This is #23 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. 

fall colours in Coquitlam; all the (mostly awful) photos in this post are my own

To my delight, the little girl who ‘drove’ the commuter Skytrain, whom I wrote about in my month-end post in June, was also on board for my trip to “the city” a few days ago, where I had to go to run some errands.

Since I board the train on one of its first stops on the route, I was able to grab the single front seat for this trip. But they — the girl and her mother, this time with a little friend in tow — were waiting on the platform a couple of stops later. I could already see the looks of dismay as they realized their prized ‘driver’ seat was taken, and as they entered her mother motioned the two girls to the second row of seats and shushed them. They did as they were told, but I had already started to repack my bag to give them my seat. I signalled ‘mom’ to ask if it was OK to let them share the front seat, and she nodded thanks. The girls squeaked excitedly and quickly took up positions on each side of the empty seat, and the ‘adventure’ began.

The little girl pulled a round pink cushion from her bag, and placed it on the ‘dashboard’ in front of the seat — the steering wheel for the train’s new ‘drivers’.

“We have to decide what all these buttons on the console are for”, she said to her friend. There were of course no buttons, but for the ‘drivers’ that didn’t matter.

“This big cabinet beside the driver’s seat — it’s locked. Do you have the key?” the friend replied.

“You don’t need a key. It’s this button. But be careful. This cabinet is actually the bathroom for the exclusive use of the train’s drivers. It’s a very tight fit, but there’s room if you hunch down and don’t take too long.”

“I’m back already. So where are we going today? And eek! why aren’t you steering?!

“It’s on auto-pilot. I just have to think about where we want to go, and when I push this button it reads my mind and takes us there.”

“What if where you want to go isn’t on the train route?”

“Then you have to push this button. It’s the worm-hole button, and it will take you instantly to the closest train track to where you want to go. You try it.”

“OK, then… I want to go to China.”

“Wow, I’ve never been there. What do you want to go there for?”

“Um… to see the circus. And the castles. And to buy silk robes, one for each of us.”

“You have to close your eyes through the worm-hole, so you don’t get seasick… What kind of robes are you looking for?”

“The ones that the Daughters of Heaven wear. Not like the King and Queen, of course. Theirs are yellow, and no one else can wear that colour. Ours will be red. Red is a lucky colour. In China brides wear red, and they get money in red envelopes. That’s the colour red I’m looking for.”

Several of the passengers seated nearby were, I think, of Chinese ancestry. When they heard the girls’ story, they smiled. I’m not sure what that smile meant.

Much of the rest of the trip passed in silence. Up front, there was a lot of pointing, and steering, and closing of eyes. And apparently trying on of red robes. The real world, or at least what we think it to be, kind of just faded away for a while. We were transported, to a world of magic and beauty and wonder.

My most interesting train trip ever.

So now it’s a few days later, and this body, restless as the rain and clouds are finally receding, takes this self for a wander along the creek to look at the astonishing fall colours. As usual these days, I’m determined to get better at paying attention.

The trees are sheathed, royally, in robes of yellow and red.

Ahead of me there are two middle-aged couples, intermittently holding hands and chatting. One of the men is talking about his sense that “women are never entirely satisfied” with their lot and their partners, always wanting a little more. His partner replies sarcastically “That’s because we know we could always do better. Whereas we’re the women of your dreams, better than you could ever have hoped for.”

The laughter that follows is a bit awkward. The hand-holding temporarily stops, and there is an uncomfortable silence.

Then the other guy chimes in: “I think it’s because women grow up with better imaginations. They have more practice at it. So they can imagine things being better. While most men just accept things as they are.”

I think about the girls in the train.

The couples nod, shrug. They rejoin hands.

A few blocks later I come to an intersection. Like many where I live, this one has Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS). These are sounds that accompany the “walk” sign, for the blind and visually impaired. A two-tone ‘cuckoo’ sound signals it’s safe to walk across the intersection in a north-south direction. A ‘chirp’ sound (or in some places a four-tone declining ‘Canadian melody’) signals it’s safe to walk across the intersection in an east-west direction. (The four-tone is used in areas where nearby chirping birds might send the wrong message.) The crossing box contains a raised arrow that points in the direction of crossing that also vibrates during the walk signal, for the deaf-blind. And that box emits a steady tone to help those blind or visually impaired to find it.

I’m standing waiting for the light to change. Beside me is a couple with an adorable small furball of a dog (apparently a “mini goldendoodle”) on a leash. When the walk signal sounds, it’s the east-west chirp and not the north-south cuckoo that we’re waiting for. Nevertheless, the dog, whose name is Luna, lunges in the direction we’re headed, only to be restrained by the leash.

“Sorry Luna — cuckoo!” the man holding the leash says. Then he turns to me and explains that Luna has figured out that these two sounds mean ‘cross’, but hasn’t yet figured out how to distinguished them. He’s now training her which sound to cross with, by saying “cuckoo” or “chirp” to her at each intersection. But he got distracted talking with me and failed to give her the prompt.

The woman with him says “She also knows you have to press the button to get the signal, so now when we get to each intersection she jumps up to try to hit the button.”


At the end of my walk, I wander into my favourite local café. The barista (a young guy whose girlfriend sometimes waits patiently at one of the tables until his weekend shift ends — and no, a male barista is not called a baristo) starts my regular matcha order, which he knows by heart. I sit at my ‘regular’ table, perfect for people-watching.

There is a group of (I’m guessing) Persian-Canadians sitting in the comfy seats in the corner (room for six). I have no idea what they’re saying, until I see one of the men bow and say “mersi” (the borrowed-French word for “thank you”). And what follows is a comical, and, had my friend Raffi not told me about it, utterly mysterious ritual, called ta’arof. The words are impossible to translate, but if you tried to do so literally, it would be something like: “May your hand not hurt” (presumably “from all your hard work leading to this kindness”). “May your flower-like hand not hurt.” “I would sacrifice myself for your hand.” “May your head not hurt.” And so on. It is apparently a common way to show appreciation and respect, and quite a lovely one. But they may have carried it a little too far, since at the end of it one of the women in the group threw a plastic spoon at them and wagged her finger at them.

May we in our struggling cultures discover similar acts of grace.

Each year the City of Coquitlam puts up a Christmas light display all around the Lafarge Lake pathway. It now consists of over a million LED lights.

I make my way from the café to the lake, a seven-minute walk. It’s cold — -2ºC — but windless and there has been no snow so far this year, which makes the paths, because of the effect of so many lights on your cornea, I guess, seem especially dark.

It’s busy here on a weekend night, with lots of families, kids, dogs and strollers, and I find myself behind an older couple walking slowly, so I just slow to match their pace. The man has apparently recently retired, and like many men with long careers, he’s not quite sure what to do with himself.

“I don’t like golf”, he tells her, “and with my knee I can’t play tennis. Roger goes to the Legion all the time, now, but it’s too noisy there for me. I don’t want to take up a hobby. I want to do something that’s important, useful. Something I do well.”

His partner laughs, a delightful, appreciative laugh. She says: “You’re going to have to learn, my dear, the important and useful value of doing nothing. You’re no good at it right now, because it takes practice to do nothing well.”

This is a gob-smackingly brilliant insight to me, one that stops me in my tracks. But I start walking again, leaning in to hear how he will respond. Finally, he replies, rather morosely:

“I think I’m too old to learn that.” But then he smiles and pats her hand.

A little further along there is a substantial display of lights and characters from Alice in Wonderland. I wonder: Has there been a remake of the movie, or are kids still reading the book, or has the book and theme just entered the collective zeitgeist? Whatever the reason, the kids seem to like the display, especially the bug-eyed caterpillar characters that flash on and off at random intervals in the dark. One little girl is dancing around the characters, talking to them and singing a very breathy version of the Unbirthday Song.

A man pausing by the display says to his companion: “I still remember when, as a child, I first saw Fantasia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It captivated and terrified me. I was afraid to go to the movies for a while. But that film taught me about the power of imagination, and it taught me what film music ‘should’ sound like. It transported me.

The little girl dances on. I smile when I realize that kids pick their own entertainment, and prefer participating, rather than passively watching as we older people have been so conditioned to do with our entertainments. At one point in our walk, there is a logjam of people, and I wonder what’s happening as it’s an area with relatively few lights. And then I see: There are hundreds of ducks sleeping and chattering quietly at the edge of the lake here, in the dark, and the kids are mesmerized. The lights are just lights. The ducks are alive.

A little further on this becomes even clearer — a little boy is ignoring his parents’ pleas asking for him to look at a particularly large light display, while he plays with a small dog. And just past them, a little girl, barely old enough to walk, is pushing what is seemingly her own stroller, paying no attention to what is going on around her, watching raptly a little dog that is contentedly sitting inside the stroller. Her mother looks resigned. Whatever makes you happy, dear.

As we* enter one of the ‘light tunnels’, two women ahead of me slow and appear to be fumbling with something. I slow and look down in case I see something that they’ve dropped, but as they exit the ‘tunnel’ I see that they are just moving their hands and arms around together, and realize that it’s some kind of language.

As I watch, I notice that one of the women is looking all around, taking it all in, while the second looks straight ahead. The woman doing the looking is apparently describing this incredible light display, and the sounds of music and conversation and laughter to the second woman, who, I realize, is deaf-blind. (I later learn this is called Tactile Sign Language and I’ve actually seen it used before; it uses touch in various places on the body to convey not only words and ideas, but expressions and ‘body language’ as well.) The deaf-blind woman is laughing at the descriptions.

It was pretty humbling to observe. We are, at least sometimes, more adaptable than we might think. Amazing what you can learn to do when you have no choice.

Nearing the end of the ‘main loop’ around the lake, I stop to plan my exit from the park. I overhear a group of five female teenagers guessing what the next Christmas song will be that will come over the speakers placed around the lake.

One of them remarks that most Christmas songs are pretty kitschy, and another asks the group what song they most associate with Christmas. Three of them say, almost in one voice, “Mariah Carey“, and then nod and laugh, and start to sing the song.

