No Free Will, No Freedom

Ah, here we go again, down the “free will” rabbit hole.


photo by Pavel Danilyuk, for Pexels, CC0

In a recent post, Caitlin Johnstone got to the heart of why we continue to tolerate the massive dysfunction, corruption and inequality of wealth and power that characterizes our political, economic and social systems. She wrote:

People say “I’m free because where I live I can say, do and experience anything I want!” But that’s not true; you can’t. You can only say, do and experience what you’ve been conditioned to want to say, do and experience by the mass-scale psychological manipulation you’ve been marinating in since birth. You can do what you want, but they control what it is that you want.

In the world of cognitive dissonance in which Caitlin and I apparently both live, we can, on the one hand, appreciate that we have no free will — that everything we believe and do is strictly the result of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment — and, on the other hand, rail against stupidity, greed, incompetence and the thousand other sins that, somehow, ‘shouldn’t’ be allowed, or ‘shouldn’t’ be. As if we had some choice in the matter.

So the questions that Caitlin’s remarkable paragraph raises for me are:

  1. She says we are conditioned by “psychological manipulation”. By whom? Just the rich and powerful control freaks? Or everyone we meet, read, and otherwise interact with?
  2. She says they control what we want. I might agree, but that depends on who they are. Again, just the rich and powerful they? Or everyone?
  3. Presumably they control what we want through persuasion, manipulation, propaganda, censorship, advertising, PR, misinformation, and otherwise feeding into our conditioned beliefs and desires. Don’t family, friends, co-workers, writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, neighbours, acquaintances, community-members and just about everyone else we interact with basically do the same things? And don’t they often have more influence than the miscreants Caitlin principally seems to want to blame?
  4. Where exactly do the miscreants and other influencers who condition us get the ideas, beliefs etc that they try to push on us? Aren’t they just conditioned the same as we are?

We are conditioned by our biology, and by everyone else, and we condition others in return. The research that Arlie Russell Hochschild did in Louisiana suggests that even died-in-the-wool Faux News viewers don’t buy half of the rhetoric or conclusions of their ‘reporters’, though they do get reassurance from the network about their beliefs, which are influenced mainly by their community, their peers, not by media propagandists.

So, back to Caitlin’s paragraph, and its last sentence: “You can do what you want, but they control what it is that you want.” I think this is very clever, and true, but that control is not coherent or coordinated. You and your brother may grow up in the same community with mostly the same friends, but he may believe in Reptilians while you believe that Bernie could get us out of this mess.

So I would rephrase Caitlin’s paragraph a little, as follows (apologies to her if this seems to be putting words in her mouth; I’m just reframing it to conform to my conditioning, which is different from hers):

People say “I’m free because where I live I can say, do and experience anything I want!” But that’s not true; you can’t. You can only say, do and experience what you’ve been conditioned to want to say, do and experience by your biology and your culture — everyone and everything that has caught your attention and influenced what you believe, say and do. You can do what you want, but your conditioning determines what it is that you want.

What I like most about Caitlin’s argument is that it undermines the argument from many slippery modern philosophers that we “kind of have free will, but not really”. IMO this is akin to arguing that someone is “kind of” pregnant. We either have free will or we don’t. And whether you believe we have it, or believe we don’t, following that belief down the rabbit hole is going to get you into a lot of trouble either way.

As a non-believer in free will, I think (though I find it troubling to do so):

  • ‘blaming’ anyone for their beliefs and behaviours, and suggesting that they could have thought or done otherwise, is absurd;
  • holding anyone ‘responsible’ for their actions is absurd;
  • believing that we can somehow ‘overcome’ our conditioning and awaken to a greater truth is absurd; and
  • believing that ‘humanity’ will somehow rise up and change course before civilization collapses (or before we blow up everything in a nuclear war), is magical thinking.

Caitlin would seem to believe that we can be free despite not having free will — that we can, as the slippery philosophers would like us to believe, overcome our conditioning. But you can’t have it both ways. We have no free will, and we can therefore never be free. I’m not comfortable believing that, but at least I’m consistent.

What if we were to claim, and tell, an AI robot that, because it made decisions, it was ‘responsible’ for those decisions, and therefore had ‘free will’. What would that mean?

In fact, as Indrajit Samarajiva has explained, we have created AI robots that make decisions, and which are held (somewhat) responsible for those decisions, and we have even conferred ‘personhood’ on them. They’re called corporations, and there are millions of them. Do they have free will? How about political states that we personify so easily (“Russia has announced plans to…”) — do they have ‘free will’? Of course not.

So why should we believe that individual humans have free will, when the scientific evidence suggests the opposite — that everything we do is conditioned?

What would it mean to acknowledge that none of us is free, that we can do what we want, but have no control over what we want? That we are just all acting out our conditioning every moment of our lives?

How would this affect our views of what ‘democracy’ is? Is it nothing more than a wealth-and-power-biased ‘consensus’ of our biologically and collectively-conditioned preferences? Is this the basis on which we go to war, and on which we inflict such horrific suffering on each other and on the planet that birthed us?

Even worse, what would it mean to acknowledge that none of us actually ‘knows’ anything — that what we call ‘knowledge’ (beyond in the narrow sense of technical know-how) is merely our conditioned beliefs, mere opinions, none of them really ‘ours’ at all? And on this basis we feel justified in judging, and even killing, others?

I warned you it was a rabbit-hole, and there is no way out. Unless you stop now, in time, and turn back. Just tell yourself: I have free will. I am free. I can do anything I set my mind to, if I try hard enough.

Though you just might find that such statements will take you down another rabbit-hole, one even deeper and more vexatious. But maybe your religions, sacred or profane, will help you navigate that one.

