Ten Important Things I Learned From Very Intelligent Women


images of Alice Walker and Ursula Le Guin, CC-SA 2.0 from wikimedia

Women write just over half of the books that are published each year, almost double the proportion of just a generation ago. These books are skewed towards fiction, however. Fewer than 40% of the non-fiction books published each year have women authors, and the proportion of woman-authored non-fiction best-sellers, and of female non-fiction book award nominations, is closer to 25%.

Men still dominate the book publishing industry, as they do the music publishing industry and the rosters of book reviewers, and that is clearly a factor. But another important factor is that while women’s reading is about 55% books by female authors, men’s reading is close to 80% books by male authors.

Why might this be? Are men simply not exposed (in their reading of book reviews and book links, and in the “you might also be interested in” Amazon recommendation engines) to books written by women, so they don’t know what they’re missing? Or are they choosing, consciously or subconsciously, to ignore women-authored books in favour of those written by men?

My own list of “most influential” non-fiction books is sadly representative of this imbalance: 80% of them were written by men. So are 80% of the writers on my blogroll and in my newsfeed. And 70% of the non-fiction books on my bookshelf and e-bookshelf are male-authored. Clearly I am missing something. Part of it, perhaps, is that men seemingly are more likely to be the authors of books and articles on those subjects that I’m particularly interested in. But I may be getting that backwards: Perhaps the mostly male-authored written material that I am exposing myself to is determining what I am interested in? Perhaps there’s a host of interesting subjects, covered mostly by women, that I’m oblivious to because it doesn’t show up in my feeds, links and recommendations lists?

That’s what happened with my music playlists — Over the past six decades the proportion of music in my playlists written and performed by women has gradually increased from about 20% to over 50%. Much of that is due to the ‘democratization’ of music publishing: Almost none of my favourite music comes from the Big 4 music publishers (at least, not anymore), and much of it is ‘discoveries’ of indy performers from Spotify and Soundcloud playlists and Apple recommendations lists (though those are still, annoyingly, very much skewed to male musicians).

When I recently asked ChatGPT to list ten leading female writers about collapse, its response, outrageously, included Jared Diamond, “even though he’s not a woman”!

So I have set myself a challenge: to ensure half of the non-fiction books I read for the rest of 2024 are authored by women. I just started this quest by buying Pulitzer-winner Kathryn Schulz’s Lost and Found, and Anne Lamott’s newest Somehow (to go with my copy of Bird by Bird).

To that end, I would welcome your recommendations. I’ve read everything by Naomi Klein and Elizabeth Kolbert, but beyond that, I’d love to know what non-fiction books by women have rocked your world, or your worldview?

…..

Ursula Le Guin famously said:

We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.

My sense is that (though it’s a generalization) where men tend to lean heavily on theory and analysis as the scaffolding for their non-fiction writing, women tend to lean more on recounting personal experiences and interviews. The stories that are presented in non-fiction written by men tend to reinforce the arguments made, or to soften the reader up for them. The stories in non-fiction written by women, by contrast, tend to introduce the arguments, and to credentialize them. They’re less strident; more open-minded. More generous.

So, here are ten things I’ve learned from very intelligent women (because in many domains a woman has to be very intelligent, among other things, to be heard over the roar of men’s voices). Rather than clever ideas or synopses, these are, mostly, wisdom that’s come from hard experience.

I especially thank the women in my life who have taught me so many things that I have been slow and reluctant to learn, including some of the things in the list below. I’m not including their names in the interests of privacy. They know who they are!:

  1. It’s not courage, or bravery, if you have no choice: Some of the first bloggers I connected with, back in Salon Blogs days, wrote about incurable medical conditions they had learned to live with, because they had to. Many of the women I know exemplify this ‘involuntary courage’. And many contemporary women writers and reporters, like Caitlin Johnstone, Lyz Lenz, Rebecca Watson and Sabine Hossenfelder regularly ‘brave’ horrific attacks and threats, in their insistence on telling important ‘inconvenient truths’.
  2. It’s not enough to be good, to be ‘successful’: By ‘successful’ I mean recognized and listened to and promoted and rewarded and hired and paid and respected and supported. Most of the people I know who really make the world a better place, never get thanked, and rarely get heard, acknowledged, or appreciated. Women in particular face enormous obstacles to getting the credit and opportunity they deserve. And some of the world’s finest artists will never be recognized for their extraordinary talent.
  3. Our behaviour is entirely conditioned, and we have no free will: Melissa Holbrook Pierson broke the news to us gently, packaging an entire philosophic treatise on behaviourism, and rehabilitating BF Skinner’s much-loathed work, inside a book on how to train your dog.
  4. Our post-collapse, post-civilization cultures will be based on a salvage/scavenger economy: The lessons from Anna Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World are built on observations about Vietnamese refugees who make their living as mushroom wildcrafters, and study of others living on the ‘edges’ of our economy. It breaks through all the romantic and apocalyptic nonsense about how we will live after collapse, showing us how people whose lives have already collapsed are living now.
  5. Propaganda is amazing; people can be led to believe anything: For a woman primarily renowned as a writer of fiction, Alice Walker has penned an astonishing number of resonating, oft-repeated aphorisms. The one about propaganda is one of her most powerful, a reflection on history and a prescient warning in one.
  6. The real framework of hierarchy, patriarchy and tyranny is caste, not class: Isabel Wilkerson’s momentous book Caste cuts to the heart of the world’s true power structure, how it emerged, and the damage it has caused.
  7. Monogamy and its institutions are unnatural, unhealthy, and oppressive: In her book Against Love, Laura Kipnis explains how monogamy and marriage, the cultural trappings of love, imprison us and disconnect us from our true human nature. Lyz Lenz has just written what might almost be the sequel: This American Ex-Wife, on the very practical, joyful and liberating benefits of divorce, particularly for women.
  8. A key to writing good fiction is creating characters the reader has no choice but to care about: Shuly Xóchitl Cawood shows us in her own work how to craft such characters. It’s in the small details, the extraordinary little things these ordinary people say and do, that make you fall for them, and when the story ends, you want more. Shuly, who runs writing workshops, also shows how to mercilessly excise everything that isn’t essential in her stories, and while there’s always enough imagery to ground them, she always leaves enough space for the reader to fill in details and make the story their own.
  9. Most of the great human inventions are biomimicry: Janine Benyus reveals not only how nature perfected most of the processes that underly just about every technology-enabled thing we do, but also how to “ask nature’s advice” to solve some of the problems we are still grappling with.
  10. You can’t choose who you love: Chris Pureka sang about it, but I have heard a hundred stories, almost all of them by women, that show it to be true.
Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment

The Four Horsemen, Updated

Photo of Harold Gosney’s sculpture of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from Humber Museums Partnership on flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). From left to right, the horsemen are Famine, Disease, Death, and War. The renaming shown above is my own alteration, not part of Harold’s or the Museum’s vision, and strictly my own conceit — I would argue that the ‘original’ four horsemen are all, today, products (consequences) of corporatism, incompetence, propaganda and imperialism.

The tale of the Four Horsemen is biblical in origin, and there are many interpretations of who and what they personify. One of the most common interpretations is that Famine rides the black horse, Disease (or pestilence) the white horse, Death the ‘pale’ green horse, and War the red horse.

These are the scourges that predominated in those times, and their ’cause’ was, of course, an angry God’s will.

Flash forward a few thousand years and all four of these scourges are still with us, with Death, the ‘pale’ green horseman, trailing the others as the outcome of the other three. But it is no longer convenient to ‘blame’ the gods for these scourges, and it was never accurate.

I would argue that we might now see more clearly the real ‘riders’ whose actions have brought about these scourges, and they are uniquely human. I would say they are Imperialism, Corporatism, Propaganda, and Incompetence. Here is what I mean by that:

Imperialism, the coercive exercise of power over others: Hierarchies in nature are, with few exceptions, hierarchies of responsibility rather than privilege. The strongest is chosen to lead, to protect, to guide, and to resolve problems, not to hoard resources and deprive the rest of the tribe. Human societies, by contrast, are almost unique in enabling and perpetuating the maldistribution of resources and the suffering and subjugation of the majority to benefit a small oppressive elite.

