orientation to the Earth’s magnetic field, possibly at the quantum level, within the birds’ bodies.
  2. While the evolution of photosynthesis in leaf-bearing plants is relatively recent (400my ago), photosynthesis evolved in some of the earliest-known forms of life on the planet, including algae and some bacteria. An even earlier type of photosynthesis, one that did not produce oxygen, is estimated to have started at least 3500my ago and lasted for 1000my. It’s hypothesized that during this low-oxygen period in the planet’s evolution, the atmosphere and coasts of the planet, seen from space, would have appeared purple rather than blue and green.
  3. What followed our “purple period” is what is called the Great Oxygenation Event, or Oxygen Catastrophe. About 2500my ago, cyanobacteria evolved the capacity to produce energy from light in a new way, called oxygenic photosynthesis, that released oxygen into the air as a byproduct. The problem was, oxygen was toxic to most of the then-existing early forms of life, resulting in a massive extinction, and the atmospheric changes also led to a global glaciation (no, not Snowball Earth — that came much later). Some hypothesize that the only reason life wasn’t completely eradicated during this period was that the anaerobic archaea (archaea are living organisms that predate both plants and animals) evolved a symbiotic arrangement with the aerobic proteobacteria, called symbiogenesis, that allowed the symbiotic creature, called a eukaryote, to survive the new atmosphere. A by-product of this symbiosis was mitochondria, the necessary precursor to all complex forms of life (plants and animals) that we know of on Earth. Were it not for the accident of the Oxygen Catastrophe, our planet would likely still only be inhabited by single-celled life forms. Or by who knows what?
  4. Thanks to symbiogenesis, simple animals now began to evolve on the planet (about 2200mya). But not plants. Another accident was required for the emergence of plants, and it occurred about 1600mya, when the symbiotes that had been produced in response to the Oxygen Catastrophe evolved a yet-more-complicated symbiotic relationship with those same cyanobacteria that had created the Catastrophe, yielding a new kind of eukaryote, one containing chloroplasts, which is the precursor to leaf-bearing plants. So now the stage was set for the emergence of complex life on Earth. But the drama wasn’t over yet.
  5. There is great controversy over the theories that, three times between 720mya and 540mya, the entire planet cooled to the point it was completely, or nearly completely, covered in ice (or at least ‘slush’), including the oceans. This was at a time when the first multi-cellular life was emerging, including algae, mushrooms and jellyfish. Detractors of the theory claim there is insufficient evidence, given what we now know about the continents’ shifts, that the freeze was global, or that if such a thing happened, it would be a ‘runaway’ event, and the planet would have remained in its frozen state ever since. But there are explanations that accommodate these objections, and explain how the cooling arose in the first place, mostly relying on the idea of supervolcano activity radically altering the atmosphere and the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth. But some of the explanations posit that it was the early evolution of multi-cellular life that itself precipitated the extreme cooling. We can never know. All we know is that, when this era ended with sharp global warming, massive melting, and release of minerals into the nearly-lifeless world of the time, what followed was the greatest expansion of diverse complex life our world has seen: The Cambrian Explosion, just over 500my ago.
  6. The most oft-cited example of an exaptation is that bird feathers initially evolved for temperature regulation, but later were adapted for flight. I have postulated that perhaps the most astonishing exaptation in humans was the entanglement of our human brains, which might have occurred to enable us to deal with new, unfamiliar, harsh environments, but which led to humans being able to imagine unreal things (right brain) and then conceive of those imagined things as being real (left brain). This enabled most of our modern technologies (such as abstract language, and music, both of which are exaptations in their own right) but also enabled us to conceive of our imagined selves as real and separate from everyone and everything else. There is evidence that we are the only living creatures that do this. Whether that’s a capacity or an incapacity is debatable, but it does explain how our behaviour has diverged from that of other creatures, notably our closest cousins the chimps and bonobos (our genetics diverged from theirs only about 7my ago, a blink in time). The millipedes that first made the migration from ocean to land had evolved a jointed exoskeleton that suited their particular marine environments, but this exoskeleton was also well-suited to adapting to life on land — another exaptation. Stephen Jay Gould suggested that there is an exaptation/adaptation “cycle” that helps evolution occur more quickly, and also speculated that what we think of as our “junk DNA” (parts of our genetic makeup with no obvious function) might in fact be “spare parts” that can readily be put to use in this cycle.
  7. About 7-8my ago, the Earth was bombarded by massive amounts of cosmic radiation, most likely from an exploding supernova star (and there was a similar massive cosmic storm 2-3my ago due to another supernova explosion). This storm occurred just as we were genetically separating from bonobos and chimps (or perhaps our separation at that time is not just a coincidence). There is evidence that this cosmic radiation produced ubiquitous lightning that caused a huge number of wildfires — perhaps enough to turn the heavily-forested African continent of the time into the mostly savanna grasslands which we still see today. This might have led both to an evolutionary preference for bipedalism (to see over the tall grasses), and an expanded and more protein- and amino-acid rich diet (dependent more on fish and less on figs and nuts) suitable for evolving a larger and more complex (and entangled) brain.
  8. Ice ages are not a new or rare phenomenon in Earth’s evolution. In addition to the ones described in points 4 and 6 above, we know of three others: about 430-460my ago, 260-360my ago, and, much more recently, from about 34my ago until today. Each has precipitated or been accompanied by great extinction events. The chart below (using a crypto-log scale for time) is from Glen Fergus on Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). You can see the extraordinary climate instability and record cold that prevailed for most of the Pleistocene Epoch, and the extraordinary climate stability (until 1900CE) for all of the Holocene (the last 10,000 years). Humans emerged at the start of the Pliocene (black area on the chart below) but we apparently struggled to deal with the increasing cold, and when the Earth reached its coldest (and driest) temperature about 900ky ago, our human population apparently dropped to not much more than 1,000 people, eliminating 2/3 of human genetic diversity and an estimated 98.7% of the human population. And then, just as human population had started growing again, the supervolcanic Toba Eruption led to a second bottleneck about 70ky ago, with human population again dropping to a few thousand.

  1. The current guess is that somewhere between 1.5my and 2my ago, humans evolved to become largely hairless, unlike our furry cousins. A genetic switch converted most of our hair follicle cells into sweat gland cells. This enabled us, scientists hypothesize, to survive and hunt better in the savanna left behind when the tropical forests where we first lived burned (point 8 above) and left us needing to work much harder, and under the open sun, to feed ourselves to survive. As we became bipedal, our exposed heads kept the hair needed to protect us from UV and other solar rays. Our exposed skin darkened to protect the rest of our bodies. We still have all the DNA needed to produce humans with heavily-furred bodies, but, for now, those genes aren’t expressed, so we remain the “naked ape”.
  2. One of the great mysteries of human evolution is why our brains grew rapidly (tripled in size) from about 2my ago until about 160ky ago, and why (some claim) they’ve been shrinking since then. There are theories about this based on changing human environmental, social, and cultural conditions and behaviours, but none of them is satisfactory. Every theory put forth fails to explain why other creatures with the same evolving conditions and behaviours did not undergo similar significant brain size changes. Increased brain size and complexity makes huge demands on our metabolism, so its occurrence is unlikely to be accidental. One study insists the ratio of brain size to overall body mass has actually never significantly changed in our species, and that “size doesn’t matter; it’s what you can do with it” when it comes to brains’ capacities. Some birds’ intelligence is a pretty good indicator of this.
  3. One of the great challenges in tracing the evolution of many creatures, and of human ancestors and relatives like chimps in particular, is that their populations were never that large to begin with, and they lived mostly in tropical areas that are not suitable for fossil formation. They, and we, evolved to live in specific, small, ecological and climate niches, to be bit players in the vast panorama of life on Earth. Our cousins knew better than to leave. We knew better than to stay.
  4. The strange life cycles of periodical cicadas arose independently at least eight times that we know of — those life cycles are 13 and 17 years, and it is thought that these prime numbers were evolutionarily selected for because it is harder for both predators and prey to adapt their own shorter cycles to capitalize on or avoid the devastating emergence of cicadas. The synchronized emergence of these creatures after such a long period underground living off tree roots, only to die off completely after a few weeks of breeding the next generation, is still largely a mystery.
  5. We continue to find mind-boggling examples of evolutionary adaptation every year, many of them now in the ocean’s deepest trenches, where pressure is enormous and light almost non-existent. One example is loricifera, a recently-discovered tiny deep sea creature with a head, mouth, brain and digestive system that breaks the rules of symbiogenesis (point 4 above) — they are multicellular organisms that have no mitochondria, and require no oxygen to thrive, using a completely different and more ancient means of respiration. Another example is siphonophores, a diverse and complex grouping of sea creatures that vary from 2mm to 50m in length (longer than the largest whales). They are designated an order, with 175 known species, but they might better be described as a community of interdependent, separately specialized creatures. But then, we might describe the human animal the same way.
  6. And if all that is not mysterious enough, there are some species that have evolved the ability to procreate through asexual parthenogenesis — no males required. And it’s not rare: “Parthenogenesis occurs naturally in some plants, algae, invertebrate animal species (including nematodes, some tardigrades, water fleas, some scorpions, aphids, some mites, some bees, some Phasmatodea, and parasitic wasps), and a few vertebrates (such as some fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds”.
  7. Most mammals, birds, insects, reptiles and amphibians need sleep. Fish apparently can and do sleep, but don’t suffer any adverse effects when they don’t. But bullfrogs apparently don’t sleep at all. And whales and dolphins can go a month without sleeping. Ducks often sleep half a brain at a time, with one eye and one brain hemisphere awake and alert. So, apparently, do crocodiles and some sharks. Bats sleep an average of 19 hours a day; giraffes, only 3 hours a day. No one seems to know if, or how, migratory birds sleep while they’re flying long distances without breaks. And while we know why we seem to need sleep, no one seems to know why we haven’t evolved species that don’t need sleep, which presumably would be an evolutionary advantage.
  8. When their local environment and local climate don’t change, some creatures appear to hardly evolve at all, even over millions of years (some crabs, turtles and fish for example). At the other extreme, one reason that bacteria have been the most successful animal inhabitants of our planet for its entire history (3450my) is their staggering capacity to evolve quickly, including the capacity to transfer genes from one bacterium to another. Another reason is their capacity to adapt to many different niches of climate and environment, including some extremely hostile ones. The current great extinction is likely (barring runaway climate change that creates a Hothouse Earth) to create huge niches for new life forms to evolve to fill, as past extinctions did. Scientists believe rodents, cockroaches, termites, bats, and pigeons will continue to thrive in a hot, tempestuous, future Earth (largely thanks to us, their populations have recently exploded and they’ve developed mutations to adapt to many different environments). The large cats might return and replace us as apex predators. Rodents and other surviving land animals might evolve to follow the hippos back to the oceans if life on land becomes too hot, dry and stormy. And animals might evolve with the capacity to extract the vast stores of carbon in all the waste plastics we’ve created that will likely be around long after we’re gone.