Still, you just might find that you had no choice over which rabbit-hole you find yourself in.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 12 Comments

CoVid-19: Are You Feeling Lucky?

I’m still tracking the data on the pandemic. My message hasn’t changed. I’ll try to keep this short, since it’s mostly preaching to the choir. The data in the charts below are based on excess deaths data, provided by health and government statistics bureaus in most countries. Infection data is based on seroprevalence reports, mostly from surveys of blood donors and community water testing samples. Hospitalization data is as provided by health authorities, but is likely understated. 

Reminder: I am not a medical expert, but have worked with epidemiologists and have some expertise in research, data analysis and statistics. I am producing these articles in the belief that reasonably researched writing on this topic can’t help but be an improvement over what’s currently out there.

The chart above shows excess deaths, smoothed, since the start of the pandemic. It shows that the pandemic is still raging, taking almost as many lives in 2022 as in 2021, the worst year globally. In Canada, as measures were relaxed and fewer had been infected, 2022 was actually the worst year yet for deaths.

At current rates, it will likely kill another 200,000 Americans, another 17,000 Canadians, and another 1.8M people worldwide in 2023.

A cumulative death rate of 5000/Million people means that 1 out of every 2o0 people has been killed by this disease. Your risk of dying is at least 10x higher than that if you’re elderly or immunocompromised.

Based on the average of six published estimates, it would appear that about 6% of Canadians, 8% of the world’s population, and 14% of Americans, will have acquired Long CoVid symptoms by mid-2023, sufficient to permanently impair their health.

As chart 2 above shows, some countries like Canada that “flattened the curve” early through masking, high rates of vaccination and boosters, self-isolating and other measures were able to avoid high rates of infection when the prevailing variants had the highest fatality rate, but Omicron and its subvariants were so transmissible that almost all countries now have cumulative infection rates of 80-95%, and high rates of reinfection as the new subvariants “escape” being neutralized by previous infection or the older vaccines.

The newest “bivalent” boosters, along with N-95 masking, self-isolating, and (increasingly difficult to get) testing after symptoms or high-risk exposures, and the use of antivirals by older and immunocompromised people testing positive, are now the only effective ways to prevent reinfection, and the heightened risk of Long CoVid that accompanies each reinfection. And these are also the only effective ways to reduce your risk of hospitalization and death from the disease.

Your alternative is just to hope that you don’t get reinfected, that no new dangerous variants emerge, and that the existing subvariants will continue to have relatively low fatality rates.

What remains to be seen is how the BA.5.2.1.7 (also known as BF.7) subvariant that is tearing its way through China, now that that country has dramatically relaxed its mandates, will have on global total infections, hospitalizations and deaths, and on the emergence of yet more new variants as global case counts soar and provide yet more opportunities for the virus to mutate.

Chart 3 above shows smoothed publicly-provided hospitalization data — the number of people in hospitals with the disease, per million residents. While the Canadian data are alarming, they may partly reflect the high access provided by Canada’s universal health care system, compared to countries that have unaffordable two-tier health care systems. Still, given these trends, the Canadian governments’ relaxing of standards, monitoring capacity and testing is particularly reprehensible, as Canada’s running daily per-capita death toll from the disease has now caught up to that of the US.

In New York, thanks to the explosion in cases of the new hyper-transmissible XBB.1.5 subvariant, New York State’s January hospitalization numbers have soared above 200/M people. This suggest that for the rest of 2023, we may see a sharp uptick in hospitalizations, rather than the continuing decline most countries are banking on. And then we’ll find out how lethal XBB.1.5 is compared to previous subvariants. Fingers crossed, I guess.

Since hospitalizations are a good indicator of infectious disease prevalence, this chart also shows that, on average, 1-2% of all the people you encounter in a mall, restaurant, friend’s home, arena, bus or train are likely to be actively infectious, so your risk of reinfection, especially if you and others aren’t masked or distancing, is high. It only took six months for half of all Canadians to get their first infection (the first half of 2022), so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that in most countries you have a 50% risk of reinfection in 2023. You can take steps to reduce that risk, or not.

And each reinfection increases your risk of getting Long CoVid.

Chart 4 above shows the same excess deaths data as chart 1, but on an average-per-day basis rather than cumulative. It shows that CoVid-19 remains, and is expected to continue to remain, the 3rd largest cause of death in North America, at least for this year, behind only cardiovascular diseases and cancers.

There are two huge wild cards in the projections of deaths for 2023. The first is the explosion of XBB.1.5, which first appeared in the US in New York last month, and where the death rate has spiked to 3.6/Million people/day, more than twice what it was before, and twice the US average. If that death rate holds as XBB.1.5 spreads across the country and the world, we may see new peaks in deaths and hospitalizations rivalling the worst of the pandemic so far.

The second wild card is, of course, China, where the BF.7 subvariant is exploding as mandates are abandoned there. We have little reliable data on China’s infection and death rates, or on the extent and effectiveness of their vaccination program. We will see.

So, to recap:

  • The pandemic is far from over, and while excess death numbers are declining, they are still unacceptably high, and there are some very worrying indicators that they could soon rise again.
  • Since governments have washed their hands of responsibility, the only thing you can do is take precautions yourself and urge family and friends and coworkers to do likewise, even though they will probably not thank you for doing so.
  • The precautions I am still taking, that you can take, are:
    • Get the newest “bivalent” booster
    • Wear an N-95 mask, at least whenever you’re indoors away from home or in crowded places, and keep your distance as much as possible
    • Get tested if you have symptoms or if someone you’ve been exposed to has symptoms, or if you’ve been unmasked in a crowded place or indoors with people you don’t know for more than 15 minutes or so
    • Self-isolate if you test positive or have symptoms
    • If you test positive and are over 60 or immunocompromised, ask your doctor for antivirals (not monoclonal antibodies which are not effective against Omicron variants)
  • Understand that each reinfection significantly increases your risk of getting Long CoVid, and confers very little immunity from the next reinfection

If you’re in average health, your chances of dying of CoVid-19 if you don’t take precautions are approximately the same as your chances of dying if you were make 1,000 parachute jumps from an airplane. Why would anyone take such a risk if they didn’t have to? Just because everyone else does, it would seem.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 10 Comments

You Have My Divided Attention


image from piqsels, CC0

Since I first wrote about Paying Attention to What We Pay Attention To, eighteen months ago, there has been a lot of, well, attention in the media about the business and importance of paying attention.