Corporatism, the political and economic control of a society by organized special interests: This was Mussolini’s name for his style of fascism, an overtly undemocratic system where each sector of the society and economy was governed by a ‘corporate’ administration of selected specialists which in turn reported to the head of state. The idea is that “the people” don’t know what is in their best interests, so decisions are made instead by these ‘corporations’.

Propaganda, the deliberate dissemination of mis- and dis-information, and censorship and inflammatory distortions of the truth: This has long been a tool to enable political and military oppression, and to keep opponents of the current power structure confused and disorganized. It’s been powerfully weaponized by new forms of media and other new technologies.

Incompetence, the incapacity, due to lack of skill, knowledge, training, experience, resources, and infrastructure, to perform essential tasks: As our societies have become larger and more complex, it becomes exponentially more difficult to develop and sustain the vast array of abilities needed to keep it all functioning and prevent it falling apart. Size and scale, not stupidity, are the primary ’causes’ of our current epidemic of incompetence.

Why and how did we let these ‘horsemen’ ravage our modern civilizations to their current level of dysfunction and imminent collapse?

We really had no ‘say’ in it. As our language and other technologies enabled us to create larger, more centralized, more militarized societies, we, now insulated and cut off from the lessons of nature and early human cultures on how to self-organize, and in the well-intentioned belief that bigger and more and faster equals “better”, just kept growing in numbers and organizational complexity.

Until we ran out of room and resources: Enter Imperialism to secure what ‘our’ side needs at the expense of others. And until our organizations and states got so large they could no longer be effectively democratically managed: Enter Corporatism to specialize and ‘automate’ decision-making by a select few.

And until those oppressed and deprived of a voice and a share of diminishing resources rebelled: Enter Propaganda to keep them bewildered, obedient and disorganized. And until the systems became so large and unwieldy that no one could manage them: Enter Incompetence.

So now we are where we are. No one to blame. We did what we thought was best. But now the horsemen are here, and they’re trampling on everything, leaving in their wake… famine, disease, death and war.

This is what collapse looks like.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works | 2 Comments

Not Longing For Anything To Be Different


(This chart is yet another attempt to create a model of how human conditioning works. This article is focused on the fourth example — situations that make us long for what we believe and imagine “could be”, or what we nostalgically believe and imagine “once was” — and the feelings those beliefs and imaginings engender in us.)

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.
Any fool can do it — There ain’t nothing to it.
Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill
But since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride.

Now the thing about time is that time isn’t really real.
It’s just your point of view, how does it feel for you.
Einstein said he could never understand it all —
Planets spinning through space, smile upon your face,
Welcome to the human race.

Some kind of lovely ride, sliding down, gliding down —
Try not to try too hard. It’s just a lovely ride.

James Taylor, The Secret of Life

The most substantial difference between us humans and wild creatures, I think, is that they don’t wish things were different from how they are. They don’t wistfully recall happy times from their past, and want to relive them, or mourn the fact they have passed. They don’t hope, fervently, for a better world tomorrow. They just accept that this is how things are.

For most of my life, I have been an idealist, trying to figure out how things might be better, and then advocating for, and when possible implementing, changes in that direction. So even when things were going well, I was never entirely happy. It could still be better! In fact, when things were going really well, there was always a gnawing anxiety that this couldn’t possibly last, and I’d better be prepared for worse times ahead. Far too much of my life has been lived inside my head, and in the future.

I know other people whose lives are lived mostly in the past. They remember better times, moments and people they loved that are now gone or changed for the worse, and they grieve the loss of the joy that they experienced in those moments. So they are never entirely happy either. The only reason I don’t suffer their unhappiness, I suspect, is that my memory has always been poor. Perhaps that’s because I was always so worried about what might happen in the future, that I never paid very much attention to the present, or was afraid to, or never really ‘lived’ in it at all, so the memories of those times never took root. In another song, partly about nostalgia, James Taylor asks:

How can we miss what we never knew?
Drag out the past just to paint it blue?
Spend my days with a dream of you.

People often ask me why I never acknowledge “missing” something, in the sense of regretting its loss or current absence. Perhaps I’m in denial, or perhaps I just don’t remember it well enough to miss it. I have no idea.

But, when it comes to longing, recently something’s changed. Very gradually, over the course of a couple of decades, I’ve come to realize that I have largely ceased longing for anything different to happen in the future — new accomplishments, new exciting relationships, new inventions or acquisitions, “improvements” in our economic, political and ecological systems. And I don’t long to repeat my most joyous moments from the past — the vacations in warm, beautiful places, the feeling of falling in love, those amazing ‘aha!’ moments of discovery and learning. I am far from having reached a state of equanimity and acceptance of everything happening in the world, either intellectually or emotionally. But I’m no longer unhappy that things aren’t different. Most of the time, anyway.

This apparent change is not anything of my doing. It’s conditioned behaviour, and changed circumstances, not “maturity”. For most of my life, I dreamed of a ‘better’ world, and wanted things to be different. That was conditioned behaviour, too, of course. But more recently, due mainly to just dumb luck, I have been blessed by some extraordinary people who have come into my life and, it seems, conditioned me differently, as well as by (mostly) fortunate circumstances.

As a result, this body apparently responds differently to everything that happens to me now. The dopamine, the cortisol, the adrenaline, the norepinephrine, the oxytocin, the endorphins, the testosterone and estrogen, the vasopressin, the serotonin, and the other chemicals that drive this body’s (including its brain’s) behaviour are clearly fired in different patterns, frequencies and situations than they once were.

And, though we probably can never know how our bodies’ conditioning actually works (beyond wild guesses like the chart above), these changes in my chemical cocktail have seemingly resulted in me rarely longing for things to be different from what they are.

All creatures, I think, feel fear, anger, and sorrow. But our bewildered species, I would argue, is the only one that wishes, the only one that muddles up the body’s chemical messages with its entangled brain’s imaginings, and invents coulds, woulds, if onlys, and mights. Anything but what really is. And with those terrible invented imaginings come the uniquely human feelings of shame, envy, anxiety, guilt, regret, dread, jealousy, and nostalgia, and all the hopes and dreams and expectations — and with them the unhappy longings for things to be otherwise.

I do not “miss” the longing for what never was, and for what is not. For whoever and whatever has conditioned me thus, I am grateful. It couldn’t have turned out any other way, but still…

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

Links of the Month: July 2024


yep, whether you look at us through a moral lens, a scientific lens, a philosophical lens, or a satirical lens, we cannot help be only and exactly what. and who, we are; cartoon by Will McPhail

Everyone’s obsessed with the Trump assassination attempt. Except me, apparently. Everything I know about American politics suggests that, as much as the politicians and their media scribes tell us this US election is a life-and-death fight over freedom and democracy, both the clowns running for the major parties have demonstrated over their four-year terms two things: (1) They don’t give a fuck about freedom or democracy, or the crises facing the world, or the citizens they purportedly “represent”, and (2) You can be an incoherent, raving psychopath or an incoherent doddering sponge-brain, and it doesn’t matter a bit as to what actually gets decided and what actually gets done in the halls of power in the US. The administration of the US political machine is hopelessly broken, running on autopilot, sclerotic, ignorant, and incapable of doing anything other than starting wars and getting people riled up, and it just serves as a revolving door between the government and the corporate C-Suite. Same incompetent “caste of characters”.

I think my attention is better focused on creative work, so you might see a shift in that direction in my future posts.


COLLAPSE WATCH


average global surface temperature stayed at 1.5ºC above preindustrial average for the 12th straight month; at 16.66ºC, the average global surface temperature in June 2024 broke an absolute record for the 13th straight month; the planet has not been this hot since pre-human times; chart from Europe’s Copernicus C3S

An economy without sound oversight or rudders is built to fail: Tim Morgan explains how massive complexity risk, resource depletion, and government, corporate, and regulator ignorance and incompetence have led to a fragile, precarious, and unsustainable economy.

Fossil fuel use and emissions continue to accelerate: We just broke records for consumption and carbon emissions, again, and the trend is not even slowing down.