But one of them turns away and starts to cry. The others, aghast, huddle around her to ask what’s wrong.

“The John Lennon song — Happy Christmas (War is Over If You Want It)“, she says.

The group is silent. And then one of them starts to sing, and the others start to sing along. They don’t make a big thing about it. This isn’t a flash-mob performance. They just walk up the side path, away from the crowd, singing quietly, until they’re out of sight.

Now I’m in tears, thinking about all the wars raging in our world. I’m suddenly filled with outrage and grief and fear and despair. Look at what we’ve become. Look at what we’re doing to each other, and to this planet, our home.

By the time I walk home I’ve recovered, kind of. We’re all just playing out our conditioning, I tell myself. We’re all doing our best. Such a tragedy, though. Such a waste. It seems a bit like watching a play or a movie where you can guess the ending and it’s not a happy one, and where you wish the writers had made some different script decisions. It shouldn’t have to end this way.

May we all be suddenly transported to a world where John Lennon’s admonition just might be true.

Best of the season to everyone. Peace.

* ‘We’ being this body, the self that presumes to inhabit it, and the many hundreds of people and pets caught up in the massive one-way movement around the lake. Here, you’re just part of the crowd, part of the experience.

Posted in Creative Works, Month-End Reflections | 1 Comment

Hard to Be Compassionate Sometimes

a mosaic watercolour portrait of David Foster Wallace, by Midjourney AI; not my prompt

I‘ve argued endlessly that we are simply the products of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment, and that hence we’re all doing our ‘best’, and no one is to ‘blame’. Since coming to that conclusion, I think I’ve become a more compassionate person, more equanimous and accepting. And better able to accept the inevitability of the accelerating collapse of our civilization and the ecological systems that regulate life on our little planet.

Still, there are many things that annoy me, despite all efforts to see them through this lens. I have little tolerance for reckless, cruel, ‘unfair’, bullying, coercive, controlling, humiliating, abusive, oppressive, murderous and violent behaviour of all kinds; for dishonesty and deceit and propaganda and censorship; for manipulation, exploitation and deprivation; for feelings and actions born of hatred, greed, prejudice, judgement, unreasonable expectations, and jealousy; for ignorance and stupidity; for waste and contamination and destruction; and for incompetence.

That’s a long list of things to get upset about, when it’s all just the universe acting everything out the only way it possibly could!

Try as I may, my brain immediately attempts to attribute these behaviours to something deliberate, wilful, intentional, as if anything could be deliberate in a world with no free will.

Some of these reactions are instinctive, like my reaction (which is fear masked by anger) to dangerous and aggressive drivers. Even now, once the immediate danger has passed, I have a tendency to hold on to the anger for a long time, and even to rehash the event in my mind, and in subsequent conversations. And to ascribe deliberate intent, aimed at me personally, to the behaviours. I can read David Foster Wallace’s What is Water commencement speech a million times, about how that driver might have been on the way to hospital with a sick child or pregnant spouse, and it does me no good.

Likewise I can appreciate that the current wars, sieges, ethnic cleansing, genocides and nuclear brinksmanship (and the press’ blatant dishonesty in reporting about them) stem from centuries of exhaustively, endlessly, and mutually conditioned fear, hate, rage, grief, jealousy, and shame, and recognize that my reaction to them is, more than anything else, about my fear of how they could lead to global warfare producing endless, immense suffering (especially for me and those I care about).

But this self has been conditioned to try to understand such behaviours as a means to identify corrective actions (leading to peace and reconciliation etc). And that conditioning normally ‘understands’ behaviours in terms like cause, blame, provocation, responsibility, mental derangement, or ‘evil’. It is hard to just accept that these horrific behaviours were the inevitable, uncontrollable results of centuries of conditioning of the actors. It’s just too hopeless. We ‘solved’ the problem with Germany, didn’t we? And the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland? How can we ‘fix things’ so that everyone behaves responsibly and respectfully and peacefully and gets along with everyone else?

Well, of course, we cannot. But if all the large and small atrocities (according to each of our individual assessments and judgements) are just the inevitable result of our conditioning, can we at least be compassionate towards all parties, setting aside our judgements and distress about  them?

Could we attempt to piece together, from a study of history, and human nature under extreme and chronic stress, and the limits to growth, and how mental illness affects and debilitates us, combined with an acknowledgement of our complete lack of free will, and from that, learn to accept and not judge these atrocities and their perpetrators?

Not a chance, I think. One could certainly put together a ‘case’ for what (might have) led to these atrocities and how their perpetrators, given their conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, had no choice but to commit them. But that is not going to relieve the sense of outrage, of righteous indignation, or the fear and anger and grief that learning of or witnessing these atrocities instils.

The most that might be possible is that my instinctive (fear etc) and conditioned (“that’s so unfair!” etc) reactions to learning of or witnessing an outrage gradually become less intense, less enduring, and less likely to result in me contributing some of the same dysfunctional behaviours (eg honking loud and long at an aggressive driver; or calling for revenge against a group that seems clearly to have perpetrated an atrocity).

If I am seemingly not directly and personally affected by the atrocity, I might even be able to say to myself: This awful behaviour was conditioned; isn’t that tragic? and leave it at that, acknowledging that there is no way I can really know what led to it, but something did, and it was not ‘pure evil’ or some other simplistic explanation. My judgement of fault, blame, or simple cause is at best useless, and at worst dangerous (to my mental health, if nothing more).

I can, after all, be outraged by awful events even if I hold no one ‘to blame’ for them (eg the driver who gets a sudden heart attack and crashes into a crowd of people). I can say isn’t that tragic? and leave it at that, in those situations.

And (sorry, religious folks) this has absolutely nothing to do with ‘forgiveness’. That pretension is all about you saying that you hold someone to blame but don’t hate them anymore. Ugh. If everything is conditioned, there is nothing to ‘forgive’!

While I may be unable to feel any compassion for the perpetrator of a particular atrocity, I can, with some attention and effort, manage to spark and sustain my compassion for all life on earth, and acknowledge my biophilia for those, whether living in endless wonder and delight, or under ghastly oppression and coping with hideous, endless suffering, with whom I share this afflicted little blue planet.

And perhaps sometimes that’s the ‘best’ we struggling, conditioned humans can do, the closest we can come to approaching the grace and equanimity of wild creatures who simply accept what they can’t possibly hope to understand or change. Who witness tragedy with emotions probably profounder than our own, but without judgement. Who perhaps demonstrate an ‘intelligence’ and a capacity for unconditional love and compassion that seems to elude our large-brained species.

Though that, of course, is not our fault.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 12 Comments

Why Humans Are Probably Uniquely Afflicted With ‘Selves’

more ruminations trying to make sense of what cannot make sense

four worldviews of the nature of reality: (I) conventional wisdom, (II) emerging scientific consensus, (III) limbo, (IV) radical non-duality

In a recent comment, Vera asked me why I asserted that animals have no “selves”.

As an animal lover and a believer that animals feel pain and feel emotions, this is a subject that bothered me a lot when I first came upon the message of radical non-duality. How could those speaking about this subject be so sure that only humans have the (illusory) sense of self and separation? And how can any creature function without a sense of self and separation from everything else?

When I spoke to Jim Newman and Tim Cliss about this, their answer was that no creatures (humans included) actually ‘have’ selves, and that nothing is really separate. They suggested that it takes a very large brain and a lot of constantly reinforced conditioning from birth to create and sustain the illusion of the separate self, and only humans seem to have the proclivity to do so.

How can we even function without a sense of self and separation from everything else? Solely by our conditioning, it would seem. Jim and Tim assert that there is no sense of a self or separation ‘there’, and there doesn’t need to be. This model we have of a separate body under our control, with a self at its core as its ‘managing director’, is just an invention. The self doesn’t actually do anything. In the story of the person, the body acts (as a result of its conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment), and the ‘self’ then rationalizes that action as being its decision, after the fact. The self is completely non-essential to the effective functioning of the body, and it (the self, the ‘me’) is just a “useless piece of software” as Tony Parsons has described it.

Everything is already whole and complete. There is only ‘everything’, which is actually an appearance of nothing. ‘Everything’ has no parts, nothing separate, no direction or purpose or meaning or intention, and it is not going anywhere in time or space.

How did our brain manage this astounding trick of the imagination, inventing the idea of self and separation and convincing other human brains that these ideas were really true? One could argue that it was an evolutionary misstep, a spandrel — “let’s try out this model to see if it helps our species survive” — that went terribly wrong. But that would suggest that evolution in time is real, and it isn’t, since there is no time, no causality and nothing really happening. Evolution is just another attempt to make sense of patterns our brains perceive and conceive. It’s just another story.

The jump to the uncompromising message of radical non-duality — that there is no reason, purpose or meaning for anything — is just a ‘bridge too far’ for our apparently thoroughly conditioned separate brains in separate selves to countenance. And even that assertion is another story, another step across non-existent stepping stones in the sea of everything-just-as-it-is. Conditioning, after all, implies causality and change over time, and these are just appearances and illusions born of faulty sensemaking.

About seven years ago, I ‘had’ what is often described as a ‘glimpse’ — the sudden disappearance of ‘me’ and the obvious realization that there is nothing real, nothing really happening, nothing separate, only appearances. It was astonishing, unarguable, and the thought over and over was “How could I not have noticed this before?” At the time, I wrote about this:

  • It felt more like a ‘remembering’ than an ‘awakening’. Some memories of very early childhood (some of which had been just a blur until then) and a few memories from more recent, very peaceful times, flooded through my body, which felt ‘flushed’ in the way it feels during a sudden ‘aha’ moment, or during feelings of intense love.
  • It felt amazingly free of anxiety or fear, very peaceful and joyful in a ‘boundless’ kind of way. Everything was awesome, more-than-real, unveiled, unfiltered and just, in a way, ‘perfect’, exactly as it was. Not blissful, just… this.
  • There was no temptation to grasp onto it lest it be quickly lost again. It was clearly always here, everywhere, not ‘going’ anywhere, accessible always. My self would have been anxious not to lose it, but my self was, in that moment, not present. The glimpse was completely impersonal, not happening to anyone. A silly grin came over me, and stayed for hours.
  • If this is a glimpse, it is not my first, though this one seemed to connect, through those suddenly recalled memories, to past glimpses. It felt wonderful, but also completely ordinary and obvious. Oh, that! Of course; how could I not have noticed?