The word evolution means unrolling. Charles Darwin didn’t use the term, and disliked it because it implied to him the idea of ‘progress’, and his theory was about change and adaptation — he was indifferent to the idea that it had any ‘direction’, and actually used the expression “descent with modification” instead. No wonder his work was so loathed by the churches of the day!

In our use of the term, we have re-embraced the idea of progress, and adopted evolution “trees” which, absurdly, show humans at the “top” of the tree, as the “crown of creation”. The idea that it’s a random process, without direction or purpose, with cycles of increasing and decreasing complexity, is too challenging for many humans to accept.

So perhaps unrolling isn’t a bad definition of evolution. It’s just that it’s a form of unrolling, irrespective of whether or not there are any humans around to witness it, that, at least at a cosmic level, has no beginning, no direction, and no end.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 14 Comments

The Value of Therapy, When You Have No Free Will & No Self


image by Layers on Pixabay (this is the same image Tim used to illustrate his post)

I‘ve mentioned before that I battled severe depression and then debilitating anxiety for much of my life. Over the past decade or two, the symptoms have dissipated, and I can now hardly remember how difficult it was dealing with it.

I don’t think I had anything to do with this recovery. I think my body chemistry just changed over time, and the Noonday Demon just kind of left the premises as that happened. Perhaps it’s like the kidney stones I suffered in my middle years, which I no longer have to deal with either.

I grew up in a culture that viewed depression as a kind of moral weakness. My mother suffered from it more than I did, but it just wasn’t discussed. “Just really tired” or “Just not feeling well” were the code-words. Just total denial that it might be a form of mental illness.

So I just kept denying it, even when it interfered with my work. Even when I was zoned out on Paxil, or recovering from taking it. I don’t think anyone ever knew, until I realized it myself just twenty years ago.

The latest article by Tim Watkins describes his experience both as a patient and as a care provider/advocate in Britain’s NHS, a system which, like all of the western health-care systems, is in a state of increasing collapse. The health care systems never really accommodated mental illnesses anyway, and now they simply can’t afford to.

Tim explains that our health systems (like many of our systems) are designed only to respond to problems and immediate needs as they arise. There is neither the will nor the capacity to have these systems actually prevent illness and other health problems — that is not rewarded by these systems. Tim identifies some programs and projects that do prevent physical or mental illness, but they mostly operate outside the health care system. Even health and medical charities, he explains, are now so dependent on governments and pharma corporations that they dare not challenge the dysfunction of these systems*.

When the billions spent touting SSRIs were revealed to have been a complete con job by Big Pharma, creating far more misery than they resolved, Tim explains, the profession and industry jumped into the arms of the CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) preachers, and they have been absurdly overselling this dubious form of faith healing ever since. Tim says it’s wrong to call CBT a scam (though he acknowledges other professionals do), and notes:

It falsely promised – and often overstated its results – to cure people in a matter of weeks. And it could be delivered by cheaper, non-graduate therapists for a fraction of the cost of traditional psychology…  The problem… is that CBT was sold … as a kind of miracle cure… which it could never be. Mental illness is simply too complex for any one intervention to work for everyone. Indeed, for every intervention it was easy enough to find recipients who claimed to be made worse by it. So that, in the end treatments became a kind of “suck it and see” process, where the best one could say was if it helps keep doing it, and if it doesn’t, then stop.

This is, of course, the same process that is used to justify giving patients placebos. Except CBT is a lot more expensive than sugar pills.

When Tim looked to find treatments and therapies that actually worked, his researched revealed that only one thing really did: a relationship with someone who “dropped the act and had related to the depressed person as one human to another”, and he discovered that the best people to create such relationships were people who had suffered from depression themselves.

Our modern mental health crisis, Tim says, has been exacerbated by the end of reliable lifetime work and the security it provides, as corporations in our overextended economy automate, outsource, cut back and offshore most of their labour in the interest of profits. Loss of a job often leads to relationships breaking up, financial crises, homelessness, and, inevitably, mental health crises. He quotes one GP as saying “its like we’re busy pulling drowning people out of the river, but nobody is looking upstream to see why they are falling in.” Stress — the fear of not being able to care for yourself, your family and your loved ones — is the precipitator of so much disease.

This is entirely consistent with what Richard Lewontin asserted in The Triple Helix: that the actual causes of major diseases in much of the world are not viruses and bacteria, but overwork, stress and malnourishment, which render us vulnerable to these ubiquitous germs. And, Richard added:

Sulfites, deforested mountainsides, and non-degradable waste dumps are not the causes of degradation of the conditions of human life, they are only its agencies. The cause is the narrow rationality of an anarchic scheme of production that was developed by industrial capitalism and adopted by industrial socialism.

Our health care systems are helpless to deal with the overwhelming and ever-increasing flood of illnesses caused principally by the collapse of our dysfunctional economic systems. Our health care systems are, as a result, headed for collapse themselves.

This collapse starts with the introduction of two-tier health care that favours the rich (the only ones who can still afford to pay for decent health care), and then descends to triage systems (if you’re too sick, or not sick enough, they won’t treat you), and eventually complete exclusions (in some countries pharmaceuticals, therapy of all kinds, and dentistry are not covered by health plans because they’re just too expensive for the system to afford). The complete collapse of the NHS in this decade was predicted a generation ago, Tim notes, and it’s right on schedule.

Tim’s approach, which he pursued for years as a mental health care advocate, was a combination of public awareness (notably training everyone possible in Mental Health First Aid, in order to increase society-wide capacity instead of relying solely on exhausted professionals), and self-management (equipping those struggling with mental health issues, and their families and loved ones, to be able to care for themselves as much as possible, as public health care systems collapse).

CBT is absolutely not the key to either element in this approach, he says:

CBT itself… was founded on a wrong observation. Its originators came to believe that “the thought gives rise to the feeling,” and that if a negative thought were swapped for a positive one, a negative emotion or physical feeling would turn into a positive one.

It’s hard to believe that this psychobabble version of “wishful thinking” would ever be considered seriously as a form of therapy, but here we are. What Tim explains is that there is a three-part vicious cycle in mental illness: Not only do negative thoughts and negative feelings reinforce each other, but they manifest in unhealthy physical symptoms as well. It’s not “all in your head” — it’s in your DNA, your hormonal system, your nervous system, and your whole body.

To that point, what Tim says is not inconsistent with scientists’ increasing awareness that we have no free will, and that, as I have recently been trying to convey, we have no “self” that actually has any power to do anything anyway. Our self is just the brain’s dreamt-up rationalization engine to try to make sense after the fact of the actions that the complicity of all the creatures that we call ‘our’ body are already doing. “We”, our selves, have no say in it at all. CBT, which berates you for not taking responsibility and not being able to magically erase your mental illness by “changing your thinking” about it, is, in this context, a brutally cruel treatment that is not only inherently ineffective, it is almost inevitably going to make the patient feel worse because they’re “not doing it right” or “not trying hard enough”.

It’s at this point in Tim’s essay, when he goes into more detail about what he means by “self-management”, that I start to get a bit dubious about his program. After lambasting CBT for not being the right approach (“The last thing someone already in the grip of depression needs is to be set up for failure”), he goes on to say:

What works is to allow people to become aware … of their thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, and behaviours. As this opens up the possibility of change. During the time that I taught self-management courses, I found that as participants became more self-aware, they would find their own way to the changes which best suited them. One person, for example, would choose to improve their diet, while another would become more physically active. All that was required was some basic knowledge about how to do this.

Hmm. I know what he means. I used to suffer from an anxiety-related affliction called road rage. It was only when I learned (thanks to some very smart and very patient women) to become aware that my anger was dysfunctional, that my conditioned response to others’ dangerous driving changed. Now, that initial burst of anger/fear is quickly discharged instead of consuming me for hours, as it once did. These smart women reconditioned me to behave differently. They did it at a time when I was already becoming more self-aware of other dysfunctional behaviours, so I was ripe for reconditioning, but still. Having no free will does not mean your conditioned behaviours cannot be changed.

