Is There Hope for Humanity?: A Conversation

I’m beginning to appreciate that conversations are useful ways to explore ideas even if they’re with yourself. So here’s some more thinking out loud between my two schizophrenic halves, Dave the Idealist and Dave the Skeptic, on the subject of whether humanity has what it takes to get its act together and save the world:

Dave the Idealist Dave the Skeptic
Yes, I know I liked John Gray’s book, found it liberating in fact, but I still believe people are good at heart, and their instincts are right if they can re-learn to listen to them. And remember Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” So your argument is that we’re going to save the world either by some massive act of collective altruism, even though such a thing is unprecedented, or by some subversive act by some clever noble clique of do-gooders. You know, some people would say that Bush’s neocon born-again cabal fit Margaret Mead’s ‘small group of world-changers’ definition perfectly. If that’s what she was referring to, small groups of nazis and megalomaniac idealists, we’re in trouble. Or is your ‘small group’ going to put birth control in the water supply and sabotage civilization until we have anarchy and chaos? — which is actually the neocons’ dream situation, since if that were to happen they’d just take over and feel self-justified in doing so, as they would see you as terrorists.
We overcame slavery, we gave women the vote, learned that slavery and discrimination and disenfranchisement of women are wrong and unacceptable, we invented written language and a lot of other amazing things, including birth control technologies, we’ve made democracy, an improbable way of running the world, work, and we’ve found ways to strike a balance in the economy between complete totalitarianism and complete laissez-faire. We’re learning what doesn’t work, we have unprecedented peer-to-peer grassroots communication and organization, and we have more knowledge available to a larger percentage of the population than ever before. And instead of just writing dystopias, many people are actually proposing practical ways to bring about massive change. The last century featured more murders, more imprisonment, more torture, more war deaths, and greater extremes in distribution of wealth and power than any in our history. Every technology we’ve invented has a dark side that has been more effectively exploited than its positive applications. And as for communication, the digital divide is wider than ever. You shouldn’t judge the state of the world by the view from your rosy little corner of it.
Stories are all we are. When we have learned new stories, we have become very different creatures very quickly, in a generation or two. It’s our ingenuity, our ability to change and respond to new and intuitively better, healthier, happier ways to live, and learn from each other peer-to-peer that makes me optimistic and hopeful, not new technologies, which I admit are a double-edged sword. Stories also allow fanatics and maniacs to raise huge and bloodthirsty armies, and allow cults, including most modern religions and political parties, to brainwash people to act against both their personal and collective interest. Myths and other stories allow people to tolerate and live in denial of atrocities going on all around them. Religious stories have prompted most of history’s most brutal and protracted wars. And we’re so adaptable that we learn to live a life of never-ending oppression, subjugation and deprivation, and we delude ourselves that our pathetic lives are good, healthy, deserved, getting better and the only way to live.
But we are also capable of forgetting, forgiving and moving on quickly, when a better story, a better way of living, is told to us. And in the last decade a significant minority of the population is on a roll — better informed, more inventive, more attuned to and knowledgeable about that’s needed, what’s happening and what’s possible than ever before. They’re able to use networking technology to make creative, synthetic, analogical and metaphorical leaps, collaboratively, in ways that would have been almost unimaginable even a generation ago. We have already witnessed, in the 1960s, a huge shift in mainstream thinking and worldviews occurring in an astonishingly short period of time, and if we could do something like that again now we have much more powerful tools and much greater knowledge to do it with, so it might actually endure this time. Pure romanticism. The 1960s weren’t nearly as rosy and liberated as you remember them. Many guys jumped on the bandwagon in complete ignorance and indifference to the peace and liberation movements — they were merely attracted by the promise of cheap dope and easy sex. Your faith (and it’s nothing more than faith, since there’s no solid reasoning behind it) that we could start a similar movement in this century and this time it would endure and bring about ubiquitous change, is simply the left-wing version of the right-wingers’ Rapture. People don’t change, cultures don’t change, and there’s an unprecedented level of investment in maintaining the status quo working against any little movement that might threaten that. We are programmed by our DNA to spend almost all of our time and energy living moment to moment and distracted by the minutiae of constant and trivial decisions. And even if this were not so, as Gray argues so articulately we have no ‘free will’ or collective consciousness. Even as ‘individual’ creatures we are merely collections of cells, molecules and organs, each doing what they do, largely for mutual benefit, and almost entirely (99.9999%) subconscious. So belief that we can somehow get our personal act together, let alone one at the level of some higher social order, and transform ourselves into what we are not, seems to me the height of folly, a form of leftist religious fanaticism.
There you go, relying on science again, that collection of unreliable and creaky models of reality, to make your argument. The whole, at every level of aggregation, is always greater than the sum of the parts. Gaia is much more than just all individual life on Earth. We as individual and wondrous creatures are more than a mere collection of our cells, molecules and organs. And I’m not being spiritual here. Forget about ‘consciousness’ and these other academic and utterly meaningless concepts. We as individuals, and our planet as an organism of a different order, are mostly what happens between our composite parts. We are sensation, reaction, communication, learning, understanding, and the stories that recall them. Most of what we are at both the creature level and at the Gaia level are what is happening in the intersections, margins and edges around the component parts. That is where our true sense of self and meaning resides, that is where our instincts draw their wisdom, that is what our DNA remembers and tells us to do. Your myopic science, looking at individual organisms in isolation, is no more able to understand the great truths of life, and the nature of our existence, than a collector dissecting dead monarch butterflies is able to comprehend the astonishing transformation of that creature’s life, or how it could have ‘learned’ where and how to migrate when three generations have transpired since the last generation, or how sun and flowers and smells make a butterfly happy and inform its understanding of the purpose of its life. Let’s look at this argument. You’re saying, I think, that almost all of what we are is subconscious, and that an important part of what we are is our relationships with ‘others’ outside ourselves. Yes? OK. So then you’re saying that what can/will save us is something in our collective unconsciousness or subconsciousness? That deep down ‘we’ intuitively know what needs to be done, what is happening, and what is possible, and will use that knowledge to collectively do what is in our collective interest. Well, at least that’s better than relying on gods. But if we had this great collective unconsciouness or subconsciousness, wouldn’t we have been able to figure out, even before Einstein did, that almost all human inventions, notably in the media (since the invention of writing and the printing press), in transportation (since the invention of the lever, the inclined plane, the sledge and the wheel) and in the tapping of stored energy (since the invention of controlled fire) would have more negative consequences for our planet than positive ones, and hence prevent them from emerging? No, don’t give me that nonsense that the global population is leveling off because we somehow ‘know’ it must, since people have repeatedly told researchers the only reason they don’t have one or two more kids each is that they can’t financially afford it (for now). If we (‘we’ being either all humanity or all creatures on the planet) are our own collective guiding hand, that guiding hand has done a pretty lousy job over the last 30,000 years. Just because we’ve lost touch with nature and Gaia, you say? I think it’s more likely that we’re just an exceptionally fierce and adaptable species which emerged by random accident from the primeval soup and, like all fierce and adaptable species in Earth’s history, plagued (in the literal sense of the word, not the moral one) the planet until a meteor came along, or a climate change or new species evolved that preyed on excessive numbers of the plague species, and restored equilibrium and the selected preference of known life for biodiversity. Disequilibrium is neither new or unnatural in the universe. And that, more than the crown of creation, more even than the sum of our ‘stories’, is what we humans really are.
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19 Responses to Is There Hope for Humanity?: A Conversation

