Do We Know Ourselves Only Through Our Relationships?

Aaron Williamson‘s Model of Identity and Community, 2013

Most of us define ourselves in terms of our relationships — who we work with, who we live with, and who we consider to be in our ‘circles’. When we write a bio, or when we chat with people, we relate, mostly, our interactions with other people and what they have led to.

Euan Semple’s latest post, describing the very different nature of blogging (small, relatively engaged and enduring networks) versus social network posting (huge, anonymous, unengaged and transient networks), ruminates about to what extent we write to be liked.

No matter what we may tell ourselves, and others, the truth is that attention and appreciation and reassurance are inevitably a part of what motivates us to write in public ‘spaces’. For the large majority of former bloggers — those who quit blogging over the past fifteen years — social media simply offered more and easier attention, appreciation and reassurance than blogs. I would be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes wax nostalgic for the early days when I was a “Canadian Top Ten” blogger with 2000+ readers a day. I quit using Twitter, and Facebook (except for occasional visits for a specific purpose) long ago, when I realized they were hazardous to my mental health.

There has recently been a small resurgence of blogs, mostly on platforms like Medium (eg Umair Haque), Substack (eg Caitlin Johnstone), and Ghost (eg Indrajit Samarajiva) that are essentially newsletter content creation tools, since most people rely on email notifications to read blog content, rather than going to a blog’s site or using an “aggregator”. I suspect that the 550 subscribers to my blog using the free newsletter subscription service, represent a significant proportion of my total readership. Medium and Substack “monetize” blogs by nagging you to pay money to subscribe to “their” blogs (they share some of that money with content providers) and may block you, like the MSM do, if you try to read too much without subscribing.

If you are not already a celebrity and believe that you can become even modestly rich, or an “influencer”, by blogging on one of these platforms, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.

If you’re not a member of the 1% of 1% that can earn real money on these platforms (anyone remember Clay Shirky’s Power Law of blogs?) the question remains then: Why do you write in a public ‘space’? Is it all about getting attention, appreciation and reassurance? Are you looking for ‘friends’ in all the wrong places?

Or are you seeking, as Euan suggests, to know yourself better through your relationships with others? And, he asks, Can we truly be ourselves if it becomes too important to us that we be liked, listened to, appreciated and reassured we are right?

These are brilliant and important questions, and we can only answer them for ourselves (and only then if we know ourselves well enough to be honest with ourselves).

So this is just my personal answer to these questions:

As I get older, I become less and less concerned with what I know, including what I know about myself. Instead, I’m seeking to be a little more self-aware of why I think what I think, believe what I believe, and do what I do. If you’ve read my other work, you probably know that I believe we do what we do purely out of conditioning, and then rationalize it as being ‘our’ choice afterwards. Some of that conditioning is genetic, visceral. Much of it is cultural, and this is where relationships come in. Who and what we pay attention to, I believe, determines the sources of that conditioning.

But of course, who and what we pay attention to depends (if you buy my ‘conditioning’ logic) on our previous conditioning. That’s why, as someone who has recently and uncomfortably given up believing in free will, I don’t think we have any choice whatsoever about our actions, or about the thinking and belief systems that rationalize (rather than determine) them.

The best we can hope for, I believe, is to be a little more self-aware of how we are being conditioned and hence what underlies our belief systems. The people who have most influenced me, throughout my life, have always challenged their own beliefs, and mine, in search (perhaps in vain) for what is really true. So I’ve been encouraged to challenge everything I believe. That is, I’ve been conditioned to be less concerned with being ‘liked’, appreciated and reassured than about knowing what’s actually true. And I’ve been conditioned to be open (even enthusiastic) to ideas and evidence that completely undermine what I had believed to be true. And I’ve been conditioned (more biologically and genetically than culturally) to trust my instincts, which have told me, all my life: Life shouldn’t have to be this hard. Look at how effortlessly and equanimously wild creatures live. We must have it all wrong.

I’ve been blogging for just about 20 years now, and over that time my beliefs about almost everything have radically changed. I’m much less sure about what I believe than I used to be. And my beliefs are now wildly different from those of most of the people in my ‘circles’ — notably on matters of veganism and eating well, on the inevitability of global collapse, on my belief that everyone is doing their best and no one is ‘to blame’, on free will and the nature of ‘reality’, and, most recently, on the causes and resolution of the Ukraine war.

And I don’t really care that those I have relationships with don’t agree with or even understand what I believe. I mean, it would be nice if everyone agreed with me about these things, but I appreciate that what they all believe is not in anyone’s control (including mine). I will not convince a single soul on any of these matters unless and until they are ready to hear the message. If I do manage to convince someone, then that would have happened anyway.

So, like Euan, I now write my blog basically to think things through for myself, to “see my reactions placed before me for inspection”. When someone agrees with me, it is reassuring, but at the same time a bit troubling: Have I oversold this argument? Am I really sure I believe it myself?

As I get older, there are fewer people in my circles than there used to be. That’s been a mutual decision, as I tend to not burn bridges, nor assert myself to keep a relationship going unilaterally. Perhaps that’s why I feel I ‘know myself’ less well than I did when I was younger and more sure of everything. I am content not knowing myself, and content believing tentatively that one cannot know oneself. I am even dubious that there is a real ‘oneself’ to know.

So why do I have relationships? Not to be liked, or appreciated, or reassured, or to know myself better. It’s simply for the pleasure of their company. Like when they share a novel insight, a new idea, an enjoyable story, a warm hug, or a visit to a beautiful place or interesting event. Enjoying another’s company is an animal thing for me, not a means for self-exploration. Increasingly, I prefer to not even talk much; when I find people whose company I enjoy, I’m content to listen, or even with silence.

So, I don’t know who I am, or even if I am. And therefore I depend not a whit on relationships to try to figure it out, or express it. When asked how I self-identify, in any context, I simply reply that I do not.

Have there been times when I have self-censored or misrepresented my beliefs (which some would simply call lying) in the company of others? Of course. We are conditioned to conform, suppress, compromise. Without that conditioning, our overcrowded, collapsing, overstressed world would be, I think, an unimaginably violent place, and collapse would have occurred long ago. We are not meant to live this way. 

But my concealing my feelings or beliefs is something I (at least now) do consciously, rather than because I want to be liked, or listened to, or appreciated, or reassured. The cognitive dissonance can be massive, but it’s bearable if you don’t take yourself too seriously! If I wanted to be popular, I certainly wouldn’t be writing about radical non-duality, collapse, our lack of free will, or the vulnerability of people across the political spectrum to propaganda, cognitive bias, simplistic thinking, and groupthink.

It is true that I don’t write much about the health benefits of a balanced, minimally-processed, entirely plant-based diet, or the dangers of other diets. This is the only subject in my 20 years of blogging that has attracted death threats. I don’t write about it, not out of fear, or not being liked, or losing readers, but because it’s simply not worth debating. When people are ready to listen to this message, they will hear it, probably from experts in nutrition. I’m not being inauthentic, to them or to myself, to consciously avoid wasting time and energy talking about it.

So, I can’t speak for others, but my sense of self-worth is not tied up with others’ opinions of me. I may be deliberately cautious about what I say to people, and sometimes (I think tactfully) even leave people with the impression I believe something when I don’t. Sometimes it makes sense to pick your battles, or wriggle out of them entirely. There’s no shame in that. But that doesn’t change what I think, believe, or feel. It doesn’t change ‘me’ (if there even is a ‘me’).

Thank you to Euan for posing these fascinating questions. Here are a couple more questions (shades of blogging’s notorious Friday Five!) that I have been thinking about of late, somewhat along the same lines:

  1. If you had to make a map of the 5, 15, and 150 people in your innermost ‘circles’, what questions would you ask yourself, and what criteria would you use, to come up with the list?
  2. On what (non-trivial) subjects have you recently, radically changed your mind, and what caused you to change it?

No answers are required. These are just, perhaps like some of the best questions, provocations to think about things that might help us know ourselves a little better.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Using Weblogs and Technology | 4 Comments

It’s Raining

image from pexels, CC0

When a loved one is very self-destructive you can’t control their fate; at some point you’ve just got to let them make their mistakes and hope something in them wakes up before they wind up dead. That’s pretty much how you’ve got to be with the entire human species at this point.  Caitlin Johnstone

The crows’ antics have abated for now. It’s breeding season for them, and instead of endless play, swooping, chattering, and staging for the daily migration to the massive Still Creek roost, they’re building nests and staking out territories for raising their families. As they’ve largely vanished into the top central branches (the ‘crows’ nests’) of coniferous trees, the seagulls, which start nest-building next month, and the pigeons, which breed all year long, have taken over centre stage here.

I’m wandering along the side streets near the river. It’s raining, and the downpour reminds me of the Richard Shelton poem:

It Is Raining

and a line of light is just beginning
to open the lid of the horizon.