So I can see what Tim is getting at, saying self-awareness is the key. But I would argue that while self-awareness (or lack of it) can be a by-product of our (re-)conditioning, it is not self-awareness that gives us agency to change. We change when, and only when, our conditioning changes. It is not ‘our’ doing.

Of course, things like changing your diet and doing more exercise are almost always good habits to pursue, and are likely to make you more physically and mentally healthy. But you’re only going to change your diet or exercise if such a change is already consistent with your (biological and cultural) conditioning. And you’re quite likely, if the change isn’t totally consistent with your conditioning, to fall back to your previously conditioned diet and to give up exercising. This isn’t a matter of self-awareness or lack of self-control. It’s not a matter of “choosing” changes that best suit us. It’s just what our conditioning, unmediated by ‘us’, has led to.

‘I’ switched to a much healthier diet, and undertook a rigorous exercise routine, because it was totally consistent with my conditioning up to the point I (gradually, and haltingly) made these changes. I was given some knowledge, in each case, that made the changes easier and more pleasant, and that, one could argue, ‘tipped me over’. But that knowledge would have had no impact had I not already been conditioned to be amenable to making such a change. In fact, had I received that knowledge ten years earlier, it would have made no change to my behaviour whatsoever. And if I had received that knowledge back when I lived in the shadow of the Noonday Demon, well, it wouldn’t even have registered.

The healthier diet and exercise weren’t ‘my’ doing at all. They were the inevitable expressions of my conditioning given the circumstances of the moment when the change happened, and the changing circumstances and different conditioning that have occurred ever since. This is what ‘my body’ apparently does now. ‘I’ have no say in it.

So it is entirely possible that pointing something out to someone suffering from depression (or any mental or physical illness, for that matter) can, if it’s consistent with their other conditioning, and if the circumstances of the moment are right, lead to that person being reconditioned, at least temporarily, to behave in a way that is more conducive to good health. And quite often what is pointed out will be about, or will bring about, some new self-awareness, at least temporarily. But our behaviour is the consequence of all of our biological and cultural conditioning given all of the circumstances that affect us over our lives, a nearly-infinite number of variables over which ‘we’ have no control.

A year after a patient began a ‘self-management’ program and acquired the ‘self-awareness’ that purportedly led them to change their diet, given all of the other conditioning and all the other circumstances that affected their conditioning over that year and all the years preceding it, how much of an impact did that ‘self-awareness’ have on the diet they’re following then? Or, rather, was that self-awareness activity just the inevitable result of all the conditioning that led up to it, given the circumstances of each moment? Including the circumstances of meeting Tim and being introduced to the concepts of his program at just the right time it happened to fit with all the patient’s other conditioning?

A butterfly flapping its wings can indeed, under the right circumstances, be the ‘deciding’ factor that produces a tornado several weeks later in another part of the world. So we should not be reticent to flap away, if there’s even a small chance it might make someone feel better. No harm in trying.

And the placebo effect can be very real, and very powerful. At least for a while.

I am convinced that we have no free will, no agency, no control or self-control. Still, as I’ve often heard in non-duality circles: religion, spirituality, meditation and other kinds of ‘therapy’ can serve to “make the prison of the self more comfortable”, and what could possibly be wrong with that? (Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.)

…..

Tim concludes with a statement of where we stand now: essentially, systems in collapse, everything slowly (or quickly) falling apart (our health care systems in particular), and more and more of us (young people especially) facing a hopeless and depressing future. It’s clear that we’re facing a great reckoning, and our dependence on all our modern civilization’s systems — not just health care but also education, business and jobs, agriculture, transportation, trade and the rest of our economic systems, and our political and social systems — makes us extremely vulnerable to chaos and irrational behaviours as those systems fail us.

We’re going to have to relearn to do locally, inexpensively, humbly, and pragmatically, almost everything we now rely on others in these big systems to do for us. Including mostly looking after our own physical and mental health, mostly through preventative measures. We’re going to make a lot of mistakes. Our recent conditioning has not prepared us at all well for such a challenge.

Tim tells an interesting story about his experience in Emergency Preparedness in the UK that parallels mine when I worked briefly for a Canadian health ministry:

The two medical professions given highest priority were vets and nurses. Vets, because the health of the remaining livestock would be critical, and nurses because any injury which couldn’t be patched up or which wouldn’t heal on its own would be a death sentence, so there would be no point wasting resources treating it.

This is what we’re looking at as collapse accelerates and the Long Emergency deepens. An epidemic of anomie and depression isn’t going to help matters. But we’ll flap away, and do our best, the only thing we can possibly do. We’re certainly not ready for this, but the conditioning that has brought us to this point of accelerating collapse also kept us alive through some pretty horrific catastrophes earlier in our evolution. We might just surprise the more-than-human world with our capacity to be reconditioned, in the ashes of collapse, centuries or millennia from now, in a way that actually works for all life on the planet.


* The paradox that charities can become inadvertently captive to the systems and perpetrators that gave rise to the problems the charities were created to confront in the first place, is not limited to health care — the same applies for example to many environmental organizations that now depend on the next industry or government outrage to rail against, without which they’d quickly fade from the news headlines (since they can’t and don’t do anything except protest) and their funding would dry up. Ain’t capitalism wonderful?

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

Always Wanting More


Screen cap from a brilliant mashup of the top pop songs of 2008 by Dj Earworm that kinda touches on the subject of this post.

In Robert Sapolsky’s 2017 book Behave (before he took on the subject of free will in Determined) he writes about habituation:

Once, hunter-gatherers might chance upon honey from a beehive and thus briefly satisfy a hardwired food craving. And now we have hundreds of carefully designed commercial foods that supply a burst of sensation unmatched by some lowly natural food. Once, we had lives that, amid considerable privation, also offered numerous subtle, hard-won pleasures. And now we have drugs that cause spasms of pleasure and dopamine release a thousandfold higher than anything stimulated in our old drug-free world.

An emptiness comes from this combination of over-the-top nonnatural sources of reward and the inevitability of habituation; this is because unnaturally strong explosions of synthetic experience and sensation and pleasure evoke unnaturally strong degrees of habituation. This has two consequences. First, soon we barely notice the fleeting whispers of pleasure caused by leaves in autumn, or by the lingering glance of the right person, or by the promise of reward following a difficult, worthy task. And the other consequence is that we eventually habituate to even those artificial deluges of intensity.

If we were designed by engineers, as we consumed more, we’d desire less. But our frequent human tragedy is that the more we consume, the hungrier we get. More and faster and stronger. What was unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow.

In last year’s book on free will, he circles back to this tragedy, lamenting that since we have no free will, there is no way to escape this cycle of habituation. We cannot “train ourselves” to want less, when the dopamine and other chemicals in our bodies is driving us to want more. So now we have 8 billion humans always wanting more than what they have, which is a recipe for both economic and ecological disaster.

This is not a matter of greed. What we think about our behaviour is simply the brain’s rationalization for what we have done after the fact. We want what we want — or more accurately, the trillions of creatures that make up what we call ‘us’ are conditioned by trillions of other creatures, and the by the circumstances of the moment (which might eg include the presence of a large chocolate bar in front of us), and the aggregate result of all that conditioning determines what the complicity of creatures we collectively call ‘us’ will actually do.

That conditioning might include the recent memory of someone we care about warning us that eating so much chocolate is not good for our health, or of a recent cardiac arrest partially caused by poor diet, such that we might get a dopamine hit from congratulating ourselves on resisting the chocolate. But ultimately there is no decision about whether or not ‘we’ eat the chocolate. It is already determined by an unfathomable number of conditioning events over which ‘we’ have no control. ‘We’ can only try to (and claim to) ‘make sense’ of the action after the fact.

And in fact, there isn’t even a ‘we’, a coherent ‘self’ making or rationalizing these actions, these apparent ‘decisions’. ‘We’ are just a construct of the brain, furiously and helplessly trying to make sense of everything, as our brains’ constituent creatures have been conditioned to do.

So Robert has effectively dealt a double blow to the idea that “if only we all” do x, collapse (or genocide, or WW3, or any other terrible outcome) might be averted. There is no ‘we’ to do x, and whatever the 8 billion complicities of creatures do is already determined, and no amount of ‘ifs’ and ‘shoulds’ will make an iota of difference. All these magical solutions to the predicaments we face are just wishful thinking, opinions with no more value than the babbling of a baby. They are just conditioned attempts to make ourselves feel better, or to make others feel better (or, perhaps, to make others feel worse), by provoking a shot of dopamine, adrenaline, or other chemicals that increase or reduce our sensations of pleasure or pain.

And of course, we’re suckers for these provocations, whether they be comforting magic solutions (new tech, new ideas, new products, new projects, new explanations) or ‘facts’ to induce righteous indignation or outrage. The food industry, the propaganda industry, the marketing industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the advertising and PR and ‘management’ industries are all essentially in the dopamine business — trying to condition the complicity of creatures you imagine to be ‘you’ to buy more of what they’re ‘selling’, to get more dopamine. And all those apparent people in those industries are doing that because that’s what they (the complicities of creatures they call their selves) have been conditioned to do.

It’s all happening without ‘us’.

What insane evolutionary logic produced creatures that always want more? Robert’s story about the honey explains it. If there’s a scarcity of something, there’s an evolutionary advantage to providing a dopamine hit to the creature that finds it, to take it while they can. That’s why we crave the chocolate, even though there’s no longer a scarcity of it. We crave what is scarce, because we are rewarded with a hit of dopamine whenever we even just anticipate getting more of it.