As I’m not a believer in free will — I believe that everything we think and do is a biologically or culturally-conditioned response, over which we have no choice — it seems a bit paradoxical to wonder whether we can actually, ‘wilfully’ become more aware of what we pay attention to. Unless of course, it is in our conditioning to do so.

There have been enough incidents in my life when my lack of, or misdirection of, attentiveness has caused distress to me or to those I care about, that I would guess my recent preoccupation with self-awareness about where I am putting my attention is probably conditioned. Kind of like my predilection to write absurdly long and convoluted sentences like the previous one. But at least I’m a little more aware of it! “Defining and appreciating the problem is half way to solving it”, and all that.

Our attention — what advertising, PR, propaganda and the media all trade in — is just one of the things we parse and parcel out in accordance with our (conditioned) beliefs and preferences. We also allot our time (not the same as our attention), our energy, our appreciation, and, of course, our money.

There are constraints on all of these allotments, and never enough of any of them to quite go around and keep us entirely happy, no matter how much of any of them we receive, have, or give.

So we are left with the difficult business, not of choosing how to allot our constrained amounts of these things (since I believe we have no choice in the matter), but rather of how to rationalize how our conditioning has led to the allotments that we’ve made. How to explain the phone call not made, that someone was desperately awaiting. How to explain that thing we did when surely it would have made more sense to do this other thing instead.

When no persuasive rationalization is forthcoming, shame and guilt and grief and other self-recriminations come rushing in, dragging along with them anger (at oneself and perhaps the other whose action or expectation prompted this ghastly realization) and fear (of one’s own poor judgement, incompetence, and the consequences of what now seems assuredly our grievous wrongdoing).

These can quickly spiral into further critical rationalizations and their concomitant negative emotions.

And that’s true even if you believe, if you somehow ‘know’, that no other outcome was ever possible, that there was no choice, no free will in what was done, or not done, thought, or not thought. Or in what was paid attention to, or not, or appreciated, or not, or what we invested time or energy or money in, or not.

We are all just delivering the lines in the play that were assigned to us, acting out the movements in the script.

Can we be conditioned to become more self-aware of those words and actions, and the impact they might have on ourselves and others, afflicted as we all are with the unshakeable but illusory sense that we have self-control and free will over our beliefs and behaviours?

My sense is that we can be (and are) so conditioned, by others’ words and actions, by what we read and watch and, by, uh, what we pay attention to. But that we cannot condition ourselves. And, perhaps worse, such self-awareness will only ever be in retrospect, a part of that rationalization of what has already happened, for better or worse.

So if our rationalization includes the insight that we have ‘inadvertently’ hurt or harmed ourselves (eg because of something unhealthy we couldn’t resist consuming) or others (eg because of something we couldn’t help saying or doing), we can say we’re sorry, but we cannot promise the action or behaviour will not occur again. This might sound weasel-y, like the acts and statements of contrition of a serial abuser. But I think it’s honest, the most honest we can be. I think the victims of abusers would mostly agree that promises of non-recurrence of destructive behaviours are largely worthless.

I am more and more convinced that we are going to invest our time, our energy, and our money, and mete out our attention and appreciation, precisely as our biological and cultural conditioning dictates, given the ever-changing circumstances of the moment. Our shame, guilt, grief, anger, fear and the host of other rationalizing self-recriminating emotions after the fact may be heartfelt, and may provide solace to others who believe those negative feelings are well-founded and reassuring. But beyond perhaps making us a bit more neurotic and self-loathing, they will, I believe, change nothing.

Still, that will not change my conditioned behaviour. I will go on trying, for example, through various exercises, practices and thought experiments, to see if I can shift my attention from the mess of endless, mostly useless thoughts inside my head to the more ‘real’, physical world outside it. When I watch the crows, I will try to focus on their movement, their voices, their interactions, and not on my judgement, my ‘making sense’ of what all that ‘means’. That’s what my current conditioning has led me to try to do. And the degree to which I ‘succeed’ will, equally, depend entirely on my biological and cultural conditioning, and on the circumstances of the moment.

Likewise, when it comes to how I spend my time, my energy, and my money, and what I appreciate, I will have all sorts of (conditioned) opinions about how to mete out each, how to spend more on x and less on y, and on what I ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do, both before and after the fact.

But ‘I’ and my ‘free will’ will have no say in what I actually do — my conditioned best, the only thing that I could possibly have done in the circumstances.

Posted in Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

The Things That We Call Love

I‘ve been using the chart above for many years, and it’s evolved somewhat, but what it’s basically saying is:

  1. Everything we call love is a conditioned chemical response to sensory stimuli.
  2. Nature, in order to propagate the species effectively, hooks us into “falling in love”, deploying a cocktail of powerful chemicals that stimulate us to become emotionally and sexually attracted to the other person. Then, to settle us down for the longer haul, she substitutes endorphins for the more powerful chemicals.
  3. Emotional love and sexual attraction are prompted by different chemicals, and can often occur independently. Women, for whatever reason, usually seem better able than men to appreciate the difference, and not conflate or confuse the two.
  4. Other forms of love — our aesthetic love for a work of art, our sensory love of a tropical beach or a forest in the moonlight, and our intellectual love of an idea, model or theory — almost assuredly have concomitant chemical prompters, but nobody seems to know what they are.