Somebody leans out an upstairs window
and shouts, “Thanks for the beer.
Write when you get work.” A car
coughs, starts, moves down the street
avoiding the deeper puddles
stippled with rain. It passes a dog
in a doorway, his tail curled
carefully around his delicate feet.

It is raining in Coblenz and in Buda
and in Pest. It is raining
on the top and bottom of the world.

It is raining in Argentina. The bank vaults
are leaking. The German certificates
of deposit are beginning to mold.

It is raining on the gleaming seats
of hundreds of parked bicycles.

It is raining for those who plan to go out
and for those who plan to stay in.

It is raining quietly, the rain of forever,
the rain of good-bye, the rain of tomorrow.

It is raining on horses who stand
on three feet in wet fields
and speak the language of every country.

It is raining on the mansion on the hill
with one small light from the kitchen
where the cook has a toothache and cannot sleep.
She sits playing solitaire, looking around
the empty room quickly, and cheating.

It is raining on the glistening tailings
from exhausted mines and on little
ghost towns in the mountains.

It is raining on the old house in the city
far away where we once lived another life.
It is raining wherever you are
and wherever I am and wherever
we are going and have been.

It is raining on the tombstones, on the flat
stones and the upright stones. It is raining
into the open graves that are waiting.

It is raining on history, on the battlefields
of long-lost wars
and the bronze statues of forgotten heroes.

It is raining on Alcatraz, in the fog,
where mushrooms are growing under steel bunks.

It is raining on millions of pale yellow
butterflies far out at sea, migrating
like angels from one world to another.

(from The Last Person to Hear Your Voice)

Here, it is raining on the river, on the leaves (new, and old, and just budding). It is raining on my rooftop weather station, whose monitor tells me it has rained 12mm so far today. I don’t know if it’s raining in Donetsk, or Mariupol, or on the billionaires’ mansions and factories, or on the offices of journalists faithfully reporting the truth as it’s fed to them from sources rewarded for the immensity of their lies.

I don’t know if it’s raining on the homes of climate scientists, trying to figure out what they should tell their families, or on the homes of neuroscientists, still searching in vain for the self. I don’t know if it’s raining on the Pentagon, or the Kremlin, or the beggars in Sana’a and Kabul. I don’t know if it is raining on the laboratories of quantum physicists who confess, with puzzlement, that it appears there is no time for it to rain.

The goslings are starting to hatch, and to discover this strange and wondrous world. Their parents are wisely wary of me. Overhead, a merlin, small and fierce, soars.

This is the story of my life: Every time I think I’ve got it figured out, finally made sense of the world, something comes along to blow that understanding to pieces. Complexity, collapse, human nature and our belief systems, how the world really works, radical non-duality: There is no end to the unlearning and relearning and the astonishing declarations of “How did I not see that before?”

We can, of course, never know the truth. We just peel back the layers, thinking we’re getting closer, and when we get to the centre it is empty. Everything just falls away. Like in The Prisoner where Number Six relentlessly seeks to discover who is Number One, only to discover he is face to face with himself.

We want to know so badly. And we desperately don’t want to know that what we thought was right was not, that it wasn’t even close. We will fight to the death to defend our version of the truth.

On the river trail, the dogs take their humans for walks, trying to show them the right way to do it. But the humans don’t seem to be paying attention.

I think about our planet, slowly burning up. I think about all the species except one, and its food sources, that are being extinguished, one by one. And the oceans and lakes fouled, the fertile soil washed away, the air polluted, the forests razed, the rivers dammed. I imagine the accelerating sixth great extinction of life on earth playing out. The planet becoming a much simpler, stormier, more desolate place.

I think about Caitlin’s hope, expressed at the top of this post, and first I think I share it, and then I realize I do not. For a while, I wondered if my pessimism was just my way of shrugging off responsibility, inuring myself to the tragedy ahead. I don’t know.

This planet will still be beautiful, even if most of its surface is dead. Even if there are no “civilizations” left on it. Every story has to end, and there is no last-minute skewing of its plot to make this one’s end a heroic one. There need be no shame in that; we did our best. We can wish for a different ending all we want, and it won’t change anything. This one’s already in the can.

The cherry blossoms are out. A little late this year, but that’s OK. We’ll see them again, each year, in all their ostentatious profusion, for a while yet. And then we won’t.

And that’s OK too.

Posted in Creative Works, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Dave Gets Censored by the CBC

I almost never comment on online news stories, but I was absolutely incensed by Trudeau Jr’s new law legalizing the theft of Russian citizens’ bank accounts and other property without a trial or right of appeal.

So I wrote this comment on the CBC’s story on the new law, in response to another commenter who called the new law what it is: theft. This was my comment:

Yep. We didn’t like the First Nations people so we stole their property. We didn’t like Canadians who came from countries we fought in WW2, so we stole their property and put them in camps. We didn’t like the Taliban so we sat idle as the US stole billions of dollars from Afghani bank accounts, some of it humanitarian aid funds desperately needed by their starving citizens, and gave it out to Americans. Now because we don’t like Russia we’ve legalized the theft of property from Russian citizens. Wonder what will happen if the government decides it doesn’t like us?

Since it was my first comment in three years on an online news article, I was curious to see if the majority of readers would agree or disagree, or whether there would be any response at all. Since I received no notifications, I figured the latter, which is fine, but when I clicked on my name at the top of the CBC site (I had to register to comment), I found out why:

My comment was censored. Right after I posted it. No explanation. Hundreds of inflammatory anti-Russian war- and hate-mongering comments were approved, but apparently mine was unacceptable.

Foolish naive Canadian that I am, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.

Posted in How the World Really Works | 7 Comments

If You Care About Eco-Collapse, What Do You Do Now?

tar sands howl arts collective
Alberta Tar Sands, soon to cover an area larger than NY State; its toxic sludge ponds alone are large enough to be visible from space. Photo by Dru Oja Jay, Howl Arts Collective, for The Dominion CC-BY-2.0

A large and powerful bully — the iron-fisted boss of this one-industry company town — has his knee on the neck of an even more powerful but seriously sick woman — she’s ruthless, and owns all the agricultural land in the area, on which the residents depend for their food. The bully plans to seize her land and use it to put up more mega-polluting factories. A large crowd of people stand around, debating what should be done. One person, a paramedic, notes the horrific condition of the victim, and shouts “Unless someone acts, she’ll be dead in eight seconds! There’s still time to save her!”, though he’s too far from the scene to interject personally, and he is being restrained by the bully’s henchmen.

Some of the observers say “That can’t be right, it’s just a tussle, there’s no real danger”, and a few are even egging the bully on. Others insist that it’s not their job to intervene, and that by shouting at the bully to urge him to ease up, they’re doing all they can. Still others say that they can’t intervene because it would mess up their clothes, and they’re on their way to a very important event. Others, watching from a nearby balcony, mutter that they depend on the bully for their livelihood, and are not ready to risk that relationship, and besides, they’re too far away to make a difference now anyway. But some of them shout “Someone needs to do something drastic to stop this right now!”

Both sides have powerful supporters, and an all-out war between them seems inevitable, especially if/when the woman dies.

It’s an imperfect metaphor, of course. But the bully is the capitalist industrial growth economy, and the victim is our beleaguered planet. The observers are the world’s rich and powerful — governments, corporations and institutions. The balcony-watchers are we, the citizens of the world. The paramedic is the IPCC, and the eight seconds are the eight years the IPCC says we have left to prevent ecological collapse. The important events are the political and economic priorities that, insanely, outrank the survival of a healthy planet.

The balcony-watchers are correct in lamenting their lack of power. It is not their job to tackle the bully, even though they feel they are, in a small way, complicit in the murder. They’re paralyzed into inaction.

We can’t care about an event we deny is happening. And we don’t dare care much about an event that we believe is not our fight, or about which we can do nothing, or about which taking direct action may produce immediate, negative personal consequences for us.

The situation seems, and is, hopeless. But each of us has a couple of very unsatisfactory options:

  1. Option 1: We can do nothing. We can convince ourselves, with some justification, that there’s nothing we can do. So we can just enjoy our final moments of relative peace and prosperity before it’s gone. Perhaps we’ll learn to grow some of our own food, and perhaps we’ll get used to the endless ecological disasters, the haze of smoke, the desperate precarity, the migration of billions of climate refugees, which we may be part of. In the meantime we can get together with others and learn to manage our grief, our shame, our anger, over the planet’s death, the perilous future, and the hopelessness of the situation. There is a grieving process that we can learn, if we think it will help. We can prepare ourselves to face the inevitable.
  2. Option 2: We can take direct action, which means working to smash the capitalist industrial growth economy, with all the commensurate risks that entails. We will lose, but in the end it won’t matter because there will be no winners in this war. It’s a war of principle, not a war with hope for victory. Not even a Pyrrhic one.

We cannot do both — we have to choose. As collapse worsens, especially in areas of the world we never hear about where collapse is already in full swing, there will be a propensity for more and more of us to choose the second option.