And now we live in a world of actual or artificially-created scarcity of just about everything. The above-noted industries create the scarcity (eg tickets to see Taylor Swift), and then sell us their products at prices that reflect that scarcity. That’s what they are conditioned to do. And with 8 billion humans, it’s not hard to create a scarcity; there’s already never enough to go around, and soaring inequality is making that situation worse. (That obscene inequality is likewise the aggregate result of all our conditioning.) Every news item on the doom-scroll creates a scarcity of secure feelings, and a scarcity of knowledge of ‘what to do’, and the industries above would be only too happy to fill that scarcity — just vote for Genocide Joe, or Der Drumpf, or take this pill, or buy this AR-15, or wear this brand of clothes, or eat/drink/smoke this, and you’ll feel better.

Until you want more. And you will want more.

That’s the other insidious part of habituation. When you get x amount of something, over and over, it no longer gives you the same dopamine hit. Now you need 2x of it to get the same feeling. Bigger house, fancier car, bigger meals, bigger gun, more exclusive clothes, more power and wealth, more social media righteous indignation and outrage, more, more, more!, and oh, “make it a double”. Why does this happen?

Robert’s explanation is that dopamine and other hormones have to do a lot of work in a lot of different contexts, and hence the dopamine reward system needs to constantly rescale to condition as much as possible the optimal responses in the creature. This propensity to (sometimes inappropriately) habituate to different levels of reward is an unfortunate consequence of these limitations in what hormones and neurotransmitters are able to do. What we call “unhealthy addictions” might be characterized as the result of a bug in our conditioning chemistry.

But that’s where we are. This is where our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of each moment of our lives, has taken us. It couldn’t have gone any other way. And the aggregate result is accelerating collapse and the sixth great extinction of life on earth.

Does this mean that humans, and perhaps other animals that come to dominate their ecosystems, will always become rapacious, ruinous destroyers of those ecosystems?

I think the answer to this question is no, for two reasons. First, before habituation to more, more, more, can prove a species’ undoing, it needs to develop the capacity to produce more, more, more. Other mammals and birds can be habituated the same way we have been, as has been shown in lab experiments that have produced addictive, destructive behaviour in many animals. But that always requires that a human unnaturally invoke that behaviour in them, provoking them to do things that would never arise in the wild. Our species appears to be the only one that has developed the capacity to produce enough of anything to become habituated to it. It is doubtful that many wild bears have become so enamoured of a taste of honey that they were rendered addicted and dysfunctional by their appetite for it!

And secondly, I would argue that dysfunctional habituation such as that we modern humans suffer from, requires an entangled brain. Despite the similarities between their brains and ours, our closest cousins the chimps and bonobos lack the capacity for abstraction and the sense of self and separation that would be needed to produce an environment that could habituate their kin and then exploit that habituation for ‘self’-ish gain.

The fact that creatures like whales and corvids have enormous brains relative to their body size, would seem to demonstrate that the marvel, or evolutionary misstep (depending on how you look at it) of an entangled ‘self-conscious’ brain doesn’t necessarily emerge in large-brained creatures, even over millions of years. And I would further argue that the work of Stephen Jay Gould suggests that the emergence of another entangled-brained creature from the evolutionary cauldron is extremely unlikely. As EO Wilson famously put it “Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth”; the emergence of a species that always wants more, and is capable of endlessly producing more (until it can’t) seems an unlikely and tragic evolutionary turn.

All of this is perhaps why, when Robert wrote his book about free will, he acknowledged that, despite what he knows to be true, he still almost always behaves as if he does have free will. That’s his, and our, conditioning. We (ie the complicity of creatures we label and imagine to be our coherent selves) have no choice in any of it. We might briefly become aware of the fact that we’re ‘being done’ rather than actually doing anything of our own volition, but that changes nothing. It just makes us, briefly, self-aware of our tragic lot.

This inevitability, this hopelessness, this lack of control, is perhaps more than our new and bewildered species can handle. It’s one thing to be ‘smart’ enough to so spoil your own ecosystems as to have probably doomed most of the planet’s life to extinction. It’s another to also be ‘smart’ enough to know that, due to conditioning, lack of free will, the inevitable mental illness of brain entanglement, and a propensity for habituation, there is absolutely nothing that any or all of us can do to prevent or mitigate that extinction.

No wonder so many humans are struggling with depression. And that’s the topic for my next post, based on a new article by Tim Watkins that probes what happens to a species’ mental health when everything slowly starts falling apart.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

Quack

This is #28 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk, hike, and explore in my local community.


mergansers in Bowen Island’s lagoon; my own photo

I‘m sitting on a bench in Lafarge Lake park, watching the ducks and listening to the conversations of the people passing by on the pathway that goes around the lake. It isn’t a real lake — it’s an abandoned quarry pit, named after a huge cement conglomerate, converted into a park by the city. But the ducks don’t seem to mind. Unlike most humans, they’re pretty resilient. Watching them brings to mind a passage from Dmitry Orlov’s book Communities That Abide, that tells the story of how birds self-organize in the face of collapse, adapting easily without needing a ‘leader’:

Fifty blackbirds nest in a dead tree, congregating and socializing raucously each evening, the babies squawking for food. Then someone cuts the tree down, and the birds scatter. Collapse. The tree-killer sells the wood and the empty nests for profit. The birds circle and regroup, and in a few hours find a new tree and start building new nests. Three days later, for the birds, it is exactly as it was before the fall. They understand community, and resilience.

Ducks get a really bad rap when it comes to the English and French languages. Their speech, described as a quack, is a term that has come to mean a charlatan, a professional fraud, based on the apparent nonsense they say. The French word for duck is canard, which in English means a fabricated story or hoax. And the French for quack is cancaner, a word that means both quacking and gossiping.

I find the quacking rather charming. To us it may be ‘nonsense’, but apparently ducks have at least 100 different ‘messages’ in their quacks that other ducks readily understand. They are supposedly almost as smart as corvids and psittacines (parrots), and that’s saying something.

Today I am looking for the sights and sounds of joy, pleasure, and fun. This might seem an insensitive quest. After all, we are living in a world with grotesque genocides, wars of many different kinds, horrific cruelty to animals in factory farms and other institutions of torture, and the accelerating collapse of our entire civilization, including the ecological systems on which all life depends.

I think about this. On the way over to the lake, I saw dozens of old-fashioned, 1960s-style posters glued onto almost every lamppost — you know, the ones that were banned back then after it was found they were almost impossible to remove. All of these were protesting the current Nakba and genocide by Israel in Palestine.

I cheered the protesters when they gathered at city hall a few days earlier, but I really wondered whether it was accomplishing anything. In the 60s it was the atrocity of the Vietnam War that we were protesting, and I suppose, as with Vietnam, it’s sufficient, and necessary, to sow some doubt in people’s minds, especially when you can get a large turnout. But you’ll also entrench some people in their denial and opposition. For better and for worse, we do condition each other. We do what we can, what we must.

I think about the fact that it would seem all our behaviour is conditioned, and we cannot help what we do, including the commission of atrocities and acts of war and traumatizing violence. I sigh. I know I write about this all the time, but I suspect that the people who read my blog largely already share my worldview. And those who don’t are not going to be reconditioned to think or believe otherwise by anything I might write, or do.

Every day that I post a new article, I lose another reader who is annoyed at the apparent incongruity or cognitive dissonance of my writing, and I pick up a new reader for whom what I say is seemingly less incongruous than everything else they’re reading.

Still, just writing about all this never seems like ‘enough’. I feel bad mostly because I’m not doing anything about the local aspects of, and local contributors to, collapse — incompetent political decision-making and spending decisions at every level, insane development proposals, the clear-cutting of mountain forests and rezoning of rich agricultural land for new housing, the horrific conditions of the local homeless population, the ever-growing number of instances of family, and animal, abuse and neglect, and the endless firehose of propaganda that permeates everywhere, including local media. Even here.

I decide that I’m going to find one thing I can do that will make a difference, locally, something that doesn’t depend on changing people’s minds. Maybe volunteer to help clean up or test the water of our local creek. Or organize a fix-it fair. I don’t know. I’m so unskilled at doing things that are useful in a world falling apart.

My quest today for sights and sounds of joy, pleasure and fun is not to valiantly seek these things ‘in spite of everything’, or to escape from the drumbeat of collapse and the doomscroll. The feral creature in me just wants a break from what seems to me the terrible drudgery of the human condition — so many humans I know seem to live lives largely devoid of joy, pleasure and fun, and full of unhappiness, and steeped in fear, anger, hatred, sadness and trauma.

I could say things “shouldn’t” be this way, but it’s not as if it was anyone’s choice. This is how it inevitably is. Still, today I want to suss out pockets of human and more-than-human life that are ‘uncivilized’, untamed, pleasure-filled, joyful — creatures at play, having innocent, harmless, even silly fun. The wondrous delight of discovery and exploration, for its own sake.

I look at the ducks for inspiration. There are about 60 of them here, mostly huddled closely together, moving away from the shore when a dog or child or loud person moves too close to them too quickly, and then meander back, moving as one. Ducks sleep with one eye open, and one half of their brain alert, to detect any danger, and in a group it’s the eye closest to the outside of the group that’s open. The ducks in the middle of the group are lucky; they have both eyes closed.