The utter folly of fracking: Andrew Nikiforuk explains how the extraction of hydrocarbons by fracking is the most destructive, risky, polluting and costly fossil fuel foolishness yet.

Something wrong with our heads: The Honest Sorcerer asks whether wetiko, the indigenous name for the European culture of conquest, colonization and resource exhaustion, is behind our massively destructive ways of doing things.

Small brags: My explanation of the inevitability of civilization’s collapse has been covered by Charles Hugh Smith on ZeroHedge. And Just Collapse has linked to my collapse scorecard.


LIVING BETTER


drawing by Chaz Hutton; thanks to Wendy Bandurski for the link

Michoacán rejects ruinous avocado monoculture: It’s taken an actual ‘war’ by indigenous-led groups in México to combat the horrific destruction of forests, water supplies and arable land by globalist corporations seeking profits from avocados. Thanks to Tom Atlee and Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

And México also rejects GMO corn: Bayer/Monsanto has finally abandoned its long and expensive lawsuits against the Mexican government over the government’s prohibition of US-government-subsidized GMO corn and the toxic Roundup/glyphosate poisons used to maintain it.

Young people opt for voluntary sterilization to get around abortion and contraception restrictions: Tubal ligations have doubled and vasectomies tripled since Roe was overturned in the US.

Canada criminalizes coercive control: MPs unanimously voted to make patterns of abuse that often lead to domestic violence and murder, illegal. Now, the question is, is the new law enforceable?

Nate Hagens interviews Daniel Schmachtenberger on creating a better society: Daniel is brilliant, and always worth listening to, but this time his defence of a better type of “progress” struck me as naive and idealistic. Your experience may vary.

Harper’s replaces your doom scroll with one long weekly paragraph: One of the few remaining un-coopted US magazines has a weekly, sassy, irreverent, concise but information-packed summary of the week’s top stories you can subscribe to by email, with supporting links if you really feel you have to read more detail.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


Two days ago at the NATO summit, Biden referred to Zelenskyy, standing right beside him, as “President Putin”, and went on to describe Kamala Harris as “Vice-President Trump”. How on Earth can 36% of Americans possibly “approve’ of his performance? Chart from CNN.

Imperialism, Militarism & Fascism: Short takes:

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:

Corpocracy & Unregulated Capitalism: Short takes:

Administrative Mismanagement & Incompetence: Short takes:


FUN AND INSPIRATION


image by Kirk Diedrich on the “man or bear” meme, riffing off the distracted boyfriend meme; via Lyz Lenz

Weighing in on “man or bear”: Laura Killingbeck, inveterate long-term bike traveler, discusses how women learn to deal with patriarchy and its dangers, because they have to. Once you’ve read it, you’ll ‘get’ the meme image above. Thanks to Wendy Bandurski for the link.

Lost pet donkey is adopted by elk herd: Powerful story on all sorts of levels.

Fighting Edith Wharton’s ghost: Lovely writing by Lyz Lenz about the challenges of writing stories, real and unreal, about characters who are all too believable, and unbelievable. Especially when you’re a woman. The horrific recent revelations of Alice Munro’s daughter echoed as I read Lyz’s story. Excerpt:

We are inheritors of narratives of the past. From bachelorette parties to changing our last names, we continue to follow customs in our country, rarely thinking about how they trap us. Breaking out of these narratives is the hardest work. It requires force and imagination, and it’s so lonely. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex, “And without a doubt it is more comfortable to endure blind bondage than to work for one’s liberation; the dead, too, are better suited to the earth than the living.”


THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH


cartoon by Dan Piraro & Wayne Honath (Bizarro)

From Frederick Barthelme‘s short story Elroy Nights:

As I drove across the bridge, I thought how we’d started as young people insisting on living the way we wanted, and how we’d gradually retreated from that, from doing what we wanted. Things change. What you want becomes something you can’t imagine having wanted, and instead you have this, suddenly and startlingly not at all what you sought. One day you find yourself walking around in Ralph Lauren shorts and Cole Haan loafers and no socks. You think, How did this happen? It isn’t a terrible spot, and you don’t feel bad about being there, being the person you are in the place you are, with the wife or husband you have, the step-daughter, the friends and acquaintances, the house and tools and toys, the job, but there is no turning back. You have a Calendar full of things to do. You have an iPhone and names and addresses and contacts, and there is no way back. Even if there were a way back, you couldn’t get there from here, and you probably wouldn’t go if you could. The effort required isn’t the kind of effort you can make anymore.

From Hank “Bonesaw” Lucille (apparently a guru invented by Caitlin Johnstone):

I’ve killed off so many Hanks along this crazy path. Angry Hank. Hank the victim. Hank the cage fighter. Tough guy Hank, and then spiritual guy Hank after him. One of the last ones to leave was Cool Hank, but he had to go, because, man, you really do not get to be cool on this path. You really, really don’t. Being radically truthful on every level leaves you raw and undisguised, right out in the open, in all your dorky awkwardness. If you really let old lady Truth have her way with you, you’ll never get to feel cool again. How could anyone be cool with their fuckin’ ribcage splayed open to the whole entire world?

From Shuly Xóchitl Cawood, from Something So Good It Can Never Be Enough:

The Man I Did Not Marry

met me for grilled chicken sandwiches on whole wheat laced
with mayonnaise in a little underground pub on High Street. I was leaving
for the summer, and he was staying, but I kept taking the treeless highway back

into the city, and sometimes we would walk the concrete pathways
between buildings and stop. We talked about the other people in our lives
to make a crowded conversation. I was working then for the agronomy

office, writing up stories of crops and pests and the petulance of weather,
how a hard rain could save or spoil, you never knew, it depended on what
you had done to prepare. Every day that summer, the heat beat down

on every road. Soybean fields made promises they could not keep. I wrote
about storms, but what did I know? I went underground for lunch
where there were no windows. People came in and out, finished quickly,

but we lingered for hours, talking of nothing, ordering the same thing
as before, unaware of what time can do, how it, too, can save or spoil
a whole field of knowing. If the rain came, we pretended we could not hear it

from so far below.


Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

In Critical Condition

Many of my articles on free will and non-duality argue (perhaps obsessively) that:

All human behaviour is (no more and no less than) the biologically and culturally conditioned response of our bodies to the circumstances of the moment. There is no room for ‘free will’ in it, but while our behaviour is determined, it is not determinable, because the circumstances of the moment are utterly unpredictable. The corollary is that while we cannot ‘change ourselves’ (ie alter our own conditioning), we can be ‘changed’ (ie by others’ conditioning and by changes in the circumstances of the moment. But not in any controllable way.

I have also argued, somewhat tangentially but I think importantly, that

(1) if there is no ‘free will’, there cannot be any such thing as a real ‘self’ (that sounds backwards, but I have explained, I think, why it is a logical conclusion), and that

(2) it is our behaviours that in part condition our beliefs, but, counter-intuitively, our beliefs are merely an after-the-fact rationalization of our behaviours, and these beliefs have no reciprocal effect whatsoever on our behaviours.

So, in terms of the chart above, the ‘domains’ of this conditioning are:

(Blue) The model our brains have conjured up to try to explain and make sense of its sensory inputs. We call that our ‘self’ (or soul, or mind, whatever fanciful term we prefer). ‘We’ are conceived to be the ‘centre’ of that model. Our beliefs and worldview constitute the ‘scaffolding’ of the model, what we (have been conditioned to) assert to be ‘real’ and ‘true’. It is an illusion, a kind of pervasive hallucination. This illusion is seemingly unique to the human animal, and it is entirely unnecessary to the successful functioning of the organism. It is, I have hypothesized, a spandrel or evolutionary misstep, something that nature evolved to ‘try it out’ to see if it might be useful to the survival of the organism, when it turns out it is not.

(Green) What we conceive to be a ‘whole’ organism, such as a human body, and what it apparently ‘does’. As Stephen J Gould & Richard Lewontin have explained, the boundaries that delineate what that organism ‘is’, from ‘everything else’, are arbitrary. It would be more accurate to say that organisms such as bodies are processes, rather than ‘things’. ‘Things’ are just labels for the constituents ‘within’ an arbitrary selected boundary, that are engaged in those processes. And behaviours, then, are the observable properties of those processes. (Not a very ‘solid’ view of reality, is it?)