At the time, the story I made up to try to make sense of this is that somehow the normal ‘default’ neural sensemaking pathways of my brain had been circumvented, and instead what was being revealed was what actually was, story-less.

Over the intervening period, there have been two significant shifts in my worldview. The first, prompted largely by Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s book The Secret History of Kindness, was giving up my strongly-held belief in free will. Robert Sapolski’s new book Determined reassured me that that shift made sense.

In parallel, I was delving deeper into, and thinking more about, the message of radical non-duality (I call it a message, rather than a theory or worldview, because it’s just in-your-face obvious to those who have ‘lost’ their sense of self, and hence cannot and need not be defended with ‘evidence’ or ‘logic’). The cold-sober ‘glimpses’ were all the evidence I needed. And I realized that if there is no ‘one’, no separate self, then there can’t possibly be any free will either. My instincts, and my various explorations, seemed to be converging on agreement with the radical non-duality worldview, even if it had only been ‘obvious’ during the ‘glimpses’.

Except. Except my sensemaking mind is conditioned, driven, compelled to try to make sense of this worldview. And it cannot. No one will ever convince anyone else that the illusion of the ‘me’ and of things being separate are just what are apparently happening, without any reason or purpose or meaning. It’s just too bald, too pat, too empty, too useless. And totally unsupported by what we consider ‘evidence’.

So I’m left in a kind of limbo state, intuitively and intellectually drawn by the message of radical non-duality as a worldview, but still compelled to try to reconcile this message with emerging science and logic. Like most limbos, it’s unsustainable and precarious. All the science in the world can only produce additional stories that, while they may seem to align with the radical non-duality message, are actually completely incompatible with it.

So, neuroscientists may provide evidence that there is no ‘self’, but that evidence is just a story about events that happened in time to bodies and brains; radical non-duality asserts that there are no ‘real’ bodies or brains or time or things really happening. And physicists may provide evidence that there is no real time, but that evidence is just a story about particles and waves and quantum states; radical non-duality asserts that there are no ‘real’ particles or waves or states or things really happening.

Stories are at the crux of what I describe as the ‘limbo’ state, shown as worldview III in the chart above. Stories are how we make sense of the world, how we explain causality, and the past, and imagine the future. But these stories are all fictions — there is no real causality, no time, no separate ‘actors’ really doing anything, no evolution. There are not even real brains, because there is nothing separate at all. ‘Brain’ is just an artificial label we use to tell our stories. I have shifted my worldview from I to II to III, but the limbo worldview is impossible to sustain. And there is no bridge, no ‘path’ to the radical non-duality worldview IV. Not even ‘faith’. I can’t just decide to see what I can’t see. And without seeing it, it’s impossible to believe. No matter how intuitive or elegant it is. No matter how much I want to believe it. I’m caught in limbo, perhaps until I die. (There may be no cure for the self, but there are much worse fates imaginable.)

Although it’s just another story, one can make sense of the ‘fact’ that our illusory sense of self and separation emerged, and that this “useless piece of software” has endured for millennia (not long in terms of the history of life on earth, or even the history of our species), and (in the story) this ’caused’ a huge amount of suffering to all the creatures of the planet ever since. But my Entanglement Hypothesis provides no solace, no way out of the limbo. Just another story.

So back to Vera’s question: A ‘self’ is just an invention, a story, a fictional character, dreamed up in large brains to try to make sense of the brain’s sensory perceptions and conceptions, something to put at the centre of its entirely imaginary model of what reality actually is. No more real than a character in a play or movie that we presume to depict some real happening.

Wild creatures have no ‘selves’ because they have neither the capacity nor the need to concoct such a fanciful fiction. Like humans they have well-honed instincts and are conditioned and feel, intensely, sensations like pain and pleasure, and emotions like fear and anger and sadness, and probably others like enthusiasm and equanimity. But they probably don’t feel emotions like hatred or chronic anxiety about the future, or shame or guilt or envy, since these emotions require a sense of linear time, a sense of permanent disconnection from ‘everything’, and a propensity to judge things as good or evil. I think they are fortunate to have been spared the curse of believing in a separate self that underlies these suffering-filled emotions. And they are no less sensate than humans for that (probably more sensate than us, without the veil of self and separation to keep them from really being in the world). Melissa’s book, which describes animal behaviour in detail from the perspective of an animal lover, has convinced me of that.

Of course, they can be conditioned, just as we can, to react in ways that we might anthropomorphically construe as revealing the existence of a ‘self’ in them. But instinctive and entrained reactions of fear and joy and responding to one’s given name do not require the affliction of a self. Just ask Tim, or Jim, or Tony, or the other messengers of radical non-duality who are, like wild creatures, not so afflicted.

Posted in Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will | 15 Comments

Links of the Month: November 2023

Fridge magnet by, from Salt Spring Island BC

Why do we build the wall, my children, my children?
Why do we build the wall? We build the wall to keep us free.
That’s why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free.

How does the wall keep us free, my children, my children?
How does the wall keep us free? The wall keeps out the enemy,
and we build the wall to keep us free.
That’s why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free.

Who do we call the enemy, my children, my children?
Who do we call the enemy? The enemy is poverty,
and the wall keeps out the enemy, and we build the wall to keep us free.
That’s why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free.

Because we have and they have not, my children, my children!
Because they want what we have got!
Because we have and they have not! Because they want what we have got!
The enemy is poverty, and the wall keeps out the enemy,
and we build the wall to keep us free.
That’s why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free.

What do we have that they should want, my children, my children?
What do we have that they should want? We have a wall to work upon!
We have work and they have none.
And our work is never done, my children, my children,
and the war is never won.
The enemy is poverty, and the wall keeps out the enemy.
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free!

Why We Build the Wall, Anaïs Mitchell, from Hadestown

Well, another month’s passed. We’re now up to as many as 500,000 “casualties” (the war industry loves euphemisms) in the NATO-Russia proxy war in Ukraine, with no end in sight. And we have both of the US Tweedle parties cheering the deranged career criminal Netanyahu’s genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, with upwards of 12,000 dead, half of them children, almost all of them civilians, and a couple of million to go. The 2024 US presidential election seems almost certain to be a rematch of the two demented thugs from 2020, with the choice between a slide into fascism, or a ratcheting up of brinksmanship and war with nuclear powers, or maybe both, depending on who ‘wins’. Meanwhile 2024 looks almost certain to be a year of multiple climate catastrophes, the hottest year on record by a margin worse than even the worst estimates of climate scientists a year ago, and another record year for carbon emissions, ecosystem destruction, and biodiversity loss. And global productivity of real goods, which has eked out a few more (wildly unequally distributed) gains at a staggering cost to the environment, is now stuttering, with nowhere to go but down.

Good thing we’re all doing our best.


The IMF totals up the cost of continuing to subsidize and prop up a dying and massively destructive industry. Thanks to Just Collapse for the link.

Bracing for impact: John Michael Greer encourages us to “collapse now and avoid the rush“.

Antarctica is melting: We were far too optimistic about the pace of polar ice loss, as usual.

Otis, harbinger of the future: No one knows how tropical storm Otis became a Cat 5 hurricane so fast. Maybe because parts of the ocean are now the same temperature as a hot tub?

First of the water wars: As the US west and central states run out of water, they’re starting to look at Canada’s dams and glaciers, and demanding their share.

Methane release cycle is accelerating: Just what we didn’t need. Tropics and wetlands are the main sources of the increase. Thanks to Just Collapse for the link.

The global economy stalls out: Tim Morgan explains once more why our economic systems will collapse faster than the ecological ones.

Corporatism meets the limits to growth: Tim Watkins explains how the relentless neoliberal/neoconservative agenda being pursued today mirrors the rise of corporatism (fascism) in the 1930s, and is on a collision course with our accelerating economic and ecological systems collapse. And nobody has a plan. A reading of the first chapter of his new book Death Cult, which draws heavily on John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization.

The religion of perpetual growth: Jonathan Cook explains the divergence between the economic and ecological realities we are now facing, and the utter myths that the neocorporatists are spinning, which we’d love to believe are true.


cartoon from Andrew Marlton’s First Dog on the Moon

Understanding what’s really going on: Aurélien suggests a mountain of books to help you understand current events and the history behind them, so you don’t have to rely on the bullshit from the MSM, the spooks, and the op-ed columnists. And he explains why each book is worth reading.

Circumventing the paywalls: FamousDrScanlon suggests using Spaywall to read articles buried behind corporate paywalls. Here’s an example of how it works.

How to die a good death: A compassionate and nuanced explanation by Michael Greger of the process called VSED: Voluntarily stopping eating and drinking. It’s legal, and not agonizing as the religious right would have you believe. But it is not a DIY process and does pose ethical challenges to sort through before you need to apply it. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. You can read the transcripts below the videos if you don’t like watching videos.

Citizens’ assemblies to deal with polarization and political gridlock: A good summary of the uses of this direct democracy technique. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.


The 1 megaton tonne MK-84 bombs the US is sending to Israel to facilitate the siege and genocide of Gaza; thanks to Indrajit for the link. In what must be the cleverest wordplay of the year, and drawing on how rich corporations are financially benefiting from the proxy wars, Indrajit calls this “Capital Punishment”.