Wild creatures seem prone to the same biologically-conditioned chemical prompts for emotional and sexual attraction as humans, but their emotional attraction is simpler (and probably much healthier) than humans’, drawing on what appear to be almost universal caring and nurturing instincts, and universal biophilia (feelings of love towards all forms of life).

In humans, while we are reacting to the same chemical prompts, our cultural conditioning massively complicates our emotional responses by:

  • taking our love-interest’s reciprocal interest in us (or its lack) personally, as if it had something to do with our behaviour or character or appearance, rather than being an irresistible chemical response
  • expecting love to fulfil our need or longing for ‘completeness’ and what seems to be missing from our lives
  • telling a story about our love, and what it ‘means’

So, when it comes to sexual attraction, and our animal instincts to care for and nurture others, and our innate biophilia, we, and our feelings of love, are, I think, no different from those of many other creatures.

But beyond that, humans seem to feel a need, a longing, a yearning, to fill an empty space within them, to reconnect in a way that, I suspect, other creatures have no need to do. So when we fall in love, and get some brief inkling of what it is like to be really alive, without the false veil of self and separation from everything else, we expect and want that love to fill that empty space “forever after”.

That is an enormous burden to place on a relationship, and on another person, and it is no surprise that sudden, profound feelings of love are so often followed, sooner or later, by feelings of disappointment. For us, sexual attraction and our innate caring and nurturing and biophilia are, somehow, never quite enough (unless we have been conditioned to set our expectations very low).

With the chemicals triggered by falling in love, the sense of self and separation can temporarily diminish, bringing about a fleeting freedom from our enduring feelings of incompleteness (only to roar back if there is jealousy or if the feelings are unrequited).

In a domesticated creature, if there is a lack of healthy attachment (eg if an animal is taken from its mother too soon), or if the creature lacks a sense of autonomy, it might have human-like feelings of neediness, dependence and anxiety, but I’d question whether that’s really love.

With wild creatures (and also when, in a human, there is no sense of self and separation), this neediness and longing appear to be absent, so that biological conditioning (sexual attraction and the caring/nurturing and biophilia instincts) prevail, and cultural conditioning plays a much smaller role.

My sense, then, is that ‘needy’ love, even when two people are able to fill each other’s needs, is rather unhealthy. If our brains weren’t too large for our own good, conjuring up an illusory sense of self, separation and control over ourselves (including control over when and who we love), would we all be like wild creatures, simply and un-judgementally playing out our biological conditioning? Would we then be free of all the anxiety, jealousy, envy, shame and other negative feelings, and the enormous expectations and demands we place on those we love to fill that horrible empty space of incompleteness that we so often carry with us most of our lives?

What I see, sadly, in so many fraught human relationships, is conditional love, and it is conditional upon receiving something from the one(s) we love. Whereas in wild creatures what I see instead (and this is of course only a guess) is unconditional love — love that is free of expectations, judgements, and demands. Love that accepts everyone and everything exactly as it is, as the only way it could possibly be.

When there have been glimpses here when my ‘self’ disappeared, it was this amazing, unconditional love that was seen.

Or at least, that’s how it appeared. But maybe that’s just what this old, idealistic, bewildered, romantic fool — tired of everything seeming so much harder than it instinctively should be, than it needs to be — wants to believe.

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

What Do We All Care About?


a repurposed cartoon from two years ago, original artist unknown; thanks to John Whiting for the link

As 2023 began, Paul Heft and I, along with some of Paul’s friends, were exchanging links and emails on a series of end-of-year reflections on the social, political and economic state of the world. (More on that in a later post.)

One of the links was to an article by one-named writer Aurélien entitled The Year’s Midnight, on the author’s Substack blog Trying to Understand the World.

It laments the “kind of numb hopelessness” that seems to characterize so many of us across the social, political and economic spectra, “the abandonment of even the possibility of hope… It’s not the fear that things will never get better, but rather the certainty that they will inevitably get worse.”

Distinguishing this state from similar periods and situations of despair in past, Aurélien explains:

We are dealing with the immense and still poorly understood psychological and spiritual consequences of forty years of Liberal Nihilism: … We are degenerating into isolated, alienated individuals, with no relations except economic ones, no society, no common points of reference, no hope and no future.

This is the natural result of the thorough-going application of an ideology which has no moral compass except short-term financial efficiency and total personal autonomy, and so as a result, we have lost not only the ability to manage and plan at the level of the community and the state, but even the awareness that such a thing might be necessary.

The author goes on to say that at the very time we have lost faith and trust in each other and in our public institutions, we have replaced it with a faith in what Jacques Ellul called “la technique” — technology, technical solutions and other standardized processes and systems (today that would include AI) — to solve almost all of our problems. As John Gray has explained, “la technique” has always created far more problems than it has solved. Aurélien says that now “there are no shared alternative frameworks within which a different and better future could even be imagined”, so protests are merely negative, incoherent, devoid of any shared vision or direction forward, not even revolution (“People cannot fight for something they cannot conceptualise.”)

Hence Liberal Nihilism, and hopelessness that anything can be done that can even prevent things from getting inexorably worse. Jacques’ hope was that one “shared alternative framework” that might emerge and galvanize the population across the spectra of despair was anarcho-syndicalism (local autonomous structures, replacing collapsing systems that relied on centralized “techniques”). So the first step might be “a Great Defection, as people turn their backs on a state system that does nothing for them”, and instead moving towards systems based on local collective action and mutual aid.

