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


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

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

The logic and causality make sense in that direction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No free will -> no self

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

Our Tastes and Propensities Are Conditioned Too


K-Pop group XG, one of my conditioned tastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incompetent


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Characters Walk Into a Bistro…

This is a work of fiction.





Posted in Creative Works | 7 Comments

Links of the Month: March 2024


image from gapingvoid.com; Hugh may have meant this seriously; I mean it ironically

It’s almost as if the course of history has stalled. Same genocide, same proxy wars, same CIA/Empire destabilization of the rest of the world, same corporations dictating policy to governments, same increase in CO2e and atmospheric/ocean temperatures, same seconds-to-midnight nuclear armageddon threat, same exhaustion of scarce resources, same brutality to humans and animals, same everything-falling-apart, month after month. Sometimes I wonder if I just copied and pasted last month’s Links of the Month if anyone would even notice.

But although no one’s in control, and we’re all just doing our best, acting out our conditioning the only way we can, one way or another, we’ll be fine. Even if this so-called ‘life’ isn’t just a dream, an invention. So after you’ve waded through as many of these links as you can tolerate, come back here and let the talented young women of WJSN lull you gently to sleep with this extraordinary lullaby.

Good night!


COLLAPSE WATCH



charts from C3S/ECMWF, a service of the European Union

Climate collapse is accelerating: Tom Neuburger has the latest data. And another synopsis from AP.

Societal collapse is accelerating: Jem Bendell summarizes a recent presentation saying major life changes are now less risky than hanging with the status quo. Thanks to Joe Clarkson for the link.

Water cycle collapse is underway: Hot seawater is rapidly destroying the world’s remaining coral, and altered precipitation patterns, severe droughts, disrupted ocean currents, extreme flooding and water system contamination are becoming more widespread and unpredictable. Thanks to John Whiting for the links.

Economic collapse has reached a tipping point: Tim Morgan explains how we’ve broken our economic systems and what that means for the future.

We are running out of affordable energy: Erik Michaels outlines the folly of believing in renewables and “energy efficiency” as a means of dealing with the end of cheap energy.

So we are left to grieve our dying world: Indrajit Samarajiva’s lament on the “cursed knowledge” of collapse.


LIVING BETTER


latest New Yorker cartoon from the incomparable Will McPhail; if you’re a writer of fiction, you understand

Telling the truth about the world: Echoing Derrick Jensen’s famous “Beyond Hope” message, Robert Jensen explains how he’s learned to “hopelessly” tell the truth about our current situation, to himself as well as to others. Thanks to Paul Heft for this link and the one that follows.

Museums explain how our understanding of our species’ origins has shifted: Three remarkable museums have us rethinking where we came from and how we evolved.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


data from the NYT, as reported in Naked Capitalism; the actual average 2024 YTD death rate is about twice this amount ie 70,000 deaths in the US projected for full year 2024, and hospitalizations also showed a significant uptick in January

No, China’s economy has not stalled and faltered: Radhika Desai and Michael Hudson interview Beijing-based UK scholar Mick Dunford, who explains why China’s pragmatic blending of its centralized/decentralized political and economic systems is perhaps the best model to study for navigating the polycrisis. Anything has to be better than unregulated, corporate-controlled, extreme capitalism, individualist fetishism and war-mongering.

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism: The Incompetence Edition (thanks to John Whiting for many of these links): Short takes:

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:

CoVid-19 is Still With Us: Short takes:


FUN AND INSPIRATION


from xkcd, of course; I seem to be in an ironic state of mind this month

Do men just suck at relationships?: Perhaps they’ve never been taught, or never had enough practice. But whatever, it’s usually the women who end up picking up the pieces.

Is AI eating its own tail?: As AI increasingly is being used to produce entire websites, and then to scour the web for new information to refine its algorithm, some warn that it will mostly be eating and spewing out its own recycled garbage.

Guns Germs and Steel was wrong: New research suggests that geography doesn’t actually play an essential role in cultural evolution. Fortunately, Jared Diamond’s theories about collapse still seem plausible.

Are CDs with petabytes of memory coming?: A new technology breathes possible new life into an old technology.

Words we’ve ruined: The list is ‘literally’ endless. Thanks to Kelly Gavin for the link.

Damned lies and statistics: Hank Green confesses to falling for the messages of four credible-looking charts and reports based on erroneous or misrepresented data. It doesn’t have to be propaganda to be dangerously wrong.

Boeing Boeing: A very funny look at what happens when your economy depends on companies making huge profits instead of making competent products. Lyz Lenz is in rare form; don’t drink coffee while you’re reading this.

And Canada’s most disliked celebrity is: Apparently Kevin O’Leary, some TV braggart I’ve never heard of (as I don’t own a TV). My choice was Reddit’s runner-up, Jordan Peterson. To show how unusual Canadians are, several arrogant business leaders appear to be far more despised than the usual rogues’ list of politicians.

Albatross!: There are two chicks in the Dunedin NZ cam this year; both hatched in January and are expected to fledge in September. Scan the red timeline along the bottom of the video to find times when the chicks are active; the cams zoom in on them when they are.

What do 72-year-olds look like?: And how do they think? Probably only of interest if you’re 72, like me.


THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH


one of dozens of AI created images replicated across dozens of entirely AI-created websites; thousands of gullible people have looked at these and tried to place orders for (or buy ‘plans’ for) a home “just like this” based on a picture that no human had any part in creating, and which couldn’t actually be built in real life (due to the laws of physics, building codes etc); just wait until these poor suckers start seeing faked political and military photos

From Caitlin Johnstone on US Empire:

Being an ally country to the USA is like being friends with a really bitchy drama queen where you’re only allowed to help her tear down her social enemies and can’t ever talk about what she’s doing to create all the conflict in her life because if you do she’ll come for you next.

From Caitlin Johnstone on Aaron Bushnell:

Aaron Bushnell was no more suicidal than a rescue worker who died trying to save the lives of others.

From Sharon Olds in the Iowa Review (1981):

SEX WITHOUT LOVE

How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other’s bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health — just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.


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

Our Conditioned Response to Collapse

Over the past few years, I’ve made some fairly strident statements about the current state of the world as I see it. They include:

  • That our global civilization is now in the accelerating stage of inevitable, complete collapse that we will never even partially recover from. It will be a slow collapse, in multiple stages, over centuries, but by the end of this century the way in which the remaining humans (if there are any) will live will be utterly different from how most of us live today.
  • That our species, uniquely and for quite conceivable reasons, at some point in our brains’ evolution became mistakenly and terrifyingly convinced of our ‘separateness’ from the rest of life on earth, rendering us emotionally and mentally damaged to the point that much of our behaviour now is a massively-destructive acting out of generations of accumulated trauma steeped in fear and hate.
  • That we have no free will, and that our behaviour is totally a function of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the ever-changing and unpredictable circumstances of the moment.

A question that remains foremost in my mind is how our conditioning will compel us, individually and collectively, to respond to collapse. Since our conditioning varies greatly from person to person, our responses will likely vary greatly as well. And the “circumstances of the moment” will be very different at different times and in different places as collapse unfolds and accelerates over the coming decades as well.

What might some of our conditioned responses to collapse be, hampered as we now are by our species’ omnipresent mental illness and trauma?

As things get increasingly dark and hopeless, I think we are witnessing already the most common of these: sinking into depression, retreating into escapism, and simply denying these existential realities. And suicide is not an uncommon conditioned response for creatures in situations of unbearable overcrowding, stress and deprivation, and rates of suicide are soaring. Perhaps Aaron Bushnell is something of a canary in the mineshaft: His conditioning, like ours, drove him to do the only thing he could have done.

Many of us will continue to turn to the plethora of institutions and programs that have arisen in part to try to help us cope with everything falling apart — religions, spirituality, psychology, process-y methodologies and practices, drugs, rehab and anti-addiction programs, and perhaps even philosophy (eg stoicism). Some of them may seem to help for a while, but none of these institutions, programs and ‘therapies’ has a particularly enviable success record, and many of them arguably have done more harm than good to their ‘patients’. I have probably explored most of them, and found them all lacking.