(Black) The processes and emergent conditions that affect apparent organisms and affect those organisms’ processes. The processes are entirely conditioned by other processes and emergent conditions, and the emergent conditions are largely the result of these processes. Determined, but way too complex to be determinable.

The actual conditioning process — how it affects organisms — is something I took for granted biologists understood. When a human body moves to strike, or to kiss, another human body, for example, I basically assumed the conditioning actually took place at the cellular, molecular, and even atomic and sub-atomic levels, that, in some mysterious way, ‘collectively’ resulted in the conditioned behaviour.

But a recent interview sent to me by my friend Paul Heft has profoundly challenged that assumption. In it, biophysicist Denis Noble presents a very different way of interpreting what underlies what we see as the behaviour of organisms. Since Darwin’s death, a reductionist school of thought called Neo-Darwinism, championed by ideological dogmatists like Richard Dawkins, has asserted without much challenge that the behaviour of organisms is ‘bottom-up’ — driven and determined by our genes. This argument would hold that our conditioning is essentially encoded in our genes, which then drive everything we do (directly, in the case of biological conditioning, and indirectly, in the case of cultural conditioning). Subject, of course, to those pesky “circumstances of the moment” (an earthquake, a war, or a chance meeting).

Denis argues, based on decades of investigation and study of actual biophysical processes, that the conditioning is substantially ‘top-down’ — that the ‘instructions’ for evolutionarily advantageous behaviour actually reside (ie are ‘physically encoded’) largely at the cellular and whole-organism level, and that, contrary to Neo-Darwinism, it is the cells and the organism that generally then instruct the genes and molecules and atoms how to actuate the needed behaviour.

To understand his argument, we first need to understand how science uses the terms ‘causality’ and ‘purpose’, sometimes quite differently and in a more nuanced way from how we use these terms in everyday language.

Purpose, per Denis, is “the use of chance to explore strategies for the future”. Evolution uses chance, or random variation, to explore evolutionary possibilities. This process is called the harnessing of stochasticity. Nature tries out variations and ‘selects’ those that make the organism ‘fitter’ for the environment it currently faces. One particular example of this harnessing is the evolution of photosynthesis, without which we wouldn’t exist. Evolutionary processes, he says, are purposive, not purposeful, and there’s an important difference. Here’s the Open University’s explanation of the distinction:

Two forms of behaviour in relation to purpose have also been distinguished. One is purposeful behaviour, which Checkland (1993) describes as behaviour that is willed – there is thus some sense of voluntary action. The other is purposive behaviour – behaviour to which an observer can attribute purpose.

Denis deliberately uses the term “purposive” rather than “purposeful”. When we think of something having a purpose, we think in terms of will. But Denis does not require free will for there to be purpose, which he means in the sense of “purposive”. He speaks of “purposive behaviour” and “purposive agency”, and when he says “It’s the whole that gives purpose to the parts”, he means it in the purposive sense.

We (observers) can attribute purpose, in that sense, to the “emergent qualities” of the whole (eg an organism). That doesn’t mean there is any ‘design’ or ‘innate tendency’ in the universe. In fact, Denis goes to pains to assert that he is defining purpose in scientific terms, and not at all in any “spiritualist” sense.

He provides as an example how the body’s immune system reacts to the discovery of a novel virus like CoVid-19:

  1. The immune system (the entire human sub-organism that responds to potential diseases) receives information that there is a novel, potentially dangerous threat to it (and to its host, though it need not even be aware of the host’s existence — this is just how the organism evolved, by natural selection).
  2. The immune system then instructs the genome and its molecules to ‘randomly’ create thousands of mutations to discover one that will kill the invading virus. Once the best mutation has been found, the genome is instructed to produce millions of that mutation to eradicate the virus now, and, by keeping the mutations in reserve, to kill it whenever the offending virus reappears in the future. This is how ‘natural immunity’ works.
  3. We as observers can attribute purpose to this amazing process — using chance (the many random mutations) to explore strategies and possibilities. But it isn’t purposeful. No directed will was exercised. It is simply purposive. It is what the immune system has evolved to do. The genes just carry out the orders.

Denis’ conclusion is that “The organism is ‘doing’ natural selection, ‘on purpose'” (purposively). By its very (evolved, massively complex) structure, “the complexity of the cell constrains the behaviour of its constituent molecules”. That is how it “instructs” the constituent molecules what to do, which (evolutionarily) benefits the entire organism. Once the molecules have been provoked into action, due to the very encoded physical constraints of our massively complex cells and their electro-chemical processes, the molecules have no choice but to collectively act to attack the foreign virus.

The same explanation could be used to describe the process, for example, by which birds ‘intuitively’ build nests. Nest-building, rather than being a “response” to instructions from the bird-organism’s constituent genetic elements, is just what “whole” bird-organisms, under the ‘rules’ of natural selection, evolved to do. Purposively, not purposefully. The whole bird-organism ‘tells’ its constituent elements what to do, to “make it so” (ie make the nest). Consciousness and thought are completely unnecessary. The seemingly-appropriate ‘conditioned’ response is already coded in the whole creature’s very physical structure. The genes don’t tell the creature what to do; the creature ‘tells’ the genes what to do.

I found this rather mind-blowing, and would encourage you to listen to Denis explain it. This is almost the opposite of how most of us imagine how biological conditioning to work. The architecture of the entire organism, from cells to organs to systems such as the immune system, is hard-wired, physically ‘coded’ in the very structure of our cells and the other constituents of our bodies, and in their evolved processes, to condition certain behaviours to occur under certain circumstances, and to drive our genes and the other ‘working elements’ of our bodies to act accordingly. Rather than being the blueprints for our conditioned behaviours, our genes might be more accurately described as specialized foot-soldiers carrying out the organism’s encoded instructions.

How does a cell ‘instruct’ a gene to do something, strictly by virtue of its physical structure? Take a look at the staggering complexity of human cells, he says — an average of 100 trillion atoms in every cell — and appreciate that its structure, much the way an enormously sophisticated maze constrains the behaviours of humans making their way through it, “the complexity of the cell constrains the behaviour of its constituent molecules”. The cell doesn’t meekly act out the ‘genetic code’ imprinted in its genes, the cell is the ‘general’ that commands those genes to do what they have been evolutionarily specialized to do. The cells themselves, self-organized into what we collectively call organs, systems, and organisms, have evolved to be the astonishingly sophisticated intelligent ‘machines’ that manage our breathing, our blood circulation, our nervous system, and all the other ‘autonomous’ processes that keep us alive and healthy.

Denis acknowledges that to some extent the ‘orders’ can also come from below — from the genes to their cells and the whole-organism. The healthy conditioning of our ‘behaviours’ — from how we breathe and how we fight infections to how we raise our offspring — is a collaborative undertaking between all the aggregate levels and processes that comprise the organism. As Denis words it, when it comes to our conditioning “there is no privileged level of causation”. Here’s a chart from an earlier paper in which he diagrams the two-way multi-level processes by which ‘encoded’ information and instructions are communicated between levels of the organism (biological conditioning) and between the organism and other organisms (cultural conditioning):

(The Neo-Darwinists, he says, have carried out a vigorous campaign since the early 2000s to try to discredit his research and squelch some of his papers and conferences. For those interested in the degree to which much of this controversy revolves around the very term ‘causation’, the above paper also explains this, and includes a fascinating discussion of the notion of ‘entangled causation’. Here’s an example of a pretty harsh repudiation of Denis’ main assertions, if you want to see how nasty things can get between disagreeing scientists, theoreticians, and philosophers. And if you really want to get into the nuts and bolts of biophysics and purposiveness, here’s a 400-page compendium on the subject of ‘Purpose’ edited by Denis with Stewart Kauffman et al.)

So where does this leave us? The implication of this multi-level multi-directional complex conditioning that most disturbs the Neo-Darwinists is that we will look in vain for the ‘cancer gene’ and the genes that ’cause’ other diseases. Diseases are necessarily much more complex than that, and our frenzy to unlock the genetic code is not going to help us ‘cure’ diseases. Lots of research money was and is riding on that, so no wonder the Neo-Darwinists are upset.