The message of the first option is stark and simple:

We’re fucked. We did our best. All we can do now is face what’s to come as best we can.

There have been several documentary and sci-fi/cli-fi films of late that have introduced — usually subtly, usually conveyed in the voice of an indigenous elder, or a deep green activist, or a young female protester — a different, astonishing message:

The planet’s life is more important than any individual’s life.

I am spending time every day, now, just sitting and thinking about this second message, and what it means. It sits, printed out, below the keyboard of my laptop. Wild creatures, I think, understand this at a profound, intuitive level that is no longer accessible to us disconnected humans. We have forgotten.

The grim paradox we face in comparing the two messages above is that they’re both right, and that neither helps us make a decision between the two options that follow from them. What they mean to each of us will, more than anything else, determine what we will do and what will happen to us in the decade ahead, and beyond.

There is no third option. There is no way we can, like Wile E Coyote reversing course and streaking back onto land after running off the edge of the cliff, turn the ship of industrial civilization around in eight years to prevent climate collapse. If you still believe the absurd claims to the contrary, I’m sorry, you’re just not paying attention. Read between the lines of the IPCC report to see what they’re really saying, that they’re unwilling or afraid or not permitted to say overtly — yet. There are only two options.

The option we choose doesn’t really matter — it won’t change anything. But it matters to us. To us, now, it’s the only thing that really matters.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 7 Comments

What Would We Think Without Language?

photo: CC0, from pixabay

This morning I listened to Dave Snowden and Nora Bateson discussing the nature of change and what does and does not influence it. Most models of change are idealistic, naive and simplistic, and simply don’t anywhere near describe how change actually occurs. Change is, of course, a complex, emergent and evolving phenomenon, and as such it can’t be fully understood or predicted.

Many models of change are predicated on the false belief that people can be motivated to change their beliefs and behaviours if they are provided with better, objective, evidence-based information. There is abundant evidence that that is simply not how people change their beliefs. We believe what we want to believe is true, what our friends and trusted associates believe, and our beliefs are affected far more by emotion and by compelling stories than by arguments and data.

Better models suggest that, while we cannot sustainably coerce or cajole change, we can, as both Daniel Schmachtenberger and Dave Snowden have suggested, catalyze it by improving the quality of people’s interactions with others. Their argument is that it is empathetic interaction, and appreciation of context and feelings underlying the beliefs and actions of others we don’t understand and/or don’t agree with, that is far more likely to shift people’s beliefs and understanding.

A major challenge with that is that when we speak with others, we use different words and assign different meanings to words. Some of us use words and ideas that are essential to the understanding and appreciation of our thoughts, that are simply not in the vocabulary of most others.

In short, our language — the words we use, the meanings we ascribe to them, their emotional content, and the words we don’t have at our disposal or which our language has no words for — largely determines what, and how, we think. This has been heavily debated by linguists for decades, without consensus, and mostly in the absence of compelling evidence for any of their arguments. We’re long overdue for the linguistics equivalent to a David Graeber to come along and undermine all their dogmatic and largely unsupported theories, and advance something completely new that better fits the historical evidence.

Art has been around about three times longer than abstract human languages. So for a million years, before either evolved, we managed, likely much the way most creatures do, to self-organize and thrive without either. Art likely evolved in tandem with human cultures — defined as shared identity, beliefs, aspirations and behaviours among human groups — since art is, in essence, how we express our culture. Later, languages emerged that attempted to express and strengthen our culture more precisely. I’ll leave it up to you whether they actually do so.

So how, and what, would we actually think and believe (and perhaps therefore do), if we did not have language, if we were limited to the use of art to express ourselves?

What intrigues and annoys me about the studies of so-called “prehistoric” languages is the absence of any serious study of non-human languages, as if the entire idea that we learned and evolved language in parallel with other species were preposterous. This is the same anthropocentric arrogance that bedevils much theory of early human evolution in other areas of study. There is also limited study of the likelihood that abstract sign languages may well have predated abstract oral languages. And there’s very little on when the evolution of the human brain (specifically hemispheric entanglement and the breakdown of the bicameral brain) reached the point at which abstract language even became possible.

Much has been made of the fact that all human languages seem very similar, and ascribing that to the fact they mirror the physical structures and processes of the human brain. Much less has been said about the brain’s co-evolution with its development of language; perhaps the humans that developed utterly different languages (like the language of the Pirahã) co-evolved different neural structures, and most of them, for any number of evolutionary reasons, including genocide, have not survived. Perhaps linguistics, like history, is written by the winners of the battles, without reference to the much broader truth.

And for some indigenous languages, metaphor is not at all what it is in Indo-European languages — it is more allusion than analogy or allegory. These languages are kinaesthetic, based on what is happening rather than the subject or object “thingness” of what is happening. As Dan Alford explains: “Indigenous peoples value the dancing over the dancers, believe that processes and interrelationships are more real than the ‘things’ that grow out of them — that the physical is an epiphenomenon of the non-physical, and that cyclical timing is more real than linear time.”

Or as Glenn Aparicio Parry explains: “In the Blackfoot language, there are not nouns or verbs at all as we normally describe them in relation to each other. Instead, linguistic meaning is something similar to events emerging out of a fluid, constantly moving interconnected flux, rather than discrete interactions between subject and object.” This sounds quite close to the radical non-duality message that asserts that there are no separate ‘things’, just “what seems to be happening”.

So back to the speculative question of what (and how) we might think in the absence of abstract language. My hypothesis would be: not much. There is not much need to think, especially about abstractions, in a natural, uncrowded environment. It was only when we began to live in crowded “civilized” conditions characterized by constant scarcity and precarity, that there would have been a need for formal language, for instruction, for hierarchy, for codified laws (and law enforcement), and for ‘organized’ wars, for a human-made “order” of things.

When I watch the crows outside my window each day, it is absolutely clear that they have a sophisticated language, but it is a perceptual one, not a conceptual one. It doesn’t require, most of the time, much thought at all. It entails social greetings, exchange of information about dangers and about food. Despite their raucous chattiness, much of their information-sharing and communication appears to be kinaesthetic rather than verbal: Playful and mate-attracting activities, allopreening, staging and roosting together, and food-sharing. Yet they are capable of remarkable problem-solving, either when they have to be, or when it seems like fun. They can make tools, but they rarely do, because there’s no need to.

So my theory about the languages of human cultures in times and places of low-stress and abundance would be:

  1. They wouldn’t need abstract languages, so they wouldn’t evolve them.
  2. They wouldn’t think much, because they wouldn’t need to.
  3. Their mental lives would be perceptually rich rather than conceptually rich. That would probably use up just as much brain power, but their brains would evolve very differently, around perceiving and paying attention and appreciating and artistic expression, rather than thinking and conceiving and judging.
  4. Their emotional lives would be as rich and varied as ours, but they wouldn’t cling to their emotional reactions as fiercely as we do. They wouldn’t take things personally because their culture would be, as most wild creatures’ cultures apparently are, collective. They might not even conceive themselves to be individuals, since that conception seemingly requires training and reinforcement.
  5. They would probably fare poorly if invaded by a highly-stressed human culture that had evolved more the way our modern culture has. Kind of like our cousins the bonobos, perhaps, which are now facing extinction.

In summary, I wonder if modern human thought, highly abstract, highly individualistic, mostly conceptual rather than perceptual, where everything is taken personally, and where fear, especially of one’s death, is omnipresent, is an aberration of an unhealthy, stressed species, a very unnatural way of being. Not an evolutionary pinnacle, but a self-defeating evolutionary dead end.

I wonder if the enormous similarities in our modern human languages and behaviours are due not to anything inherent in the human brain, but to the fact that we have eradicated all humans who did not share modern humans’ terrifying sense of scarcity and fear of death, which we have, since the dawn of abstract language, acted out through relentless, brutal competitiveness and violence against the rest of the natural world.

Robert Sapolsky would probably have something to say about that.

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

Propaganda, Mis- and Disinformation, and Censorship: The War for Hearts and Minds

photo of Noam Chomsky by McMaster University

“The first casualty of war is truth.” — anonymous

The 21st century, since the inauspicious events of 2001, has thus far been a century of unending and expanding wars. Many of them have been military — Palestine, Chechnya, the CAR, Libya, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria, Yemen, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia, Congo, Chad, Somalia, Ethiopia, Tunisia. Egypt, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, India, Bangladesh, Colombia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Angola, Bolivia, Senegal, Mexico, Philippines, Niger, Nepal, Laos, Papua, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Indonesia, Moldova, Kenya, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Russia, Armenia, Tajikistan, Algeria, Venezuela, Cameroon, Mozambique, Kyrgyzstan, Paraguay, Timor Leste, Comores, Peru, Ivory Coast, Bahrain, Ghana, Morocco, and I’m sure I’m missing a bunch.

And, of course, there is the ongoing “war on terror” and the “war on drugs”, which are arguably smokescreens to enable unlimited attacks on sovereign nations, and accompanying “intelligence” subterfuge, without justification or provocation.