When I look at their eyes, I notice that they have dark sclera (the “whites of the eyes”) indistinguishable (to humans at least — ducks have vastly better vision than humans in many ways) from the cornea. I remember reading that the only animals that have evolved relatively large white sclera are those that move and hunt in packs (humans and our ape cousins, and some canid species), and the speculation is that our sclera evolved that way to make us visible to our group at a distance and to enable us to silently communicate in ways that benefit the collective effort.

I listen to the voices of the people going by in their circuits around the lake. I turn, I hope discreetly, to look at their faces. I would guess that about half of them seem to be having fun. Either their vocalizations are animated (not necessarily loud, just varied in tone), or they are smiling. This is hardly ‘nature’ and hardly an adventure, but still, there is evidence of joy here. Those walking solo are harder to gauge; they mostly look to be caught up in their own thoughts, but there is another clue — the whites of their eyes. When their eyes are animated, my instincts tell me, for the most part, they’re enjoying themselves. Maybe when we’re enjoying ourselves, we are paying more attention, noticing more, and that shows up in more eye movement, even when the eyes are mostly downcast. Just a guess.

I have often hypothesized that wild creatures basically live in three ‘states’: equanimity, excitement, and stressed. This is based entirely on animals I have personally lived with. Most of their lives, they seem to be equanimous — just at peace with the world. Excitement is provoked by various things — eg meeting another creature, sniffing something interesting, or a conditioned association (eg the promise of imminently going for a walk or a car ride). The stress state is (for untraumatized animals anyway) seemingly temporary and anomalous. Under stress, the creature ‘snaps to’ a state of heightened awareness, and presumably adrenaline production, to be able to react quickly to the sources of the perceived stress, and then ‘shakes it off’ when the source of the stress has passed. Civilized humans, I suspect, spend most of our lives in this unpleasant and (IMO) unhealthy third state.

The ducks seem, mostly, to be in their equanimous state, while the dogs passing by seem mostly excited. Equanimity seems to me a rare state for humans, though of course we can never know what state another is really in or what it’s like to be them; they may not know themselves. So it is kind of nice here where the predominant stressed state of our civilized world seems rarer, and where examples of equanimity and excitement are here to observe, to inspire us, and, of course, to serve as fodder for blog posts.

As I watch and listen to the people and animals, I wonder which of them have a “separate self” — a sense of themselves as separate from everyone and everything else. The radical non-duality speakers I know assert that that sense ‘no longer’ exists there, and that it was never needed in order for the apparent body and character to ‘function’ perfectly well, since it has no ‘choice’ in what is done anyway. And they also assert that humans are (to ‘them’) clearly the only creatures bedevilled with this sense of a “separate self”.

It makes sense to me that the ducks and the dogs have no separate selves, and no need of them. Their apparent lives are lived “full on” without the veil of self. There is equanimity, excitement, stress, pleasure and pain ‘there’, feelings that are fully ‘felt’, but not through the veil of a separate self. I get a similar sense from the babies in strollers I see — just that look of wonder, of taking everything in without taking it ‘personally’. Of course, that may be just what I want to believe, a projection, given my current fascination with radical non-duality. What stays with me is not so much whether these creatures have or don’t have separate selves, as that there is no need for separate selves, no need for the conception of one’s self as apart from everything else, in order to be fully functional.

Nevertheless, those old enough to walk and to ask “why” seem to be ‘full of themselves’, not only ‘cognizant’ of having separate selves, but quite preoccupied with them. This appears to be true even for those who seem to be in a joyful (excited or equanimous) state. So, for example: a pair of teenaged girls talking and laughing animatedly as they walk; a guy jogging around the lake with a huge smile on his face; a young couple clearly flirting; a woman practicing yoga; an older couple holding hands just taking it all in; a woman pushing a stroller and walking a dog at the same time, evidently enjoying talking with both the baby and the dog. Lots of moving sclera visible on these faces.

The rest of the humans don’t look very happy. What most distinguishes them is that they are not paying attention to their immediate surroundings. They are, evidently, either lost in their heads or lost in their earnest conversations. I would surmise that they are, like me most of the time, in what might be called ‘conceptual’ mode rather than ‘perceptual’ mode. The thing about perceiving, it seems to me, is that it takes you ‘outside of your self’. There is that brief space when the brain is apparently preoccupied with sensing, rather than making sense.

It occurs to me (now clearly in ‘conceptual’ mode) that there are two kinds of pleasure: pleasure that relates purely to excitement of the senses (the “spell of the sensuous”); and pleasure that relates to excitement of the ‘mind’, such as a new and intriguing intellectual ‘discovery’ or a reassurance that what one thinks does indeed ‘make sense’. The first is perceptual, the second conceptual. The first, I am inclined to believe, requires no conception of one’s self as real and separate; it is a direct stimulus/response process. It is what we see, I believe, in wild creatures and in babies, and in other people when they are paying attention to sensory stimuli and not to what those stimuli ‘mean’.

The second does require the conception of one’s self as real and separate. When we learn something new and interesting, or when we laugh at a joke, or when we discuss something abstract, the pleasure comes from ‘making sense’ of things. The astonishing corollary is that nothing makes sense and nothing has to make sense if there is no separate self to make sense of it — it just is as it is (apparently).

But some learning does seem to be ‘self-ish’: Surely animals like young foxes and crows (and maybe ducks and dogs) ‘learn’ through play and trial and error, and that must mean they have a sense of self that motivates this learning behaviour? When you watch a bird poking vigorously at a potential food reward with a stick, surely it is doing this for its ‘self’?

Well, actually no. In all creatures, dopamine appears to be what drives us to learn, and to play (and to do lots of other things). That dopamine evolved in our bodies to condition us to learn and play, because those things are important for survival. The dopamine is produced, in all creatures, to make us feel happy in anticipation of a reward. We have no choice but to enjoy learning and playing. That’s the same whether it’s the young fox learning motor skills playing with a bone, or the young video-game addict playing the latest RPG 18 hours a day, or me, finding more scientific evidence that supports belief in no-free-will and radical non-duality.

‘We’ don’t do anything. ‘We’ are done to, by our conditioning. Having a sense of self and separation has nothing to do with it.

With that grounding (or conditioning) I now cannot help but ‘see’ dopamine driving all the behaviours I see: Floods of it in those that are in a state of excitement. A steady trickle of it in those in a state of equanimity.

As for those in a stressed state, dopamine apparently plays an important but subordinate role to other biologically-induced chemicals that arise in all creatures in stressful moments of fear, anger and grief. Adrenaline, cortisol and corticotropin are some of the main chemicals involved in conditioning us to become angry, fearful or sad, and they all immediately prompt the production of extra dopamine to keep us in that highly emotional state, even ‘hooked’ on it, at least until the event that produced that conditioned response has passed. Anger is not just a ‘mask’ for fear; the two feelings are synchronously evoked in us by the same chemicals.

…..

The couple flirting are showing the most scleral activity, notably the sidelong glances that maximize the amount of sclera displayed. I remember watching an interview with Canadian singer Shania Twain where she seemed to deliberately cast a lot of sidelong glances, and being aware that I was quite taken with this body language. Yesterday, I watched a couple flirting in the local café — same eye inflections, same active sclera display. No choice in our propensity to do this, or in how we respond to it, I’d guess: A veritable exudation of dopamine.

Hard to read the man smiling as he jogs around the park. I’ve never experienced “runners’ high” but scientists say it’s the result of the body’s release of endocannabinoids, anxiety-reducing hormones (also released during orgasms and when eating dark chocolate). He looks like a serious runner. My experience is that the pleasure kicks in after your exercise, which I’d attributed to the “checked that off the list” sense of gratification, but which might just be more chemicals dictating my feelings. I wonder, since I really dislike running (it’s boring and tiring), what it is that has conditioned me to do it with such rigour. I ascribe this diligence to fear of getting injured or ill or fragile if I don’t stay in shape, and of course to vanity, but it’s more likely that body chemicals are behind it all. I’m basically lazy, but still seem to do this workout whenever I lack any good excuse not to.

The two teenaged girls laughing and joking are a joy to watch. Feeding off each other’s pleasure, apparently acting out in an exaggerated manner the behaviour of a mutual acquaintance. Ridicule is often mean-spirited, but in them it seems mostly good-natured, a gentle caricaturing. In all our conversations and interactions with others, we are acting, performing, but when we are doing so deliberately it seems a particularly delightful form of play. The play’s the thing, and we are playwrights all. Ask any actor or musician about the chemical rushes that drive and accompany a performance.

The woman doing yoga has her eyes open. Her expression conveys an intense focus, perhaps remembering a specific sequence and duration of poses, or the timing of her breath. Why is she doing this here, rather than in a less distracting place? She had no choice in this, of course. Perhaps it, too, is a public performance, or a reenactment of some previous yoga practice in this same place that was especially pleasant or effective. Or perhaps the presence of this sort-of natural place helps her get ‘outside’ herself and whatever has been preoccupying her mind, which helps in her meditation practice.

The older couple holding hands are gently pointing things out with their unoccupied hands. Maybe they can’t see or hear as well as they once did, so they’re helping each other out with the details. Or maybe they’re recounting some memory of this place or someplace similar. Everything about their body movement and language is so different from what I’ve observed in couples that are talking about some ‘internal’ thing, something that is not-here-now. When we are paying attention, it seems, we are somehow less our selves and more a part of everything else, like the ducks.