But this interpretation doesn’t do much damage to the model of how ‘reality’ works depicted in the chart at the top of this post. The model is already ephemeral: The contents of the ‘blue’ boxes, our self and its beliefs, are mere phantoms, inventions that actually serve no purpose. The contents of the ‘green’ box, our bodies and their apparent behaviours, are just appearances, requiring an ‘observer’ to (arbitrarily) delineate and attempt to ‘make sense’ of them. And as Richard Lewontin has explained, as soon as we break things apart to try to make sense of genes, cells, organisms, and their environments ‘separately’, we destroy any possibility of understanding the processes going on ‘between’ these elements that make them what they ‘are’. It’s like dissecting a bird to understand how flight works.

So now it would seem, if Denis is correct, that the causality of conditioning, the ‘force’ that determines our behaviours, is not deducible. Everything affects (ie conditions) everything else, and how it does so can never be disentangled. It has evolved this way just because it has. Purposively, but not purposefully. To the utter horror of scientists and philosophers, it cannot be ‘decoded’ or understood. A million clever apes deploying AI supercomputing for a million years will never produce a map that can even vaguely approximate the territory.

If there even is a territory.

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

The Devil You Say

This is a work of fiction.


image by Sammy Sander on pixabay — free for use under their content licence

I went in search of the Devil.

Surely, I thought,
there must be someone to blame for this mess.

At first, I thought the Devil must reside in ‘bad’ people —
The morally weak, the corrupt, the greedy, the selfish.
There must be space in them for the Devil to take root.

But I spoke to those people,
and though they seemed somewhat deranged,
they were hurt, damaged, rather than wicked.
I could find no Devil there.

So then I sought the Devil in the details —
It was the system that was broken, destructive,
The Devil, I thought, just knew how to play the system.

But all of my charts just ended up in vicious cycles.
How could the Devil be the source
if there was no space for it
in the infinite loop of cause and effect?
The Devil, to my surprise,
could not be found in the details.
The details took no position;
they just were as they were,
caught in the intractable flow from now to Endgame.

Perhaps, I thought, the Devil is cleverer,
disguised in more innocent attire,
pretending to be unaware, inattentive,
in over its head. Was incompetence the real demon?
That would explain a lot.

But how do you explain away a genocide
as being an act of mere ineptitude,
an inadvertent clumsiness, a set of foolish errors,
compounded, born of incapacity?
I could see incompetence everywhere,
a lack of basic proficiency in everything,
but there was no Devil hiding behind it,
cloaking itself in its buffoonery.

So then I set my sights on “—isms” and ideologies.
Perhaps, I thought,
the Devil resides in righteous, inflexible, fanatical beliefs,
pursued to the bitter end.
Therein lay the sclerosis, it seemed,
the unreasonableness, the willful blindness.

But what lay behind that? When I looked closer
all I could see, in the religions, the cults,
the political platforms and spiritual persuasions,
the convictions, the dogmas, the teachings,
the absurd oversimplifications,
the intransigent faiths of all stripes
was fear,
soaked in anger and reinforced by hatred.

So I asked myself: Where does the fear come from?
And I thought I knew the answer:

Aha! I thought — I see now. I know where the Devil hides:
In stories!. They’re the real Devil’s handmaidens.
It’s the stories that are to blame.
We have the wrong stories, fearful, angry ones, bitter fables;
We need only create or rediscover the right ones, better ones,
and the Devil will be flushed out,
unable to feed on lies and deceptions.

But although I read them all, to diagnose them —
so many stories! —
I realized that none of the stories was real.
They were just a hook to hang the fear and anger on.
The fear and anger were there even without the mask of stories.

I couldn’t give up: Surely I was getting closer
to finding the Devil,
now that I knew where it wasn’t.

I kept searching. Capitalism?
Nope, just another system; we’ve already dealt with them.
Modernity then! Damn. Turned out that’s just a word
for “everything I don’t like about the current situation”.
I studied the wisdom of indigenous cultures:
The wetiko — the disease of European culture.
Surely the Devil can be found there,
in the land of ghosts and vampires.

Alas, that too was too simple an answer by half:
Dig down, and almost nothing
can be explained by geography:
There are ghosts and vampires everywhere,
but the Devil defies identifications
with places and times. If it exists at all
the Devil is always and everywhere.

Science, help me here! Surely you can tell.
Is the Devil in our brains, and in particular
in the dominance of our dissociative left brain,
or the psychosis of its entanglement?

Aw, c’mon science, don’t tell me that!
That there’s no free will to dissociate with,
no actual decision-making to entangle, and
no time in which our poor muddled brain can do anything?

OK, I’ll bite then — we’re all just
the product of our conditioning,
and maybe not even real. So where, then, is the Devil?
Where, in this emergence of appearances, will I find a clue
to how everything in this world has gone so wrong?

No, damn you, don’t “that’s just our nature” me.
I’m not buying that dreary Rogue Species homo rapiens stuff.
Please — anything but that.

That’s the only alternative you can come up with?:
There is no Devil. Why not? Why?
There is no why.
Everything just is as it apparently is, for no reason.
That’s a tautology. Not buying it.

Clever though — Can’t argue with it.
Unless, unless… you’re the Devil, just playing with me.
Confusing me with words, and ideas that don’t make sense.
Telling me, absurdly, that no one and nothing is to blame,
for anything.

If you were really the Devil, after all,
that’s exactly what you would say,
so that the terrible stuff going on can continue, unchallenged.
I’m on to you now.

Pitchfork and torch fire in hand, I’m on the hunt,
I’ll find you. You’re around here somewhere, for sure.
Closing in on you, Devil. Someone is to blame,

and it must be you.

Posted in Creative Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will | Leave a comment

War Games


map by TD Projects, 2009; thanks to Indrajit Samarajiva for the link

The latest article from historian and lifelong public service ‘insider’ Aurélien argues that we shouldn’t worry about WW3. Nobody wants a war anymore, he argues — it’s bad for the economy and politically unpalatable when your citizens get drafted and killed. What militarists and politicians actually want are war games — exercises in brinksmanship, practice runs for real combat using some other country’s troops, and an immensely profitable market for military equipment.

The war in Ukraine is a real war for Russia and Ukraine — a civil war that started in 2014 after the NATO-backed coup (yeah, the western media keep forgetting to tell people that) which blew up into a proxy war in 2022. For the US/NATO Empire, Ukraine is just a war game. Just supply insanely overpriced and largely obsolete and ineffectual weapons and ‘intelligence’ and sit back and play with the war maps. Likewise, the genocide in Palestine is a real war for Israel and Palestine, but for the US/NATO Empire, it’s just a war game.

Actual wars, Aurélien argues, require the right kinds of equipment, competencies, training, coordination, understanding of history and geography, and experience that very few countries still possess. US/NATO Empire military equipment is mostly ancient, outdated, and depleted by its endless military adventures. It is incompetently manufactured at absurdly inflated prices by companies like Boeing that can’t even make planes that stay in the air. And it is suited only to aerial bombardment of countries, in the belief that “shock and awe” is actually a strategy for winning a war. The Empire is of course watching the situation in Palestine closely to see whether genocide is a potential winning strategy — Maybe if we just keep dropping bombs on the enemy until there’s no one left, we can declare victory. A grade school knowledge of history would have shown the folly of such a strategy, that has never worked anywhere, but the Empire managers, driven by ideology and rhetoric, and led by utter incompetents, appear to be slow learners.

As Aurélien has painstakingly explained, the US/NATO Empire could not possibly win a real war, because they have none of aforementioned prerequisites for doing so. The Empire has lost every war, and every war game, it has undertaken, for that reason. It does not want a war with China because it knows (though it would never say so publicly) that it would lose, disastrously. It wants to intensify the war games with China. It’s spent 20 years successfully propagandizing the Empire’s clueless, badly educated citizens that China is evil and wants to dominate the world, so now it’s time to up the game. So a pretend-war has already been declared (by designated Empire military mouthpieces) for 2025, and new treaties and movements of ships and planes and bombs to surround China even more than it already is, have begun.