That does not include political and economic interference, including sieges and government overthrows orchestrated or supported by foreign nations in about a dozen Latin American nations and an even larger number of African and Asian ones.

But perhaps equally-important in this century are the non-military wars battling for the “hearts and minds” of citizens — fights over votes, seats, laws, ideologies and tax dollars rather than land. 

It is hard to deny, for example, that the US is engaged in a so-far-non-military civil war between neofascist elements, largely in the south and central states, on the one hand, and believers in real democracy on the other. The former, after decades of losing the propaganda war they blame on “liberal media”, have basically given up on the democratic process and are now seizing power by disenfranchising voters and exploiting the many anti-democratic holes in the US legal and electoral processes, including stacking courts with ideological extremists, gerrymandering, filibustering, empowering vigilantes and bounty hunters, and a host of other tactics.

Similar activities are occurring in many other countries, notably in eastern Europe, where neofascist governments now control many former Soviet bloc (and now NATO-member) states.

But possibly the most effective way to win and retain political power through seizing the hearts and minds of citizens, is through a mix of propaganda, mis- and disinformation, and censorship. This is especially true now, living with a ubiquitous and unceasing firehose of often-conflicting information, and exploitative for-profit “social” media controlled by a handful of dimwitted and unstable western oligarchs.

Military “intelligence” agencies have always been masters at propaganda and disinformation — it’s an essential tool in their arsenal. But with the massively-increased budgets given to the military, “intelligence” services, and “security” apparatus organizations (both domestic and international in their authority) in this century, and the exponential computing power that that puts in their hands, they can now do a much more effective job of controlling, directing, distorting, and suppressing information and debate than they ever could before.

During times of relative peace, we tend to ignore this massive accrual of power and influence because it is not used in ways that we think make much of a difference in our lives. But in times of war — military, civil, informational, or ideological — it can now make all the difference between ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’.

If you are a regular reader you know that I am not a believer in “good vs evil”. I don’t think those that can now wield this power are deliberately trying to get us to support monstrous misadventures or extremism. I think we’re all doing our best, including making use of power in ways we think will benefit and sustain our citizens.

Very few people describe themselves as extremists — and those labelled as such tend to insist that they’re just doing what they think is best, and that that’s not extremist at all. I am sure many of the American neofascists, for example, honestly believe that a permanent Christian theocracy run mostly by designated white males with “family values” would be a better system of governance than we have now, and that it would solve many of the social problems they perceive the current system has produced. They are of course wrong, but they are not IMO “evil”.

Anger, rage and hostility, in my experience, are almost always masks for fear, grief and shame. Fear of loss (of rights, freedoms, opportunity, autonomy, property, beliefs), fear of oppression, fear of suffering, fear of imprisonment and restriction, fear of the future. Grief over what has seemingly been lost or squandered. Grief over loved-ones’ suffering. Shame of incapacity, of failure, of ridicule. And it is this anger, rage and hostility, I think, that underlies most of our ever-present wars — military, civil, informational, and ideological. It is not an accident, I think, that almost all the war ‘leaders’ are males seemingly acting out their fear, grief and shame in military, political, economic and ideological “battles”.

Just to be clear about definitions:

  • Propaganda is information (accurate, distorted or invented) that is deliberately worded in such as way as to provoke an extreme or wildly inappropriate emotional response.
  • Misinformation is information that is incorrect, incomplete, biased or misleading.
  • Disinformation is intentional misinformation. Lying about, withholding, skewing, obfuscating or misconstruing what is reported for a purpose.
  • Censorship is suppressing information or opinions, usually selectively. That can include self-censorship.

So what we’re dealing with now, I think, is a collision between two phenomena:

  • (1) Our growing cynicism about what is true, thanks to the firehose of information (much of which is propaganda, mis- or dis-information, or censored), leaving us unsure what to believe, and
  • (2) Our propensity to believe what we want to believe, what ‘fits’ with our prior understanding of the world, how it works, what we wish to be true, and what we believe to be ‘right’.

The consequence of this collision is what Hank Green calls a toxic mix of outrage and helplessness (or hopelessness).

If you’ve ever been moved to attend a protest, my guess is you’ve tasted that mix, and were driven to act on it. And if you’ve never attended a protest (or haven’t in a long time) I’m guessing that you’ve also tasted that mix, but felt sufficiently hopeless about it that you didn’t act on it.

The daily doom scroll invokes this mix every time we look at it. We may be tempted just to turn it all off, to throw out the useful information ‘baby’ with the misinformation ‘bathwater’. But for most of us, we can’t. We are driven to know what’s happening in the world, to make sense of it. So we’re sucked back in. Then what happens is:

  1. The triage test: We do triage on the firehose. We scroll past ‘news’ and ‘information’ that is neither urgent nor important to us. For each of us, that’s different. For me, celebrity news doesn’t pass muster. But if you’re part of a circle that eats up that stuff, you’re going to consider it important.
  2. The smell test: For the stuff that passes the triage test, we make a preliminary judgement about what it means. That includes an assessment of its veracity, completeness and possible bias, and how it ‘fits’ with what we already believed.
  3. Corroboration and/or challenge: If it seems suspect, we will likely read other sources, or talk with or message people we trust to get their take on it, or simply dismiss it as untrue. And if other people seek our take on it, that might also influence our own. Some of us will also challenge anything that seems too ‘pat’, too simple, and think about or seek other perspectives on it.
  4. Conflict: In some cases, there will be enormous tension between what we believe, and what the people we trust (friends, or respected writers or experts) believe. Or there will be enormous tension between what we had believed and what this new information now leads us to believe is actually true. For example, suppose you read something that suggests that the US/NATO have been systematically working for decades to provoke unrest, anxiety, and ultimately regime change in Russia, or you read something that suggests that the vaccines for CoVid-19 are actually dangerous for your children. If you and your friends have always been wary of Russia’s government, or if you and your friends have been tireless proponents of universal vaccination, this is going to be more than uncomfortable. Misinformation about the pandemic, and about elections and wars, has destroyed friendships and marriages and driven some into conspiracy cults.
  5. Resolution: Sometimes the most compelling resolution is to throw up your hands and admit you don’t know what to believe. But this is usually an untenable situation, because then you’re paralyzed. You have to decide whether to wear a mask or not, to get a vaccine or not, to agree “It’s all evil deranged Putin’s fault”, or to suggest it’s more complex than that. These are hugely difficult decisions that most of us would rather not be forced to make. But we will make them, and the consequences regardless will be significant, maybe even life-changing.

The goal of propaganda and censorship (and of cults) is to squelch dissenting views so that everyone marches to the same beat, and so that steps 3-5 of the above information-processing process are entirely avoided. We kind of like that — no one wants to be paralyzed by conflicting information or views, and no one wants to risk a friendship or shatter a long-held belief, all because of ‘rogue’ information that we just can’t deny. And you can kind of see the logic for propaganda during an actual war involving your own citizens. Scary, tragic, but perhaps understandable.

So that brings me to my questions about this subject, which probably have no answers, but which I think we ignore at our peril:

  1. Have the media ever been other than sources of propaganda? Given the dependence of the media on government graces to give them “exclusives” and “inside” information, isn’t it inevitable that they will self-censor, or suppress, information that is not flattering to the government, or their corporate sponsors? Who then can we trust to tell us what’s really going on in the government and corporate back-rooms?
  2. The media and citizens all fell hook, line and sinker for the utterly false narrative for the Iraq War, and there have never been prosecutions or even apologies for the lies. Now the government is acknowledging that some of the information it is giving the media about the Ukraine War is likewise deliberately false. All western governments, and almost all citizens, have accepted the simplistic narrative of the Ukraine War. Is it just human nature that we get played by these deliberate falsehoods? Is it in our best interests, at least in times of “war”? What would it take to prevent us all from falling for and repeating propaganda, mis- and disinformation when it’s so carefully and cleverly orchestrated?
  3. Social media, facing accusations of propagating mis- and disinformation and propaganda, have responded by tagging, “demoting” (so that no one sees it on their feed), and even censoring information that, using rather simplistic and arbitrary criteria, they’ve decided are potentially mis- or disinformation or propaganda. Given the harms that come from censorship and suppression of information that may later turn out to have been important truths, versus the harms of not censoring information that leads to actions that cause illness, injury, violence or death, who should be trying to strike that balance, and how can they do it better than the social media giants’ amateur censors?
  4. What are the ‘signs’ that indicate that media outlets are censoring or self-censoring alternative points of view even when they have credible evidence behind them? We need to know this so that we can at least flag these media for their biases. Who would be the best independent group to assess these biases? For example, the censorship of the views of Noam Chomsky since 2000, because of his ‘contrary’ positions on the CIA, NATO and Palestine, has been quite obvious. It would be useful to have the NYT flagged as one of the media organizations that have used their censorship power to suppress a lot of useful information on these subjects. Likewise, the suppression of alternative views by and about Julian Assange seems to me a travesty in a country with a supposedly free press, something we should all be aware of when we read the publications that suppress this information.
  5. How might we deal with the tacit censorship in the media that stems from their failure to report inconvenient truths about major wars and other events of global significance (eg Yemen, Ethiopia, the burning-alive of Russians in Crimea). Is there some way to find and track the important stories that the mainstream media are deliberately suppressing?
  6. Are we as a species inherently prone to being misled, conned, manipulated, played? Why? What is the evolutionary advantage of vulnerability to propaganda and misinformation?
  7. How much worse will this situation get if we continue to rely on “the market”, and incompetent tech corporations and governments, to solve it? Will situations like the Jan 6 insurrection, and other acts of mass violence, become more and more routine as we get more and more manipulated by propaganda and mis- and disinformation and censorship? What if anything can be done to prevent that happening?