No one can predict, of course, how, as collapse accelerates, we will each act out our conditioning and do the only things we could have possibly done in the circumstances.

All I can offer is my own story, how my own conditioning has led me to a particularly individual, and perhaps rather hopeless and disheartening, response to collapse. Your experience will differ, probably drastically, and none of what follows should be considered in any way as ‘advice’.

For a start, none of my attempts to ‘work on’ or ‘work past’ my trauma have ever helped me at all. In fact, dredging up the memories of the incidents and fears that likely conditioned me to be the way I am, seemingly just worsened the trauma, anxiety and depression. I remain unconvinced that therapies based on reenacting damaging and terrifying past events as a means of putting them behind us, have merit, at least not for me. The evidence is at best dubious and anecdotal. But maybe they help some people, or at least they may help some people believe they are coping better, which is worth something.

I also tried the pharmacological route (paxil — part of a family of now completely discredited drugs from the quack psychiatry toolkit). Never again (though the experience provided me with a number of really funny stories that people seem to like).

What I learned about myself (as has been explained in books like Against Empathy) is that there are situations in which my attempts to engage with situations that trigger past trauma simply render me paralyzed and dysfunctional. This is possibly connected with my body’s and brain’s retreat into severe depression in the face of extreme stress — depression from which I suffered for most of my life, but no longer do.

What I learned is that I just can’t afford to care too much emotionally about circumstances and about others’ suffering, when trying to do so just debilitates me. I learned instead to try to exercise a more “distanced compassion” in those circumstances — being attentive and thoughtful and hopefully helpful, without trying to “personally relate” to the suffering, and hence getting sucked into a downward emotional spiral myself. So now, when I face people suffering from severe distress, I ‘distance’ myself from it, by reminding myself this is their trauma, not mine, and that getting drawn into it is not useful to anyone.

As a result of this, I have on occasion been accused of being emotionally disconnected, disengaged, indifferent, and even dissociative. I have no idea whether those accusations are fair or not. All I know is that this is where my conditioning has taken me, and it seems to have made me, on the whole, more “of service”, less reactive, and more functional, than I used to be, when dealing with the kind of severe distress that we’re going to be facing all the time as collapse deepens.

Such conditioning obviously comes with a cost: I am likely less emotionally sensitive than I used to be, with fewer highs and lows. I do cry more than I used to, but they are tears of joy (often when listening to well-crafted and evocative music), rather than tears of empathy with others’ suffering or loss. I am very rarely depressed anymore (which may be just a biological effect of aging and more balanced hormones; I don’t know). There is less elation, but far more moments of equanimity and peace, which seems to me an excellent trade-off.

Looking back, and then to where my conditioning seems to have brought me to now, I can admit that, perhaps rather unusually, I have never really felt lonely, even in the worst times of trauma, solitude, and depression. I have no idea why.

And I have never really “missed” not having something, or doing something, or being with someone, when I no longer had that pleasure. I know I would enjoy having it again, or doing it again, or being with that person again, but “missing” those things just never comes up, and never really has, my whole life. And likewise, I have never really grieved or mourned the loss of anything or anyone. I cried when my dog died, but that was a purely instinctive, animal reaction, and then it was gone.

Maybe the fact that I have never felt these feelings means I am somewhat emotionally stunted, but if that’s so I think I have always been that way, rather than having become that way as a result of events that have happened, as a result of conditioning, or as a coping strategy. It seems to be more likely what is, and isn’t, in my DNA. I don’t know: In some ways I think I am a bit feral. I don’t think wild animals have these emotions either. And, perhaps like a wild animal, while I have an instinctive and terrible fear of pain, suffering, entrapment, and failure, I have absolutely no fear of dying. I don’t think I ever have.

In addition, I used to fall in love frequently, easily and deeply. And often it was with entirely the “wrong” people — a complete mismatch. I was still doing this a decade ago. And then a young woman told me, maybe at exactly the right time in my life to hear it, that I was a fool at heart. That I had fallen in love with who I imagined her to be. And then she told me who she (thought she) really was, and the types of guys she was drawn to fall in love with (and even introduced me to one of them). And she described how awful a romantic relationship between the two of us would almost inevitably be.

And strangely enough, thanks to this wake-up I was instantly “cured”. Ever since then, while I am still inclined to become infatuated (notably with exceptionally intelligent, energetic, curious, creative, imaginative, and strong people) I have never since fallen in love. And I don’t want to fall in love again. I no longer long for that feeling when nothing else matters except that love. Though damn, I remember those feelings. You never forget.

Now, everyone I meet has two ‘personalities’ — the one I can imagine them to be (and I have a pretty vivid and generous imagination), and the person they really are (who I appreciate I will never know and can’t even guess at). It’s really changed how I see people, and the world.

In addition, unlike a lot of people, I don’t particularly enjoy being loved. To me, rather than that being flattering or reassuring, it usually strikes me as a responsibility, something that (being basically lazy) I’ve never liked or wanted (though I have often been told I am one of the most responsible people they’ve met). Maybe it’s my large (hard-won, and then partially-lost) ego, that doesn’t need stroking, that has me preferring to be the lover rather than the loved. And I do still love people, places, wild things, creature comforts, all those ikigai things. I probably love them more than I ever have. But it’s very different from being in love.

As for all that ancient and endlessly-resurfaced trauma, slowly but surely its hold on me seems to have abated, though it hasn’t completely disappeared. Rather than repeatedly delving into how it arose and how it gets triggered, I have just kind of let it go, forgotten it. Kelly the genius psychologist says that I have largely ‘excised’ it, though I think she gives me too much credit. It might be mostly that my memory is not what it used to be, and it was never that good. In Africa, apparently, this is called “social forgetting” and has worked better in some groups dealing with major collective trauma than the “truth and reconciliation” approach of directly confronting it. Whatever works. We have no choice in the matter anyway.

So I guess that’s where my conditioning has taken me. Never lonely, never grieving, never afraid of death, but fearful of pain, of feeling trapped, and of failure — that I suppose is biological conditioning. No longer a fool for love (but more enamoured of simple pleasures), slowly letting go of trauma, rarely depressed, less reactive, and far more equanimous now — that I suppose is cultural conditioning.

How has that conditioning equipped me for facing accelerating collapse, and the very challenging times ahead? Not very well, I fear. The realization of the imminence and inevitability of civilization’s total collapse was easy for me to handle, perhaps because I just don’t seem capable of grief. But I have never handled extreme stress well, so as things worsen and as compounding and increasing crises become the order of the day, my conditioning has not prepared me to handle these things at all well.

How do I think others’ conditioning has equipped them to face all this? I have absolutely no idea. My study of history (and the stories from my grandparents about the Great Depression) suggest that when things get dire, it’s amazing how quickly people will learn and do the things they need to learn and do, physically, to cope with the situation.

But in past crises, people could always look forward to (and imagine) a future when things got better again, and I don’t think we’ll be able to do that this time. When it really sinks in that we’re living in end times for our astonishing civilization culture, I’m not sure our conditioning will allow most people to handle that emotionally at all well. The latest post from Indrajit Samarajiva, perhaps, gives us a clue:

This is where I live… In the land of the dying, where the land itself is dying, and we are but witnesses. Mute or unmute, it makes no great difference now. We are all dying people, in nations dying one way or another, in a world that’s dying too. As my Achchi [grandmother] was holding me she told me clearly that we all have to die. And it’s true. It’s just that ‘all’ means a lot more at this particular hinge in time, when the doors come off. My Achchi, for one, is ready to go. I envy her in that. I’m not ready at all.

But I really have no idea where our conditioning will take us from here. My fascination with chronicling our civilization’s collapse, which I’ve pursued now for over two decades, partly stems from wanting to know the answer to this question.