“American leadership is what holds the world together”: That’s the highlight of Biden’s latest deluded White House speech, filled with a litany of inflammatory, propagandized untruths about his avowed “evil” “enemies”. This man really believes it — the very idea of a multipolar world, such as the United Nations was designed to facilitate, is completely anathema to him. His toady Blinken added in a subsequent speech: “The world doesn’t organize itself. When we’re not engaged, when we don’t lead, then one of two things happens: either some other country tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one does, and then you get chaos.” What utter fucking arrogance! The rest of the world can only hope that America’s massive and insoluble domestic problems will soon cause it to vacate the world stage to address its own hopeless incompetence at home, and leave the rest of us to collaboratively sort out the problems of the world, most of them caused or exacerbated by America’s “leadership”, in a relatively sane manner. /rant

The bozos driving the bus: Aurélien explains why most of the world no longer cares much about how western “leaders” or their compliant media “explain” what (they think) is happening in the world. He also explains why genocide is so often a mumbled but real strategy for “resolving” conflict (even though it has almost never been successfully carried out). Excerpts:

The prevailing [neo]Liberal discourse of conflict at the moment is this uncomfortable and unattractive mixture of normative moral hysteria and half-understood technical legal concepts, which accounts for the incoherent, and frequently incomprehensible, way in which [the current] conflicts are reported and commented on. Worse, it also affects the way in which western governments see the options for management of crisis and conflict itself. For example, western governments cannot comprehend that what they say about the Gaza fighting is of no interest to Hamas, whose political and propaganda targets lie elsewhere, and for that matter of very limited interest to the Global South generally. Indeed, the West’s incapacity to understand the reality of conflict and atrocity, unwillingness to learn, and insistence on loudly trying to impose its mixture of moral bluster and legal fussiness pretty much rules it out as a credible actor.

It is not as if these things were actually that difficult to understand. We do know a great deal, from first-hand observation, about how conflicts arise and atrocities happen. The briefest possible summary would say that they typically occur because people feel themselves justified in acting that way—even to have no choice—and usually because they are scared

The “us or them” discourse has fear as its starting-point, and fear is a major component in the advent of war and conflict. Fear that if I don’t kill my rival, he or she will kill me. Fear of the minority surrounded by a majority. Fear of the majority with a minority inside it. Fear that minorities will combine against you, perhaps orchestrated by an outside power. Fear that the Other will want revenge for what you did to them last time. Fear that the Other will do what they did to you last time, but worse. Fear that the weaker will become strong enough to challenge you. Fear that the stronger will attack just because they are stronger. In such circumstances, the only solution is to get your blow in first and hardest Only when you have completely wiped out the enemy can you be sure that there can never be a threat.

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism: Short takes: Thanks to John Whiting for many of these links:

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:

CoVid-19 the endless saga: Short takes:

  • Slight dip in the numbers this month, though on average the number of deaths and the number of people in hospital has been pretty constant throughout 2023. Cases are up (judging by water sampling), though the new variants seem slightly less deadly than previous ones. I’d guess the pandemic continues to kill about 1 person per million per day, and that in countries with decent hospital systems about 40 people per million are in hospital with CoVid-19 on any particular day. Of course these numbers are wildly skewed by age, so your risk is as much a 50x greater if you’re over 80. So I have the latest booster, mask in crowded public places, and will test if I have symptoms, and isolate if I test positive. It seems the least I can do for a top-5 killer of people my age.


from the memebrary

Why Shakespeare didn’t care about getting his plays published: A fascinating review of the bard’s First Folio, with the argument that in those days, most communication, including learning play scripts, happened orally from those who’d memorized the lines, not from printed copy. And, he might have thought, a little improvisation might actually have made the show even better. There was a play about this, by the celebrated American playwright Lauren Gunderson, called “The Book of Will“. I saw it in Ashland Oregon, and it was one of the most extraordinary performances I have ever seen. Brilliantly written, and performed by a true ensemble cast. This all reminded me of an earlier post of mine on the pre-corporate model of how groups get things done, in the arts at least: by ensemble, which is like an enriched version of consensus, and through rehearsal, not textbook learning. So many corporate terms (players, roles, ‘staging’, ‘company’, performance reviews) actually came from the world of theatre.

More than just “production values”: Naked Capitalism’s Lambert Strether admits that, like me, he stans for K-Pop. But as much as I like Twice, I think XG is even better.

Talking to nobody: Radical Non-Duality speaker Tim Cliss delivers the impossible message and answers questions at a meeting in Copenhagen. Best parts are Friday and Sunday sessions. This is the reason I am so intrigued by the Entanglement Hypothesis. Favourite quote: “Life still appears to be the same hamster wheel. The only difference is, the hamster is dead.”

Freakonomics falsehoods: Rebecca Watson exposes the highly dubious arguments in the best-seller, especially the Roe vs Wade leading to lower violent crime rates 20 years later ‘correlation’. Heaven save us from pseudoscientists.

Cutting through the shit in online dating: Alicia Bunyan-Sampson asks potential dates to answer 30 questions of her own formulation, before she will date them. Some of them are serious, some of them are funny, and filling it in informs both parties what they might be in for in dating the other. Way better than the commercial ‘profiles’ of most dating services. There is no magic to the questions, and she suggests you create your own, to get the answers you really want to know before you meet someone new.


cartoon by Barry Blitt in the New Yorker

From Canadian living in China Daniel Dumbrill: “In the west you can change the party but not the policies; in China you can change the policies but not the party. Which is more important?”

From Caitlin Johnstone: “I feel sorry for Zelenskyy. The US abandoning your country for Israel is like your husband leaving you for his first wife.”

From my friend John Whiting on the state of America (reprinted with his permission):

An American academic friend who lives in a good neighborhood near D.C. recently wrote to me:

My wife told me this morning that if she didn’t have children, she’d emigrate somewhere else. It is becoming really unpleasant to be in public in the United States. The level of hostility is startling. The disparity of wealth is depressing. The struggle is ongoing. The roads are falling apart. Fewer and fewer human beings relate to customers anymore. I am flooded with commercials everywhere I turn, including on public radio. I have 100 to 130 emails every morning when I wake up and only five or six are from someone I want to hear from. Facebook is much the same. Instagram is gone. TikTok is a joke. I survive with self-medication.

From Aurélien on the schism in the Professional-Managerial Caste (PMC) in the west [slightly paraphrased]:

So there’s actually a deep and irreconcilable conflict between the interests of the main body of the PMC, and those of the real elites; often described as the “one per cent.” The main body of the PMC is subject to discipline, loyalty checks and compulsory ideological conformity, yet seems to enjoy little extra status or concrete advantages over ordinary people. The main body of the PMC is the historical descendant of the intellectual servant class: the tutors and secretaries, the functionaries in great houses, the lawyers and intellectuals. It is significant, perhaps, that this is the class which hijacked the French Revolution from ordinary people and took it to its conclusion. Like the intellectuals of the eighteenth century, today’s members of the main body of the PMC, prize (or affect to prize) logic, science and rationality. And like those intellectuals, they are, I suspect, boiling with frustrated ambition and anger, hating both the aristocracy [the elite portion of the PMC] on the one hand, and the common [working class] people on the other.

From Indrajit Samarajiva, on genocide:

The truth is it’s all one genocide, and we are all Palestinians.

It’s the same imperative as American colonizers attacking ‘merciless savages’ in their Declaration of Independence. Kill the native people and take their land… The Original Genociders are human rights experts now; their founding genocides are covered up and the money’s long-since laundered… White supremacism and human supremacism are one continuum, the separation of us from each other, from our animal kin, and from the land. It is, in the short run, the genocide of the Palestinians, but in the long run, it’s the ecocide of us all.

From my colleague Daniel Cowper, from Grotesque Tenderness:

Last Wishes

From the white void
hiding the sea,
familiar foghorns roll.

Why are they so worried?
There’s no better way to be buried.
When it’s my turn, wrap

my failed body in linen straps,
between the loops slip
skipping stones for weight.

Send me down the thermoclines
with silver dollars on my eyes,
watch me become a brightness,

shrinking and fading
as I sink. I’ll take
my Thieves’ Communion

with the crabs, bless them.
Let my meat repay the sea for meat
I’ve taken out with line, with net and trap.

No doubt, the dogfish
will find me and weasel
their fill from the loosening linen,

but bless them too. If I leave
debts behind,
and nothing in the till

to make them good, don’t pay the banks.
No, pay them, if you like,
it’s no concern of mine. By then

my only business will be
with sharks and crabs
and worms, the ocean’s undertakers,

among bottles and sunken
deadheads from which fishhooks
float translucent lines.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

The Entanglement Hypothesis Revisited

image adapted from Pixabay, CC0

“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight – brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”  — Rust Cohle – character in the TV series True Detective

Three years ago, I added a third ‘law’ to the small set of ‘important things I’ve learned over the years’ and codified on this blog. The three laws are:

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: Humans have evolved to do what’s personally urgent for them (the unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then to do what’s easy, and then to do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are seen as merely important. Social, political and economic change happens only when the old generation dies and a new generation with different entrained beliefs and imperatives fills the power vacuum. We have evolved to be a collaborative and caring species, and we are all doing our best — we cannot do otherwise. We have no free will — our behaviour is entirely the product of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the ever-changing and unpredictable circumstances of each moment.

Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. To change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex (and it frequently is), success at truly understanding and changing it is unlikely, and developing workarounds and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. Complex systems evolve to self-sustain and resist reform until they finally collapse. For that reason, the systems of global industrial civilization culture, having precipitated the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, are now collapsing rapidly and inevitably.

Pollard’s Law of Human Beliefs: We believe what we want to believe, not what is actually true. We want to believe in happy endings, simple answers, the inevitability of progress, self-control, karma, responsibility, destiny, miracles, a proper order of things, the power of love, and infinite human capacity and agency. Most of us want to believe in a higher power that can step in when we falter. We want to believe what those in our circles of trust believe (even if it’s crazy, gaslighting or propaganda). So we tend to seek sources that reinforce those beliefs and ignore those that undermine or unsettle them. Our hopes and expectations are determined by those beliefs. Our worldview is the sum of those beliefs, hopes and expectations, and bears no necessary resemblance to truth or reality. This invented reality is the only way we can make sense of a world that is impossible to grasp, to understand, or to ever really make sense of.

When I put forward the third “law” I was starting to ask myself why these things seem to be true. The Law of Human Behaviour would seem to make sense in the context of our evolution — these behaviours have helped propagate our species and enabled us to navigate through very difficult times. The Law of Complexity seems to make sense at a meta level for the same reason — life appears to evolve towards greater complexity until it cannot anymore, and then it collapses and the whole cycle starts again.

