How should world society respond to the approach of human extinction compelled by implacable external forces, such as: radioactive fallout after a global nuclear war (as in Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach), or an alien invasion by a species of technologically superior beings from outer space, or an impending collision between Earth and a massive planetoid, or (as seems most likely today) by runaway and irreversible Climate Change?
The general question has long been the seed for spinning out entertaining speculations in fantasy novels and science-fiction movies, but now it has become a serious matter of immediate concern for an increasing number of geo- and social- scientists and social planners. Mayer Hillman, an 86-year-old social scientist, urban planner and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute in England, says (in an article published by The Guardian on 26 April 2018, https://amp.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/26/were-doomed-mayer-hillman-on-the-climate-reality-no-one-else-will-dare-mention):
“We’re doomed. — The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so. — I’m not going to write anymore [about the projected consequences of runaway Climate Change] because there’s nothing more that can be said. — With doom ahead, making a case for cycling as the primary mode of transport [instead of automobiles] is almost irrelevant. — We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels. So many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness. These things, which hardly use fossil fuels, are what we must focus on. [Hillman is amazed that our thinking rarely stretches beyond 2100 when discussing scientific predictions on the increase of average global temperature.] This is what I find so extraordinary when scientists warn that the temperature could rise to 5C or 8C. What?, and stop there? What legacies are we leaving for future generations? In the early 21st century, we did as good as nothing in response to Climate Change. Our children and grandchildren are going to be extraordinarily critical. — Even if the world went zero-carbon today that would not save us because we’ve gone past the point of no return. [Action by individuals to limit their ‘carbon footprint’ – their direct and indirect production of greenhouse gases is] as good as futile. [National action by the UK along the same lines is also irrelevant] because Britain’s contribution is minute. Even if the government were to go to zero-carbon it would make almost no difference. — [The world as a whole would have to go zero-carbon, but can that be done without the collapse of civilization?] I don’t think so. Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families? — Wealthy people will be better able to adapt but the world’s population will head to regions of the planet such as northern Europe which will be temporarily spared the extreme effects of climate change. How are these regions going to respond? We see it now. Migrants will be prevented from arriving. We will let them drown. — [Few scientific, political; and religious leaders have been honest with the public on all this, in order to protect their own positions] I don’t think they can [be forthright] because society isn’t organised to enable them to do so. Political parties’ focus is on jobs and GDP, depending on the burning of fossil fuels. — [Can the now obvious signs of advancing Climate Change spark an epiphany in humanity’s collective mind, and cause it to relinquish its ultimately self-destructive fossil fueled binge?] It depends on what we are prepared to do. Standing in the way is capitalism. Can you imagine the global airline industry being dismantled when hundreds of new runways are being built right now all over the world? It’s almost as if we’re deliberately attempting to defy nature. We’re doing the reverse of what we should be doing, with everybody’s silent acquiescence, and nobody’s batting an eyelid.”
Now, let us consider the 2017 American movie Downsizing, given this context.
Downsizing is an intelligent and, by American standards, subtle cinematic science-fiction social satire about the individual’s problem of securing sufficient wealth to comfortably sustain their lives in a secure cosmopolitan community for the duration of their lifespan. This movie was conceived by Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor, and directed by Payne who has numerous successful movies to his credit: Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011) and Nebraska (2013). Downsizing was not well-received by the majority of the viewing public because it is a film about ideas, thus requiring thinking for its enjoyment, as opposed to being a cinematic delivery vehicle for emotive sensations and jolting stimuli to provide passive unthinking viewers with 135 minutes of thrilling distraction.
The central pit in Downsizing, around which the screenplay and the screenwriters’ implied social commentaries have been grown like the flesh of a stone-fruit, is that science has discovered a process for harmlessly shrinking living cells and organisms, enabling humans to be reduced to Lilliputian size so that their existing savings and equity in the “big world” can economically sustain them in lifetimes of luxury in the “small world,” because their “ecological footprints” – both for consumption and waste production – have been miniaturized. The attraction for “getting small” is basically a get-rich-quick scheme leading to an endlessly sustainable high-life coupled with the pleasurable sense of eliminating one’s big-world guilt over contributing to Climate Change and the environmental degradation of the planet, which is caused by its “overpopulation” with “big” capitalist-minded, wasteful and exploitative people. In brief: having it all.