I’m prepared to be surprised.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

“The Next Right Thing”, Revisited

For the first fifteen years or so of this blog, I always felt I had a kind of professional obligation, after imparting what I thought was useful knowledge, to proffer suggestions on what we should do as a result of the particular situation each article addressed. It was always as if an article that provided no advice on appropriate action was somehow incomplete.

About seven years ago I gradually, mostly, stopped doing this. I might still suggest what would seem obvious common sense (eg in my articles on CoVid-19), but otherwise I try not to tell people what they ‘should’ do. This is mostly because, in the case of complex situations like ecological, political and economic collapse, I really have no idea what anyone can or should do ‘about the situation’. And it’s partly because my sense is that anyone who’s inclined to do what I might recommend, was already inevitably going to do it anyway.

But refraining from offering advice, when you’ve given people really bad news, seems almost rude. And if there’s nothing that can be done, as I said recently, is there really any purpose in knowing the news anyway?

But it’s hard to give up the habit, and I do relapse. And, I’ve discovered, this is true for most collapsniks. For example, I love the rigorous analysis that Erik Michaels brings to collapse, particularly issues related to energy, the economy, renewables and the challenges of predicaments vs problems. He’s written a multi-part series recently entitled, appropriately enough So, What Should We Do?

When I’m asked this question nowadays, I either decline to answer (just admitting I have no answers) or defer to Derrick Jensen’s answer which is to find some local activist/restoration project that interests you where you can make a difference, and focus on that. Small, direct actions that immediately and obviously make things better. It seems as good advice to offer as any.

A year ago, in my review of a David Snowden presentation, I outlined his argument that, rather than inventing and designing an idealistic aspirational future, it is far more productive to focus on what is known about the current situation and do the “next right thing” to move things in a (hopefully) positive direction. This is because, in most complex matters, you can never have enough information to plan many steps ahead, nor can you accurately predict what will happen in the future that will render your wonderfully idealistic long-term plan obsolete.

David suggested the expression was taken from a song from a Disney movie, but, as Maria Popova has explained, it’s actually a Jungian expression (and was later taken up, with an altered meaning, by the AA movement). Jung’s advice was essentially to trust your instincts to guide you to ‘know’ the next right thing to do, given your personal situation and the circumstances of the moment as best as you can understand them. Only you can know what that next right thing is, he said.

I thought this was intriguing for a number of reasons. It resonates somewhat with the processes that “time management” experts have long recommended. David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, for example, focuses on “immediate next actions” as the key to making progress on an imposing and complex project.

I wrote about the GTD methodology many times during my first years of blogging (2003-06) and used it quite diligently. But finally it dawned on me that all I was doing with my complicated activity flowchart and lists was precisely what I would have done anyway, even without using these tools*.

Surely, I thought, with a wonderful-sounding expression like the “next right thing”, there must be something to it beyond doing the obvious, beyond trusting your instincts — some definition or explanation with a little rigour to it. So I did a little digging.

Books have been written on the subject of knowing what the “next right thing” is, and most of them, not surprisingly, advise you to trust some higher power to tell you what it is. Not very useful if you don’t believe in “higher powers”!

Also not surprisingly, the AA articles on the subject, and the articles by psychologists advising you to do the “next right thing” lean on the same circular argument: pray, talk to people, pay attention, walk in nature, meditate, and magically the “next right thing” will come to you! You’ll know it when it comes to you! You’ll just know!

I have no objections to people using ‘centring’ techniques before they make important decisions, and using creativity-sparking tools and exercises, but really, this is the most rigorous explanation of a critical discernment process that highly-paid professionals can come up with? WTF does “next right thing” mean anyway? Is it just a feel-good expression that means “whatever I intuitively or emotionally think based on everything I know”? Because what else would I possibly do? Nothing, perhaps, if I’m paralyzed by indecision? Is there anything really to “doing the next right thing”, beyond it sounding earnest and sensible and hard to argue with? After all, you’re never going to be told that you should do the next wrong thing. The word right seems to me a weasel word here (though just omitting it doesn’t help either).

I had the same instinctive reaction the first time I was told about the Eightfold Path of some forms of Buddhism. It includes “right” everything, including “right action“. How is this defined? How does one discern what “right action” is? Well, a mere lifetime of study and devotion to a “teacher” might get you started. And then you’ll understand what’s “right” because, well, its “right”! Someone wiser than you told you so. The definition is utterly circular — a non-definition:

One tries to abandon wrong action and to enter into right action: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong action and to enter and remain in right action: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, and right mindfulness — run and circle around right action.

Well, that clears it up, right?

David Snowden at least offers us a few clues. He talks about learning as much as possible about where we are now, and then identifying “adjacent possibles” which he describes as being like “stepping stones” that take us in a hopefully positive direction based on where we think we would like to end up. But then we’re back to goals and objectives and imagined ideal future states. What if we don’t know, beyond some likely-hopeless idealistic vision, where we’d like to end up?

When I read the book A Thousand Small Sanities, I had hoped it would be a book that would prescribe, or at least describe, significant, perhaps “adjacent possible” steps that we could take to at least feel useful, as we grapple with the predicaments of our time. Sadly, the title has nothing to do with the book — it was the publisher’s deliberately ambiguous choice, designed to sell more books. The “sanities” are not described or defined. Like “random acts of kindness”, performing “a thousand small sanities”  — or doing the “next right thing” — sounds like a good idea. But what does it mean?

There is something about certain homily expressions that set off alarm bells in my head. “Small sanities”, “random acts of kindness”, “cultivating an attitude of contemplative gratitude“, and many expressions that incorporate the term “justice”, “patience”, “perseverance”,  “generosity”, or “grace”, seem to me, like “next right things”, designed to shut down one’s critical thinking by appealing to their inherent tautological unarguability. They are wonderful-sounding expressions that actually mean nothing. Or, worse, they can be taken to mean whatever you want to believe they mean. They are, I think, like empty calories — beyond the pleasant crunchy taste, they offer nothing of value.

If there is some actual meaning to such homilies, they should be able to pass a test of actually applying them to a real-life situation. So let’s try:

My country (Canada), like most of the major countries in the US Empire, is poised to have an election soon with two Tweedle choices, both of them ideologically and utterly committed to a US-led war with Russia, China and Iran, and both of them wedded to the idea of continued expansion of the use of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

I’ve done my homework; I know what the current situation is, and have a pretty good understanding of the monstrously-complex elements and events that have led up to it. Both ‘choices’ available to me present an existential threat to every living creature on the planet. So what’s the “next right thing” to do in this situation?

Perhaps I’m afflicted with the horrific imaginative poverty I keep writing about, or perhaps I’m a lazy defeatist who just wants to shirk responsibility, but my answer to this question is: nothing.

My instincts, my intellectual analysis, and my emotional responses, all tell me to do what I would have done anyway, which is nothing — pass on voting, and on any involvement with the political process connected to it, which probably means (if as I suspect I’m in good company) that the ideological authoritarian right-wing extremist will prevail over the so-called “lesser evil”. And I refuse to feel bad about this. Instead, I will get on with my life, and do things that bring me joy, and do things for the people I care about, because that brings me joy as well.

And that, I think, is what “the next right thing” and the rest of the aforementioned homilies amount to — an attempt to make us feel better about doing the only thing we could have possibly done anyway. To believe any of these expressions have a deeper meaning is just magical thinking. A form of faith.

What we are going to do, in any situation, is no more or less than what our biological and cultural conditioning makes us do. We have no choice, no ‘free will’ in the matter. If our conditioning drives us to work on some local ecological restoration project, then that’s what we will do. If our conditioning compels us to give money to the homeless and volunteer at a seniors’ home, then that’s what we’ll do. If our conditioning moves us to participate in an insurrection against the government, then that’s what we’ll do. If our conditioning leads us to vote for Biden or Trump or Trudeau or Poilievre or Sunak or Starmer, in the vehement belief that he is the “lesser evil”, then that’s what we’ll do.

So, what should we do? How do we discern “the next right thing”? The questions are moot. The decisions “you” think you are making are already made, and not by “you”.