The woman chatting back and forth to the baby and the dog, I surmise, is inadvertently teaching the baby about the meaning of ‘self’ and of ‘other’, showing her how to become comfortable with the dis-ease of separation that will afflict her the rest of her life. She is interpreting what she imagines the dog is thinking and feeling and ‘saying’ to the baby, modelling the art of ‘self’-expression and of conversation with another creature. The baby is delighted, laughing, reaching for the dog, prattling on incoherently. The scene fills me with joy for what is being discovered and found, and with sadness for what is being lost. Lots of dopamine for the woman, the baby, and the dog, who jumps up and takes a treat for being a “good dog”.

Not much to say about those circling the lake in a clearly stressed state, those taking in nothing of this beautiful, if artificial, place. Most of us with ‘selves’, I suspect, spend most of our lives in that unpleasant state. I think the chemicals that alert wild creatures to dangers and prompt a conditioned fight/flight/freeze response for brief moments, are coursing through our veins for most of our waking hours, every day. There are only rare respites, like when we fall in love, when we get a brief reprieve from the debilitating, exhausting, endless flood of chemicals keeping us constantly, and mostly unhelpfully, hyper-alert. When we fall in love, the sense of our all-important separate self briefly falls away and opens us to something larger.

That of course is all about chemicals, too, the flood of substances that condition us to sacrifice our selves for something more important, to give up our freedom, to become attached. These are the moments when it is most clear that our ‘selves’ never had any say, any choice, over anything. ‘We’ have never done anything. ‘We’ are done to by our conditioning.

Losing themselves in the rush of chemicals that conditions our every move is simpler for wild creatures, who I think lack the sense of, and belief in, themselves as separate and apart from everything else, and the illusory sense that there is a ‘self’ somewhere inside their body that has, or ‘should have’ control over these actions. Only humans feel remorse for doing the only thing that they could ever have done.

And it’s even worse than that: There actually is no duck, no baby, no couple flirting, no ‘you’, no ‘one’, nothing ‘singular’. These are just labels, names we apply to an only-apparently-cohesive complicity of trillions of creatures that seemingly ‘make up’ a living creature. ‘We’ aren’t conditioned, this complicity is conditioned, and ‘our’ apparently conditioned behaviour is the aggregate result.

So I look again at the ducks, the dogs, the babies, the people who are under the spell of the sensuous, and those who are not. They are all complicities, just labels we arbitrarily apply because the reality of the complexity of trillions of moving parts without tidy boundaries and borders is more than we can fathom. Without these enormously oversimplifying labels, we cannot ‘make sense’ of anything. As John Gray has put it, we labour under the illusion that we are “all of one piece”, when we are not.

Now, rather playfully, as I sit here looking toward the lake, I try to no longer see animals and people and trees and buildings as single ‘things’, but rather as a profusion of vast complicities of trillions of creatures and waves and particles (and other components with apparently no substance at all), with each tiny component being constantly conditioned in unimaginably complex and mysterious ways by trillions of other components. There is no ‘one’ here. That was just a trick this brain played, conjuring up and labeling things hypothetically to try to make sense of what cannot be made sense of. Of what need not be made sense of.

For now, I put out of my mind the tragedy that the illusion of the self and separation has seemingly led to — the altered chemistry of humans and the chronic mental illness and violence that that evolutionary misstep has apparently produced. At this moment, it’s too much to bear, especially the knowledge of its inevitability.

Instead, I watch the ducks, the dogs, the babies, the flirting couple and the other humans paying attention or lost in their thoughts, not as entities but as just parts of the utterly interconnected and inseparable chaos (etym.: ‘vast openness’) of everything that appears to be. Just this, in all its wonder.

I think the ducks ‘see’ this. I smile at them, and they look at me curiously and equanimously. Quack.

I can’t help but think: If only… But no, that’s foolish grown-up human thinking.

Posted in Creative Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Month-End Reflections | 4 Comments

The Undeclared Cold War


cartoon by Michael Leunig from his fans’ FB page

Paranoia strikes deep.
Into your life it will creep.
It starts when you’re always afraid.
Step out of line, the men come and take you away.
We better stop. Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?
— Stephen Stills, For What It’s Worth

When I was growing up, spies were cool and sexy, and the Russians were just incorrigible demonic Commie bad guys, except for Ilya Kuryakin of course. And then John Le Carré started writing about western spies who were just as deranged, corrupt and ideologically fixated as those from “Communist” nations. I’m sure the CIA was not impressed.

I continue to be amazed at the level of ideological fanaticism and paranoia that the western spooks, led by the CIA and the Pentagon, and firmly in control of both US Tweedle parties, exhibit. As we learn more and more about the number of leaders they assassinated, the number of popular elected governments they overthrew, and the number of nations they destabilized, corrupted and destroyed through sanctions, propaganda, embargoes, blockades and other misdeeds, I am continually shocked and chagrined that I had no idea and the media didn’t tell us about any of this.

Their fanaticism and ruthlessness surely rivals or surpasses that of the most notorious mass murderers of human history. And most of us never had the faintest inkling what was going on. We still know only a small part of what, in collusion with the spooks of other western nations, they did to turn perhaps more than half of the nations of the world into failed states. If I’d heard ten years ago what I know now about their actions, I would have shrugged it off as an impossible, over-the-top conspiracy theory.

Fast forward to ten years ago, when what was then celebrated as the Maidan “colour revolution” turned out, we found out later, to be a US-orchestrated massacre and coup of a democratically-elected government in Ukraine, simply because that government disrupted the CIA/Pentagon plans for NATO expansion and the commensurate destabilization and destruction of Russia.

I’m still a bit dazed about it all. How I could have been so wrong about what was happening. How the media that I (at that time) mostly trusted could have been so utterly complicit in the Empire’s propaganda, censorship, and mis- and disinformation campaigns. How I could have been so credulous as to believe that decades of large-scale, relentless and violent acts of undeclared war and destruction were just boys playing at being spies, just looking for ‘information’, exclusively for defensive purposes, and mostly harmless if a bit over-zealous.

Now that the blinkers are off, I see all the foreign activities of the US Empire, its allies, and their spooks, in a completely different light. And I see the ‘news’ reports in the mainstream media in a completely different light. It takes work and patience to really see through the continuous fog that this undeclared Cold War (which never really ended as we thought and hoped it had), has wrought, and not to start to see conspiracies where there are none.

The tipping point for me was Biden’s blowing up of the Nord Stream pipelines, one of the greatest ecological disasters in human history, and a total betrayal of the European members of the Empire. The utterly obvious evidence that it was done by the US, with the full prior knowledge of the administration, was buried under an endless barrage of obfuscation, churned out daily and faithfully by the mainstream western media. Even without the digging of the award-winning Sy Hersh, how could anyone have possibly come to any other conclusion? But we believe what we want to believe, and most of us in the west just don’t want to believe that “our” government could do something so outrageous.

And Nord Stream is just the tip of the iceberg. Almost everything that, in our politicians’ speeches and our media reports, was reportedly done by the Russians in Ukraine and by the Palestinians on October 7th in the occupied territories, has turned out, like the reports of Iraq WMD and the reports of babies being taken off incubators in Kuwait and the hundreds of other outrage-provoking ‘stories’ about the behaviour of the US Empire’s alleged ‘enemies’, to be complete fabrications. Those fabrications are still believed by most in the US and the US Empire thanks to the endless, massive, unrelenting firehose of lies and misinformation aimed at the countries’ bewildered and dumbed-down citizens.

This is not to say that other countries don’t employ propaganda as well. The best known Russian propaganda was the photo and video of fake BLM protesters burning bibles (with large BLM signs conveniently located beside the conflagration, for the benefit of the more dim-witted racist viewers). It worked, but not terribly well. Putin, in his interview with Carlson, admitted that when it comes to propaganda, the US Empire has absolutely no peers.

So now, through this lens of doubting everything I am told by the governments and their compliant media, I’m looking at the two latest events about Russia. I’m doing this keeping in mind the parting statement from the little-too-blabbermouthy uber-imperial-ideologue Victoria “Fuck the EU” Nuland, the women who orchestrated the Maidan massacre and coup. In that statement she “promised” Putin that her departure would be followed by some acts of “asymmetrical warfare” that he (Putin) would be unprepared for.

And then we had the death of Navalny, the anti-Putin politician, a month before the Russian elections. Of course, US Empire leaders raced to blame Putin for the death, insinuating he was murdered. But now I’m starting to ask a question, whenever a politically inflammatory event occurs and the mainstream media and Empire leaders rush to judgement in the absence of evidence: Who stands to gain? The coroner ruled the death came from natural causes, and they turned the body over to his mother, who could have, if she wished, had a second autopsy performed. He suffered from multiple medical conditions, and prison life is never particularly healthy, in any country.

But the death was a huge embarrassment to Putin. He had nothing to gain from having Navalny killed or deprived of essential medical care, and everything to lose. Navalny was not running in the election. He is by all accounts not very popular in Russia, and he embarrassed Amnesty International after they came to his defence, by issuing a series of inflammatory anti-Muslim racist and xenophobic videos.

Even worse, if the CIA paid someone to kill him, that would make Putin look incompetent, allowing a mole to kill someone in a supervised prison. In fact, one of Navalny’s complaints was that the prison guards videotaping their check-ups on him throughout the night was a form of sleep deprivation torture. Maybe the Russians read about the Epstein case. So: Who stands to gain? Same answer as the Nord Stream pipeline bombings. Certainly not Putin. Navalny’s cause of death probably was just what the death certificate said. But don’t try to tell that to Empire politicians or their media, or the Empire’s befuddled citizens.