The problem with making an expensive ($68M) artful cinematic work whose purpose is to stimulate thoughtful societal awareness – if you want to recoup your investment – is that you have to market it successfully to the masses of cinema-viewing yahoos. Downsizing was released on 22 December 2017, and as of 1 February 2018 (its theatrical closing) had only grossed $55M. It just didn’t hit the yahoo g-spot, and they hated it for boring them.
The “lesson” in the screenplay of Downsizing, which was delivered in a clear sedately-paced and understated way (which I like), is that the solution for achieving fulfilling individual lives in peaceful and comforting societies is for the people of such would-be societies to take care of one another: popular humanitarian socialism. Regardless of whether a society enjoys being situated in a natural or artificial paradise and is economically secure, or whether it is environmentally and economically stressed and doomed to extinction, the best that it can ever be for all of its inhabitants during its duration is entirely the result of its peoples’ commitment to construct mutually fulfilling lives of cooperation and compassion, instead of seeking to escape – from the masses of the less fortunate – into exclusive refuges and redoubts of enclosed privilege to continue with lives of egotistical self-centeredness and selfish indifference.
This message is ancient. It was part of the Buddha’s “Triple Jewel” teaching to his disciples and fellow monks and nuns (the Sangha), to ‘take care of one another’:
I will go to the Buddha for refuge.
I will go to the Dharma [the teachings of Buddha; the Buddhist way of life] for refuge.
I will go to the Sangha [harmonious community] for refuge.
The Buddhist sense of ‘taking refuge’ expressed here is not a running away from the rest of the world, but a commitment for living a truer life within it, based on Buddhist precepts.
There have been many book and movie stories centered on the idea of: individual fulfillment found through mutual help for securing group survival if possible, versus seeking individual escape from group peril, and from guilt over abandoning responsibility. Three such stories that came to my mind while pondering the movie Downsizing were the films: Lost Horizon (1937), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Zardoz (1974).
Lost Horizon is Frank Capra’s film of the James Hilton fantasy novel about Shangri-La: a fabulous and peaceful Buddhist-style refuge from modern society and its torments, situated in a life-extending green valley that is hidden within the otherwise frigid and snowy expanse of the high Himalayas. But, can Shangri-La truly be an escape?
The Day the Earth Stood Still is Robert Wise’s movie of Edmund H. North’s screenplay of Harry Bates’s story of an alien ambassador, Klaatu, and his all-powerful robot, Gort (with a heat-ray beam-weapon dematerializer), who arrive in a Flying Saucer to deliver a message to humanity from an alien Federation of Planets: live peacefully on Earth and join our Federation as an independent planet, but do not militarize space with your rockets and nuclear bombs, because we would take that as a mortal threat and then our space-patrolling robot police, like Gort, would “reduce your Earth to a burned-out cinder.” Humanity’s escape to the good life, which is offered in this movie fantasy, would be achieved by forsaking war-making in all its forms to instead gain the advanced knowledge and technology of Klaatu’s interplanetary civilization, and that technology would vastly enhance the quality-of-life of the popular humanistic socialism that humanity would have to adopt as its new social paradigm.