The Law of Human Beliefs seems to me mostly a means of maximizing our species’ social cohesion, and it also serves as a coping mechanism when we get overwhelmed. Our species had to evolve as a social species, since we don’t have the raw stuff to survive as lone individuals, at least once we jump down from the trees of the tropical rainforest that was our home for a million years. If we hadn’t developed this capacity to conform our beliefs and sense-making to those of our fellow humans (including the invention of abstract languages to reinforce that conformity), it is doubtful whether we would have been able to domesticate ourselves and each other to be able to get along and collaborate in anywhere near the numbers and varied ecosystems that we do.

Those three ‘laws’, however, have seemingly not served us well. Our beliefs (third law) and behaviours (first law) have seemingly precipitated an accelerating massive collapse (second law) of all the complex systems upon which we depend for our survival.

What went wrong?

At the time, I drew upon the work of Julian Jaynes to formulate what I called the Entanglement Hypothesis. This is not another ‘law’ because it cannot be supported or confirmed by observations. It is instead just a hypothesis of how and where we went wrong to get to this point of global violence and polysystem collapse. Here’s how I put it when I first articulated it:

Suppose Julian Jaynes, in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness, was correct, and it was only in our recent evolution that the human brain evolved the capacity to integrate its sensemaking activities (responding to signals perceived by the senses) with its imagining activities (creating/conceptualizing mental images). This integration, or ‘entanglement’, of brain activities is, he says, necessary for what we call ‘consciousness’, the experience of having a separate self.

In other words, it was only then that the brain was able to imagine that what it imagined made sense — and especially that its idea of the self and everything else as real and separate was ‘true’. Prior to that, Julian argues, there could be no self-consciousness and hence no sense of self, and no sense of ‘other’, or of time or space or other ‘places’ where separate ‘things’ could really be and really ‘happen’. He supports his thesis with an analysis of ancient written records and ancient human activities that show evidence of a lack of any sense of self or of self-consciousness. (Even the word ‘self’ is an etymologically recent coinage.)

The sensemaking part of the brain would therefore, back then, operate purely on instinct — eg fast yellow thing is perceived ⇒ brain “makes sense” that there is danger ⇒ flee, fight, or freeze. There would already be primary and immediate feelings: fear (⇒ flee), anger (⇒ fight), and/or sadness/hopelessness/resignation (⇒ freeze).

In the imagining part of the brain secondary thoughts (perhaps of gods, or monsters, anything that might be imagined) and secondary feelings (perhaps akin to anxiety, hatred, grief or shame) might arise, but there would be no way (yet) to act on or react to them, as there would be no context for ‘making sense’ of them. These thoughts and feelings wouldn’t ‘belong’ to anyone, so they’d just arise and fall away.

Michael Graziano hypothesizes that what prompted the evolution of the human capacity to synthesize the brain’s sensemaking/perceiving and imagining/conceiving activities was not the need for a self. The “unconscious” human species, like many others, had apparently thrived for a million years without this capacity.

Instead, what he thinks prompted this capacity for synthesis was humans’ primal survival need to socialize with other humans. We are maladapted to a solitary existence. In collaborating ‘unconsciously’ with other humans, as many creatures do, perhaps in the search for food or in attempting to escape from a predator, there is a need to communicate. For most creatures, body language, pheromones and rudimentary vocalizations were and are sufficient communication for essential social activity.

But as we moved farther and farther from our comfortable natural habitat in the trees of the tropical rainforest, we had both the need and the capacity to evolve a more sophisticated means of communication (abstract language). And we had the need and capacity to imagine a new way of modelling reality (‘consciousness’ of the self and ‘other’), that might enable us to adapt to hostile and unfamiliar new habitats and situations.

These new evolutionary features required the capacity to integrate the brain’s sensemakingperceptual abilities with its imaginingconceptual abilities. And so, in successful survivors in these new habitats this capacity emerged, was apparently evolutionarily favoured, and has been with us ever since.

So, here, reduced to its basics, is the Entanglement Hypothesis:

For almost all of our existence, like other animals, we thrived despite having no sense of self, self-consciousness, or sense of separation from everything else. Then at some point, either by an evolutionary accident (a spandrel), or as a consequence of our need and capacity to form more complex relationships with fellow humans in new and hostile environments, our brains’ processing mechanisms became entangled, enabling us for the first time to imagine ourselves as real and separate from everything else. But, while this evolution enabled the development of language, civilization and other mechanisms for social cohesion and domestication, it also enabled us to imagine previously unimaginable fearsome and distressing dangers and terrors, the consequence of which is severe species-wide mental illness (constantly reinforced by stress, fear, anguish, and endless cycles of violence). So our brains’ entanglement has turned out to be a terrible maladaptation, one that has created a mad, chronically stressed and anxious, often hateful, disconnected, rogue species, which is unintentionally killing everything on earth in its desperate, misguided search for personal safety, security, and freedom from precarity. When there actually is no separate person to be protected from anything!

That is my elaboration of Julian Jaynes’ theory, which I have called the Entanglement Hypothesis. If it’s correct, it might explain how our unfolding global human tragedy came about, and the accelerating polysystem collapse it has led to. It is also consistent with our complete lack of free will — since there is actually no separate person to have one.

We may have become a rogue species, but that is not our inherent nature. Nature, it seems, made a dreadful error in evolving us as it did, and collapse is how she is now correcting it. And when we’re gone, all that will be left (and all that has ever really been) is this — this astonishing, indivisible, unknowable, at once real and unreal, purposeless, meaningless, need-less, timeless, complete, empty, motionless nothing-being-everything. Already. Obviously. Rust Cohle got this, but he was a fictional character, a nobody. Just like us.

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

Sarapocial Relationships

Cartoon from the New Yorker by the late, great Lee Lorenz

A parasocial relationship is that between an individual and some fictional character or some real or idealized group — an entity you can never really know.

So I might have a parasocial relationship with “the Radical Non-Duality community”, for example, or with the readers and students of Robert Sapolsky’s work. Although I have met and communicated with several speakers in the former group, and exchanged emails with Robert and others on the subjects he writes and speaks about, this does not comprise a social relationship. Even if I comment on a hundred posts in a Farcebook group that I am a ‘member’ of and have many ‘friends’ in, this is not a real, social relationship. There is simply not enough glue to hold it together.

Same with my relationship with a political party or even a ‘nation’. And it’s even more the case if my relationship is with a fictional character or group, where I and others with whom I communicate write fanfic and natter endlessly about the trials and tribulations of some beloved character. Or, for that matter, if the object of my fascination is, say, Taylor Swift and I’m a Swiftie Stan. Not a real relationship, even with other Stans.

Lots of books and horror movies have been written about the dangers of mistaking parasocial relationships for real relationships. But I would argue that they are mostly harmless and can sometimes even be therapeutic. The biggest challenges arise with our current western cultural obsession with self-identifying ourselves six ways to Sunday. In people’s desperation to belong somehow and somewhere in a world full of alienation and fragmentation, it’s easy to start taking the whole issue of identifying yourself in different ways too seriously, almost as if you were a gang member — to the point anyone who disses anyone who ‘identifies’ the way you do becomes an enemy who needs to be sanctioned, silenced, and shunned (or canceled in current parlance). It’s infantile behaviour, but it’s become an epidemic in today’s atmosphere of hysterical censorship. It’s a sign, I think, of serious mental illness in a large swath of the population.

Still, you can have parasocial relationships without becoming neurotic or psychotic. Even if you’ve never met any of its players, you can cheer for your favourite sports team without becoming one of those fanatics (whence the term ‘fan’) who have to be ushered out of the arena by police. If you’re a writer of fiction, you pretty much have to have a relationship with your characters if your writing is going to be any good. The key perhaps is keeping it fun and not taking it too seriously. It’s not real, this relationship!

In a recent Vlogbrothers video, Hank Green introduced the reciprocal term sarapocial relationship (coined by his brother John) to describe the relationship that an individual has with a group that the individual has themselves created or which has been created around them. You don’t have to be famous, idolized, or a ‘leader’ to have such relationships. You don’t even have to be a particularly nice person, as Trump and Musk have ably demonstrated. (And don’t get me started on self-proclaimed ‘influencers’.)

In some cases, these relationships can be just as toxic as the worst parasocial relationships, though in a different way. Since you have relatively more power in a sarapocial relationship, arrogance, narcissism, and abuse of that power are more possible, depending on the extent of that power, and the capacity of the person who has it to deal with it sensibly and humbly. Few people handle fame well.

And for some, sarapocial relationships can become a full-time job. I’m astonished, for example, at the thousands of hours K-Pop stars put into cultivating their relationships with their fans.

In the video, Hank talks about the responsibility of those in sarapocial relationships, both in the sense of not abusing their power, and in the sense of trying to live up, impossibly, to the wishes and desires of a large, amorphous and mostly unknowable group. He also asks:

  • What is the ‘core’ (insufficiently gluey as it must necessarily be to be a real relationship) that holds a particular collective group together?
  • What can one do to help nurture and facilitate and cohere the group — to make it more capable, in Hank’s words, of doing the things that brought the collective group together — the things they care about in common.
  • What is the sarapocial’s responsibility when the group disagrees among themselves on some subject that they think is important?
  • How much personal honesty and transparency does one owe the group?
  • What else does one ‘owe’ the group that has coalesced (probably mostly loosely and transiently) around oneself or some project one has done?

I thought these were interesting questions. They matter to me because to some extent (less than was once the case) I have a sarapocial relationship with the readers of this blog, and, when it came out, I had a sarapocial relationship with the readers of my book. For what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on Hank’s questions:

I feel a sense of personal responsibility to be honest in what I write, and not to be mean to my readers. So if I’m going to embellish a story, I usually admit it up front. And I’d rather ignore a really dumb comment or question than ridicule someone for it. But that’s just me; I don’t know that I would hold other writers to the same standard. Some activists believe you sometimes have to exaggerate to goad people into needed action. I’ve never believed that the ends justify the means, but that’s just how I’ve been conditioned.