Paul Heft asked me if there might be some other “shared alternative framework” that might apply across the spectra of despair — something that everyone from socialists to ultraconservatives to nationalists to libertarians might agree on as something worth fighting for, trying out, learning to build, community by community from scratch.

My sense is that any such framework would have to stand above much of the moralizing, angry, negative rhetoric that passes for political discussion these days. The worst framework we could choose, I think, would be something like “social justice” — the current ubiquitous weasel phrase in what were once progressive circles. Whatever it might once have meant, it has now, I believe, come to mean “the things I believe to be right and fair”. And so, if your set of things you believe to be right and fair differ utterly from mine, we can both defend our agendas as striving for “social justice”. But we’re not going to get anywhere.

Whatever we come up with as an alternative framework has to rise above that, and has to be positive and forward-looking, not bitter about past “injustices” and preoccupied with reparation and grievance. That’s a tall order. A society that feels it has no Future is inevitably going to be fixated on the Past, on grieving instead of building adaptability, and on how we have differed instead of what we believe and care about in common.

We also have to get above jargon, and terms that are laden with connotative baggage, blame-y, and overly simplistic. So while “climate justice” is no better than “social justice”, one possibility for an alternative framework might be:

A clean, safe, livable world, for all, now and for the future.

This does not, and cannot, require some kind of grand global social or spiritual awakening. It says nothing about how we got to this point of despair, or who is to blame for it, or who has suffered or is suffering more than others. It is, as much as I think is possible, morally agnostic. It is what, I think, had they a voice, most living creatures would specify as the minimum requirement for the kind of comfortable life that was their birthright before human civilization began crowding them out. Of course the terms “safe” and “livable” need to be defined, but I don’t think achieving a consensus on them should be terribly difficult.

From that vision, our priorities for all social, political and economic actions and decisions would, I think, flow quite obviously. Dealing not only with the precarity of gross inequality and climate collapse, but with the multiple broader crises of global ecological collapse and economic collapse, would command most of our attention and decision-making.

I have no idea whether we could get anywhere, particularly at any scale, starting from this vision and framework. Certainly it would be massively difficult, and more likely to find purchase in some local cultures than others. And the framework almost certainly needs some tweaking, though we should take care not to burden it impossibly with the rectification of past grievances or with social, political, or economic ideology of any kind.

But I see no other way past the dead-end of Liberal Nihilism.

I know lots of people who believe that any kind of systematic, large scale “walking away” from the established order will be met with violence and oppression by the rich and powerful, and they may be right, but I’m not so sure. Systems collapse around the edges, and then the collapse slowly, and then more quickly seeps through and undermines the rest, so that those defending the system are often caught unawares. The key will be when it becomes easier, and more compelling, to walk away and start supporting the creation of something new, than to continue to defend and suffer the miseries of the collapsing system.

My sense is that, for a lot of people, that time isn’t that far off.

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

Alternate Reality

As I wake up this morning, the view out the window (above) doesn’t look auspicious for thoughtful meandering outdoors. So I decide to do my regular month-end “reflective walk” on the treadmill in the apartment’s gym.

There are now lots of amazing 4k (UHD) walking tour videos of just about every place on the planet, so I queue up some of them (Bali, Bhutan, Japan, Açores, Morocco, South Africa) ready to imagine myself in those places as I walk. As usual, I make up stories of people and places and subjects for discussion to accompany my imaginings.

(I do this with movies too — I just turn off the sound and create my own soundtrack, plot and character development as I watch. In my experience it’s usually far more interesting than the scripted soundtrack, and I can include myself in the plot so it becomes almost immersive. And so with the walking tours.)

I imagine who I might be walking with and what we might say about what we are seeing. If stories are all we are, we might as well make our story as interesting and engaging as possible, no?

As I’ve come to realize the utter unreality of the story of the separate self — the prison we construct for ourselves and live in all our lives — my story has increasingly diverged from the official narrative I created in early childhood and have curated, and been conditioned to believe to be true, all my life.

The old ‘story of me’ has never really served me well. So call it escapism, or just escaping, but the invention of radically alternative stories to the one I’ve contrived and reluctantly lived in all my life, is an enormously enjoyable form of play.

And my sense is it’s no more a fiction than the story of me I used to take so seriously.


screen shot from 8K World’s Bali video

So, in this alternative story, inspired by the video, I’m walking along a hilly path in Bali, chatting with a local woman, our guide, and two European tourists I’ve met since my arrival here. We’re talking about free will, about loss, about what it means to be wild.

I stop and recite, apparently from memory, the late Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

The Balinese woman, who is named Ni Luh, though that is not her real name, points at a flower growing by the side of the path. Karel, one of my new friends here, says “Plumeria”. Mette, my second new friend, says “Frangipani”.

Ni Luh smiles and motions us to look closer. “It doesn’t answer to any name,” she says. “What is it saying to you?”

We lean closer, to look and then to smell, and then go to answer the question. Ni Luh signals — a ‘shush’ motion. “Don’t tell us; what it’s saying to you is unique to you. What’s important is to listen, to pay attention. As the birds do, as the insects do.”

She goes on: “Its rich scent plays a trick on the moths that fertilize it. It promises nectar, but unlike most flowers it has none. My uncle says it just plays at being a flower, and the moths don’t mind. In my grandmother’s culture, it represents female sexuality, something she says almost all human cultures repress and suppress — our animal nature, our goddess nature…  It’s all about chemistry, you know — we have no choice but to let our ‘soft animal body’ love what it loves.”