Zardoz is John Boorman’s film about a far future post-apocalyptic immiscibly stratified static society that is suddenly ruptured by violence against its tiny elite, which results in a complete blending of humanity and a rebirth of human evolution. The Eternals are non-aging humans who live in a paradisal community, the Vortex, bubbled from the external misery by invisible force fields, and containing advanced endlessly-fueled hidden technology that automatically maintains the Eternals’ unending and idyllic existences. All the fruits of humanity’s previous achievements are now maintained in the Vortex, but the Eternals are all bored with their immortal lives of effortless omniscience and leisure. The vast expanse of the Outlands beyond the Vortex is a wasteland inhabited by the Brutals, people reduced to being isolated dumb animals without any civilization or social cohesion, scrounging through the wreckage of the previous world for each individual’s survival. Among the Brutals is a horse-riding semi-organized militia of enforcers, the Exterminators, who receive guns from Zardoz, a god in the form of a huge flying stone head that orders the Exterminators to enslave defenseless Brutals into chain-gangs to perform rudimentary agricultural labor, or other such work as mining, as might be required to supply the Vortex with what its denizens desire. The Exterminators punish any infraction and every failure by a Brutal – however trivial – with instant death by gunfire. The Exterminators, all men, also exult in their power and preference by their god, Zardoz, by freely raping and pillaging among the Brutals. Zardoz tells them: “The gun is good.” It is the hobby and amusement of Arthur Frayn, one of the Eternals, to carry on the charade of being Zardoz (piloting the stone head, and supplying the Exterminators with commands and cascades of firearms). It happens that through an instance of Arthur Frayn’s carelessness one of the Exterminators, Zed, manages to get into the Vortex and once there evolves despite an oppressive captivity, from Brutal ignorance to Eternal knowledge, and this leads to the complete and violent death of Vortex society, and transfiguration of humanity. The movie Zardoz is a dark – black – analog to the much gentler if still subtly sharp Downsizing.
The essential lesson of responding to the approach of a destructive inevitability beyond your society’s power is to engage in compassionate cooperation to make your society as good as it can be for as long as you and it can be made to last, and to find your life’s fulfillment in doing so.
This idea is captured visually so simply in the last moments of Downsizing that it remains invisible to the majority of the viewing public. And so our fractious collectivity cruises onward, untrammeled, towards its willfully unexpected collision with fate.
Societal Death or Transfiguration?, Cinema Visions of Humanity Facing Extinction
30 April 2017
Of related interest:
The Righteous And The Heathens of Climate And Capitalism
12 March 2012
Borderline Personality Disorder is the mental illness of the neglected children of self-absorbed parents, who devoted themselves to the upkeep of their own personal dramas, and to their attention- and status-seeking optional-affliction luxury illnesses: the anti-stoics. The preventive for the children’s benefit is parental self-help psychotherapy.
Diagnosis: Luxury Illnesses of Anti-Stoics
(1.) Constructing and maintaining a voluntarily extravagant personal drama —>
(2.) requires high income (or the sacrifice of high expenses) —>
(3.) to produce, from egotistical and emotional self-absorption, a personal “story” that is superior at drawing attention from “less interesting” people —>
(4.) and which includes emotive luxury accessories, like therapists and lawyers, for status-enhancing display, —>
(5.) all allowing the storyteller to imagine that recounting her socially magnetic drama shows off her advanced sophistication (social superiority) and advanced knowledge (intellectual superiority).
I, along with billions of others, do not have the excess income or wealth to afford the upkeep of an extravagant personal drama, nor do I choose to make deep financial sacrifices for that purpose. I have to maintain a balanced psychological functioning in order to manage the dynamics of my personal life, and of my chosen commitments. However, others do have the luxury to indulge in dramatic self-absorption, or they choose to sacrifice other parts of their lives to do so.
Since the acquisition of language by homo sapiens in prehistory, people have been fascinated to huddle in front of flickering lights listening to a storyteller’s yarn, or to linger over a meal while absorbed by the personal narrative of a storyteller’s trials and tribulations. We are apes evolved to have our attention snared by stories; and apes evolved to gain attention, and thus followers and status, by the telling of our stories. The most compelling story for the storyteller is always that of her own personal drama.
The continuing construction and upkeep of an extravagantly dramatic personal story requires leisure time for self-indulgence and the exercise of egotism and recreational emotionalism. This requires financial means to free some of a person’s time from attending to obligations and practical necessities, as well as for the acquisition of flashy psycho-dramatic accessories – like psychiatric analysts, emotion-coddling therapists, and lawyers – that set the self-indulgent storyteller apart from ordinary folk who lead well-ordered boring lives.