Likewise I feel no responsibility to respond to comments, though I read them all. I don’t expect responses when I comment (vary rarely) on others’ blogs or send emails to people who must get thousands of them. And I feel no responsibility to referee disagreements between my readers. (Though I am surprised how often readers come to my defence when I’m criticized by a commenter, which is nice of them, but not expected or necessary.)

My role is just to write stuff that helps me make sense of the world, and which hopefully is interesting to a few folks. Even if I asked for money to read my blog articles (which I never have), I’m not sure I would feel any further responsibility.

What is the ‘core’ of a parasocial/sarapocial group? It depends of course on the group, but at a meta level I think it is about trying (despite the awkwardness of the medium) to create and sustain a ‘community’ that shares common

(1) beliefs, values and intentions,
(2) practices, experiences and competencies,
(3) interests and affinities, and/or
(4) identities.

My blog, quite early on, shifted from mostly a type (2) audience to mostly a type (3) audience (when I retired). Those with a type (1) or (4) audience still scare me.

I’m not sure anything I’ve ever written has made anyone more capable or competent at anything, as that was never my intention. I’d be content if it piqued people’s curiosity, challenged their thinking in productive or interesting ways, and prompted them to read the work of people who know a lot more than I do and say it more clearly. I’m not being modest in saying that — I’m a generalist on a wide range of subjects, not a specialist or expert in anything. It’s a useful if underappreciated ability.

Hank Green is recovering from a recent diagnosis of cancer, and I doubt I would have the courage he has shown to talk about what he’s gone through if I were in his place. I tend to be pretty open about my life changes, illnesses and feelings, when they have any relevance to what I’m writing about, but much less open about my personal relationships with others, out of respect for others’ privacy. I think writers owe honesty to our readers, and enough transparency to provide a useful context for understanding why we assert what we do — and a responsibility to be sufficiently self-aware to understand ourselves why we do so.

The final thing I think we ‘owe’ to our readers is to put the work in — to craft essays and stories and analyses and creative works that are articulate, interesting, challenging and properly researched. I find it hard to believe I used to read op-eds voraciously — mostly strident, vacuous writing that generally has none of these qualities. Human beings, especially in these crazy times, want reassurance. They want confirmation that what they believe is correct. That’s not on offer here.

So, an invitation: Think about your own parasocial relationships, what you’re investing in them, and whether you’re getting enough out of them to warrant the time and energy you’re putting into them. And likewise, if you’re a writer or artist or newsletter aggregator or ‘content provider’ of any kind, think about your own sarapocial relationships, and what you think you do and do not ‘owe’ to your audience(s), and what you’re getting out of these relationships in return.

If they’re not fulfilling, maybe it’s time to find or create new ones. Or just close the screen and put some more energy into current and potential real relationships. That’s what I’m thinking about after watching the Vlogbrothers’ video, anyway. Now if only I could tear myself away from the screen…

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Using Weblogs and Technology | Leave a comment

Third Try at Guessing How the 2024 US Election Will Unfold

the Tweedles, reimagined as famous comic characters, by Midjourney AI — “‘I know what you’re thinking about,’ said Tweedledum; ‘but it isn’t so, nohow. ‘ ‘Contrariwise,’ continued Tweedledee, ‘if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t.”

OK, yes, I was wrong in thinking a year ago that DeSantis and Trump would be duking it out for the US Republican nod in 2024. It’s pretty clear that most Republicans think the prosecutions of Trump are just political flimflammery, and even a conviction or two won’t change their mind. And if after a conviction the Democrats try to argue Trump can no longer run for the office, that will backfire too (just ask the opponents of Netanyahu how well that strategy works).

The only drama on that side of the race is now who he’ll pick as a running mate. It could make a big difference, or no difference at all.

Meanwhile, things are looking worse and worse for the Democrats and their doddering warmonger-in-chief. Recent polls (yeah, I know, it’s a whole year until the election) show Biden trailing in almost every swing state, and the Democrats on track to lose both the House and the Senate next year. But their broach-no-dissent frenzy to arm and support Netanyahu’s overt genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestine has been a catastrophic strategic blunder. And as for Ukraine, and Afghanistan, and everything else they have and haven’t done, despite promises, since 2020 — whew! Really bad smell here.

“But wait!” you are saying — look at yesterday’s elections and referenda that blocked anti-abortion extremists, elected Democrats where Republicans were the incumbents, and generally reflected a strong rejection of the neofascist agenda of many leading Republicans. Surely this is good news for Biden and the Democrats, no? Well, actually no. These were not general election results; they were special elections and controversial galvanizing referenda. Support for Biden, even among his own party, continues to plummet. And polls in swing states and about “vulnerable” incumbents continue to show the Democrats losing the presidency and both houses in 2024.

Perhaps the only hope for the Democrats now is if they get sufficiently scared of plunging polling numbers, to yank Biden. I don’t see the odds of that happening being very high. Once you start doubling down, you don’t back down until you’re bust. And with no one of any promise waiting in the wings (the promising candidates having been expelled, nullified or discredited by the party itself), there is precious little time to change horses now.

BTW, the same thing is happening across the Anglo world (and perhaps in Europe as well). In the UK, Tweedledum Sunak plays Trump (with a little more presence), Tweedledee Starmer plays Biden (with a little less senility), and Jeremy Corbyn, like Bernie Sanders, had the rug pulled out from him by the ‘liberal’ party’s establishment when he got too close to actually winning an election and implementing a progressive agenda. Parallel occurrences have happened in Canada and Australia. Just the Tweedles left standing now.

It’s interesting that the polls say that Kennedy will draw about the same number of votes from Trump as he will from Biden (about 7% each, so no net effect). Of the 4% planning to vote for West, however, none of them would otherwise support Trump, and that 4% is more than enough to tip the balance if the race even gets close; thanks to the Democratic Party’s incompetence, that 4% is likely lost to the party forever.

So, at this point, the Democrats are gambling, again, that the fear of a Republican trifecta in 2024, incessantly drummed up by the compliant US mainstream media, will ‘motivate’ everyone to the left of Attila the Hun to vote for Biden. It’s a fool’s gamble this time though, I think. The electorate has been propagandized to the hilt, and thoroughly befuddled, but you can only make people play the shell game so many times before they wise up and just stay away. When the large majority of American voters have a hugely negative view of both mainstream parties and their candidates, participation rates in the election are inevitably going to drop.

And when the Republican trifecta happens, you’re going to see circus trials of Biden and others, as ‘payback’ for the current trials against Trump. For the Democrats, the wobbling wheel is about to come off the bus, just as it approaches the cliff. And it’s almost too late now to stop and change the 80-year-old flat tire.

So that’s my best guess at this stage: Rematch of 2020; Trump wins in a walk; millions stay away in disgust.

So what if it’s not a rematch? Here are a few other scenarios that I think are possible, though unlikely:

  1. Biden dies or gets seriously ill or somehow fucks things up so badly that the Democrats pull him. Harris polls even worse than Biden, so that wouldn’t change the results. Newsom or Buttigieg or Whitmer might, but only if they stake out a courageous enough position to entice ex-Democrats and Independents back to the polls. And there will be massive pressure from the bumbling Democratic machine for the replacement to paint themselves as “Biden-lite” to “reassure” the alleged “party faithful” to stay with the program. If the Biden replacement falls in line and squanders their progressive credentials, the progressives will not vote for them, so the results will be the same. How about AOC? My bet is that she will quit the party before she will ever get the chance to run for its leadership. She saw what they did to Bernie. Endgame: Trump edges Biden-lite; millions still stay away in disgust.
  2. Trump dies or does something that actually gets him barred from the ballot. If he dies, the Republicans are in trouble, because he has no coattails. The infighting to replace him would be fierce and bloody, maybe even enough that voters would start to loathe the replacement more than they do Biden. If he’s barred from the ballot, that will just bring him martyrdom, since he’s really, when you look at it, no more of a criminal/war criminal than any recent president from either party. There could even be some sort of civil war if he’s not allowed to run. The Democrats would allow him to run (and hence win), in my opinion, just to avoid that eventuality. Even they aren’t that dumb. Endgame: ‘Martyred’ Trump soundly beats anyone else; millions stay away in disgust. But if Trump dies of ‘natural causes’ before the election, it’s anyone’s call.

So the only hope for Democrats, IMO, other than Trump suddenly dying in a non-martyred way, is to dump Biden really soon, and allow the replacement to stake out a position progressive enough to get those fed up with corporate ownership of the party and its endless warmongering to show up at the polls, but not lose the right-wing Democrats in the process. A very difficult balancing act. Even if the Democratic party machine would allow them to try it, which they probably won’t. They’re all-in for another right-wing Democratic nominee. They never learn.

Running mates? Even in a really close contest, it would have to be quite a superstar to make a difference. And neither party has any superstars any more.

And what might happen after the election? I’m a cynic at this stage, but I’d say that a Trump win will mean more mischief at home in the US, and less mischief internationally, while if any Democrat wins, they will be hobbled by the party machine, so it will mean more mischief internationally and less domestically. Pick your poison.

Since I’m not an American, that makes it easier to say that I would not vote for Biden in a million years. I’m just as worried, if not more worried, that the sociopaths goading Biden will precipitate WW3, than I am that Trump will precipitate a US Civil War or drive the country towards theocracy and fascism. The former is, IMO, just more probable to occur, with even greater consequences. And if I lived, say, in Oregon, I’d go out and work for the incumbent Democrats in the House and Senate, because they’re doing good work; I’d support them despite their being led by an unsupportable administration and incompetent party machinery. And I’d cast my vote for West, with full knowledge of the likely consequences of doing so.

Politics in a time of collapse. Not pretty.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

Halfway Between No-Free-Will and No-One-to-Have-It

A brief review of Robert Sapolsky’s new book Determined, plus some other thoughts on the subject of free will.