Why? As Indrajit Samarajiva has explained, you have to go back to the time when political leaders and their advisors actually had an inkling about what was really happening in the world, rather than acting on the basis of what, in their ideological fingers-in-the-ears-I-can’t-hear-you manner, they wanted to believe was really happening.

Richard Nixon, of all people, actually understood realpolitik. Despite his mental illness and deplorable ideology, this guy (who, remember, was responsible for introducing the Clean Air Act, OSHA, and the EPA) supported rapprochement with China because he knew it was good for the Empire (access to cheap goods for Empire citizens; opportunity to offshore complex, regulation-laden, environmentally dirty, high-cost western jobs to China, to vastly increase profits for western corporations). Here’s some quotes from Tricky Dickie from Indrajit’s article:

I would summarize it all with this simple way: what brought us [the US and China] together was not the fact that we had common ideas or ideals, but that we had common interests. Our interests brought us together; our ideas would keep us apart. As long as those interests draw us together, we have to learn to live with the differences in our ideas. That’s also true of the Russians. …

I always come through with this theme. Even if there were no Soviet Union, it was essential that the United States move now, and move when it did I should say, in rapprochement with China, and the reason for that is, fundamentally, that one-fourth of all the people in the world live in the People’s Republic of China. It has enormous natural resources. And the Chinese people are among the most capable people in the world. Look what they’ve done in Taiwan and Hong Kong and Singapore. Thailand. San Francisco, you name it. Once that power is mobilized, it is going to be an enormous force in the world. For good, or for bad. …

I think de Gaulle hit it, in his usual way, in 1969 most effectively, when he said, cryptically, better for you to recognize China now when they need you, than to wait until later, when their power is such that you would need them. And so, in order to build the kind of a world that we want our grandchildren to live in, in the 21st century, it was essential that the United States—the most powerful and the prosperous nation in the free world—have a new relationship with the People’s Republic of China. (1983)

Damn. If only our current doddering lot of Empire managers had even a basic sense of realpolitik, and the competence to act on it.

But they don’t. All they know is that someone allowed all of the Empire’s manufacturing capacity (including its computer chip and military manufacturing capacity, and by capacity I mean know-how, not just factories) to be offshored to China. And now the Empire is dependent on China, which the Empire’s managers don’t like at all. So there has to be a war — not a real war, because as much as they’ve been propagandized, Empire citizens don’t want to actually have to fight in, and send their children to be killed and maimed in, real wars, especially wars they presumably (based on all available evidence) know that they would lose. There has, instead, to be a war game. Lots of posturing, sanctions, bombs dropped by proxies in ‘neutral’ zones to establish ‘red lines’.

The goal is apparently, preposterously, for the Empire to get back its industrial capacity from China by sanctioning their goods (most of which, like Russia’s currently sanctioned goods, are sent to, and enormously benefit, Empire nations). The loss of access to sanctioned Russian goods has been, thanks to outrages like Biden’s blowing up of the Nord Stream pipelines, economically crippling to the Empire’s European nations. But somehow, the sanctioning and other war game play with China is expected to magically re-create ‘domestic’ capacity to produce (or at least Empire access to, by producing the overthrow of China’s government) the modern computer technologies, scarce mineral resources, and military components that underpin the entire teetering economy of the Empire. Blame Tricky Dickie, I guess.

The thing about war games, of course, is that, unlike wars, they’re not real. The Empire’s managers seem to believe that they can write a Hollywood script with a deus ex machina and a happy and victorious ending, and that somehow the people working for the Empire will be able to turn the script into reality.

I’ve written ad nauseam about how the incompetents who wield most of the power in our crumbling civilization think that somehow ‘objectives’ are ‘strategies’, so their job is just to envision those objectives and tell their underlings to ‘make it so’, and then, when it inevitably turns out badly, to blame the underlings. But that’s apparently where we are.

So prepare for the Empire’s war games in Ukraine and Palestine to continue for a long time, at least until the countries that are actually fighting in real wars in those countries run out of bodies for the armchair generals to play with. And prepare for a new war game with China, which will probably bankrupt the US and most of its Empire ‘allies’, since they now have no capacity to produce what the games require.

That is how Empires end. Eventually the US will no longer be able to play the game, and it will pack up its toys and go home. Beware if you’re in one of the dependent outposts of its Empire — when the game’s over, then you’re no longer allies, and then it’s every country for itself. If your country has complacently declared Russia and China to be its sanctioned enemies, they are probably not going to look too kindly when you assert that it was just a game, and now you want to be friends again.

Tricky Dickie could have told you that.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works | 9 Comments

Unreal

This is a work of fiction.


ai generated image by pixabay contributor anyamaya; free to use under pixabay’s content licence

It was about that time that she realized that she liked her imaginary friends better than her real ones. They weren’t imaginary in the sense of a child’s invention of playmates. They were just imagined in the sense of being there when she wanted someone to talk with, to bounce things off, or to be with. So for example they were the personifications of the ‘other’ in the internal dialogues she engaged in when she was trying to resolve some perplexing cognitive dissonance in her head. Or they were the ‘others’ she imagined when she was shlicking alone at night.

Unlike what some of her ‘real’ friends were like — or at least what she imagined them to be like, because of course we can never really know what another’s like — these imagined friends were always helpful, reassuring, joyful, beautiful, smart, and undemanding. She had given up feeling guilty for liking them.

She started to write stories about her characters, written from the perspective of herself as narrator, to help bring substance and nuance to them, to fill in the details of what made them interesting and pleasant to ‘be around’, and establish a basis for her ‘relationship’ with them. These characters sometimes drew on fictional characters she’d encountered in her reading, but her writing was not fan fiction. She worked hard to make her characters three-dimensional, richer and more complex than even the best fictional characters she’d discovered in her reading of the classics (and her guilty pleasure, romance novels). Over time, she even began to illustrate her stories.

No one else would want to read these stories, she surmised, because they had no conflict, no tension, no serious dramatic story line to them. The stories were just ‘portraits’ of their characters, and these characters were uniformly brilliant, grounded, beautiful, joyful, and free of stress and trauma. But despite the serenity of these characters and their stories, they were never boring. They were full of insights, clever remarks, attentive to things she would never have noticed or was struggling to understand. They were the kind of characters you’d just always take pleasure from being around. The kind of characters you couldn’t help, perhaps, developing little crushes on. And they never disappointed.

She realized that, as this was happening, she was less and less inclined to take ‘real’ people seriously. They were, she thought, really not significantly different from the characters of her imagination. They were just inventions, characters in a story of their and her collective concoction, with mostly really lousy and incoherent plot lines that rarely made much sense. And their stories were so relentlessly sad!

If she were to write her ‘real’ friends into one of her stories, someone reading them might understandably complain that most of them were quite awful characters — unsympathetic, inconsistent, annoying, overwrought, incomplete. They just wouldn’t ‘fit’ with the delightful characters that her vivid imagination conjured up.

She felt bad about that — her ‘real’ friends weren’t ‘bad’ people. They were doing their best. They’d had trying lives. Their selfishness, their neediness, their upsets, were understandable if you put yourself in their place. But the behaviours of psychopaths were understandable, too, if you did your research and put your mind to figuring out what lay beneath their misdeeds and miserableness, she reasoned — That didn’t mean you’d want to hang out with them.

She wasn’t a hermit, though, by any means. She liked being out and among people who were reasonably pleasant, well-behaved and not obviously insane, depressed, or consumed with rage and righteous indignation. The park, the café, the shops on the High Street — these were all agreeable and entertaining enough places to go when she wanted to be ‘social’. She could wave and nod at familiar faces, chat with strangers and smile at their kids and pet their dogs, and amuse herself eavesdropping on their conversations, without the unpleasantness of having to get to ‘know’ them, and whatever demons they were wrestling with behind those ambiguous facial expressions.

Was she becoming ‘disengaged’ from human society, and if so, was that necessarily a bad thing?

She had two long-time ‘real’ friends, and they often expressed concern about her “etherial” way of living and being in the world. She needed to connect with people at a “deeper” level, and do more with people, they said — get herself ‘out there’. She needed a boyfriend, they suggested, someone to shake her out of her fantasies and build a true relationship with. But she’d tried that, and her conclusion was always the same: This is more trouble than it’s worth.