And then we had the Moscow concert hall attack, allegedly by four ISIL members from Tajikistan. The staggering bias of the western media was again immediately evident: The CBC subheaded their story “Russian media reported that the men were tortured during interrogation”, and said they “showed signs of severe beatings”. The story contained no information on the motive for the mass slaughter. The “Russian media” that “reported” this torture were not identified, nor was any evidence offered.

But toss aside the western media and you start to get some sense of Who stands to gain. The gunmen fled into a forest near the Ukraine border and were pursued and caught by dozens of Russian police. No surprise that they looked pretty rough in court. That doesn’t mean they weren’t beaten by police. But Who stands to gain if any confession they might now come out with is discounted by the west (and readers of shoddy, biased western media like the CBC) as being merely the result of police torture in prison?

Especially if those confessions are admissions that they were paid a million rubles to do the deed (that was apparently the sum offered, according to non-western sources). And especially if the confessions reveal that, especially as they occurred during Ramadan, the mindless slaughter actually had absolutely nothing to do with ISIL — they were just paid to say they were from ISIL. But then, people will say anything if they’re tortured, so clearly they were just ISIL zealots who hated Russia.

Couldn’t possibly be the “asymmetric warfare” that Nuland warned Putin about just before the attack.

Who stands to gain? If you want to send a warning to someone that you hate, by embarrassing them and committing atrocities against their civilians, that would be you.

Of course Putin is no saint, and the Russian prison system is probably as ghastly as most prison systems, and their cops are probably as brutal and corrupt as cops in many countries.

But just keep asking that question, and the claims and allegations from the Tweedles of US Empire and its vassal states, and the reporting from our unquestioning, compliant and incompetent media start to have a uniformly really bad smell.

It’s really shocking, and dismaying, what we can be made to believe. Especially if it’s nice and neat and ‘good vs evil’ simple, and what we want to believe.

So: Why do I care? So what if the fanatic, paranoid ideologues who control both the Tweedledum and Tweedledee parties in just about all western ‘democracies’ in the US Empire are orchestrating a quiet and undeclared war of terror on anyone who doesn’t fall into line? So what if the media are so corrupt and/or incompetent that they mindlessly scribe the propaganda, mis- and disinformation fed to them, and censor anything that would arouse suspicion?

After all, as I keep saying, we’re all just acting out our conditioning. The Empire ideologues that control all major political parties and all major media believe that the world will not be safe until Russia and China and the entire Mideast and disobedient states in Asia and Africa and Latin America that elect ‘socialists’ are brought into line, made compliant, and absorbed into Empire where they can be controlled by their betters. They’ve been conditioned to believe that all their lives, and will die with that belief.

Why do I care? I guess it’s my own conditioning — I was brought up to deplore cruelty, violence and war, and, above all, to hate liars. And I’m ashamed at having fallen for so many of the lies. This horrific, devastating global ‘Cold War’ has been going on for my whole life, undeclared, under the radar, and under my radar. How can I not have known, not have seen it?

And as this war rages, the larger battle that threatens us all — the accelerating global economic, ecological, political and social collapse we are seeing everywhere — is being ignored. Our collective struggle to come to terms with collapse will depend on our willingness to set aside our differences and work together. And as long as the wars and the lies continue, that cannot happen. And as it’s our conditioning that is continuing to drive the wars and the lies, there is no chance of that changing.

I would have hoped that, in collapse, we would at least show a little dignity, a little humility, a little humanity. One more thing I was foolish to believe. But that’s where we are. It couldn’t have turned out otherwise.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 15 Comments

Pretzel Logic: If There’s No Free Will, There’s No Self


image of human cortical neurons and glia from Zeiss Microscopy on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When asked about things like whether we have free will, or agency, or consciousness, the answer you’ll get from radical non-duality speakers is that “it’s not that ‘we’ don’t have them, it’s that there is no one, no self, that could have them”.

The logic and causality make sense in that direction:

(1) No self -> No free will (it takes a self to have free will)

But the opposite is seemingly an example of the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent:

(2) No free will -> No self (this does not necessary follow at all)

Except that, the more I think about it, statement (2) is actually a valid logical statement. If there is no such thing as free will (as Robert Sapolsky and others have argued far more eloquently and persuasively than I ever could), then it follows that everything that is done is conditioned and/or ‘determined’ (but not determinable, as there are too many variables to make a determination, unless you happen to be a god, I suppose).

So then, what is it that is conditioned to determine what is (inevitably) done? Consider a specific example: I walk into a café, and order a matcha latte. It’s a conditioned response. But what was conditioned to do this? This self, this character, this body, or the many, many creatures that comprise this body?

In my last article, I argued that it is the (immense number of) creatures comprising this body that are conditioned, responding to biological urges and memories and learned behaviours and acquired ‘tastes’. In ways too complex and mysterious to ever fathom, that conditioning compels this apparent body to order the matcha latte rather than something else. The presumption (in statement (2) above) is that there is no such thing as free will. So could this conditioned response be the ‘whole’ body’s conditioned response, or the ‘self’s’ conditioned response? To say it could implies that the ‘whole’ body or the ‘self’ has some kind of agency that can be conditioned, and the presumption in statement (2) is that there is no agency. Hence, it must be the aggregate conditioning of all the creatures that comprise this body that ‘decides’ what to order. The body or self merely (apparently) carries out that decision.

What then is the self, if it is not the conditioned ‘something’ that acts? We might argue that it is the ‘after the fact rationalizer’ for the conditioned behaviour. But what exactly is doing this rationalizing? The brain? The brain is, just like the body, a collective name for a vast number of constituent creatures, each of them conditioned by other creatures, stimuli etc.

What then does the supposed ‘self’ do, if it doesn’t exercise free will or agency, and if it doesn’t even rationalize the body’s actions? Is it a ‘sense-making’ thing? No, that’s the brain again, or rather its conditioned constituent creatures, each doing the only thing it can do.

If the self actually doesn’t do anything, why should we suppose it exists? Because we’ve been told (ie conditioned to believe) that it exists (presumably for some important reason)? Seems a very flimsy argument, though, unsupported by compelling evidence.

Is the self ‘consciousness’? Well, what exactly is consciousness? A closed loop of belief in its own existence, that can only be explained tautologically? Sounds like a hallucination. Or an object of faith, like gods or spirits. If your conditioning leads you to believe in such phantoms, I guess you have no choice but to believe in them.

It seems to me that free will is, in fact, the very raison d’être for a self. Without free will, there seems no purpose for a self. The very existence of selves then becomes, I think, a moot question. The self is relegated to being a place-holder, a label, in our abstracted model of reality, for “that which exercises free will and makes commensurate decisions”. No free will? Well, then, no place-holder needed. The model works just fine without it. The self is, one might then conclude, a fiction:

No free will -> no self

If you thought the implications of giving up belief in free will were enormous, just think about the implications of us having no selves.

What then is left? What apparently walks into the café is, as Stewart and Cohen put it:

… a complicity of of the [trillions of] separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit. And our brains are nothing more than an evolved, shared, feature-detection system jointly developed to advise these creatures’ actions for their mutual benefit. Our brains, and our ‘minds’ (the processes that our neurons, senses and motility organs carry out collectively) are their information-processing system, not ‘ours’.

The mouth of this body utters the words “large matcha latte, please, with soy milk”, acting out the collective consensus of the complicity’s completely-conditioned creatures. There is no free will involved, or needed. There is no ‘self’ involved, or needed. That is the case in this, and in everything apparently happening on this lovely little blue planet, and beyond.

So when we hold a ‘person’ — a container of a complicity of trillions of creatures — ‘responsible’ and ‘to blame’ (or worthy of congratulations) for actions that not only weren’t the person’s ‘decision’, they were entirely conditioned and hence not the complicity’s ‘decision’ either, our behaviour is as ludicrous as blaming a tree branch for ‘deliberately’ falling on our head and ‘causing’ us injury.

And any sense we might have that there’s some little homunculus inside us, believing, rightly or wrongly, that it has some say in the complicity’s conditioning and the apparent resultant actions, is equally preposterous. This whole sense we have of our ‘selves’ moving through time and space within these bodies, thinking and feeling and sensing and intuiting, is an utter illusion. Not only do ‘we’ have no ownership of, and no say in, the utterly conditioned actions of this staggeringly complex complicity of trillions of creatures (including all the thoughts and feelings that arise from them and ‘come to mind’), there simply is no self, no ‘we’.

Wow.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

Our Tastes and Propensities Are Conditioned Too


K-Pop group XG, one of my conditioned tastes

Much of my recent writing has been focused on the realization, once you give up the idea of ‘free will’, that all of our beliefs and behaviours are completely the result of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment.

But are there parts of ‘us’ outside and beyond our beliefs and behaviours? What is the makeup of our apparent ‘characters’ anyway? It seems to me that there is a third aspect or element of whom we ‘are’ beyond what we believe and what we do. Call it our instinctive and emotional responses, our preferences, our inherent and intuitive likes and dislikes — we might collectively term this aspect of ‘us’ as our tastes and propensities.

There are, for example, people I find I immediately or instinctively like or dislike. Same goes for all types of art, music, and literature, for foods, for my taste in humour, and for my conception of what is, and is not, beautiful. There are also some qualities that have long defined me (such as impatience, laziness, conflict- and stress-aversion, and hedonism) that one might call ‘propensities’.

When I’ve talked with radical non-duality speakers, they have said that their beliefs seemed to lose all intensity once the ‘self’ was no longer there to justify and make sense of them, but the tastes, propensities and behaviours of their apparent ‘characters’ didn’t noticeably change.