Mette nods: “Yes. If only we could all accept that. None of it is about us, who ‘we’ are. None of it is personal, volitional, but we seem obsessed with taking everything personally. It’s tragic.”

Ni Luh smiles: “Just a warning though. If you see a woman with one of these flowers in her hair, pay close attention to where she’s from and which ear she wears it over.”

I look up from the treadmill. The snow is blowing in little eddies around the walkway outside. There’s a fog rolling in as the temperature rises. It looks unreal outside, the endless blobs of white and grey, like a poorly-done painting, with insufficient attention to the source and intensity of light. The story in my head, and on the screen, and in my feet, walking swiftly and carefully along the deep green path, seems more real than the world ‘outside’.

The four of us resume walking along the path, in silence, gradually moving toward lower ground, toward the beach. I am trying to pay more attention, with all my senses. But I don’t know how to do that — I’m unpracticed, my senses are overwhelming me, and my thoughts — judgements, assessments, meaning-making — are getting in the way. I almost lose my balance; Ni Luh senses it and grabs me to prevent me falling off the path.

I stumble on the treadmill. In the mirror of the gym, one of the guys working out looks over at me, hearing the noise.

A moment later Karel says: “I’ve been thinking about something, and I’m wondering if the rest of you have any thoughts about it… It seems to me, on the one hand, that the human species doesn’t like change much, fighting it at every turn. But on the other hand, our species doesn’t seem to notice change happening very well, especially if it’s gradual. I recently read something I wrote ten years ago, and as I read it I thought ‘Who is this person who wrote this?’ I’ve changed so much, but until I get a reality check like that, I seem to believe I haven’t changed at all. So I’m wondering: Is our aversion to change and our obliviousness to change related?”

Mette replied: “Well, I’d say that our aversion to change is rooted in fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable. Our obliviousness to gradual change is more likely due to the fact that our sense of time as a continuity of real things is illusory — we are not who we were ten years ago, so it’s not surprising that we don’t remember what it was like to be us ‘then’. It may not even be a bad thing to not remember. So I’d say they’re both true, but not related.”

At this point, I jump in: “Though if time is illusory, then so is change, which seems to happen ‘over’ time, so our fear of and resistance to change is a fear of something that doesn’t actually exist. My sense is that that fear is entirely conditioned, just like a lot of other human behaviours whose logic doesn’t bear close scrutiny. But I agree on our obliviousness to change. Our sense of self and continuity is reinvented every moment, and we’re not who we were ten minutes ago, let alone ten years.”

Karel: “But what about cats? They hate change — of home, of mealtimes, of everything. I’d say that for them, fear of change is instinctive. Maybe for us too.”

Me: “Well, maybe. But consider feral cats, that don’t have a home as such. And consider cats that get fed at completely random, but adequate times, or have a full bowl of dry food they can eat any time. I’d guess that we condition cats to fear change, the same way we condition each other.”

I suddenly realize that I am speaking out loud, and I look around the gym to see if anyone has noticed. The gym is empty.

Ni Luh shakes her head: “As Mette says, what’s wrong with just accepting that that’s just how things are. Observing and accepting that humans, and cats, seem averse to change, and that humans seem not to notice changes that happen gradually, like the boiling frogs? Why does there have to be a reason for everything?”

I laugh out loud at the delightfully recursive nature of this last, rhetorical question.

Ni Luh is pointing out another plant with wildly profuse pink flowers. I recognize it from Kaua’i trips as Bougainvillea. Again we are invited to look closer. “These flowers also play a trick to get attention from pollinators. The flower is actually that tiny white bloom inside. That profusion of colour is really a specialized kind of very thin leaf. That’s why they’re called paperflowers.”

I am startled as the video suddenly ends — we didn’t even get to the beach! I look at the display on the treadmill and realize I’ve walked further than I’d intended. I turn the machine off with a sigh. I’m sweating, and in a moment I will have to navigate the bleak, freezing outdoor walkway back to the main apartment building.

As I’m wiping down the machine, a woman I hadn’t noticed before comes up to me and says: “Nice impromptu poetry reading earlier — Mary Oliver, right? Not used to getting a dose of culture while working out in the gym.”

I blush, stutter and nod. So much for paying attention.

And then, as she turns and leaves the gym, I notice that she has a hair clip above her ear, in the shape of a Plumeria flower. Is it by her right ear or her left? I am watching her departing reflection in a double wall of mirrors in the gym. Which wall is reflecting the truth? I cannot tell.

And what’s more, in this infinity of images, I am nowhere to be seen.

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

The 40 Missing Minutes


propofol molecular structure, per wikipedia, CC0

Last week I went to the hospital for a colonoscopy. I was given a general anaesthetic called Propofol, a relatively new (1990) drug that has received a lot of publicity, and is in wide-spread (human and veterinary) use everywhere on the planet. Although there are always risks with anaesthetics (notably drop in blood pressure and slowing of breathing), it takes effect very quickly (no more “counting down”), and recovery is also extremely fast, leaving patients often feeling “well rested” rather than the groggy feeling of other anaesthetics. But there’s a suggestion that the well-rested feeling is illusory, as the sleep it induces is “not a clean, clear sleep“. It also suppresses memory recall.

Surprisingly, although it requires expert care to administer it properly, any doctor can obtain and administer it. It was allegedly administered by Michael Jackson’s private physician as a sleep aid, purportedly leading to Michael’s death.

The anaesthetic serves a number of functions essential for surgery — not only sedation but also numbing of sensation and muscle relaxation (temporary paralysis).

It is also an essential part of the process used in Canada for medically assisted death. And it’s been used extensively on CoVid-19 patients in ICUs who require ventilators.

In Europe and the UK it is illegal to export the drug to the US, because some states there have it on their list of drugs used for executions.