I don’t have any answers. I just have a dawning sense that the real “artificial intelligence” problem we’re going to have to face in the next decade is coming from “intelligence” agencies, PR firms, pliant media, and military-industrial complex spinmeisters, not robotics firms. In these times of crisis and collapse, this is the last thing we need.

Thanks to Paul Heft for provoking, and helping me think about, this article.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

No One to See It

Another attempt to explain that which cannot be explained, and to make sense of that which makes no sense. In other words, more radical non-duality nonsense. You’ve been warned.

photo from pxhere, CC0 (and yes I know horses shouldn’t eat too many apples, especially cores and seeds)

Perhaps the most challenging question that radical non-duality messengers are asked is: “How can ‘this’  (the realization that there is no one, nothing separate, nothing actually happening, and no ‘real’ time or space — just what’s apparently happening) be seen when there’s no one to see it?”  How can there be seeing without a seer?

The answer is usually that “it cannot be explained”, that it’s “a mystery”, but that nevertheless it’s obvious ‘there’. That’s true, but it’s a very unsatisfactory answer.

When there have been glimpses ‘here’, this was obvious. “How can I not have seen this?” was what was apparently happening. I tried ‘later’ to describe it by saying “Everything was just exactly as it was (apparently), but more than that, there was no need for anything to be otherwise. There was no need for anything to be done. There was no position, in time or space for anything, so nothing was ‘really real’” It was not blissful, or terrifying — it was just astonishing, just obvious.

My attempt to make sense of it was to say that perhaps my brain had altered its neural circuits, in such a way that everything that had been perceived as real was suddenly seen not to be. Instead of a constant ‘making sense’ of everything, assigning meaning and cause and purpose and trajectory to it, there was just acceptance that it made no sense, and didn’t need to make sense.

But that’s just a story, an after-the-fact attempt to ‘make sense’ of what made no sense. There was clearly no ‘real’ brain and no ‘real’ change or movement, so how could neural circuits have been altered?

Dream is only a metaphor, and for many it’s a particularly irksome one, since it suggests that it’s possible to ‘wake up’, and that being ‘awake’ is better or more ‘enlightened’ than ‘living in the dream’. Completely annoying. It’s a useful metaphor, but because of its connotation, not a particularly helpful one.

Though there does seem to be a making-sense going on in nighttime dreams. There is a linking together in a seemingly coherent way of ‘events’ in the dream that are all complete fictions, and the continuity of these ‘events’ is likewise a fiction. It is not even clear whether the apparent neural firing that gives rise to these apparent senses of something happening even occur in the order that the brain gives rise to them.

To be clear, there is ‘still’ a sense of self and separation ‘here’. It has been obvious that this was an illusion, but it is not so ‘now’ or ‘every day’. Though the hold that my self and its machinations have is a lot lighter and more tentative than it was. When you understand that a mirage, or the sun’s rotation around the earth, is an illusion, that doesn’t mean you ‘un-see’ it, but you know that it’s not real.

Here’s another way of trying to explain it: There is sense-perceiving apparently happening, including apparent retina-reacting and neural-processing, and mental modelling and re-presenting, and body-reacting to that re-presentation. That we can all agree upon.

One could then tell a story about that being a successful evolutionary development, which every animal shares.

But that’s just a story, one that only human selves would tell. There are no horses or silverfish or octopuses telling that story. There are no horses or silverfish or octopuses period, really — there is only what is appearing to happen. So there is apparent apple-seeing and apple-eating (though there is no real apple, and no real horse really eating it). There is apparent running-from-foot-stomping, though there is no real foot and no real silverfish. There is apparent body-camouflaging, though there is no real octopus doing it. All these gerunds describe what is apparently (and only apparently) happening. The fact that they are apparent and not real does not in any way diminish their intensity or the feelings that accompany them; the opposite may well be the case.

These things are apparently happening and ‘seeing’ (perceiving) these things that are apparently happening is also apparently happening, even though there is no ‘real’ seer. There does not need to be a seer for there to be seeing.

There is living-full-on apparently happening when there is apple-seeing and apple-eating and running-from-foot-stomping and body-camouflaging. There can be joy-feeling and terror-feeling and pain-feeling and fear-feeling and secure-feeling without the need of some ‘one’ or some real ‘thing’ to be feeling those things.

When one is daydreaming, there can be a sense of complete immersion in what is being dreamt, the sensations of seeing and hearing and feeling what’s in the dream; the body may even react exactly as if what is being dreamt was really happening — a smile, a shiver. The dream, and its objects, do not have to be real for the dreaming to evoke the same feelings as if they were real.

So there is no ‘real’ horse (just horse-appearing), yet there is apple-seeing and apple-eating and probably salivating and pleasure-snorting — and joy-feeling. Full on. In the absence of any thing separate or real.

The invention of the ‘real, separate from everything else’ horse is just the human self’s attempt to make sense of what is seen.

Without the self, there is horse-appearing and apple-seeing and apple-eating and salivating and pleasure-snorting and joy-feeling, all apparently happening.

With the self, there is horse-appearing and apple-seeing and apple-eating and salivating and pleasure-snorting and joy-feeling, all apparently happening. And then on top of that there is a story about the horse and apple being real and separate, and the eating and salivating and snorting really happening in time and space, and about there being a real temporal and causal connection between the apple-eating and the salivating and pleasure-snorting.

And all of that stuff layered on by the self changes nothing. It’s just a story invented by the self to ‘make sense’ of the apparent apple-eating. If there were no self, there would be none of that layered-on stuff, and no need for any of it. And nothing would change. Nothing would be any different. It would only be seen differently.

The self cannot help making up stories and relaying and relating them to others; that’s what selves do. But the selves are themselves just figments of reality, chimeras, phantasms, mirages. The self is the invented central part of its story of reality, around which it makes sense of everything else.

Without the story of self, and the self’s stories, what is seen is what is apparently happening, full-on. This is not a theory or philosophy — it’s unambiguously, unquestioningly obvious when there is ‘suddenly’ no sense of self or separation. And that is already what is seen. But the self imposes a veil of meaning on what is apparently happening, that occludes what is seen, distorts it, and claims it as ‘real’ and ‘really happening’ and ‘really happening to it (the self)’. That doesn’t change anything that is apparently happening, but it is seen very differently.

It seems unlikely that there are illusory selves afflicting non-humans, or that selves afflict almost all humans. The apparent behaviour of a human lacking a sense of ‘real’ self and separation would be (and is) indistinguishable from that of those beleaguered by selves. The model of self that is concocted by the brain is completely unnecessary to perfectly effective functioning. In fact there is evidence that only in the last several millennia did the human brain evolve in a way (the so-called breakdown of the bicameral brain) that made the construction of the illusory sense of self even possible.

So it is likely that there are many apparent humans who have no sense of self and separation. Because the presence or absence of the illusory self makes no difference to behaviour, even if your dearest friend lacked one ‘like yours’ you would never know. They would use terms like “the self” metaphorically, as indeed we all do. They would just mean something very different by it from what you mean. And neither of you would ever know.

Of course, all of this is just a story too.

That’s as close as I can get to an explanation, in language, of how there can be seeing of this — the outrageous assertion that it’s obvious there is no one and no thing separate from everything — without a seer. And how this can be seen, or not seen, and how it makes no difference to what is apparently happening.

Except to the self, of course, to which it makes all the difference in the world.

Posted in Radical Non-Duality | 2 Comments

Links of the Month: April 2022

Image of homelessness from the now-defunct Italian blog Moving & Learning

“April is the cruellest month”, TS Eliot wrote, in The Waste Land, exactly 100 years ago, after Ezra Pound forced him to change it from February. It’s the month when hopes for a new beginning, for brighter days ahead, are so often dashed. Lots of evidence of that this year. An attitude of generosity might help. From James Parker in the April Atlantic:

It’s primal, it’s biblical, it’s the moral physics of the universe in action: The have meets the have-not. In the subway, on the street, at the traffic light, along the underpass, anywhere in America. What happens next?