  1. otterhound says:

    Dave the Skeptic is more convincing.

  2. Gideon says:

    My vote also goes to the Skeptic. People (as a whole) suck: They are delusional, agressive, shortsighted, arrogant, and stupid. Individually there maybe a few bright lights which shine, the salt of the earth, but generally: Most small groups of people are dangerously delusional and can not be trusted, while large groups are so divided that they can’t make any progress any only argue about their vision.humankind can not save it self.

  3. Jordan Mechano says:

    I think you may have undertaken here an experiment which defines the progressive movement itslef. For change to happen, people need to be convinced that (a) it can be done, (b) it is a good idea, and (c) it will work for them in practical ways. The skeptical argument in your experiment is the more convincing of the two (I actually gave it 3-2 in favour of Dave the Skeptic). Skeptisism is always more convincing than idealism because it is easier to be skeptical. This is of course very saddening. So the question is, “How do we convince people that our vision of the future is better than the future being played out now?” You can use any way you want to convince people you are right: science, religion, stories, etc. But it has all been done before, and nothing seems to have really worked so far. There has to be some answer. There just has to.

  4. Jordan Mechano says:

    To Gideon: It is easy to say that people “suck”. A lot of people do have tendancies to act in the ways that you describe, but I don’t think it is the complete norm. I certainly don’t see it in the people that I know, not in the ways you describe. Also, it is not effective, if you want people to change, to belittle them. I understand your frustration with people, and I share it, but we must remain positve and hopeful. It’s all we have.