That’s a lot to come to accept. And because of their conditioning, most people will never accept this. They’ll keep thinking, intuiting, researching, stressing, reacting, hoping, and praying that with the “right” effort, the “right” process, they’ll discover and do what they ‘should’ do — “the next right thing”.

And then they’ll do the only thing they could have done anyway.

POSTSCRIPT March 9, 2024: On Instinct and Intuition:

I wrote a follow-up article to the above on the nature of instinct/intuition, but I decided I could pretty well sum it up in a single paragraph, so here it is:

What does it mean to ‘trust your instincts’? What are your instincts (or your intuition) anyway? I would suggest that they are nothing more than a ‘feedback loop’, telling us what our biological and cultural conditioning is inevitably going to lead us to do anyway. When we ‘change our mind’, it is only our conditioning and/or the circumstances of the moment that have actually changed, and which have inevitably produced a change in our beliefs, worldview, or behaviours. Nothing else — not our ‘volition’, our ‘consciousness’, our ‘minds’ (conscious or unconscious), our deliberate thought processes, our ‘decisions’, our clever instincts or our intuition — had anything to do with that change.

 


* Breaking major projects into manageable steps and picking the “immediate next actions” for each was brilliant in theory, but essentially just systematized what I was already inevitably going to do. A far more useful lesson was training myself to ignore unimportant tasks, even if they were supposedly urgent (I was ultimately forgiven for not doing them, since they were not important anyway, and saved a heap of time in the process). But I also found that breaking the project into multiple sequential steps was largely futile anyway, because complex projects cannot be understood well enough to do so usefully, and the situation changes so fast that even during the first step it becomes clear that those second and third steps are going to be very different from what was anticipated. As I’d come to learn about complex projects, the understanding of the real problem and the identification of possible solutions co-evolve. Trying to plot it all out in advance, towards some grand ultimate objective, is just idealistic wishful thinking, and, despite what zealous “systems thinkers” would have you believe, generally pointless. In the end, the “immediate next action” — that “next right thing” to do — is almost always intuitive anyway. You don’t need a “system” to do it.

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

Why Do We Want to Know?


This map, from Multipolarista, shows the US-centred Empire bloc of nations (in red) that subscribe to the US-invented Rules Based International Order. The countries in green do not recognize that order, and they continue to support de facto a UN-centred international system governed by international law.

As the wars, the genocides, the sieges, the atrocities, and the economic, ecological, social and humanitarian crises mount, day after day, there is something in me (and perhaps in most of us) that at once dreads, and insists on, knowing what is really happening.

That’s not to say I want to know the truth. I want to know ‘my’ truth — that what I want to believe is true. When I am reassured about this, I embrace ‘knowledge’, ‘news’, opinions and perspectives that comfort me in my belief that I have a handle on things.

When I read ‘news’ that doesn’t fit with my worldview, I am inclined to disbelieve it, ignore it, and avoid exposing myself further to it. So, for example, while I once read the NYT and WaPo regularly, perhaps because at one time they reassured me about my beliefs, they now endlessly repeat opinions, posing as ‘news’, that are so far beyond being credible to me that I find reading them repellant and painful. So I don’t.

That is, it would seem, the nature of the human creature. My worldview is a model of the world as I (want to believe I) ‘know’ it, and I am seemingly compelled to try to make everything ‘fit’ into that model. And I change it reluctantly. I don’t think I’m unusual in this.

In this as in many other aspects of human behaviour, I am conditioned to believe what I believe — by my personal experiences, by what I’ve been taught by people I trust (or, at least, don’t distrust), by stories that I’ve been told, and by the beliefs of others I know directly or have read or listened to. All of this conditioning is filtered through my current worldview. And the result — what gets through that filter — is what I purportedly ‘know’.

My reaction to all of the horrors in the daily doom-scroll is, in accordance with my conditioning, philosophical — I try to understand what has motivated the various ‘players’ to have done what they have done and said what they have said. There is always a reason, in my worldview. In most of the violence, I can understand it as the acting out of conditioned fear and hatred that has metastasized into trauma — a collective mental illness. That’s not to say I condone it, or condemn it. I just want to understand why.

I suspect that for most people, given their conditioning, such understanding of the emotions and illnesses behind acts of violence is not enough. Their conditioning is to quickly decide who is right, wrong, good and evil, to take a side, to lay blame, and to call for ‘appropriate’ action. The ambiguity of no “good guys” and no “bad guys” in a horrific conflict just can’t ‘fit’ with their worldview. Someone has to be to blame for this disaster!

Most religions condition their members to think this way, and most political parties and political organizations position themselves constantly as the “good guys” and their opponents as the “bad guys”. In the US, citizens even sign up (register), often for life, to be a member of a political party, just as people sign up and go through rituals to be members of a church. These organizations are constantly conditioning their members (through their affiliated media, and now through email and social media as well), telling them what to believe, and reassuring them that the worldview they have ‘helped’ their members construct is the ‘right’ one.

There is nothing particularly right or wrong about this. Thanks to their conditioning, these political, religious, corporate and other ‘leaders’ honestly believe in the virtue of what they are doing, and the urgency of fighting those who believe otherwise. As I keep saying: We are all doing our best. The fact that this ‘best’ can often result in a self-reinforcing circle-jerk of hatred, fear, reinforced trauma, and collective acts of hysterical violence against blamed Others (violence such as genocides, wars, systemic abuse, sieges, incarcerations, acts of extreme vengeance, assassinations, torture, overthrows of governments, bombing of dams, hospitals and pipelines, etc) is unfortunate, but irrational mob behaviour is hardly a new phenomenon of our species.

Entrenched trauma + conditioned collective outrage + power (the means and opportunity to commit violence) => acts of violence, more often than not.

I suspect that most citizens of the American Empire who can’t fit the idea of trauma-induced genocide into their worldview, might argue that the current siege and slaughter of Palestinians is not a genocide, just a ‘reprisal’ for an attack on Israelis, to discourage further similar actions. Now that most of the country has been destroyed, and most of its inhabitants (principally women and children) killed, maimed or rendered homeless and starving, they might now be starting to wonder about the validity of that argument.

Then what? Well, our instinctive human nature is to ignore what doesn’t fit into our well-entrenched worldview, so if I took this position, what I would be most likely to do now is turn off the news, to pay no attention to it, and to welcome ‘news’ (propaganda) that justifies or denies the genocide as being something other than a genocide. I would wait for it to ‘go away’ (no longer be reported by the media I follow, you know, like CoVid-19), so that I would no longer have to be concerned about it, no longer have to confront the gaping holes in my worldview.

I used to believe, quite strongly, a lot of things that I no longer believe. My worldview has changed, often slowly-and-then-all-at-once, as I found my old beliefs simply weren’t tenable. Most recently, I’ve come to understand, to my chagrin, that my belief in my country’s (Canada’s) political independence from the US Empire was naive. I’ve come to acknowledge that that Empire has been systematically and intensively destabilizing and immiserating the lives of most of the world’s citizens, if they are unfortunate enough to live in countries that aren’t subservient to the Empire’s ideology, and have been doing so for my entire life. I’ve come to realize that my belief that the PMC are, if ideologically bent, nevertheless relatively informed about the world, open-minded, and inclined to seek collaboration and compromise to solve problems, was completely mistaken. I’ve come to appreciate that our newspapers and other media are not at all committed to seeking and telling the objective truth.

I suspect that, for many people, realizations like these, that totally undermine one’s worldview and belief system, would be gut-wrenching. But I’m preoccupied with knowing Why? Why has their conditioning led Canadian politicians, the Empire, the PMC, the media and others to behave in such nonsensical and self-defeating ways? Why did my own conditioning lead me to so completely misunderstand what has been going on? And Why, when there have been such astonishing opportunities for global peace, for redistribution of wealth, for solving the centuries-old problems of poverty and disease, for collaboratively tackling the horrific predicaments that are collapsing our civilization — Why at this 90-seconds-to-midnight moment has our conditioning instead led us to opt for preparations for an un-winnable, global, Empire-vs-Rest-of-the-World war? What madness has gripped our long-suffering species?