The free will “belief spectrum” (my own construction, and subject to revision)

In recent years, scientists and philosophers, often on opposite sides, have been weighing in more frequently on the subject of whether or not we have “free will”; that is, whether we have any control or agency over what ‘our’ bodies (including ‘our’ minds) apparently do, or responsibility for what they do (or fail to do), and whether we can act with intent. (This definition can be problematic, but whole books have been written just on that, so I won’t try to address that here.)

Philosophers (like members of all the social pseudosciences) can only espouse theories, which cannot be either proved nor disproved, so these theories are really nothing more than reasonably informed, well-considered opinions. Still interesting and sometimes useful, nevertheless.

Scientists can do marginally better, since a requirement of ‘good’ science is that its hypotheses must be based on some evidence, and must be falsifiable. So scientific theories are by nature always tentative and temporary, awaiting new theories that better fit the available evidence, or new evidence of their falsehood.

The distinction gets muddy, however, in the case of scientific hypotheses that cannot be either proved nor disproved “with current technology”, clever weasel words that allow “theoretical” scientists to falsely claim that their theories (like string theory) have a “scientific” basis, when they are substantially no more testable or scientific than the opinions of those in the pseudosciences.

In recent years, on the subject of free will, most philosophers have signed up as “compatibilists”, meaning that, using some rather excruciating intellectual and linguistic gymnastics, they would have us believe that, although reality is largely deterministic, there is still kinda some room for a little personal free will. (Philosophy has always been a tough gig, so you can’t blame them for waffling sometimes to avoid alienating their followers.)

For most of my life, I was a staunch believer in free will, and took delight in ridiculing the Skinner behaviouralists in the 1960s and 1970s when they were in vogue. So, in the above chart of attitudes about free will, I was in the “most people’s view” (column A) camp. Philosophically, I described myself as a phenomenologist — “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Both its absolutism and its romanticism (I still love David Abram’s book The Spell of the Sensuous) appealed to me.

It was another book, Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Secret History of Kindness that got me to reconsider the arguments of behaviouralism, including behaviouralists’ rejection of the idea of free will. The idea that everything we do is demonstrably (if not provably) a consequence of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment, struck me like a bolt of lightning. Melissa’s book helped me leap over the compatibilists’ incoherent waffling, and appreciate the arguments that some physicists and other “real” scientists were making about why there is actually no free will. I liked their arguments (summarized in column D) better than those of neuroscientists (column C), as the latter group’s credibility had been tarnished by early studies of ‘brain scans’ that proved to be seriously flawed.

So suddenly I found I had made a 180º turn in my worldview, from believing absolutely that we had free will, to believing absolutely that we do not. Suddenly it made sense to me that everything was determined (ie it followed from what came before) but not determinable or predictable (since the number of variables comprising what came before was effectively infinite). That was fully consistent with my study of complex systems and how they work.

Suddenly my instinctive (and conditioned) skepticism of the value of punishment and incarceration as a means of dealing with crime made sense (though incarceration may still make sense as a preventative measure). It was like a light went on: We are all doing our best, and no one is to “blame”.

And suddenly the idea that time wasn’t real, and was just a construct of the human brain, completely unnecessary both for a scientific explanation of the nature of reality, and for our successful functioning as living creatures, made sense.

These changes to my worldview also resonated strongly with the message of radical non-duality, whose speakers asserted clearly and consistently that there was no free will, and no such thing as time. They also made it clear to me how the message of radical non-duality is utterly different from the religious (eg some forms of Buddhism) and spiritual (eg Eckhart Tolle, Rupert Spira etc) ‘forms’ of non-duality (Column G), which assert that there is a followable ‘path’ to the ‘enlightened’ realization that everything is one (or ’emptiness’, or however ‘non-duality’ is defined).

So now I’m sitting in a kind of limbo. I’ve made the leap to no-free-will, totally conditioned, no one to blame, doing our best, and time as just a construct. But it’s another leap from there to the claim of radical non-duality that there is no me, that there is nothing ‘really’ real or ‘really’ happening (only ‘appearances’), and that there is no meaning or purpose to anything. I’ve tried to articulate these assertions on these pages since I first discovered them seven years ago. But since they only make intellectual and intuitive sense to me, rather than being ‘obvious’ or being supported by ‘evidence’, I’m not able to make the argument for them very convincingly. Perhaps no one can. Still, I can’t shake the sense that they’re correct.

So I’d kind of hoped that two new videos and one new book on the subject of free will might help me formulate and reconcile these positions better.

The first of these is a video that Bernardo Kastrup made recently, on the Essentia vlog. I really enjoyed this video, which covers an enormous amount of ground very succinctly, and is much more accessible, I think, than his written work. On the issue of free will, his impression is that it really doesn’t matter very much. He acknowledges that we as ‘individuals’ have no agency, but that’s because the whole concept of an individual is, to him, misleading. There is only the universe, a single massively-complex organism playing itself out the only way it can. We are just aspects of the universe and its playing-out. But just as behaviouralists say that our conditioning determines everything we do, yet our conditioning can have an impact on others and vice versa, Bernardo sees us and all our actions as ‘input variables’ that can affect other ‘input variables’ as the irreducible universe plays out. So those effects can change how the universe plays out. No agency, no ‘free will’ as most would define it, yet change can happen.

What I found most provocative in Bernardo’s explanation is that despite having no agency, he believes that in our internal “struggle” to make sense of the universe playing itself out, we have personal responsibility to express that struggle as effectively as we can, so that the ‘input variables’ that our struggle and our witnessing of the universe playing itself out, produce, will affect others in “responsible” ways and ‘positively’ affect how the universe plays itself out. We are like violins being played, he says, and our struggle is to be played for the benefit of the entire orchestra. And he says he has no difficulty, and very much enjoys, living in accordance with this worldview.

Then I read the new book by primatologist and neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, which he discusses in this excellent interview by Nate Hagens. I’ve been following Robert’s work for years, and I found his uncompromising take on free will quite refreshing. Like Bernardo, he has little time or patience for compatibilist thinking. Unlike Bernardo, he does not believe we are in any way “responsible” for what we think or do. Like Bernardo, he thinks punishing criminals is wrong-headed. But unlike Bernardo, he doubts that the threat of punishment has a deterrent effect. Though, like Bernardo, he agrees that it still makes sense to limit the freedom of people we collectively believe are likely to continue to perpetrate serious harms against others — but as a preventative measure, not a punitive one.

And, like Bernardo, he believes we cannot “choose” to change or improve our behaviour, but that we are constantly conditioning each other, and hence changing each other, with unforeseeable consequences for ourselves and the world in which we live. As he puts it: “We don’t choose to change, but it is abundantly possible for us to be changed.” He cites the remarkable changes in our attitudes toward sufferers of epilepsy and schizophrenia (not to mention towards LGBT+ folks) as examples of how this unfolds, and asserts that we are in the process of similar positive changes in our collective attitudes towards sufferers of PTSD, and in our previous wrong-headed propensity to blame parents (eg of autistic children, by giving them vaccines) for the biological misfortunes of their descendants.

The book is exhaustive and exhausting. Like his last book, Behave, the latest tome is heavy on the biology that underlies our behaviour, and rigorous and exhaustive to a fault. But it’s designed to pass muster of critics from many disciplines, and you can safely skip some of the more technical sections without losing the thread. It’s entertaining, humble, and ferocious in its arguments, many of which are provocative and in the face of the thinking of the majority of philosophers and a large number of scientists, even in his areas of specialty. Absolutely worth a read if you care about the subject. Nate’s interview, linked above, will set the stage for your study of it.

His view of the human condition is refreshingly stark. He writes:

What the science in this book ultimately teaches is that there is no meaning. There’s no answer to “Why?” beyond “This happened because of what came just before, which happened because of what came just before that.” There is nothing but an empty, indifferent universe in which, occasionally, atoms come together temporarily to form things we each call Me.

But while Bernardo claims to be quite comfortable with this struggle to come to grips with a worldview that often doesn’t seem to make sense, Robert says that “99% of the time I can’t achieve this mindset, though there is nothing to do but try”. (Not that he has any choice, of course!) It takes a particular kind of confidence and courage to write a 500-page masterpiece on a subject, and then conclude that while he’s absolutely convinced of the truth of his belief, supported by mountains of scientific argument, he has to admit that almost all of the time he continues to act as if he (believes he) has free will.


So I remain in the limbo between having accepted our complete lack of free will (Columns D, E and F of the chart above), and seeing as “obvious” that we have no real selves to even have free will (Column H). My ongoing discomfort stems in part from the realization that many of the arguments of both the for- and against-free-will camps, depend utterly on the acceptance of time and causality as being real. Throw out the stepping stones of linear time and causality, and the entire debate about free will gets either really murky, or completely moot.

Still, somehow, thanks in part to the contributions of these two gentlemen, the gap between no-free-will and no-one-to-have-it doesn’t seem nearly as great as it did. And, as limbos go, it’s not as uncomfortable as I would have imagined.

Posted in Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will | 9 Comments

The Sad State of “The Media”

from the memebrary, original source unknown

The term media originally referred to communication and information organizations that collected and conveyed and “stood between” the sources and the users of that information.  It actually began as an advertising term (“mass-media”) to gauge how many people were receiving these organizations’ information, and hence its advertising value. Advertisers were uninterested in broadsheets and other political publications which had the specific intent of rallying supporters to action.

There was a time when what we now call “the media” conveyed information, mostly for the elite castes, leisure classes, and wannabes, whose function was almost exclusively to satisfy curiosity. Nothing that required important action could possibly await the long time interval between the collection of “news” and its publication.

So you could read an interview with the Queen Mother, or reports about the Boer War. But there was no expectation that you were actually being informed to the point you could be expected to have a real understanding of what was being described, or “know” enough to opine on it intelligently. That was the work of historians and diplomats (remember when we had them?). If you were called up to serve in a war, you did so out of a sense of duty, trusting your government to know whether it was really necessary, and not because you were filled with righteous indignation about something you read in “the media”.

It was not possible, and not your responsibility, to really know what was going on in the world. You were, quite reasonably, not expected to be able to armchair quarterback a war’s tactics, formulate an informed moral position on something complex happening a half a world away, or assess the appropriate personal response to a global pandemic.