  5. beth says:

    Fascinating post, alarmingly close to my own internal arguments. Intellectually, I see absolutely no reason to be hopeful, but everything else in me insists otherwise, although I don’t share the rose-colored vision of many progressives. That human beings have this almost inextinguishable instinct for hope seems, in itself, to be an argument that we are capable of forward-thinking and occasionally noble action, especially when excellent leaders emerge. We’ve gone through a period, worldwide, of very dim and short-sighted leadership; it’s possible that this could change. There has also been a lot of grassroots activism – not so much in the U.S. but elsewhere – and if there were a breakthrough in the political leadership crisis, these two forces might finally be able to come together.

  6. medaille says:

    As a preface, I’m still young and my optimism hasn’t been beaten down by “reality” yet.When I look at the idealist point of view, I see potential for naivity. When I look at the skeptical point of view, I see some ignorance towards the way things could be, or at the very least I see it as a determination that the idealist POV is incredibly unlikely. I find it hard to accept the skeptic POV because when I look at myself, I see the potential for a better way of living. I imagine that if everybody thought like me we wouldn’t have all these problems that we do now (a highly optimistic view, I admit). I think that optimism can be found by exploring native cultures that haven’t been corrupted by our Western culture. That is an important place to look because they help show us alternative ways of living and interacting.In my perception of the how we come to understand the world, I break it into 2 general categories that influence our thoughts. I think that there’s a certain amount of knowledge that lies innate in us at birth. Where it comes from I don’t know, but some possibilities are: it’s encoded in our DNA; it comes from our eternal soul or some other metaphysical source. I think this is true because many animals in nature have mechanisms for survival that are present very shortly after birth. The other part is that which we learn, either from primary methods of learning or secondary sources of learning (Culture and others).I think much of the problems we have is that we depend too much on the secondary sources of learning and we don’t verify it in any conclusive way with our own personal experiences. A lot of time we try to verify what we “know” by comparing it to others in our own society (since that’s what we see every day), but that is a really poor method of verification. It doesn’t make sense scientifically because it ignores a lot of the variability when collecting the data and leads to biased results that can miss other possible conclusions. I think a key step to shedding ignorance at the individual level is just to be aware of how we each have come to our own conclusions and that the factors that lead other people to their conclusions are different then our own. I think that helps us realize that neither of us is “right” or “wrong.” We all just have different perceptions of the way things are (the truth) and that the conclusions we make based on those perceptions are limited based on our limited ability to percieve everything. Realizing the falliability in our own thought process, I think we tend to make less rash decisions (or at least I do).The hope I see lies in the ability to be able to educate others in a manner that would allow them to be aware of the falliability of their decision making process, which should help prevent them from acting rashly based on their own ignorance. I also thinks its important that they understand that there is no “right” or “wrong” and that everything is a shade of gray, some combination of good and evil (or whatever the two endpoints are).I think a lot of the problems we have in convincing the other side that they are “wrong” lies in our inability to be able to see all the different factors that lead to a result in a complex system. Thus we cannot have any certainty in what the flaws are in each others arguments. Being able to see the flaws requires an adequate knowledge of the system as a whole (the systems being nature and civilization). Also being able to see the flaws in each others arguements allows us to slowly come to a conclusion of the possibilities that could be right. As we grow as a society and learn new things, we will eventually have whittled down a lot of what we currently believe but is inaccurate. A good starting point is to give people the tools necessary to see for themselves what we fail to “teach” them (these tools being based on Dave’s group of fundamental things to learn). I think that the “few bright spots” could become a blinding light with little work if you just make people aware of how they are ignorant and not trying to teach them in a method that puts you directly at odds with their ignorance (meaning that getting rid of their biggest roadblock is easier than trying to teach them all of the instances of when they are being ignorant or in other words “Teach a man to fish and he’ll be fed for a lifetime”). Just my thoughts though.

  7. Yule Heibel says:

    The idealist Dave writes, “…we gave women the vote…”: ugh! How completely awful. You are kidding, right? You [presumbably men, generic] gave us the vote?? Look, if that’s what your idealism is based on, give me a cup of scepticism, and let me get it over with now.My dear Dave, fact is, some women took the vote. That’s not idealism, but that’s how real change actually happens. If the idealist Dave depends on having things “given” to him, it’s no wonder the sceptic Dave wins out.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone. This format seems to spark a lot of discussion when I use it — I guess it allows readers to ‘join’ the conversation. And Yule, absolutely right. I can’t believe I wrote it that way, and I’ve struck out and revised the original and inexcusable wording.

  9. Gideon says:

    To Jordan: You right, but the skeptic in me wanted to point out that groups tend to average these exceptional loving and confident people out of the equation.Organized groups tend to stimulate and give power to the features that most people share: fear, doubt, anger and hate. Small groups tend to turn to hatred, large group to doubt.The solution is (maybe) to make the individual more powerful. Step out of the current monoculture, reduce the level of organisation in the world. But that’s not going to happen: The powers that be will not allow it.