Like a peacock’s display, the melodramatic richness of a drama queen’s ongoing tale, ornamented with references to acquired envy-inducing emotive bling, will draw in more people eager to surrender their attention and sympathy to massage the dramatist’s ego and elevate her social status: popularity!
Devotion by adults to this project of ego gratification by enhancing personal popularity through melodramatic woe-is-me storytelling generated out of narcissistic self-indulgence and voluntary victimhood, can rob children of their rightful claims on parents for functional attention and helpful and necessary service.
Children neglected by parental absence into self-absorption, and developing their own behaviors by copying and reacting to the models of living their parents exhibit, may be given their own therapists as compensation; and the purchase of that therapy adds to the accumulated proofs of psycho-dramatic conspicuous consumption by a self-focused parent. Dysfunctional mental processing, like Borderline Personality Disorder, can develop in the confused little minds of many such children.
We exclude from the criticisms here any mental illness that is an involuntary affliction, which is one caused by infections, diseases and genetic disorders that produce chemical imbalances in the brain, and by physical traumas from any source, which damage or destroy brain tissue. Such brain damage can lead to dysfunctional thinking and debilitating behavior by its blameless victims. We also exclude from the criticisms here individuals who acquired their mental illnesses as children because of the behavioral abuse and neglect by their parents; and we exclude the mental illness suffered by adult survivors of traumatizing experiences inflicted on them, such as violent crime, natural disasters and war.
Cure: Self-Help Psychotherapy
My recommended remedy is self-help psychotherapy by adults; its recipe is:
(1.) Know the Buddhist insights into the human condition, and also have some Buddhist compassion for the involuntarily afflicted of this world;
(2.) Make intelligent and logical use of Stoicism in the management of your life and the strengthening of your character;
(3.) Assist your critical introspection with the poetic Taoist methodology (for selecting commitments) and Confucian morality (for acting on those commitments) whose combination comprises the I Ching.
Your wealth may enable you to engage in egotistical and emotional self-indulgence, and to live in a dramatic state of stimulating neurosis without personally catastrophic consequences. However, your desire to gain attention and popularity by making poor behavioral choices whose consequences are presented as your sympathy-baiting story of victimization by voluntarily acquired luxury illnesses and afflictions, does not require our attention, nor demand our sympathy, nor obligate our empathy. But it does raise our grave concerns about your children.
The I Ching is an ancient Chinese book whose purpose is to aid an individual in making a decision, by estimating the best attitudes to adopt and actions to take in order to fare best given the nature of present personal circumstances, and their potential for improving if one adopted the attitudes and actions recommended.
This essay will briefly describe the Wilhelm-Baynes-Jung edition of the I Ching, which is in English, then why it can be useful to help guide personal action (without mumbo-jumbo), and finally the mechanics of actually using the book.
I Ching: The Book of Changes
The I Ching is a Chinese book of divination, from the end of the 2nd millennium BCE (most likely), whose interpretation was expanded philosophically during the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE) to describe the dynamic balance of opposites and the inevitability of change in the phenomenal realm. Perhaps the most compelling translation of the I Ching into English appeared in print in 1950. This particular version began as a translation from the ancient Chinese into German by Richard Wilhelm guided by the Chinese scholar Lao Nai-hsüan, and was made during the years of World War I. In about 1927, Wilhelm’s friend the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung asked one of his American students, Cary F. Baynes (the former wife of Jaime de Angulo) who worked as a translator of Jung’s books into English, to translate the Wilhelm edition of the I Ching from German to English. This effort was slowed by the death of Richard Wilhelm in 1930, the death of Cary’s husband Helton Godwin Baynes in 1943, and dislocations resulting from the social turbulence of the 1930s and 1940s. The English translation was completed in 1949, and the book included an extensive forward by C. G. Jung explaining how to use the I Ching for divining the right course of action on a question of serious personal interest to the seeker.