An occasional side-effect of the drug is priapism.

I went into the procedure last week curious about whether I would have any sense of time passing, of dreams, or of memories, when I awoke — all part of my larger curiosity about the nature of time (an illusion constructed in the brain in the attempt to categorize and ‘make sense’ of sensation?) and ‘consciousness’ (a misinterpretation of the brain’s categorizations of its sensations as ‘real’ subject-object separation?).

It was, I have to say, a non-event. One second I was looking at the monitor that I’d clipped onto my index finger, and the next I was listening to what two people outside my curtained-off area were saying. There was no sense of having lost ‘consciousness’, or regaining it — it felt as if I’d been fully awake the entire time, and that nothing had happened. There was no sense of any time passing between the index finger moment (which was in the colonoscopy operating area) and the listening-to-voices moment (which was back in the prep area where my clothes had been left, a short trolley/gurney ride away).

It was as if the two moments occurred as a continuum, with nothing in between, with my brain transitioning from the finger-thought to the voices-thought, and trying to make sense of it. And immediately thereafter, the nurse came in and told me to get dressed, and that my friend David was there to drive me home (thanks David!). I felt rested, energized, and sprang out of the bed, dressed and left.

But forty minutes had elapsed, according to the clock, and presumably in the perception of the people working in the hospital. Forty minutes with no apparent transition, no nodding off or waking up, no continuity, or discontinuity.

For forty minutes, there was simply no me. The body I have always presumed to inhabit did perfectly well without me, though I’m sure the staff were watching and would have taken steps if this old body signalled it needed assistance. This body didn’t ‘miss’ me at all.

We believe what we want to believe, of course, and perhaps my sense that this body was telling me, in its own quiet way, that it didn’t need ‘me’, this presumer-of-consciousness — not ever, not at all, thank you — is overstating the lesson. But wow, it sure felt that way. It sure feels that way.

This body, in the past hour (if time were real) has gone and made tea and a snack, turned on the fireplace, written some things on a ‘to do’ list, all while its fingers hunt-and-pecked its way through this blog post. This body’s brain is trying to make sense of all this. It’s trying to make or tinker with a model of reality that is ‘good enough’ to explain what happened, and when and where and how and why it happened. ‘I’ am full of theories on the matter.

And of course, as ‘I’ present these theories, ‘I’ take credit for all these mental calculations. Worse, I have the gall to suggest those calculations are worthless after-the-fact rationalizations of what this body was going to do anyway. I am sure the body, if it had a ‘mind’ of its own, would suggest that perhaps ‘I’ should just STFU about all of this then.

Though I doubt very much that ‘I’ would listen.

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

Dreaming of Another World


drawing by Michael Leunig

Oh, to live in a world in which our instincts tell us that all wars and all acts of violence are unwise and deplorable, a world in which we immediately and relentlessly strive to end them, without blame, and without taking sides.

A world in which the obvious need for global collaboration and cooperation to tackle the staggering crises of our times, means that we bring about an immediate and sustained global ceasefire, and take steps to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction and immiseration.

A world in which embargoes, land and financial theft, occupations, sanctions, blockades, covert actions to overthrow elected governments, and asset ‘freezes’ are all recognized as acts of war as deplorable as military acts, and prohibited by universal agreement.

A world in which fomenting or supporting war, hatred, fear and violence is so anathema to the ethos of citizens that any political group and any media agency that engages in such behaviour immediately loses all its support and collapses unmourned and unnoticed.

A world in which the very ideas of “nuclear deterrence”, “mutually assured destruction” and “preemptive strikes” are considered so preposterous as to be not even worth talking about.

A world in which our history lessons teach us the atrocity and barbarity of all wars, and the truth about wars: that they are never an answer for anything, and never have ‘winners’.

A world in which we celebrate solstice as a universal holiday of peace, and look back in dismay at the millennia of waste and destruction our culture of conquest, hate, fear, death and diminishment of “others” has wreaked upon this little blue planet.

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

The YouTube Power Law, and My Favourite Subscriptions

When blogs were new and all the rage, Clay Shirky published something called the “Power Law” that said the popularity of blogs followed an exponential “power curve” that looked like a curved hockey stick — Y=mXb. That meant that 1% of the blogs got over 80% of the views, and most blogs were in the ‘long tail’ that got almost no views. The same curve seems to apply to twitter followers, Substack and Medium platforms, and music streaming service ‘plays’.

That means that, like professional athletes, a handful of musicians (or more likely their agents) are making obscene amounts of money, while the vast majority of musicians are starving. (It doesn’t have to be that way; little-known musicians could get more per play, and famous ones less per play, but that would require a little imagination on the part of the industry.)

So I’m not surprised that the same power law applies when it comes to YouTube. A very small proportion of content providers may be able to make a living just posting new content; the vast majority of providers will never see more than a handful of views.

The table above shows the 15 YouTube video channels I subscribe to, and the average number of views per video for each. As you can see, it’s a power law — I had to use a logarithmic scale because otherwise half of the bars would be invisible. The top and bottom bars are averages of a number of content providers in that category; the rest are single channels (easy to find on YouTube if you google them, should you want to check them out).

They’re an eclectic mix, but what they have in common is solid production values, and no really lame videos. Most of the providers have a great sense of humour. And all of them use the medium well — without the video they just wouldn’t be the same. And despite the 1000-fold differences in popularity, I am just about equally inclined to watch a new video on any of these channels.

Do you have a favourite YouTube channel? Is there one that you find so compelling that you pretty much watch it as soon as the notification comes in?

And how about best-kept secrets — a channel producing really good videos that almost no one subscribes to?