As I continue to study the lessons of history, and as the implications of us not having free will (one of the more bruising adjustments to my worldview) sink in, I am beginning to understand the answers to these questions. We have never been a rational species. We are now a severely damaged one, acting out our accumulated and collective trauma in increasingly destructive ways. We cannot help ourselves. We have created, with the best of intentions, massive, utterly dysfunctional systems that are now rapidly falling apart and which no longer serve us. The Tweedle parties in all of the Empire countries cannot find presidential or prime minister candidates who are not loathed by the large majority of their electorates. We recognize the massive and urgent existential threat to every one of us that is posed by global ecological and economic collapse, yet we are impotent to even start to address it. Hell, we can’t even manage something as simple as reversing the hare-brained idea of a Daylight Saving time adjustment twice a year, despite near-universal agreement on its folly.

All of which is to say: Knowing why horrific things are happening (and why desperately needed actions are not happening) in our world does not help us deal with them. This is the definition of a predicament — something that has no solutions, only outcomes.

If that’s the case, Why do we still want to know? If everything that’s happening is just our conditioning inevitably playing itself out, why is it important to know the reasons, if there are ‘rational’ reasons for what is happening at all? Metaphorically, if the doctor’s unambiguous diagnosis is “terminal”, what is the point of understanding how and why the disease progressed to its current state?

We have been conditioned, not only in our beliefs, worldviews and behaviours, but also in our compulsion to ‘know’. If our social group began collectively to turn off the mostly-uninformed-opinion mainstream ‘news’, along with social media’s incessant belch of righteous indignation, and instead focused our attention on what is happening here, now, in our local communities, then that might condition more of us to do likewise. But I doubt this will happen — our compulsion to ‘know’ is now an addiction, and ignorance of ‘what is going on’, and failure to have an opinion about it, is socially unacceptable. Irresponsible even. How can we know what to do, and which ‘lesser evil’ to vote for, if we’re not tracking ‘what is going on’?

Of course, it’s not as if we have any choice. I’m likely to continue to read the doom-scroll, though more and more begrudgingly, selectively, and superficially. Still, I sense I am getting closer to breaking the habit. There are other ways to “chronicle civilization’s collapse” than through lists of links and pretentious analyses of our political, economic, and ecological crises. My local café is a much more interesting place to observe what are likely the final years of the human experiment, than are the dismal pages of the media, including the social and ‘alt’ media.

Perhaps it’s more important, and more useful, to just witness, first-hand, right here, right now, what is apparently happening, and not try to understand why.

Maybe none of it has to make sense.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

What Do You Want From Me?

New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner
Lyz Lenz cites Rebecca Solnit as having told her “Every story men love to tell is Pygmalion.” A trace hyperbolic, perhaps, but Lyz goes on to list some of the many novels and films that are essentially about men creating “the perfect woman”. And how everything goes askew after that.

I found this interesting because it runs counter to, or perhaps parallel to, the oft-stated belief that women select a male partner for his potential, what he might become (with her guidance), rather than who he already is. And then, when she has presumably maneuvered him into proposing a relationship with her (so it appears to be his decision and initiative), she gets to work to help him to realize that potential.

It might seem, then, that the difference between male and female idealism, when it comes to partnering, is that the male wants to build his perfect mate from scratch, while the female, perhaps more pragmatically, is prepared to work with what is already there. At least, that is the ideal once they each realize that the perfect partner, “ready made”, was just a dream.

These are of course stereotypes, but they raise a number of, I think, interesting questions:

  1. What accounts for these different ideals, the qualities sought in a mate?
  2. What are the implications of these differences in terms of the possibilities of having joyful, functional relationships, and what can one do, if anything, given those implications, to give one’s relationships the greatest chance of bringing happiness to both partners?
  3. Are the dynamics different in what we look for in an ideal friend, from what we look for in an ideal partner, and if so, how and why?

Books could be written on any of these subjects (and have been), but I wanted to look at these questions through the lens through which I have of late come to see the world: (1) That we are all doing our best, (2) that we have no free will and hence our behaviour is strictly the result of our biological and cultural conditioning, (3) that our species is currently suffering from massive, ubiquitous and debilitating trauma, and (4) that our current global civilization is in an accelerating state of inevitable collapse.

The components of this lens are, of course, highly debatable (and I have discussed my reasons for believing them previously, and often, on this blog). And these components are also interrelated, in complex ways. But for this essay, I’m going to take this sad state of affairs as a given, and try to explore how it might have contributed to the current unhappy state of many human relationships, and vice versa, and what that might mean for the fabric of our society as we try to cope with everything falling apart.

The obvious place to start this enquiry is with love — how it compels us, how it’s different for men vs women, what our expectations of it are, and how those expectations evolve (and generally lessen) over the life of a relationship.

It seems we have no choice about who we fall in love with (it’s our biological and cultural conditioning again). But somehow there seems to be some wiggle room to alert us to relationships where intuitively we sense it’s a bad idea, which can prevent us from falling in love when we otherwise probably would have. There’s also a lot of evidence that even when one or both partners knows a relationship is no longer what it once was, inertia tends to keep the couple together until something (often an affair) precipitates a formal separation.

I wrote about the dynamics of monogamous relationships 13 years ago in an article that argued that our civilization, and in particular its capitalist elements, conspire to control us (keep us all aligned, doing the same things, obedient, anxious, and placid) by creating a world of artificial scarcity, including a scarcity of love and compassion, that makes us fearful of being alone, even when the alternative is an unsatisfying or even abusive relationship.

This artificial scarcity is, I think, an essential component of the trauma cycle that is both a driver and a consequence of our wasteful overconsumption, overpopulation, and our insatiable desire for far more than we actually need:

In the 2011 article I also reviewed how our current ideal of lifelong monogamous partnership evolved, citing Laura Kipnis’ book Against Love:

The book argues that monogamy is unnatural and unhealthy, and possibly complicit in our emotional detachment from political life and our ecosystem as well. Laura sees monogamy as part of the cultural indoctrination that leads to wage slavery and mindless consumerism — it’s all about creating scarcity (in this case, scarcity of love and sex) to drive up the ‘value’ of both, and hence needlessly drive up the hunger, desperation and jealousy (and, alas, resultant domestic violence) of so many in their anguished search for them. And ultimately, it’s all about creating a ‘consumer’ populace that is (financially and emotionally) endlessly needy, unsatisfied, and wanting more.

When I wrote this, I blamed capitalist greed for this scarcity. I’ve become a bit more charitable since then, and I’d now say that scarcity was maintained to keep 8B apes, not evolutionarily meant to be obedient members of a vast amorphous and uncomfortable consumer culture, in line. We have, in short, been culturally conditioned to be needy, anxious, dissatisfied, uncertain, off-kilter, fearful, passive, dependent, and obedient, because otherwise we’d likely have killed most of each other off by now. (Primatologists assert that no other ape could ever be conditioned to put up with the restrictions we have come to accept as normal.)

When it comes to relationships, that neediness, dissatisfaction, fearfulness and dependence plays out in a (justifiably) perceived scarcity of romantic and sexual partners, with all the anxieties, jealousies, and envy that that entails. So what is our answer for dealing and coping with this? Perhaps the male answer is to build more “from scratch”, Pygmalion-style, while the female answer is to settle for less, and work harder to bring one, or a few, of the sad pool of male partner candidates “up to scratch”.

So we have male fantasies about robotic females and reprogrammed “bimbos” to cater to the man’s every wish (mostly: sexual availability, fidelity, and willingness to do most of the labour, both physical and emotional, in the relationship). And we have female fantasies about attentive, appreciative, competent, supportive, faithful, dependable, hard-working males who do their fair share of the domestic work, look relatively attractive and do occasionally adorable, unexpected things*.