You, patently, have. Warmth, comfort, accessible hygiene, a fridge, a place to go, a buffer or two against intolerable pressure. The person in front of you, patently, has not. A look suffices to tell you that. Their lack imprints itself upon your abundance. And they’re asking you for money. Do you give it? Should you? Must you? Do you want to?

We can dispense immediately with the traditional canard: They’ll only spend it on drugs. What a pernicious mingling of Ayn Randian screw-’em-ism and liberal faux concern. Maybe they will spend it on drugs. Or maybe they’ll spend it on a new copy of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, to replace the one that disappeared when their campsite of two years was deconstructed—in their absence—by park rangers. The point is, how they spend it is none of your business.

Let’s get back to the encounter itself. Awkward, isn’t it? The system of which you are a functioning part has thrown the person before you into a transparent condition of penury and exile. Perhaps you feel a flickering of shame. And then a flickering of annoyance at the flickering of shame. Jesus Christ, their hands are out and their tin cups are rattling—why can’t they leave you alone? Affluence is no picnic. You have a prescription to refill, a phone to upgrade, a car to get repaired. This pullulating need—it’s too much.

Here’s my tip: If you’re temperamentally indisposed, keep your money. A penny given a poor man “grudgingly,” wrote the French Catholic mystic Léon Bloy, “pierces the poor man’s hand, falls, pierces the earth, bores holes in suns, crosses the firmament and compromises the universe.” So don’t do that.

But if you are inclined to give, then give wholeheartedly. Not for charity, not for empathy, not for any groaning abstraction, but that the divine economy of giving might circulate through you unobstructed. Through your glands and through your veins. The person before you needs money, and you need to give it. Unplug the wellspring of life, and hand it over.


droughts predicted for the 2030s, per Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews, via NBC news; purple and red signify areas of severe and extreme drought

The time for action…: The IPCC has released its latest report on the fight against climate collapse, requiring at a minimum the halving of emissions within the next eight years. They dare not tell you it’s already too late. But if you read carefully…

Richard Heinberg: Is “Cap-and-ration” just another way of saying “We’re fucked”?: Richard’s newest ‘Museletter’ explains the energy and ecological implications of the Ukraine war, and then outlines what he believes is the only method of achieving the IPCC’s urgent goals in time, and concludes:

If cap-and-ration proves to be politically unattainable, then we should be honest with ourselves about the consequences. Without cap-and-ration, the world’s policy makers will most likely continue to dither with proposals that appear to reduce emissions without actually doing so. Horrific consequences from those emissions will ensue. And young people around the world, whose lives will be tragically impacted, will give up on policy solutions and look for other strategies.

Both poles break heat records, some by up to 30ºC: For the few that hadn’t heard just how crazy and frequent once-unthinkable weather anomalies have become.

Meanwhile, the Neros fiddle: In Canada, Trudeau announced approval of a major new oil mega-project off the east coast. In the US, a Federal Reserve Board nominee withdrew her nomination because Republicans said she supported a transition to renewable energy, which they described as politically unacceptable.


Edward Snowden, from Relax It’s Only Art: “people don’t realize how hard it is to speak the truth. to a world full of people that don’t realize they’re living a lie.” Original source of the image not cited.

Sci-Hub lives on: The wonderful research publishing service Sci-Hub, started by Kazakhstani student Alexandra Elbakyan, continues to circumvent attempts by greedy “academic publishers” to shut it down, and makes scientific and medical research available to all, for free.

Relax it’s only art: The Facebook group displays provocative, inspiring, beautiful, outrageous, brilliant art in many media. Photo above for example.

The illusion of being alone: Indrajit Samarajiva waxes poetic on solitude and individualism — social, political, existential. A moving reflection.

How we think about problems: Albert Bates muses on Daniel Schmachtenberger’s theory about how we usually think about problems in an illogical and unsatisfactory way that too often leads to technological solutions that actually exacerbate the problem.


Image by the multi-award winning artist and cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, from the film The Wall

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism Part 1: Short takes about the Ukraine war you likely won’t read in the mainstream media (thanks to John Whiting for many of these links):

Corpocracy, Imperialism & Fascism Part 2: Short takes on other corporatist things going on while we’re distracted by the war:

Propaganda, Censorship, Misinformation and Disinformation: Short takes:

CoVid-19 Becomes the Pandemic (mostly) of the Unvaccinated: Short takes:

  • Not much new to say. The politicians have muzzled the health experts and abandoned most mandates. Biden has mismanaged the pandemic as badly as Trump did. (Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.) It’s still insane, as the predicted and inevitable sixth wave gets underway, not to wear a mask indoors, and not to get vaccinated and a booster. And equally insane, at this critical juncture, to abandon testing regimens. Early mandates and the vaccines may have halved the death toll, but it’s still rising globally at, per best estimates, 10,000 people dying unnecessarily every day — that’s over 3M more people per year on top of the ~14M who’ve already died from this terrible disease. This does not bode at all well for how we’re going to handle even worse crises as global economic and ecological collapse worsens.

Inside the palace with MBS: The crown prince of Saudi Arabia is more complex than you might think, and he’s a hero to millions of his citizens who’d suffered under the brutal and arbitrary Wahhabi religious police, which he has all but abolished, and struggled with harsh restrictions, especially for women, or were victimized by rampant corruption, which many think he’s dramatically curtailed. But he’s no hero, and has terrified his opponents. A great article by Graeme Wood.


cartoon from Will McPhail‘s own website

What do we want our children to learn from us?: Indi writes about the loss of our capacity to imagine. In another fascinating article, he muses about the relationship between ritual and hierarchy/caste.

Bullshit job title generator: Absolutely hilarious. See if your job’s on the list. Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for the link.

How to fix Daylight Saving Time: Hank Green humorously ponders our incapacity to get rid of twice-annual time changes.

Standard model of the universe fails again: The model, which was already riddled with holes (not all of them black) suffered another setback this month when, based on 750 trillion observations, researchers acknowledged that the W Boson particle actually has a mass far greater than the model predicts. Of course, the response of many scientists was to question or fault the measurement process.

From the Beaverton (spoof headlines of the month):

  • “Canada to ban foreign homebuyers who refuse to set up dummy corporations.”
  • “Vanilla yogurt holds slight lead in Conservative leadership opinion polls.”
  • “Oscars present lifetime achievement award to Toxic Masculinity”
  • “Poll asking Canadians what we should do in Ukraine reveals majority of Canadians not military strategists”
  • “Nation’s conspiracy theorists celebrate False Flag Day”

Dancing religiously: Responding to a global challenge, hundreds of religious groups have made videos of their congregation leaders dancing to the South African hit song Jerusalema. Some of them got the moves. Thanks to John Whiting for the link.


image by Anton Batov, from a series on how Egyptian hieroglyphics might translate into modern language

From Cornel West, on what’s wrong with America and the Biden administration:

You’re not dealing with deportation. You’re still locked into a very knee-jerk defense of NATO so that the militarism still goes on—everybody knows if Russia had troops in Mexico or Canada there would be invasions tomorrow. He sends the Secretary of State, telling Russia, “You have no right to have a sphere of influence,” after the Monroe Doctrine, after the overthrowing of democratic regimes in Latin America for the last hundred-and-some years. Come on, America, do you think people are stupid? What kind of hypocrisy can anybody stand?

That doesn’t mean that Putin is not still a gangster—of course he is. But so were the folk promoting the Monroe Doctrine that had the U.S. sphere of influence for decade after decade after decade after decade, and anybody critical of you, you would demonize. Yet here are you, right at the door of Russia, and can’t see yourself in the mirror. That’s spiritual decay right there, brother, it really is.

From Nina Khruscheva, great-granddaughter of Nikita, who lives and works in the US, and says she despises Putin, about the situation in Ukraine, in an interview in The New Yorker:

I think it could have been done differently. In my experience, once again—you’re writing for The New Yorker, so I’m supposed to be very politically correct here, but I’m still going to say it. I’ve never seen America be a gracious victor, because once it wins, it just jumps on your grave like there is no tomorrow; even the dead bodies would come out with anger. So yes, it was not a gracious winner, and being the only superpower only added to an American sense of superiority, which certainly influenced the Russian approach. I’m not taking away from Russia’s own responsibility, its own horrendous anti-American rhetoric because it was a loser. It just basically maligns the winner, and America as a winner maligns the loser. They are mirror images in a sense.

From Tom Waits’ website:

After a rain in New York all the dogs that got caught in the rain, somehow the water washed away their whole trail and they can’t get back home so about 4 in the morning you see all these stranded dogs on the street and they’re looking around like – won’t you help me get back home, sir, please – excuse me sir – excuse me sir – can you help me find my way back home – all makes and models, the short ones, the black ones, the tall ones, the expensive ones, the long ones, the disturbed ones, they all just want to get home.

Most of the things you absorb you will ultimately secrete.

We are just monkeys with money and guns.

From Confucius: “The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat.”