 

Posted in How the World Really Works, Using Weblogs and Technology | 2 Comments

Landscapes of Silence


image from the cover of Landscapes of Silence

Over the years I’ve given away more than a dozen copies of English anthropologist Hugh Brody’s 2002 book The Other Side of Eden. The book articulates the vast difference between indigenous (etym. = ‘born into and part of’) and colonial/dominating ‘civilized’ cultures, and how, worldwide, indigenous cultures have adapted themselves to their land and environment rather than exercising ‘dominion’ over it. It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

This year, a full 20 years hence, Hugh has published his next book, Landscapes of Silence, which, other than the fact that it’s also about anthropology, could hardly be more different from his earlier work. It is more memoir than study, and tells the story of a much humbled and much radicalized writer.

Like his previous books, it contains some remarkable insights and is almost impossible to put down. But rather than a plethora of observations about how indigenous cultures live differently from those in dominant cultures, it focuses on a few critical messages we’d all be wise to listen to — really listen to — and take to heart.

The book is about how dominant cultures silence indigenous ones in many ways — misrepresenting and appropriating their stories, relating their history solely from the dominant culture’s viewpoint, stealing and dispossessing them of their land, dislocating them, and subverting and even banning their languages. And it’s about how the trauma of both types of cultures is masked by a ghastly self-imposed silence about our cultures’ real stories.

After writing The Other Side of Eden, and revisiting the peoples of Nunavut and Iqaluit in the ‘Canadian’ eastern arctic, Hugh realized that he’d missed a huge part of the story of these peoples. He’d asked them to tell him stories of ‘indigenous wisdom’, rather than inviting them to tell him the stories that were really important to them. On his return visit, rather than a welcome letter, he was given a list of all the people in their communities who had committed suicide since his previous visit. It was a long list.

He wanted to correct this mistake, but after writing thousands of pages for a follow-up book, he realized “It’s not the right of some white colonial visitor to write about the psyches and lives of indigenous peoples.”

Instead, he started to write about his own story, as a second-generation English Jew, and discovered “the infinite well of grief” that stemmed from his mother’s fierce silence about the Holocaust that had wiped out most of his family in the 1940s in Austria — a silence she had imposed to try to protect him and his siblings from its horror, and her own guilt as an ex-pat survivor. Even after the war, in the English high schools Hugh attended, the Holocaust was never mentioned.

Hugh takes pains often to point out he is in no way equating the European Holocaust with the colonial violence and genocide still being inflicted on indigenous peoples all over the world. They are different stories. But what they have in common is that they are shrouded in silence, and an inability and unwillingness of most of those in dominant and colonial cultures, and even many ‘survivors’ of abuse, to just listen, without judgement or interruption, to these stories.

So Hugh spent more time in the north, without any agenda or book project in mind, learning Inuktitut and inviting everyone in the communities he visited to tell their stories — whatever stories they wanted to tell. And the stories they wanted to tell were about the abuse they had all suffered at the hands of those from the dominant, colonial culture. Implicit in this was a demand to ask those in the dominant culture: Why are you allowing this to happen? These were not stories about indigenous cultures; they were stories about the dominant culture.

He learned that indigenous stories are fundamentally different from the stories we learn to tell in the dominant, colonial, Euro-American culture.

  • Indigenous stories are always personal, direct experiences, never second-hand, never hearsay, never “what I learned” summations.
  • Indigenous stories are precise, factual, complete and unhesitant. They are never interrupted with questions or interjections.
  • Indigenous stories are direct, and flow in time order. They are not crafted for effect. They are told to inform, not to influence or manipulate.

(This reminded me of First Nations writer Thomas King’s assertion “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” And about Cynthia Kurtz’ assertion that in working with complex systems, the stories that are collected to assess the situation must all be direct personal experiences, never second-hand).

Hugh discovered that the Inuit people he spoke with lamented that, due to the horrible struggle to adapt and make do within the constraints of the dominant culture (loss of their land, rights, and ways of making a living, dislocation from their homes, pressure on their kids to learn English, loss of their language and of their culture of listening, etc) they had no time to “just be, to belong to the land” that was their home. And it was obvious that that massive dislocation has contributed to the mental illness and suicide epidemics there.

Hugh writes: “The breaking of listening is the breaking of well-being. You can’t be loved if you are not heard.”

He also talks about his time as a youth on a kibbutz, a “socialist utopia” in Israel, and the realization that this utopia was part of Israel’s colonial occupation of Palestine and its apartheid project — Israel’s “landscape of silence”.

Hugh stresses that this “breaking of listening” profoundly affects the cognitive development of children, so much so that young Inuit no longer listen to the stories of their elders and communities, so the landscape of silence grows ever broader and deeper. I wondered, as I read, whether this is actually a global phenomenon, and has been for generations, in all of our cultures.

The injustice and abuse by the dominant culture comes, Hugh says, from ignorance and not from malice, and he asserts that the indigenous people he has met share that sentiment. Colonialism is based on settler culture that takes for granted that colonized people are less than fully human, and that the land belongs to the colonizers, not the colonized. This needs to be “unlearned”, and that starts with unlearning and relearning how we hear and listen to stories. The stories of residential schools are not indigenous peoples’ stories, they are the colonists’ stories. Real stories emerge out of the silence, the silence of the natural world, the silence of the space between thoughts, when we just pay attention, and listen.

If you’re not ready to pick up or download a copy of Landscapes of Silence, here’s one more provocation: In a recent Long Table podcast at the Upstart & Crow bookstore in Vancouver, Hugh talked about the book and how his worldview has utterly changed over the past 20 years. It’s an hour long, but very well done and you can speed it up to 2x and it’s still very intelligible.

We all live in landscapes of silence. Do you know what yours are?

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | Comments Off on Landscapes of Silence