So my instincts (and common sense) tell me that our tastes and propensities are, just like our beliefs and behaviours, entirely conditioned. Some aspects of them (eg our food and sexual preferences and many of our propensities) are probably mostly biologically conditioned, while others (eg our musical tastes and our conception of beauty) are probably mostly culturally conditioned.

I suppose this should not be surprising, but somehow it seems to be. Several of the people on my blogroll are (IMO of course) brilliant, rational analysts in one area of the human condition (eg on collapse) but lunatic, irrational conspiracy theorists in another (eg on CoVid-19). Given their different conditioning, that is completely understandable, but it’s still unsettling. Should I leave them on my blogroll (not that anyone cares other than me) when that might give credence to some of their more foolish assertions?

Similarly, I think we are often surprised to discover that people with whom we share strongly-held beliefs and worldviews, or with whom we collaborate on various projects, or whom we love dearly, have tastes that are, to us, unfathomable and bizarre. We think we ‘know’ someone when we fall in love with them or work with them closely on some mutually-beloved project — How could they possibly like that, or want to, or not want to, do that? It’s not ‘in character’, we insist. But it’s just different biological and cultural conditioning. This is even more likely to happen, I suspect, as our ‘cultures’ get more and more fractured, fragmented. and intertwined.

Like billiard balls bumping into each other and changing the trajectory of each, we can and do condition each other, but we cannot change our own conditioning. If I am inclined to learn to appreciate a new kind of music, or cuisine, it will be because those whom I bump into (physically or in my reading), and whom I like, have conditioned me to do so. It is never our own initiative. And their effort to get me to appreciate this new music or food likewise stems from their lifetime of conditioning.

We can try all we like to make sense of our tastes and propensities, but they simply don’t have to make sense. I have no idea why, lacking any previous exposure to it, I was immediately drawn to Haitian kompa/zouk music and K-pop music. I seem to like (both popular and ‘classical’) music that is relatively sophisticated, complex, multi-layered, and non-repetitive, yet which has enough familiar elements to be memorable and emotionally evocative. Like TS Eliot, to me great art is that which appeals to us on both an intellectual level (ie teaches us something new or shifts our thinking) and an emotional level (ie evokes ‘moving’ feelings in us). But I’m sure lots of music that has no appeal to me meets these criteria. Our tastes and propensities are completely conditioned, yet utterly unfathomable.

Still, I often write about music, art, literature, beauty and other subjects whose appreciation requires shared conditioned tastes. They are generally the least read and commented on of my posts, largely, I suspect, because while most of my readers share my beliefs and worldview somewhat, their conditioned tastes are very different from mine. Recommending a non-fiction book consistent with our shared worldview is hence much more likely to be appreciated than recommending some of my favourite music, for example.

Also, I have a propensity, these days, to run 7k, five days a week, mostly on the condo’s treadmill. I don’t enjoy it, and have to gird myself up to do it. Being lazy, I will gladly make use of some new pain in some muscle as an excuse to skip it, but mostly I do it. Why? Not my choice. It’s all my conditioning — fear of future pain or incapacity if I get out of shape, guilt at being lazy, and of course vanity about my appearance. Conditioning instilled in me over a lifetime, from a thousand sources.

So it seems to me that every aspect of our characters — not only our beliefs, worldviews and behaviours, but also our tastes and propensities, everything that constitutes our ‘personalities’ — is completely conditioned. We have no more control over any of it, and no more say about it, than we have control over our heart’s beating or our lungs’ breathing.

I look at this body in the mirror, and wonder at what this ‘me’ that presumes to occupy and control it might really be. This body is clearly not a ‘single’ thing, but rather a complicity of trillions of — what? particles? waves? expressions of a probability function? Each of those ‘components’ is apparently doing exactly what it has been conditioned to do, and the summation of those conditionings is what is called ‘me’.

It is not ‘me’ — an apparent fiction — that is conditioned, but rather all of these trillions of components with that collective label. All being constantly conditioned and reconditioned by signals from components of other apparent labeled things — people, viruses, light waves, letters in ink on a page.

No one in charge of any of it. Add it all up, and this is our strange, wondrous, beautiful terrible world. In free-fall. We have no idea what it really is.

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Incompetent


image by beastywizard on DeviantArt — CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

The urge to hold someone or something ‘responsible’ for the ruination of our planet is pretty hard to resist. For years I blamed corporations and their bought-and-paid-for politicians. Or I blamed ignorance. Or wilful denial. Or ‘evils’ like greed, or insanity. Or I blamed “the system”. But once I came to accept that we have no free will, I started to point the finger instead at incompetence.

We have no free will, no choice over what we do and what we don’t do, I tell myself. Everything that we do is just our biological and cultural conditioning playing out the only way it can given the circumstances of the moment. But if only we (“they”) were more competent, then that conditioning would play out in more productive, more positive ways. No?

Of course, this is faulty reasoning. Our (their) incompetence is a product of our (their) conditioning, and could not be otherwise. Blaming incompetence is essentially just wishful thinking, that things could be other than how they actually are.

Still, it’s very tempting. Looking at our ‘leaders’ in every area of human endeavour — politics, business, economics, education, health, the arts, science and technology, religion, philosophy, the media, the military, social and environmental spheres — it’s easy to see incompetence everywhere. But what does that mean?

Essentially, it means they are not ‘equipped’ to do their job. They lack the experience, skills, resources, character, and mental capacities required to achieve the objectives that that job entails. But since they are just acting out their conditioning, it’s not as if they could be, or do, otherwise. The circumstances they (and we) are facing in this ever-more-complex and polycrisis-suffering world are such that competence is impossible. We are struggling with predicaments, not problems, and predicaments have no solutions, only outcomes. No one is ‘equipped’ with the competence to fix what cannot be fixed.

So to blame ‘incompetence’ (and hence blame others, or ourselves, or ‘all of us’) for our incapacity to deal with, and cope with, the accelerating collapse of our civilization and the ruination of our planet is equivalent, I think, to saying: I blame everything that has ever happened in our history for not producing humans conditioned to do precisely what would have to be done individually and collectively to ‘fix’ or at least mitigate the polycrisis. You might as well blame ‘fate’.

Yes, of course, all these boneheads in positions of power are incompetent. They fuck up everything they do and everything they try to do, sometimes so badly it looks like deliberate stupidity or malice, or conspiracy, or some other ‘bad thing’. But, annoying as it is to admit it, for those of us prone to making judgements (ie all of us), that is not their fault. They are doing the only thing they could possibly do. We, individually and collectively, cannot magically intervene and change their conditioning to make them (in our judgement) competent.

In fact, since we are just acting out our conditioning as well, even if we could magically change their conditioning, it would be just as likely to make things worse rather than better. We are, despite our convictions to the contrary, no more competent than they are to deal with the polycrisis, the predicament of collapse and ecological ruination that our collective, ‘incompetent’ conditioning has wrought.

Of course, that is not how we see it. If we (or ‘competent’ people of our choosing) were in charge, things would surely be different, and immeasurably better! The disaster confronting us is due, we would like to believe, to some flaw in human nature that leads to particularly incompetent people — precisely the ‘wrong people’ for the job — aspiring to positions of power and leadership.

But that thinking is also tragically flawed. There are no ‘right people’ to do the impossible job of quickly and radically altering the conditioning of 8B people, including these ‘right people’s’ own conditioning.

Not only are we deluded about ‘our’ people’s superior competence, and deluded in our belief that ‘our’ conditioning, if we had the power to act on it, would necessarily lead to better outcomes than that of the current sorry crop of ‘leaders’ — We fail to understand that no one is in control of the vast complexity of our civilization culture and its component systems. There are simply no ‘levers of power’ that any earnest ‘competent’ group could wield that would significantly alter our civilization’s, and our world’s, trajectory.

Of course this realization runs counter to everything our Hollywood-amplified (or Margaret Mead homily-inspired) stories tell us, not to mention being the opposite of what we desperately want to believe as we flounder about looking for ways to address and cope with collapse.

We just can’t, and won’t, believe that if it weren’t for incompetence (or some other more elemental vice or vices) we would, or could, be living in paradise, or something close to it, or at least moving in the right direction. We can’t, and won’t, believe that ‘progress’ is just a nice make-believe story we tell our children and each other and ourselves to keep us hoping that, if only we can get the right, competent people in positions of power, everything will be just fine.

So, yes, our colossal incompetence is a problem. Or more accurately it is, like all the other aspects of the polycrisis, a predicament. It doesn’t have a solution. There are no interchangeable, better Tweedledees to move into positions of authority and power to replace the bumbling Tweedledums. Incompetence is everywhere, built into our world of ever-increasing complexity, complicatedness (they are not the same thing), and fragility. Incompetence has outcomes. They are playing themselves out, through our personal and collective conditioning.

You can be angry about that (and it’s hard not to be). You can be fearful about that (a perfectly understandable response). You can be immensely sad about that (it’s not as if you have any choice in the matter).

If you’re lucky, you might be able, at least some of the time, to just enjoy the show. It’s live, not taped! No spoilers! It’s going to be wild! No one knows how it will end. As in most tragedies, there will be no winners, surely, and there will be many losers, but we cannot guess who, or how. Or how it will all unfold. Or what will come after.

Although we can probably surmise that, in whatever world emerges from the ashes of our ghastly and wondrous human civilization after the sixth (that we know about) major extinction, the survivors will probably be less incompetent than we are.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 8 Comments