The male ideal is actually less heartless and outrageous than it might at first appear. (But then, I’m a male, so I’m biased.) If there’s a perceived shortage of something, the conditioned male instinct, it would seem, is to build more of them. Hence the Pygmalion tendencies. If there were lots of very lifelike, utterly obedient female robots with very sophisticated programming, would men be satisfied, to the point of not wanting relationships with human females as much? I think it’s doubtful. If there were an abundance of androids and a scarcity of human females, men would probably continue to fret (and fight) over what was scarce. And (a great surprise to me), men actually want children more than women do. And based on surveys of male sexuality I’ve seen, I suspect that the novelty of high-tech non-human sex would wear off quickly — perhaps even faster than it would for women.

So I would argue that what men think/fantasize they would ideally like in a relationship with a woman, and what would actually make them happy, are two very different things.

I would hypothesize that this is in part because most men just aren’t particularly emotionally aware of what they really want. That is probably also due largely to differences in conditioning, but it doesn’t bode well for enduring relationships.

Do women know better what they really want from relationships with men? As with men, my guess is that most women think they know what they want (see list* of qualities above). Getting those things would likely go a long way to making them happy/happier in their relationships. There is, after all, an enormous inequity between what men and women, on average, put into a relationship, and what they get out of it.

But my sense is that that ain’t going to happen (things are the way they are for a reason, and IMO that’s all about our conditioning and not something that awareness of its “injustice” is going to change). The root cause of this inequity, and the unhappiness it produces, I think, is systemic, and goes back to the evolved social fabric of our civilization.

I think we have to go deeper than inherent male laziness (a laziness which I’m nevertheless quite willing to acknowledge) leading to what the above-linked song calls men’s “false incompetence” (as in: “When I do the [enter type of tedious work here] I can never do it as well as you do, dear”).

To do that, I think we have to go back to the very structure of our civilization culture. And that structure is atomized, with the tasks and responsibilities once jointly held by the community having been transferred to the nuclear family. Most of the drudgery of day-to-day life (the tasks of child-rearing, gathering and preparing foods, and ‘maintaining the nest’) was once done by the community collectively, ensuring that the workload was more evenly spread and had less duplicative work and lower resource needs per person than the ‘single family’ home requires.

Even in avian communities, where birds supposedly ‘mate for life’ (though they actually don’t), the whole community drops everything and assists in the work of feeding and caring for the young. In crow families, for example, the young stay with their parents for their second year of life and help with all aspects of child-rearing of their younger siblings. And un-partnered crows pitch in as well. Geese even have community baby-sitters.


cartoon by Will McPhail, from his website

But Kelly (who knows her feminist history) reminded me that even in many pre-civilization cultures where the community was actively involved in collective work, there were still apparently substantial inequalities, most of them reflected in the heavier burden on women in maintaining both the social fabric of the community and in maintaining and navigating personal and societal relationships (the aforementioned ’emotional labour’). When I asked her why she thought this inequality had arisen, she identified a possible more fundamental culprit: the concept of personal property.

Go back far enough in human history, back to when humans belonged to the land, rather than the other way around, and we are more likely to find something closer to true equality between men and women. Because as soon as we envisioned personal property — the ‘ownership’ of land, buildings, animals — we could envision one person or group owning another person or group — slavery. It was the ‘invention’ of slavery that enabled the idea of someone being the property of someone else, and hence made hierarchy and gender inequality possible and even politically ‘acceptable’.

But even if you look at the most apparently misogynistic wild primates — namely baboons and gorillas — you have to consider Robert Sapolski’s long-term study showing how one brutal patriarchal baboon tribe suddenly and completely transitioned to an enduring peaceful matriarchy when the circumstances allowed it (it happened when all the alpha males suddenly died of accidental poisoning). This study conclusively demonstrated that patriarchal primate behaviour is not inherent or biologically-driven. It is all cultural conditioning.

So — a recap before I return to the three questions posed at the outset of this essay:

  • The artificial creation of material and relational scarcities, which evolved as part of civilization (and especially capitalist) culture, is likely behind a lot of the social and emotional dysfunction we are living with today.
  • Thanks to this (probably accidental, unintentional) civilizational dysfunction, we have been culturally conditioned to be needy, anxious, dissatisfied, uncertain, off-kilter, fearful, passive, dependent, and obedient.
  • Because of the disconnection and trauma that this conditioning has produced in us, we often no longer know what we really want in our relationships, and when we think we know, and pursue that, we often find it wasn’t what we really wanted at all.
  • What we perhaps actually want are the kinds of interpersonal and communal relationships that were likely commonplace prior to our civilizations’ atomization of community and its invention of personal property.

There seems to be something at the very root of the human animal (and perhaps every animal) that aspires to be wild and free. And we know instinctively we are not, so we are unhappy, dissatisfied, longing for something but not knowing quite what it is. We are, I would assert, caged, constrained, by the cultural conditioning that will not let us be our authentic, wild, free selves. And our culture, with its artificially-created but massive scarcities, also renders us terrifyingly insecure. So we seek to be wild and free, but at the same time we seek to be safe and secure. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for, should it?

Most men, more than most women I think, seem to think that possessions (including the possession of wives and children, power, fame and wealth) will somehow fulfill that longing, fill that empty space. Most women, perhaps more pragmatically due to their cultural (and to some extent biological) conditioning, look to make the best of the situation they’ve been handed. Possession of things to many women is, it seems to me, often just a means to an end, and that end is frequently security. Thanks to millennia of cultural oppression, security is, for most women, I think, the ultimate and never-ending scarcity. Though a little wildness, a little freedom, a little joy for women would be nice, too! At least the freedom to not be treated as a possession, as ‘property’!

So that leads me to my tentative, and incomplete, answers to the three questions:

  1. Most men look ideally for a partner who will both allow them to be wild and free, their authentic animal selves, and also do most of the work to provide the essentials of a secure space for them to live and raise children. Most women, I think, look pragmatically for a partner who will help provide them a safe and secure place to live and perhaps raise a family, but also, ideally, give them the space and opportunity to be their authentic, wild and free selves as well. That’s a generalization, of course, and I think the lines between the two genders’ ideals are rapidly blurring. And I believe our conditioned fears, long-standing hatreds and unresolved anger, grief, and trauma also play heavily into what each of us seeks and wants in a partner.
  1. What this means, I would guess, is that what most males and most females are looking for in a romantic relationship aren’t substantively that different. Our priorities may differ depending on our gender and (even more) on our personal circumstances. And because our behaviour is conditioned, we’re more likely to be able to keep our relationship functional if we can at least appreciate why those priorities, ideals, and desires are often so different. Some of the happiest couples I know are those who live next door to each other rather than in the same home, and have separate bank accounts. And they seem both exceptionally self-aware and exceptionally aware of (and accepting of) each other’s conditioning, triggers and traumas.
  1. How are the dynamics, priorities, ideals and conditioning between friends different from those between romantic partners? Not that much, I suspect. Our expectations of friends are generally different from (and often lower than) our expectations of a romantic partner, but the same dynamics, priorities, ideals and conditioning are often in play. Perhaps not surprisingly, I would guess that most female friendships are deeper and more intense than male friendships. As for platonic male-female friendships, that would require a whole separate article.

Lyz’s article, mentioned at the top of this post, which got me thinking about all this, supports the thesis of her new book This American Ex-Wife — that many married women would be much happier and much better off in every respect getting divorced and living alone, including raising their children. She is particularly (and IMO justifiably) incensed at the efforts of American conservatives, having already severely restricted women’s access to safe abortions, to now start restricting women’s access to divorce, and particularly to no-fault divorce. It appears that many conservatives have never quite given up the idea that some people should inherently be the property of, and enslaved by, other people.

What is the cost, to all of us, when women have been so long and so severely oppressed by our ‘civilized’ society that they are compelled to seek security through their relationships, often with men who, due to their own trauma and emotional incapacity, offer them the absolute antithesis of security?

In Against Love, Laura Kipnis comments on this cost, describing what we want and hope for from love and relationship, and what we finally come to expect and settle for:

The most tragic form of loss is not the loss of security, but the loss of the ability to imagine how one’s life could be different.