The philosophy of the I Ching is of the organic unity and intrinsic appropriateness of the unforced unresisted phenomenal realm, or Nature, called the Tao; and the dynamic balance of opposites of every type, the ying and yang, whose ceaseless interplay give an illusion of duality, yet which dance is really just an alternation of images of the underlying eternal monism, the Tao.
The purpose of the I Ching is to guide the seeker toward a proper psychological balance for the circumstances of the moment. Such balance is essential when making the significant decisions of a lifetime. The propriety of that balance is defined by a moral code that can be characterized as Confucian combined with Taoist flexibility. The I Ching was already ancient by the time of Confucius (K’ung Fu-tzu, 551-479 BCE) and the coalescing of formalized Taoism (traditionally 6th century BCE, more likely 5th-4th century BCE), which movement identified its founding text as the Tao Te Ching, a masterful collection of poetic logically ambiguous yet conceptually clear aphorisms ascribed to legendary author Lao Tzu. Modern scholarship is uncertain about the historical authenticity of Lao Tzu, and some scholars believe the Tao Te Ching is a collective work by now unknown authors. Regardless, the Tao Te Ching is one of the finest gems of world literature, philosophy and psychology. The Confucian school of thought is one of building up systems of social organization from simple elements and rules. Taoists see society as immersed in the organic whole of a phenomenal existence of infinite fractal complexity, hence impossible to systematize by reductionism. So, the interpretative commentaries that became attached to the I Ching during the Warring States Period were primarily written by Confucians, which infused the I Ching that has come down to us, with sensible and honorable Confucian morality.
For the man or woman of today’s modern Westernized culture, more interested in utility that in airy metaphysical prattle, the I Ching can be used for practical divination by means of intuitive fuzzy logic: a way to reshuffle the imagination to see present circumstances from a fresh perspective, and then to visualize how these circumstances could change into a specifically different situation as a result of adopting a particular attitude or performing a recommended action. The answer is in the question, and both — an illusory duality — come out of you.
The section above was excerpted from a large article on Asian philosophy, see
How To Use The I Ching
The I Ching characterizes an individual’s present circumstances — specific to the question burning in the seeker’s mind — with an image made of six stacked horizontal lines: the hexagram. The lines can be of two types: “strong” (solid) or “weak” (broken), a line with a break (blank space) in the middle. Given these two types of line, it is possible to form 64 different hexagrams.
The hexagram is an image that appears “naturally” and “spontaneously” out of the the same present reality that is expressing you along with the particular quandary that is occupying your mind. Hence, by analyzing that hexagram as a generalized abstraction of your present, you might find a helpful change of perspective that could lead you to adopt new attitudes and take new actions, which would resolve the concern in your mind.
So, that is the essential value of the I Ching: it can surprise you with a shift of perspective that comes out of your own mind as it ponders the dynamics of your own living. No mumbo-jumbo is required, the modern person can use the I Ching without skepticism, as a technique of “spinning the arrow” and “throwing the dice” in your own mind to get a fresh view of your own reality.
How do you determine your hexagram of the moment? In ancient times, hexagrams might be seen to appear accidentally, such as by a bundle of straw falling at your feet and six or more pieces of straw forming a haphazard hexagram; or the cracking of a tortoise shell, from being roasted over a fire, forming the illuminated image of a hexagram. The appearance of these accidental hexagrams would occur while you were deep in thought about some personal question. Later, methods based on randomness for the intentional determination of the moment’s hexagram were developed. I will describe the three-coin method.
Select three coins; I prefer three different types of coin (e.g., US quarter, dime and nickel). Hold them in a closed hand while you think clearly about a specific personal question or decision you want guidance about. Be serious, the exercise is a pointless waste of time otherwise. In ancient times they would have said, poetically, that the “energy” (chi) and “vibrations” (tao) expressing you while you hold this clearly focused question in mind would infuse themselves into the coins warming in you fist, so they would naturally express “you” when forming the hexagram.