Those were the “good old days”. Since the advent of global wars, “the media” began to be used as propaganda agencies, and people reading them presumed to be sufficiently knowledgeable on subjects about which they had absolutely no personal experience, to express credible opinions on them. So now we have “media” reports that consist almost entirely of uninformed, second-hand opinions, based on utterly inadequate information, much of it propaganda (mis- and disinformation and the censoring of contrary information). This is passed off as “news” and “news analysis” when it is nothing of the sort.

And we now have something called “social media” in which this opinion and misinformation is endlessly and selectively parroted by people who know even less than journalists about the subjects they blather on and “add their two cents” about.

Meanwhile, as the advertisers who made up the term “mass media” (now reframed even more pejoratively as “mainstream media”) abandon these publications (their former customers preferring the more immediate and unintermediated adrenaline jolt of “social media” and disintermediated seller-to-buyer sources like Craigslist), the “mainstream media” are now mostly bankrupt, serving principally as scribes and stenos for governments and spooks who give them “free scoops” in return for their propaganda services. And with their constant massive layoffs and “consolidations”, the scribing work is now being done mostly by total novices sitting in their cubicles, naive and incompetent in the challenging and complex work that good journalists learn (learned) from real, front-line service.

No surprise, then, that no one wants to pay to “subscribe” to their useless and uninformed opinions, PR drivel, press releases and propagandized “scoops”, the only thing “the media” still have to offer.

The upshot of all that is that those media that are run by billionaire families, which don’t need to make money, now serve pretty much solely to feed the egos of their oligarchic owners. So once-earnest publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic have degenerated into personal mouthpieces for the often-racist, caste-ist, classist, ignorant, condescending, fear- and hate-driven xenophobic rants of the families that own them, and their top-caste friends.

The result is especially ugly because what this leads to is a kind of co-dependence between (1) these sorry excuses for journalism, (2) the governments and “senior administrators” who rely on them to print their propaganda, (3) the top-caste zealots who run companies that still advertise their extravagantly expensive cars, clothes, resorts and jewellery in the magazine, and (4) the top-caste wannabes who are still buying the overpriced shlock advertised in the magazine and hobnobbing whenever they can with the other 3 groups to feed their fragile nouveau-riche (or nouveau-puissant) egos. Collectively, these are all members of what Aurélien calls the Professional-Managerial Caste (PMC).

They feed each other’s megalomania, paranoia, and sociopathy. They appear at each other’s events, from press galas to government dinners to presumptuous podcasts and vlogs to country club soirées. They surround each other with each other, and immerse themselves in groupthink. I’ve known quite a few of them, and their complete disconnection from the reality of most people’s everyday lives is absolutely mind-boggling. They live in their own separate world.

And in many cases, their simplistic, uninformed, righteous-indignation-fuelled perspective is also what most of us want to hear. We want the good guys to be quickly sorted out from the bad guys, and the issues simplified so there’s no moral complexity to have to navigate. So we can say “OK yes that’s how it is, I know what to believe, and so I have no further responsibility to learn or do more — whew”. So their co-dependency extends, all too often, to the rest of us as well.

And I know you’re tired of me saying this all the time, but none of this is insane, evil, deliberately dishonest behaviour. They are simply acting out their conditioning, what they’ve been conditioned since birth to do, to think, and to believe. Many of them are self-professed (if rather deluded) progressives. They include many people of colour, and members of long-suffering minority groups. They can’t help themselves.

Just like everyone else in the world, whatever our degrees of privilege, oppression, or deprivation.

I do tend to rant about “the media” a lot, perhaps because they’re such easy, pompous, noxious targets. But then I calm down and realize that they’re just acting their part, like all of us, in this increasingly-chaotic passion play called Civilizational Collapse.

We can try to improve our mental health and our disposition by turning them off, by simply not reading any more of their nonsense. But, when you get caught up in the relentless terror of accelerating collapse, you tend to want to know what most of the people in the world, some of whom will end up being part of the community on which you will have to rely, and whom you will have to support and even love, are believing as a result of “the media” that they, like us, increasingly despise, but are afraid to turn away from.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment

The Arrogance of Thinking We Can Make the World “Better”

Another brilliant cartoon by Michael Leunig. This is what comes to mind when I hear terms like “making good ruins” or “hospicing modernity”.

There’s been a subtle shift in the tone of some prominent “collapsniks” over the last couple of years. It’s finally dawned on many that the polycrisis predicament of civilizational collapse (economic, political, social, ecological) cannot be prevented, “fixed” or even significantly mitigated.

So now we’re reading more about “acceptance”, “humility”, “hospicing modernity”, “making good ruins”, and other supposedly new and more modest ways of coping with the inevitability of collapse. This has been accompanied by several collapsniks retreating zealously into myth, mysticism, and religious orthodoxy.

But old habits die hard. Behind the new terms and sentiments, there remains a well-conditioned urge to “suggest” “what we might do” (that’s the new expression for telling us what we should do) — something, anything, that will make things somehow “better”. Inherent in all of these “suggestions” is the well-honed arrogance of our species, especially among those who have achieved a measure of fame or fortune, the arrogance to believe there is anything that one can “choose” to do, or that anything that anyone does will make a difference at other than an utterly local, temporary scale.

That’s not to blame these well-intentioned thinkers for their arrogance. Like the rest of us, they’ve been conditioned to think that what individuals do matters and can actually make a difference to the trajectory of our civilization and the planet it is destroying. Some of them are even now rethinking their opposition to nuclear energy, and/or their opposition to geoengineering, at least until they can come up with something, anything, that has a hope of making our world, and its collapse, somehow “better”. They have been conditioned to believe there must be something we can do, and that we have to do something. Even though, in the dark recesses of their mind, they probably really know there is not, and that we do not.

A decade ago, the authors of the Dark Mountain Manifesto actually had the courage, conviction and equanimity to admit there is nothing we can do, and that our role as artists was simply to chronicle collapse. But almost immediately the old temptations returned, and collapsniks’ workshops were held telling us we needed to find “a new story” to replace civilization’s bankrupt one. As if that were possible, or useful!

Or, even worse, collapsniks started telling us we needed to “rediscover” some old story, or indigenous wisdom, or myth or convenient fantasy or nostalgic remembrance, presumably on the basis that, since that earlier story didn’t obviously lead to civilization’s collapse, it is at least a “better” story than the prevailing, intellectually bankrupt neoliberal/ neoconservative myth of inevitable and endless progress that our “leaders” continue to bleat.

I have long been a fan of those who told us we were fucked, especially when doing so was extremely unpopular and quickly got us labelled as “doomers” and defeatists. But recently an increasing number of collapsnik writers have quietly slewed from “we’re fucked” to “we’re fucked, but still”. I still read the mostly-insightful writings of fellow collapsniks, but I’m growing weary of their “but still” narratives.

Most egregiously, IMO, is their disingenuous use of the term “modernity”, which is, in essence, code for “everything I don’t particularly like about global civilization culture”. Like fake-progressives’ use of the term “fascism”, it’s a catch-all that is utterly meaningless, a nostalgic straw man drummed up to get readers and followers, each imagining how their definition of “modernity” fits with their particular worldviews and conditioning about what’s wrong with the world, nodding furiously in agreement. “If we could only come to grips with (fascism, modernity, type your favourite whipping-boy evil here), we could at least create a better world.”

This is magical thinking, and an increasing number of progressives and collapsniks, perhaps chagrined that they now have a large followership that they have convinced “we’re fucked” and who now want to know “OK so now what do we do?”, are unwilling to alienate them by saying: Haven’t you been listening? We’re fucked. Period. There is nothing we can do.

Why are so few willing to just say this? I have no idea, but I’d guess we’re conditioned to want to be popular, and “We’re fucked. Period.” can never be a popular message. We’re conditioned to be positive, and to conclude, at the end of even our most horrific reports and essays, with a “but still” message of positive spin and hope. It took me 20 years to break the habit, and I suspect I only broke it because I no longer particularly care much what people think about my writing.

I think for many, the realization that we have absolutely no free will, which is still unpopular but becoming increasingly obvious and scientifically verified, rankles those of us who once hoped and believed that our learning and efforts would somehow help produce a “better” world. But our efforts are completely conditioned, including our efforts to understand and come to grips with collapse.

My writing about the subject does not stem from enlightened knowledge or a rigorous and insatiable search for the truth. It stems from how this body and its insatiably sense-making brain have been conditioned, by its biology, by my parents’ actions, and by everything that everyone I have ever met has ever done and said to me, and everything I was drawn (or not drawn) to read, to challenge everything I have ever been told, and to think and reason and feel the way I do.

The upshot of which is, at least for now, that I believe that nothing anyone can do can prevent collapse, or make the world (beyond the microcosm of our individual lives, and only then for a short time), “better”, and that it is arrogant and muddle-headed to believe otherwise.

We cannot “choose” to become more adaptable, or more humble. We cannot “choose” to decide to “hospice modernity”, a clever and appealing (if oxymoronic) bit of bafflegab that means something different to everyone I have spoken to about it. We cannot “make good ruins”. All of these nonsense choices are really about feeling better about our helplessness, our hopelessness, our (unwarranted) shame and guilt for doing the only thing our conditioning could ever have driven us to do.

I grow weary of the endless stories of human atrocity, always accompanied by righteous indignation and the assignment of blame (and of course, a conclusion about what “needs” to be done as a result). There is no value, no purpose in reading about what was always inevitable, given the circumstances of the moment, and what cannot be changed or made “better”.

And I grow weary of the collapsniks and their “but still” messages. They were right, but they should have quit while they were ahead. Now, they have nothing new to say, but they are still rambling on and on, in a state of rather sad and clumsy incoherence. Not their fault; that’s their conditioning.

None of which will likely stop me from continuing to chronicle our civilization’s collapse. Not that I do so in the hope that my writing will accomplish anything. It is just what I have been conditioned to do, for now, at least. One of my small joys as I watch, with astonishment, joyful pessimism, and increasing equanimity, the events apparently unfolding in this terrible, wonderful world.

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