And in a recent article, Lyz also weighs in on the cost of this ‘security’:

Rules and rigid definitions and codes of conduct are always supposedly done for [women’s] benefit. Get back inside the safety of the patriarchy… Too many women fall for it, because fear has been sewn into the female experience. We are taught to walk afraid through the world — with the knowledge that anything can and will happen to us if we are not protected.

But really, the safety being offered is a cage.

Posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 9 Comments

Separate

This is #27 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.


photo by Laitche at wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 4.0. Taken at Daisen Park, Osaka, Japan

Today I was watching a large flock of pigeons — perhaps 50 in all — flying furiously around the apartment towers outside my window. They flew non-stop for more than an hour, and formed, dissolved and reformed into as many as three separate groups before recombining. It was astonishing to watch — the beauty, the waves of movement, the patterns they made in the sky. There is no scientific agreement on why their conditioning causes them to do this, and so my tentative assessment (‘theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler’) is that they do it strictly for pleasure. For the same reason, in other words, that we humans go for walks and runs, sometimes in groups.

What my brain, focused on the patterns of the birds’ flight, evidently surmised was that the entire flock, this ‘system’ of birds, was a single ‘thing’ in motion, a single organism. The word ‘flock’, after all, is singular. I began to ponder whether these birds, driven to do what they apparently do by their biological and cultural conditioning, thought of themselves as individuals, separate from other birds and other things, at all. My tentative conclusion is that they don’t think of themselves as either individuals or as a part of a flock, or something ‘larger’. I suspect the thought never arises. There is no need to conceive of either separation or apart-ness.

So if they don’t conceive of themselves as separate, are they? Or is our human insistence that there are fifty separate birds there just our own conceit, our way of making sense of our perceptions, based entirely on our own biological and cultural conditioning?

There are some philosophies and religions that assert that nothing is ‘really’ separate, though most of them have been so buried in incomprehensible ‘teachings’ that it is impossible to discern what they actually mean by that, if their practitioners even know themselves. Religious and philosophical beliefs, after all, are also just the result of our conditioning. They do not have to make sense, or even mean one thing, for millions of people to profess to believe in them, and to insist they share an understanding with other believers.

So, as I walk around the lake today, watching the birds, the people, and the dogs, trying to just notice the sensations and not let my brain attempt to interpret them, I ask myself: WTF does it mean to say nothing is actually separate from anything else?

The ducks on the lake seem to have gathered together in a few small corners of it, with most of them sleeping and making those lovely quiet chortling sounds. The dogs walking their people on the path nearby must be regulars — they pay no attention as they pass the ducks.

I look at one of the ducks and imagine: If I could zoom in really close I would see the individual cells, organs, and tissues that ‘make up’ the duck. Each cell is doing what it has been conditioned to do. Where is the duck now, as an individual? Is it an individual by virtue of the fact there is apparently a border between ‘duck’ and ‘not-duck’? Most of what appears to be the ‘duck’ parts are actually bacteria with their own non-duck DNA. And there’s a membrane, an ‘atmosphere’ outside the apparent ‘duck’ parts that is constantly exchanging ‘duck’ parts with non-duck parts as part of its respiratory, thermal regulation and other systems.

So now if I zoom in closer, at one molecule of one feather, I might see that it’s a barbule molecule. A barbule is like a small hook that waterfowl have thousands of on their feathers, to hold the feathers together to keep out wind and water. Ducks spend as much as 25% of their (biologically and culturally conditioned) lives preening their feathers to keep the barbules in order, and coating their feathers with a water-repellant oil they secrete and transfer from a gland at the base of their tails.

This one barbule molecule I’ve zoomed in on is a keratin protein molecule, one of many types of keratin molecules needed in the construction of various types of feathers (and also, BTW, in the construction of your fingernails). What role did the supposed separate, individual ‘duck’ play in this complex construction?

So now I zoom in on this single keratin molecule to see what it’s made up of. Such giant proteins as keratins are very complex, but they are largely composed, I learn, of “the amino acids serine, proline, valine, leucine, glutamate and aspartate”. When I zoom in on one of the amino acids in this particular feather protein I see that it is a serine amino acid (from the Latin word for silk). Its formula is C3H7NO3 but those elements are arranged in different ways for different purposes. For this feather, it’s the aminyl radical NH2 piece I’m looking at, and specifically the nitrogen atom.

Nitrogen atoms need to be ‘ripped apart’ to form amino acids, since nitrogen naturally forms a tight triple bond between two nitrogen atoms (the only tighter bond in nature is that of CO2 molecules, which makes the process of photosynthesis even more remarkable). When the nitrogen atoms are pried apart, they’re the essential ingredient in the fertilizers that keep half of humanity alive, as well as a key ingredient of Kevlar, dynamite, antibiotics (and most other drugs), caffeine, ammonia and superglue. Somehow or other, the DNA molecules in this apparent duck knew how to access and assemble it into the amino acids needed to make feathers that keep ducks alive. And of course nitrogen is also an essential component of DNA molecules themselves.

So now this particular nitrogen atom has seven protons, seven neutrons, and seven electrons. I’m now zooming in on one of these electrons, one of the two that is ‘shared’, kind of, with one of the hydrogen atoms in the radical part of the amino acid. I had always thought that this meant that these electrons circled both the nuclei that ‘shared’ them, but as I look closer I see that that isn’t correct at all. The electrons don’t ‘exist’ as such. They are ‘described’ by their wave function, and are neither particles nor waves. Their probability function might best be described as an “atmosphere” of potentiality around the nucleus. (Yeesh, my vision is getting ‘cloudy’ from all this zooming in.)

So although this electron isn’t a particle, what is it made up of? Well, it seems, no one knows. Although protons and neutrons have subcomponents, called quarks and gluons, and there are many other subatomic ‘particles’ either known or theorized, electrons are, scientists currently think, ‘elementary’ (you know, like elements were suppose to be ‘element-ary’). Some of these subcomponents are ‘virtual particles’, because, well, they aren’t ‘real’ particles (like the electrons that don’t really exist). And no one can agree on how many gluons there are in a nucleus, doing the, you know, job of keeping the nucleus together so it doesn’t erupt into spontaneous nuclear fission. They ‘know’ there are some gluons, but because they are ‘virtual’ they don’t know how many. Three, eight, and sixteen, are popular theories, but the number is apparently constantly changing because they ‘virtually’ appear and disappear. I am not making any of this up.

As for the quarks, they are “theoretical particles”. They have been “observed” only in respect of their properties, their behaviours. The behaviours observed consistently conform to the theoretical model, so scientists have declared that by virtue of that conformity, the ‘things’ exhibiting these behaviours “exist” and are “real”. Or, more accurately, they appear to be real. At least until some better explanation, some theory that more precisely explains the observed behaviours, is developed.

On top of this, all of these tiny particles, virtual particles, waves and ‘functions’ ‘fill’ only a tiny proportion of the space in any larger agglomeration. When you touch something ‘solid’ like a table with your hand, what makes it seem solid and impenetrable is the repulsion of the electrons (which don’t ‘really’ exist) in the (relatively vast) (probability) ‘field’ around the (tiny) nuclei in the table and your hand.

So back to the duck. Is the duck ‘separate’ from anything else? And if so, what makes it ‘separate’? Is it the human viewer’s conception of it as separate? Is it its ‘consciousness’ of itself as separate? What is this ‘consciousness’ anyway? What if there were evidence that the duck does not, and need not, conceive of itself as separate (or in fact conceive of ‘itself’ at all), to be a perfectly well-functioning duck (and ducks have been around thirty times longer than humans)? ‘It’ (or all of the things we conceive of as comprising ‘it’) just does what its (their) biological and cultural conditioning compel it (them) to do, given the circumstances of the moment. No conception of self or separation, and no ‘consciousness’, is required.

The ‘duck’, it seems to me therefore, is not an individual, it is a name, a label, that we put on our conception, our ‘idea’, of all those (possibly infinite) mysterious and possibly non-existent theoretical sub-components of what we have labeled. The ‘duck’ is not separate from anything else. In that sense, just like some of the components we ascribe to it, it is an ‘appearance’ that does not really exist.