It took a couple of bottles of excellent wine and a picnic in the park overlooking the lake, one gorgeous summer evening at sunset, to actually make clear to her best friend, and to herself, why she was both happier and healthier than she’d ever been, in the company, most often, of characters of her own creation.

Her friend, staring at her with slightly-drunk eyes and a concerned expression, said:

“These imaginary friends of yours are like the AI ‘companions’ they have now for desperately lonely seniors. They aren’t authentic relationships. They’re just projections, perfect little people who do and say exactly what you want them to. They aren’t capable of really feeling. They aren’t reciprocal relationships. And you can’t grow unless you engage with other humans on the same level, with whom you live in the same ‘real’ world with its real problems and imperfections.”

“Yeah, those AI companions and AI therapists understandably have the shrinks up in arms. What would they do if they found that reassuring AI characters who appreciated and articulated and mirrored what people said, were actually healthier and more helpful to people than the abstract penis-obsessed theories of self-important overpaid ‘doctors’? And who’s to say what an ‘authentic’ relationship is? You and I cannot possibly know who each other ‘really’ are. We just guess wildly at what it’s like to be another person, and it’s just as much a projection as what we guess it’s like to be a character in our favourite novel. We both know people who’ve gone through nasty divorces, and they generally say they really had no idea what their partner was really like at all. As for dealing with people’s real problems, what’s the point of ’empathizing’ with someone about something that has no solution? You can be compassionate, but where does that get either of you?”

“Maybe it helps just to hear that someone, your best real friend, really ‘gets’ what you’re going through. That’s what real, loving friendship is all about, no?”

“Friendship has to be more than just commiserating. It’s about learning, and about play. And about pleasure. And about fun.”

“And about shared experiences. Real experiences. Not make-believe fiction.”

“Shared experiences are like what Rebecca West said about conversations: They don’t exist, they’re illusions. There are just intersecting monologues and parallel stories about what we think has actually happened. There are no shared experiences. We just believe there are because we want to believe in them. And it’s the same with relationships. They’re all fiction. We just want really badly to think we have them.”

“The people I know who are really into AI, into what I would call fantasy relationships, are completely addicted. They just crave more dopamine hits from the bot. ‘Tell me you care. Tell me that I’m right. Tell me that you understand.’ We humans are social creatures. We evolved to have full-on, up-and-down, honest adult relationships with other real human beings, because we can’t have a community or a society without them. It takes work. You try to substitute a soul-less sycophantic bot or fictional character, you’re not just enabling addictive, mentally-unhealthy behaviour, you’re making it much harder for that AI-patronized person to then be able to sustain a complex, imperfect, sometimes unpleasant real relationship with other real humans.”

“We evolved to be social creatures out of necessity. Humans can’t survive without cooperating. Most birds are a lot like us. They cooperate when they have to — until the nestlings are fledged, or when there’s a predator threat, or a scarcity crisis. And the rest of the time they associate almost exclusively for fun, for play, and when they’re not having fun, they’re off doing their own thing for fun. But we humans have laid this whole additional social burden on relationships. We wallow in our unhappiness, and insist on sharing and commiserating with others. That’s mentally unhealthy, in my opinion. We’re too dependent on other people for dealing with our emotional fucked-up-ed-ness. Why should we have to work on relationships? If they’re not joyful and easy, to me they’re just not worth the trouble. And yeah, perhaps relationships with endearing fictional characters are addictive — so what? Aren’t all relationships, which as I said are all fictions anyway, aren’t they all addictive? ‘Ooh, got a big dopamine hit from that compliment. I think I’ll keep them as a friend.’ ”

“So you’re telling me it doesn’t bother you that people can get so wrapped up in fake relationships with AI or fictional characters that tell them exactly what they want to hear, that they become incapable of having normal, healthy relationships with real humans who can’t, won’t and shouldn’t always tell them what they want to hear?”

“There are no relationships. They’re all imagined. They’re what we want to believe in. We only ‘hear’ what we want to hear anyway, in ‘real’ relationships. That’s why the marital breakups always come as such a shock.”

“Imagine if everyone had their own perfect AI companion, always telling them exactly what they wanted to hear, to the point no one talked with other real humans anymore, because it wasn’t as pleasant. What kind of a world would that be?”

“I suspect it wouldn’t be much different from the world we presume to live in now. As Rebecca said, there are no real conversations, there are no real relationships, and no one really knows another person. I’m guessing we’d be more like the birds — we’d collaborate when we had to, and socialize to have fun, and the rest of the time we’d have fun ‘alone’ with our AI companions or imaginary friends.”

“You’re hopeless, you know. Smart, but hopeless. I don’t know why I put up with you.”

“Because I tell you what you want to hear. Even when you don’t think it’s what you want to hear.”

“So why do you put up with me? Why haven’t you closeted yourself completely with your amusing cast of characters whose lives are perpetually joyful and pleasurable?”

“My conditioning, I guess. I can’t help myself. Sitting here drinking too much wine with you is fun. And you’re really smart. I might be wrong about all this. So I’m hedging my bets. I’m keeping you in reserve as a real friend just in case.”

They both stretched and yawned and stared at the last light of the setting sun.

“You’re unreal.”

“You finally figured that out.”

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

Untethered, Still

This is #31 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.


Cartoon by Michael Leunig

Oh, people! I know we’re supposed to be a social species, but humans, especially those who are dealing with trauma, which is, it seems, most humans — they’re sometimes just too much for me to bear.

I know we’re all doing our best, and that we’re just conditioned to be how we are and it’s no one’s fault and no one is to blame, but geez… humans are so damned needy and damaged and dysfunctional. I can only muster so much compassion, and then I just run out. It’s not my job, I remind myself, to heal the seeming billions of walking wounded, bearing faces of quiet desperation, and, sometimes, hearts of broken stone.

Yeah, I know, easy for me to say. Somehow I’ve managed to excise my early trauma (my lousy memory may have helped), and no new trauma has, it would seem, arisen to take its place. But at my age, cancers and Alzheimers loom, so there’s still time for that old paralyzing anxiety and depression to reclaim this incredibly-blessed self. I’m insensitive, in many ways. I’ve been told that it’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I can’t, I don’t dare, because the Noonday Demon is just waiting for me to take that risk, and will suck me back into its clutches when I do. Sorry not sorry, and all that.

TS Eliot wrote, in East Coker:

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The whole-earth hospital, and our self-constructed prisons, may well be imagined and illusory, but that does not make them any less real to us, their bewildered residents.

Damn. This is a dismal and dispiriting start to my month-end “wandering” essay, isn’t it? Maybe I should erase the above, and start over.

If only I had the free will to do so…

.  .  .  .  .

So now I’m sitting up on the roof, where I can see the birds, but not the people. I’m listening mostly to dance music on the headphones, drowning out the traffic and the construction noise below. But somehow the “shuffle” on my playlist has gotten turned on, and instead of K-Pop or Kompa, a Neil Young song comes on:

I need a crowd of people,
but I can’t face them day to day.
Though my problems are meaningless,
that don’t make them go away.

Yeah, Neil, but then nothing is real, either. Everything we imagine to be real is just made up in our heads, a hopeless ‘making-sense’ of everything. Just playing out the role we’ve been given. Except we’re not even on the stage; we’re just in the stands, watching the action. Trying to follow the plot. And the plot makes no sense.

We could actually make up our own story, like little kids do with their ‘imaginary friends’, and it would be as real as the stale one we’ve been given, the one we’ve faithfully followed, doing what we were told, believing what we were conditioned to believe was true. And our made-up story could be endlessly delightful, endlessly pleasurable. Close your eyes and imagine — Is that a person walking toward us? They are smiling at you. They are the phantom you’ve been searching for all your life. The one who really understands, who really knows you.

Oops, nope, not a person, sorry. Just a cloud, or something blowing in the wind. A mirage. But no matter. They were beautiful, no? Why are they any less real than what appears to appear as we sleepwalk through our lives? Close your eyes again. See, they’re still there! Everything you imagined. How can you be sad? Everything is there, just waiting for you to imagine it, as real as real can be. If everything we think to be true is just a dream, then why not live our own perfect dream of our own imagining? Look, they’re smiling at you. And look, there’s a kitten, a paper airplane, a forest by the warm ocean, a child laughing in the sun.