From Indrajit Samarajiva:

This was supposed to be about apocalypse skills to teach my children, but what do I know? My main skills are filling out forms and filtering search results, and that’s not really relevant now. I’m starting from the same place as my own children, and I’m old and slow. So I guess it’s not about raising children anymore. We have to raise each other now.


Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Comments Off on Links of the Month: April 2022


The cognitive bias codex from wikipedia; right click and open in a new tab to view legibly; or view and print the original over four letter-sized pages and paste them together. The model was developed by John Manoogian III and refined by Buster Benson; the online version includes links by TillmanR to the wikipedia articles explaining each bias.

What is it that makes some people, and the members of some cultures, more willing and ready to believe what they’re told than others? There’s some indication that we tend to believe the opinions of people we know well and trust the most — even if they’re as ignorant as we are about the facts. At one time (eg Watergate, Clinton) getting caught in a lie irretrievably damaged your credibility, but as propaganda has become more and more widespread, that may no longer be the case.

Opinion polls (themselves highly suspect) suggest that we trust just about all sources of information — politicians, economists, the media, lawyers and doctors and consultants and other “experts” — less and less. In particular, we’re getting increasingly suspicious of what “sources” are not telling us (lies of omission), not just about what they are reporting.

Yet we still seem astonishingly credulous, particularly when it comes to reported events we cannot personally witness because they are happening on the other side of the world (or at least allegedly happening). So we’re more prone to be “played” both by the slick propaganda operations of moneyed and motivated interests, and by conspiracy theorists who exploit our increasing suspicion of “official narratives”. As a result, most of us no longer know what to believe.

I grew up in the 1960s, when the Cold War was raging, the Cuban missile crisis threatened imminent nuclear war, and the McCarthy witch hunts were still in recent memory. I learned to get my news from shortwave radio and the often-raided and censored workers’ news-shops in Winnipeg’s north end. My father was a journalist, so I knew how the system worked (He quietly sheltered Vietnam War conscientious objectors who’d fled the draft). I was bombarded with propaganda from all sides, everything from pro-Apartheid broadcasts from South Africa to broadcasts adulating Mao and his anti-intellectual purge. I listened to the Voice of America and its relentless pro-war, anti-communist harangues that broadcast 24/7 in sixty languages.

I managed, once, back in the day, to wangle an invitation to a press conference held by James Richardson, then Canada’s Minister of Defence, shortly after the US National Guard murdered four unarmed protesters at Kent State, and after the leak of the Pentagon Papers, which today would almost certainly be grounds for the incarceration or “disappearance” of the offending journalists. The Vietnam War was still being escalated. Four million would eventually die in that insane 30-year-long war. After the conclusion of the press conference, I asked the Defence Minister about the government’s policy on dealing with climate change, and particularly about the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, and its prospective impact on the arctic environment. His answer was simple and terse: “Who cares about the permafrost?” He was then hustled away by his handlers before the press heard him raising his voice at me. I tore up my membership in the Liberal Party that day. The next day, his boss, PM Trudeau the Elder, gave a speech about the importance of protecting the environment.

Back then, as now, what I did not know about was as notable as what I did know (or thought I did). Like almost all citizens, I knew nothing about the US involvement in destabilizing and overthrowing a dozen governments in Latin America and at least as many in Asia, the Mideast and Africa. I knew nothing of the Canadian government’s complicity in US wars, surveillance, and propaganda campaigns. I knew nothing about the extent to which corporations, industry groups, foreign political groups, the “intelligence community” (the propaganda arm of the military-industrial complex), and ideological interest groups lobbied, bribed (there really is no other word for it), threatened, wrote legislation and press releases on behalf of, and otherwise corrupted governments and the political process in every country in the world, almost always against the interests of their citizens. I knew nothing about the revolving doors of the military-industrial complex (a term coined by Eisenhower, hardly a lefty, who was fearful of its potential power and influence) between corporations, lobbyists, government bureaucrats, and politicians across the political spectrum.

I was credulous. I keep learning that I still am credulous, that I allow people I know and trust to convince me of things that are simply wrong. They’re not deliberately lying to me. They’re just as credulous as I am, inadvertently parroting outright misinformation in the genuine belief of its veracity.

So I have reached the point where I only tentatively believe anything, and I am inclined to challenge everything I’m told. I am suspicious of anecdotal “evidence” whose purpose seems most often to undermine the credibility of the greater preponderance of evidence, when that can even be known.

I tend to be least suspicious of reportage that encourages us to believe that the issue is extraordinarily complex, that takes the time to explain the history and context behind the issue in nuanced terms, and which rather than taking sides asserts that everyone is doing what they think is right, that every action is understandable if one makes the effort, that there are no “good guys” or “bad guys”, and that some seemingly-incompatible statements about an issue can both be correct, such as this list from former British Ambassador Craig Murray:

a) The Russian invasion of Ukraine is illegal: Putin is a war criminal.
b) The US led invasion of Iraq was illegal: Blair and Bush are war criminals.

a) Russian troops are looting, raping and shelling civilian areas.
b) Ukraine has [ultra-nationalist, hate-mongering] Nazis entrenched in the military and in government, and commits atrocities against Russians.

a) Zelenskyy is an excellent war leader.
b) Zelenskyy is corrupt, and an oligarch puppet.

a) Russian subjugation of Chechnya was brutal and a disproportionate response to an independence movement.
b) Russian intervention in Syria saved the Middle East from an ISIS controlled jihadist state.

a) Russia is extremely corrupt with a very poor human rights record.
b) Western security service narratives such as “Russiagate” and “Skripals” are highly suspect, politically motivated and unevidenced.

a) The Russian military industrial complex is powerful [and dangerous] in its own [sphere of influence], as is Russian nationalism.
b) NATO expansion is unnecessary, threatening to Russia and benefits nobody but the military industrial complex.

The full article linked above explains in almost excruciating detail why the (a) and (b) statements in this list can both be true, and what that means for the sorry state of our understanding of the world and the dangers of one-sided perspectives, which are almost always rife with mis- and disinformation.

We want things to be simple; I get that. But they’re not. It takes time and energy to tease out the complex truth about what’s happening right now in Syria, in China, in Yemen, in Ethiopia, in Venezuela, in Palestine, in Cuba, in Afghanistan, and in dozens of other countries in economic, social, ecological and political free fall. This is especially true when there are vested interests that don’t want you to know what’s going on. Since most of us have neither the time nor the energy to study them, and to separate the truth from the mountains of propaganda, mis- and disinformation, we are paralyzed into inaction, and ignorance. Or, perhaps worse, we are credulously propelled into buying one simplistic and partisan perspective that plays right into the hands of those who benefit from it.

I was going to make a list of some of the things I was credulous about, at various stages of my life, to my great embarrassment. But the list is rather depressing, and what’s more important, I think, is to understand why I was (and still am) so credulous. Here are some of the reasons I came up with:

  1. The deception fit well with what I previously knew (or thought I knew) and was already inclined to believe.
  2. The person who deceived me had not, to the best of my knowledge, deceived me before, even unintentionally.
  3. The person who deceived me was very passionate (but in an engaging, not an out-of-control way).
  4. The person who deceived me was very articulate, and sounded dispassionate — they had no apparent reason to want to deceive me.
  5. The person who deceived me clearly honestly believed what they were telling me.
  6. The person who deceived me cherry-picked the “evidence” they gave me, or it had already been cherry-picked for them when they learned of it.
  7. The deception was not about a subject that was particularly important or urgent to me, so I was less concerned about its veracity than I might otherwise have been.
  8. Multiple people, who were not obviously drawing on the same evidence or source, related the same deception to me.
  9. I actually participated in deceiving myself by filling in gaps in what the person deceiving me had actually said, in my zeal to make sense of what they had said.
  10. I felt it was important to have some position or opinion on the subject, for a variety of reasons, so I was amenable to a possible deception in the absence of other data, evidence or arguments.

This is so human (as the chart above, which reveals the cognitive failures behind each of the above reasons, illustrates). And it is so human to exploit these failures when deceiving (deliberately or not) other people. We want people to believe what we do. We want people to reinforce our own beliefs. We want to feel knowledgeable, informed.

I am picturing a tribe of very early homo sapiens, living together even before the advent of language that enables us so treacherously to deceive. They are calling and signalling to each other. A member of another tribe has been spotted, they signal, an invader in the tribe’s territory. What will determine what they believe, now, and hence what actions they take? Will it be based on the truth, the evidence, or on their predisposition as to what they are already inclined to believe, or even on some deceit, intentional or not?

Such credulousness seems to have been evolutionarily selected for in our species, and maybe in most species. Leads to faster decision-making, and hence faster, more decisive, less hesitant, less divisive action. I guess that works, in terms of survival.

But at such a cost.