And we’re no different from the duck. Nothing, I would suggest, is actually separate from anything else. We just concoct a model of reality in our brains that labels things as separate, and agree on that model with other humans, because that is what we’ve been conditioned to do. All of us, including the theoretical physicists. There is evidence that only humans invent such a complete fabrication to ‘represent’ reality; other creatures don’t, simply because there is no need to. The model of ‘reality’ is not needed for ‘everything’ to apparently function perfectly well.

One could say (and one current ‘theory of everything’ proposes) that the universe we perceive, and conceive, is just an infinite field of possibilities — a probability distribution. There is no need to explain why or how that’s so, but our human conditioning seems to drive us to try anyway.

So if that’s the case, then nothing is actually real, or unreal. Everything is just a ‘possible’ appearance out of, for want of a better word, nothing. Nothing more is needed. But as we’re conditioned to want to explain everything in terms of this model, we have, I would suggest, created the ultimate, flexible, building block of all reality — and that is stories. If nothing actually is real, then every attempt to ‘real-ize’ (understand) anything is a story. In a way, it is only our stories that ‘make’ everything real.

Stories are unique to humans, but that’s OK. And they’re complete fictions, unnecessary to and irrelevant to everything functioning just the way it apparently does, but that’s OK too. We can’t help ourselves. We’ve even invented storyboards in which to ‘locate’ all of our stories so they’re internally coherent in our model, and coherent to other humans. Those storyboards are what we call space and time. All of our ‘understanding’ is simply the pasting of stories into these storyboards to compulsively (as we’ve been conditioned) try to make sense of (ie to conceptualize) everything we perceive. Complete fictions, unnecessary to and irrelevant to everything functioning just the way it apparently does. And that’s OK. We humans can’t do otherwise. We’re not separate from anything else either, and what we call our ‘self’ is just another story, the ‘story of us’.

Whew. My head is spinning. Must have been sniffing too many gluons.

There is a little boy (what’s the deal with all these little kids pushing their own strollers?) who is asking his mother a million questions, most of them starting with “Why?”. When does this become an important question to a child? And, um, why?  To what extent is our conditioning (to have to make sense of things) biological, ie in our genes, rather than cultural, prompted by other (so-called) humans?

I feel badly for the boy, and his mother. She clearly finds all the questions tedious, but knows that if her child is unable to master the process of making-sense, conceptualizing, creating stories, constructing a fictional representation of reality that meshes with that of other humans, he will not be able to function in any human civilization.

This is the terrifying price of imagining one’s self separate. As soon as he’s conceived to be separate, he’s vulnerable, he’s ‘responsible’, and, worst of all, he — this supposedly separate thing — will one day die. And there is no ‘cure’ for this cruel story, because that’s all it is — a story. His life, and his death, are just stories, pasted into the conceptualized human-invented storyboards of space and time. They aren’t real. But damn, we’ve conditioned ourselves well to think they’re real!

What would ‘we’ be without our stories? Just part of the appearance of nothing as everything, inseparable? No different from all the apparent creatures not plagued with the dis-ease of ‘consciousness’ of ‘their’ separateness?

I watch the boy formulating his questions. “Why do ducks sleep in the daytime?” First there are sense-perceptions: The colours and movements and sounds and smells and feel of everything. Then there is the labeling: Lake, duck, quack. Then there is the story creation: Duck on lake quacking. Duck’s eyes are closed. Quacking means awake. Sleeping happens at night. Ergo “Why do ducks sleep in the daytime?” There is a desperation to the question. Something here doesn’t fit with the story he’s created. Everything has to be ‘fit’ into the story, to make the story ‘right’. Why? That’s his, and our, conditioning. There doesn’t need to be, and cannot be, any reason beyond that.

It’s been going on like this, I would surmise, for us poor illusory separate self-ish humans with our huge entangled brains, since the dawn of civilization.

But then, that’s just a story, too.

I wander off to the quieter, less scenic part of the lake. There is a crow, squawking at me from a tree above my head, though it is not squawking at ‘me’ particularly. There is no reason for it to recognize a separate ‘me’ in order for it to squawk. It is squawking at this intrusion into its equanimity. It’s an instinctive, conditioned response to unfamiliar movement. If it were a month from now, during nesting season for crows, it might well be dive-bombing me, a more urgent conditioned response. This squawking is more nuanced, quieter.

I flap my arms as ‘wings’ and make cawing noises. That’s my own conditioned response. I couldn’t have done anything else. There was no choice in the matter for me, any more than there was from the squawking crow. How would I characterize this response? Playful, curious, mimicking (badly)?

The crow isn’t buying it. It hunches down a bit, looking at me. Is it curious? Is it trying to ‘make sense’ of what I am doing? That would be the anthropocentric explanation. But I doubt that that is what is happening here. What we would call playfulness and curiosity is part of its conditioning — play and exploration are a means of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, the meta-level objective (apparently) for behaviour. Coincidentally perhaps, play and curiosity also teach it (condition it) to be able to respond to situations it might encounter later in life. It’s how crows, and humans, evolved. Why? There doesn’t have to be a reason, a story to explain it. It doesn’t have to ‘make sense’.

When, recently, I watched a crow repeatedly dropping a pebble in midair and then swooping down to catch it in its beak, I called that ‘play’. I explained it as being the result of dopamine being released into the crow’s body, producing a feeling of pleasure that conditioned the crow to repeat the behaviour. And my conditioned curiosity hence compelled me to watch intently and smile. If there is no ‘real’ separate crow, or separate anything, what is ‘conditioning’ really about? What is curiosity really about — mine, the crow’s, the little boy’s? What is evolution really about? Are all our answers to all these questions just more stories to try to make sense of what is apparently happening?

Now, as the story of me and the story of the crow have apparently diverged, and as I resume my walk around the lake, I wonder: What is left? If there is nothing separate, no ‘one’ deciding anything, just nothing appearing as everything and as everything apparently happening, just an infinite field of possibilities, for no reason or purpose — then what?

My tentative acceptance of this apparent purposeless and meaninglessness of everything, contrary to the fears of many (especially compatibilist) philosophers, does not reduce (the apparent) me to a state of dark nihilism. Quite the opposite, in fact — It seemingly frees me of the responsibility of and for my ‘self’ and my ‘story’, and of having to ‘do’ anything other than what my conditioning apparently drives me to do anyway. It frees (the apparent) me to just be — to simply witness this astonishing appearance, this incredible conjuring trick of everything out of nothing. That, perhaps, is as close an answer as could ever be found to the question I asked at the start of this post, before scurrying down an endless rabbit hole: What does it mean to say that nothing is separate?

At the far side of the lake, there is a bandshell for musical and theatre performances al fresco. I sit on one of the benches and stare out at the lake.

A man walks by with two cell phones, one held to each ear, as he turns his head to speak to one and then the other, making facial expressions that are presumably appropriate to each conversation.

Three teenaged girls pass by going the opposite way around the lake, laughing, one of them showing off some dance moves on the bandshell stage. The three are apparently laughing and poking fun at some guy named Chad (or perhaps Chad is a generic name for a male ‘type’ they are poking fun at — are ‘Chads’ still a thing?).

Two old men, one with a fishing rod, are standing near me, speaking in a language I do not know. But they are clearly grumbling, commiserating, gesticulating with their free hands, perhaps about the sorry state of the world, or at least their part of it.

A little girl marches by, her parents walking behind her. She is apparently twirling an imagined baton, as the parade leader.

A small dog with its leash in its mouth runs around the bandshell. Perhaps it is looking for the person who belongs on the other end of the leash, or perhaps it is just taking itself for a walk.

I look up, and the pigeons are soaring overhead, in aerial ballet. No one else appears to notice them, so perhaps they don’t really exist.

A million stories, playing themselves out.

What would we be without our stories?

Posted in Creative Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Month-End Reflections | 7 Comments