You don’t have to open your eyes. You don’t have to control and manage that person you imagined your self to be in that other dream. Your body knows what to do to keep you safe, to keep your conditioning keeping it doing the only thing it can do.

It doesn’t need you.

.  .  .  .  .

A crow duet unfolds above me, a mirror to my dancing. Two crows dive down towards the air currents between the towers and then, catching the updrafts, soar up. Daredevil fliers, they drop vertically down from the towers’ edges, almost too fast to see, and then level off and climb back up. At breakneck speed, an orchestration of pure joy, they zoom past side-by-side and then in hot pursuit, separating and then recombining, swooping around the building. Because they can. There is no other why.

Off in the distance, a paraglider wafts over the crest of Mount Burke, carefully navigating over the treetops towards a landing near the city centre lake. Far above him or her, two seagulls circle, seemingly tracking the paraglider’s path. Not bad, for a human.

.  .  .  .  .

I head for the gym for my daily workout. I’m feeling light-headed, kind of in a daze. This idea grows: that there are, for us human ‘selves’, only stories, so why not create and ‘listen’ to one that is fun, instead of the monotonous and time-bound ‘story of me’? Why not live in a story that is about endless pleasure and joy, instead of the ‘real’ one that is anchored, these days, to genocide and suffering?

It is not an aspirational story of which I speak, one to replace the ‘dominant narrative’ by willing into existence a ‘new story’ that is just as hidebound, just as locked into civilization’s script, just with a different pretty wrapper, a different anchoring worldview, a different ideological, religious zeal.

The imagined story I instead pursue is told with a voice of childlike wonder. It has no need for plot. It’s fuzzy and giddy and giggly and always warm and safe and gentle. It doesn’t aspire or pretend to be real. It goes wherever there is pleasure and discovery and astonishment, just for the fun of being made up, of being able to be anything that can be imagined, or which cannot even be imagined. It will not be tethered by appeals to ‘be serious’ or ‘get real’, because stories need not be serious, and, besides, no story is real.

The 45 minutes on the treadmill fly by, as if in a hallucination. There is no one ‘else’ in the gym, not ‘really’, so anything is welcomed into this brief story. Three young women on exercise mats rehearse K-Pop dance moves, laughing at their missteps and singing along with the music. A parade of carnival floats drifts by, with Soca music weaving around the weight training equipment and the barbells. On the elliptical beside me, an androgynous faerie comically mimics my moves, smiling and laughing at me as it works the pedals alternately with its feet and then, weightlessly, with its hands. Light-creatures slide in and out through tiny cracks in space, from other worlds. The treadmill rises into the air, effortlessly, and accelerates through the walls and into space, dodging meteors, the handlebars serving as steering, accelerator and brakes. Impossibly, I am dancing on the elliptical, the faerie holding me affectionately from behind, teaching me the moves that my body understands, that ‘I’ never will.

And then, the story ends. But maybe, if I close my eyes…

.  .  .  .  .

On the way back from the gym I watch two crows diving down from a balcony onto a patio and then swooping back up. I move closer to see what’s got their attention. Abandoned on one of the patios are a plastic pail, shovel and watering can, in very bright red/yellow/blue colours, kids’ beach toys.

One of the crows dives down and lands on the handle of the tiny shovel, which immediately collapses from its weight, sending the pail in which it was resting rolling off toward the patio door. The crow, spooked, flaps back up, while the second crow perches on the patio fence to observe the commotion. The first crow, not to be intimidated by a plastic toy, lands back on the pail and pecks it into submission, but when the second crow flies over and lands on the plastic watering can, it too topples over. Both crows fly up and perch on the fence to determine their next strategy.

Finally, the first crow stealthily approaches the little plastic shovel, sits on its handle, and grabs its shaft in its beak. It looks perplexed, before realizing that its own weight on the shovel’s handle is preventing it from moving this fascinating toy. So it jumps off, re-grasps the shaft of the shovel, and flies with it up to a nearby tree. That’ll show that shovel who’s boss!

As I watch, it occurs to me that we would never see seagulls or pigeons, both as common here as crows, performing these theatrics. Each species has its own games, its own forms of play. Its own ways of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Its own way of being a part of everything. Its own make-believe stories.

At this point I leave the drama to unfold as it will, wondering whether some little girl or boy is going to come out to collect their beach toy and wonder where the shovel went. And maybe they’ll look up and see it. What will their story be? Could it be magic?

.  .  .  .  .

I go for a walk by the creek, and find a clearing that’s quiet and secluded and has no people in it, and I dance. I dance to the movement of the sun and the moon and the earth and the stars. I dance to the particle-waves and the folding of spacetime that, in the minds of scientists who need to break everything down to make sense of it, seems to give rise to what is apparently happening. I dance to the joy of pleasure and laughter and play in all its forms. I dance to the sheer unknowingness of everything.

Posted in Creative Works, Month-End Reflections | 3 Comments

Nothing Is Required

comic by Reza Farazmand


Nothing is required
for things to appear exactly as they appear.

Time is not required:
for time is just something we imagine
because we can’t make sense of
everything-only-apparently-happening
all-at-once.

Causality and consequence are not required:
There is no sequence, no order to appearances.
They are just appearances, not even random.
No appearance is required
in order for another appearance to be possible.
Every appearance is possible, already.

Conditioning is not required:
Trauma, it would seem,
is a preconditioning to genocide, for example,
but conditioning is just an explanation,
a rationalization, a mental placing
of cart before horse
and the hitching of the two together.
That may ‘make sense’, but it is not necessary.
The genocidal cart
and the traumatized horse
are, likewise, just labels, explanations
when no label or explanation is needed.

Awareness, and a conscious self are not required:
Science may ponder about the connection
between what is real
and what can be measured
but there is no need for a measurement,
no need even for a measurer
for things to appear to appear as they appear.

Purpose and meaning are not required:
Our whole model of reality,
steeped in hope and reason
and intention and direction
needs ‘us’ to hold the model together,
needs a purpose to say where it is going
and meaning to say where it has been,
but the model is just a model,
something ‘we’ made up to feel better—
What appears is not going anywhere
‘purposefully’,
and it has not come from anywhere
‘meaningfully’.

Fairness and justice are not required:
These are just ‘our’ judgements,
the making sense
of what need not make sense.
The making of meaning
of what need have no meaning.
“What is the meaning of this?”
is a rhetorical question.

Higher authorities are not required:
Gaia winks at the notion of gods and spirits,
someone or something to blame
or to rescue us from what, ‘we’ are sure
has somehow gone wrong.
Gaia knows better: There is no wrong,
and no authority to label it so.

Neither compassion nor inurement is required:
Though ‘we’ cannot help but care,
our caring’s just projection. a longing
for our feelings to be shared.
And though ‘we’ cannot help but fear,
inurement’s just the longing, in times
when the suffering’s too much to bear,
to feel and care less.
What appears does not care what we feel.

Love is not required:
Human love is just a gnawing need
to feel less alone, less one’s ‘self’,
less haunted by the seeming empty hole
of separation, a hole
that can never be filled
because there is no separation.
What appears is not in need of filling;
it is empty of empty holes.

The universe does not care about us,
or anything. Neither does it “not care”:
It takes no position. It sees no cruelty, or kindness.
It does not even witness us, silently.
It does not recognize us:
We are but figments of our own reality.

Einstein suggested that what we call matter
might be just the infinite field of possibilities
(that we call ‘spacetime’)
folding itself in a particular way,
a ripple appearing in a flow,
for no reason.

To our abject terror, anything is possible,
everything is in free-fall, there is just
chaos appearing as order—
not sometimes, but also.
Nothing is under control.

Everything just appears, but not in time —
nothing disappears.
It doesn’t appear where it was not,
or cease to appear where it once was.
There is no end and no beginning.

Everything just appears. Nothing is required.

Nothing.

Posted in Creative Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will | 2 Comments