  10. Rajiv says:

    Dave,According to John Gray, we are condemned to be a victim of our genes and DNA, you should also look at a counterpoint.Bruce Lipton’s book “The Biology of Belief” A groundbreaking work in the field of New Biology. Author Dr. Bruce Lipton is a former medical school professor (University of Wisconsin) and research scientist (Stanford University School of Medicine).His experiments, examining in great detail the molecular mechanisms by which cells process information, have revealed that genes do not in fact control our behavior, instead, genes are turned on and off by influences outside the cell.These influences include our perceptions and beliefs. He shows that our beliefs, true or false, positive or negative, affect genetic activity and actually alter our genetic code. Dr. Lipton’s profoundly hopeful work, being hailed as one of the major breakthroughs in the New Sciences, shows how we can retrain our consciousness to create healthy beliefs, and by doing so create a profoundly positive effect on our bodies and our lives.

  11. kerry says:

    Are we not all basing our future possibilities on past assumptions, rather than a clear understanding? Neither skepticism nor idealism is the point, in my opinion. If something is indeed broken, surely we need to understand how it was put together in the first place? To fix a broken watch, it wouldn’t matter whether I believed it could be fixed or not, but on whether I understood how the mechanisms work. There are countless theories on why the human condition is the way it is, but what is the factual path that we have followed? If we don’t know this, then we will surely not know how to move forward. Once the factual path is outlined, we need not waste further energy on emotional reactions to it…n’est ce pas?

  12. medaille says:

    Gideon: I totally agree that we need to make the individual more powerful through a reduction in the influence that culture has over them. I think the best way of achieving it is through education. More specifically educating people about how “the world works” and how they interact with it (how they obtain knowledge and make their decisions as well as how they are unconciously influenced and how humans are vulnerable to manipulation). As far as the powers that be… I think that education of the above topics could be brought to the forefront in a disguised manner that would appear to be good for both parties but would give the people the tools necessary for them to understand the world well enough to make rational decisions based on solid information. Also the internet is a great example of a tool that is difficult for the powers that be to regulate. Certainly there will be more in the future.

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    Gideon/Medaille: This idea of the individual as the essential social unit is I think a uniquely Western one. As I get older I am beginning to see (self-selected) community as more important than individual. In nature the individual is not as important as the community, and I think our obsession with individual authority stems from the abuses of states, to the point that we distrust any social unit higher than the individual no matter how natural. The result, I believe, is loneliness and alienation from the rest of Gaia. The problem is not that collective culture has too much influence over individuals, but that individuals have too little choice over the collective(s) to which they wish to belong.Rajiv: I am a believer in the biology of belief, but not in quite the ‘mind over matter’ way that I think Lipton describes. All complex systems are to some extent autopoietic (self-organizing and self-managing) and I think it’s possible for any self-aware system to influence its constituent parts in ways that are beneficial to the whole. That happens at the Gaia level, and there’s no reason to believe it doesn’t at the body organism level as well. Just as the planet is ‘aware’ of global warming and imminent catastrophes in ways we don’t really understand, there is no reason our bodies cannot be self-aware of illnesses within them and hence able to respond to those stresses in powerful and holistic ways. There’s even some evidence that because his mind is so ‘separated’ from the rest of his body, man has lost some of that self-aware self-healing capability that other creatures have, and relearning mind-body connection and awareness is all that is needed to achieve that capability.Kerry: The problem with complex systems is that they are not completely knowable. So to fix it, we need to rely on something other than full information, and that entails intuition and ‘collective intelligence’, both of which have a strong emotional component.

  14. Rajiv says:

    From Lipton: The primacy of DNA in influencing and regulating biological behavior and evolution is based upon an unfounded assumption. A seminal article by H. F. Nijhout (BioEssays 1990, 12 (9):441-446) describes how concepts concerning genetic “controls” and “programs” were originally conceived as metaphors to help define and direct avenues of research. Widespread repetition of this compelling hypothesis over fifty years has resulted in the “metaphor of the model” becoming the “truth of the mechanism,” in spite of the absence of substantiative supporting evidence. Since the assumption emphasizes the genetic program as the “top rung” on the biological control ladder, genes have acquired the status of causal agents in eliciting biological expression and behavior (e.g., genes causing cancer, alcoholism, even criminality). Studies on cloned human cells led me to the awareness that the cell

  15. medaille says:

    Dave: I don’t think that we are describing wildly different things, just a different way of viewing two very similar things. or that the steps needed to accomplish either of the goals would be very different. please correct me if any of the following assumptions are wrong: Both of our perceptions involve the lack of the individual’s needs getting met. Both require the individual to be aware of how to meet their own needs. In the one labled as “mine”, the individual needs to be aware of how his needs aren’t getting in order to get those needs fulfilled. In yours, the individual needs to be aware of how to fulfill his needs so that he can choose the correct culture, although I admit that choosing a culture could be simplified down into a process not unlike other choices we make. This would entail knowing which other people have similar needs as us, and which ones have gotten the best results (happiness?).Looking at the present though, I still see our culture as having too big of an influence on the individual in the sense that it prevents a large number of the individuals from being able to fulfill their needs (again, happiness?). Most of us still can’t make it over the hump that the potential exists that other societies or potential future societies are better suited towards fulfilling our needs than the current one we have.I’d imagine that having more but smaller cultures (community-sized) would result in us feeling less alienated from the Gaia simply because we’d have a better understanding of what the Gaia is. This would be caused because, to use the terminology from my first post, we would have a wider variety of data points to compare and contrast, which I think would allow us to see how the Gaia consistently influences all the cultures. Also having smaller cultures with us having more influence in them would allow us to better realize our capability in “creating our own environment.” Is that different then how you see it? Ok… I think I see a slight difference in our thinking. I think you are saying that you want the system to be different so that we could make simple choices which would allow the system to fulfill our needs i.e. you would find groups of people like yourself and pick the best group of those to exist in. Whereas I guess in mine, which is more in the spirit of trying to free ourselves from our current situation (westernized culture), requires people to be able to see the “chains that hold them down” in order to be free of them. I’m not sure how we as a society would change to a more tribal/community based style of civilization without having enough of the population realizing the differences between the possiblities and what we have so that they would want to make the switch. I just don’t see how people would be guided into switching, without using culture to influence them or without educating them in other cultures. For some reason I like the dog analogy where the master will beat the dog mercilessly but the dog will stay loyal to the master since it cannot see the other possibilities for living if it were only to change its owner, thus it’s trapped in the world which was given to it.I’m rambling a bit and getting off topic, so I guess that would be an indication to let someone fill in the gaps that I have to make assumptions for.

  16. medaille says:

    Maybe what I’m trying to grasp is that in order to maintain our ability to maintain the advantages of the technologies that require civilization (large scale agriculture, easy methods to acquire knowledge from secondary sources) we will need new technologies that would allow the same advantages in order to free ourselves from the old ones. Preferably, these technologies would be closer to what nature provides as an example to us than the crude, wasteful, brute force methods we use now.

  17. Michelle says:

    I am fascinated by the debate between the idealist Dave and the skeptist Dave, because I myself have had this exchange internally dozens of times.I am an American (or, to be politically correct, U.S.) high school girl who is interested in philosphy, politics and the “fate of humanity”. I don’t want to bore anyone with my personal life story, but I believe in the inherent goodness of people, whatever we may define “goodness” to be. I think it is easy to label a person as “ignorant”, “repulsive”, and all those other negative and degrading “buzz words” because we don’t know each and every single persons personal life story. I may sound and very well be too naive and yet to be weathered down by the harshness of reality, but I think everything that happens to us during our lifetime, starting from when we come out of our mother’s womb to when we die, effects us in every single way possible. Everyone is “good” but some are stricken by a traumatic event or the harshness of reality and their “goodness” may be buried under the debris of pain, grief, sorrow, anger, and all of those “negative” feelings. Thus when this debris is removed, the inner goodness in people shines.I don’t have enough time to write everything I wanted to say, but I will frequently be checking up on this site to here more from the great intellects!

  18. Don says:

    Dave–I’m going to have to say the skeptic took the tropy on this one. I have come across no studies that reveal a species that has ever chosen (as a group) to restrict population expansion in order for sustaining their ecosystem. However, the idealist would say that we are in fact the first species to display this characteristic on an individual level. Who knows of our potential?

  19. MatthewJ says:

    I think this conversation was structurally biased towrads the skeptic.First, the idealist presents and idea, and the skeptic rebuts it, then the idealist moves to another idea. This form is slanted towards the skeptic, who always gets a last word.Second, while Dave the idealist is having to hold some ideal, rosy ground, Dave the skeptic doesn’t. If it was Dave the practical realist versus Dave the skeptic, or Dave the Idealist versus Dave the nihilist, it would be better structurally set up.Finally, I found the idealists arguements weak and half-hearted, not truely invested in the conversation. Aside from a sense that you have been updating and working on your skeptical side more, I get the sense you were talking to the converted there.Thanks,

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