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

It’s About Time

This is another article about radical non-duality. It’s written mostly because I can’t help thinking about it, and hence trying to ‘figure it out’, writing being my primary means of thinking things through. And it’s posted for the very few who might find this subject intriguing, or even resonant in some way. If that’s not you, please don’t waste your time reading it. Instead, read this remarkable article by a former British Ambassador with a deep, long-standing, personal familiarity with world affairs, and particularly eastern Europe.

cartoon by Michael Leunig

The sticking point for most people who explore radical non-duality is the assertion that there is no such thing as time — that it’s a complete illusion, a mental construct, a psychosomatic misunderstanding of what actually is.

It’s a reach to try to conceive that there is no one — there are no selves — or that everything that seems to be real is just an appearance. That everything is just appearing, for no reason. But even if you can buy that as an interesting possibility, the idea that there is no time — no past, no future, and (sorry Eckhart) no present, no Now — seems a stretch too far.

There are physicists and quantum scientists who have posited that time is just a mental construct, and who assert that getting rid of the idea, the variable, of time, makes explaining much of what seems to be happening in the world very much simpler. Time, they say, is something our brains concocted to avoid the distressing conclusion that everything is happening at once, or not at all. But for the most part even scientists find it necessary to invent a surrogate. Some “no-such-thing-as-time” advocates, for example, say that change or ‘relationship’ is the real variable, and time is just an arbitrary way of labeling change or relationship. Others say that “consciousness” is the universal, and that time is just a placeholder for how consciousness ‘moves’ and manifests itself.

Still, it is vexing to science to realize that e=mc2 becomes nonsense when c, the speed of light, is zero, because without time there can be no speed, no movement, since movement seemingly occurs ‘over’ time. There can be no big bang that happened at some point in time. There can be no movement of atoms or their constituents. There cannot even be entropy.

But radical non-duality is saying something that is, well, even more radical than that: Not only is there no time; there is no change, no movement, and no consciousness, either individual or universal. There is no thing separate from anything else, nothing that ‘really’ exists. There is only what is apparently happening. Outside of time. Outside of ‘you’.

This of course boggles the mind, and offends our sensibilities. The sense of things changing over time, in a linear continuity, seems unassailable. Even if everything is, in fact, “happening at once”, in what one physicist calls a universe that is perhaps nothing more than “an infinite field of possibilities”, then it’s just unimaginable that the brain is able to parse all of these apparently happening things into a sensible order, one that makes sense of their randomness, if there were not some “reality” to that sequence.

But our brain apparently makes sense of dreams, of cloud formations, and of other perceptions that have no “real” basis in reality. Why is it not possible that what we think of as “real”, including the existence of time, is just the apparent brain’s feverish patterning and model-making of its received sensory perceptions — just “make-believe” because that’s the best the brain can do. And just as we get fooled by the appearance of the sun going around the earth, or the appearance of pixels on a screen portraying characters doing things in time, why is it not possible that this “make-believe” reality conjured up by the apparent brain is equally foolish, incorrect, just a valiant but bad guess about what actually is?

Why should there have to be anything actually real, including “real” time? Why shouldn’t “that’s just what appears to be happening” be as valid an explanation of our seeming reality, as the hole-filled and constantly-revised theories of scientists, and the easily-fooled “evidence” of our senses? Why does there have to be a reason for things to be as they apparently are?

This is not to advocate that we should give up trying to make sense of the world. As a radical Piersonian behaviouralist, I don’t believe we have any choice in what we apparently do, think or believe, so far be it from me to advocate anything to anyone. I just find the message of radical non-duality to be so appealing, so elegant in its simplicity, so internally consistent, so irrefutable, and so resonant with moments in my seeming past when “I” was suddenly not there, that I am entranced by it.

The fact that there are people spreading this message not as a theory but as a statement of what is obvious to “them” and has been obvious “since their illusory selves apparently fell away” makes it even more compelling to me, especially when “they” are willing to spend thousands of hours freely chatting about this to anyone who has questions about it, and do so with little or no interaction with other radical non-duality “messengers”, and they mostly articulate it convincingly despite having no apparent predisposition for eloquence or predilection for sophistry or guile.

I, of course, cannot say it is “obvious” to me. My self is “still” very much in evidence “here”. There have been glimpses “here” when that was not the case, and they undoubtedly have increased my susceptibility to the radical non-duality message. It’s likely the combination of those glimpses, plus the elegance of the message, plus the patient, sensible and selfless articulation of the message by its messengers to thousands of curious but incredulous listeners, that has won me over.

But back to the questions about time. I wrote before about the phenomena of apparent causality and apparent memories. There is no need for causality to “explain why” what’s apparently happening is apparently happening. There doesn’t have to be a reason, any more than there has to be a reason that a cloud formation looks like a child’s face. And there can be a recalling of seemingly “past” happenings without there needing to be a memory of something that “really” happened. Just as there can be a recalling of events in a dream, events that didn’t really happen but certainly appeared to happen.

So what about evolution? There seems an unarguable logic to the fact that adaptations of species occurred over time in response to changing environments. Billions of people have bought into that logic.

But people also read and enjoy books whose characters develop and evolve over time, and talk about those characters and their evolution as if they were real. There is no reason why apparent evolution isn’t just another compelling story that makes a lot of sense to us, but is nonetheless just another story, like the stories we hear about who the good guys and bad guys were in a war or movie, and the story of “progress” through history.

Radical non-duality says that all stories, including the story of evolution, are just the self’s misunderstanding our brains’ patterning as describing something real, when it is not. There is only what is apparently happening, for no reason or purpose and with no meaning, other than that assigned to it by the self, which seems compelled to attach meaning and substance and relationship to everything. The fact that billions of people believe gods are real, and that they did things and continue to do things, doesn’t mean that they are real, and doesn’t make the stories about them true.

Is there anyone who doesn’t perceive time as linear and real? Yes — those conveying the message of radical non-duality all assert that there is no such thing as time, that everything is perpetually new, and that it is impossible to explain it to those who perceive and conceive time to be real. Why impossible? Because our languages are entirely constructed around the illusions that individual things and separate people are absolutely real (nouns and pronouns), that things are actually rather than apparently happening (verbs), and that they are happening in time (tenses).

So then why aren’t the messengers of radical non-duality rendered moot, unable to use self-made languages at all? Because when this colossal misunderstanding is seen through, there is an understandable desire to talk about it (or perhaps not talk about it, for fear of being thought mad). And speaking without using nouns, pronouns and verbs is absurd — words are just tools, after all, and don’t need to represent anything real or precise to be useful, especially when they’re the only tools we have.

And to be clear, these messengers seem perfectly functional in all respects, indistinguishable from those of us seemingly afflicted with selves and the belief that time is real. The realization that there is no real time has not changed how they appear to behave to their families and friends. “After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water,” and all that.

When a radical non-duality messenger says “I drank tea with my sister this morning”, they are speaking figuratively. It’s a way of saying something like “There is remembering of sibling tea-drinking apparently happening”, which would come across as obscure and annoying if they were to say it that way. But there is no tea, no I, no sister, and no morning. There is just the appearance of things happening. Not in the past, because there is no past. Not all-together-in-a-jumble now, because there is no now. “I drank tea with my sister this morning” is just a story. It may have seemed absolutely real to the messenger’s sister, who might nod when hearing that sentence. But while the sentence is totally coherent to both the messenger and the messenger’s sister, the meaning of what is being said is utterly different.

Everything that we think of as happening in or over time — even life and death — are likewise just apparent happenings, not real. There is no time within or over which any event can really happen. Its apparent rather than real occurrence does not in any way diminish the intensity of accompanying feelings or thoughts, however. Astonishingly (and perhaps incredibly to most selves) there can be overwhelming, unbearable, inconsolable, agonizing feelings happening, even ‘when’ there is no real self to feel them. Indeed, the message is that there are already no selves, and the realization of that truth changes nothing except the internal story that the self tells about the apparent events.

This is perhaps the hardest part of the radical non-duality message to explain. This message is not an attempt to (and offers nothing to) inure, desensitize, dissociate or numb oneself or others from the seeming harsh ‘realities’ of the world. It is not in any way nihilistic. It is not a denial of reality, but rather an illumination of the true nature of reality, which cannot be seen through the confusing and misunderstanding veil of the self. The message offers no path, no comfort, and no compromise. It offers nothing to the self at all.

In short, how we make sense of things is not how it actually is. We — more precisely our ‘selves’ — believe that we are real, that separate things are real, that things are really happening, and that they are really happening in time. It is perhaps understandable that we are mistaken. Time, Einstein said, is a “stubbornly persistent illusion”, and so are our selves and our perceptions of separateness and reality.

‘We’, and our persistent illusions, are a kind of cosmic recursive programming error based on the false premise that things can and must be known and made sense of. There is no making sense of this, and no need to make sense of it. This is already everything, apparently happening, for no reason. There has never been ‘us’, separate things that know things, and never will be. Nor time to know them.

It’s a simple as that. There is no ‘time’ to lose.

Posted in Radical Non-Duality | 4 Comments