Now, shake the coins in your hand, and toss them in front of you (gently so they land close by and don’t fly away). For each coin that lands “heads” assign a value of 3. For each coin that lands “tails” assign a value of 2. Add these three values to determine the numerical value (or strength) of the first line. For example: three heads has the value 9, three tails has the value 6, two heads and one tail yields the value 8, one head and two tails yields 7.
Begin drawing your hexagram, this first line is at the bottom. The line is solid if it has an odd numerical value (7 or 9). The line is broken if it has a even numerical value (6 or 8). It is useful to mark the numerical value next to the line. Repeat this coin-toss process to form the second line, which is drawn above the previous line. Continue until you have a stack of six lines (the sixth line being the top line found with the sixth three-coin toss).
Now you have your hexagram. Consult the book’s interpretation of that hexagram (and the interpretations of each line in the hexagram), and think about how the images presented could be analogies of aspects of your personal situation: THINK!
From the above, you have gained an interpretation of “you now.” What about “the future”? In the conceptions systematized as the I Ching, any solid line with numerical value 9, and any broken line with numerical value 6 were considered so charged that they could spontaneously change into their opposites: solid to broken, and broken to solid. Form a second hexagram from the first, by changing solid lines of value 9 into broken lines, and changing broken lines of value 6 into solid lines, and leaving lines of values 7 or 8 as they were.
This second hexagram represents a future set of personal circumstances that is expected to evolve out of your present, particularly if you follow the recommendations described by the I Ching in its interpretations of each line in the hexagrams as well as the I Ching’s interpretation of the hexagrams as a whole. Again, the personal specifics come out of YOUR THINKING about how the poetic imagery by the I Ching would be analogous to your situation. If you do draw a hexagram that can transform into a second one, then this “change” is the kind of future-casting that the I Ching can provide.
If you treat the I Ching as a technique (something serious) rather than a game (something trivial), you will find it helpful in many instances when you want to clear your mind of confusion, and arrive at useful conclusions. The fundamental point about use of the I Ching is not “how accurate is it?” as if the I Ching were a mysterious external agency or “black box” telling your fortune, but that the I Ching is a random-process moralistic-poetic thought-triggering technique for you to apply to yourself to aid in your own self-analytical thinking.
Try it. If it helps and you like it, then you’ve gained a new tool. If you don’t find it useful, no blame, forget about it and move on.
Stoicism is a wonderful topic, which Kathryn Morse (a friend of mine) brought up today by pointing me to a video, linked here:
The philosophy of Stoicism – Massimo Pigliucci
19 June 2017
Here are some ideas and books I thought of, as a result.
There is the idea of a “perennial philosophy,” which phrase Aldous Huxley used as the title of his 1945 book on comparative religion/philosophy, and which wikipedia defines as: “Perennial philosophy, also referred to as Perennialism and perennial wisdom, is a perspective in modern spirituality that views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric and exoteric knowledge and doctrine has grown.”
I see the Western version of the perennial philosophy of “stoicism” and self-command as being the combination of four elements:
1, the magisterial cosmic consciousness of Herakleitos (Heraclitus);
2, the truth-bound pragmatic Cynic (Dog) philosophy of Diogenes;
3, the philosophy of Epicurus (the actual philosophy of being appreciative as the route to being happy, not the later and still existing complete misrepresentation as ‘lazy pleasure seeking’); and
4, the stoicism of Zeno (as described in the video).
I see the Eastern version of this same philosophical nexus as being Zen Buddhism in particular, and Buddhism in general.
Here are four books I like on the Western tradition:
1. Herakleitos And Diogenes, translated from the Greek by Guy Davenport (during 1976-1979), Grey Fox Press (San Francisco), 1994 (4th printing).
2. The Epicurus Reader, by Brad Inwood & D. S. Hutchinson, Hackett Publishing Company (Indianapolis), 1994.
3. Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, Dover Publications (Mineola, NY), 1997, a reprint of an 1862 version by George Long published by Bell of London. (Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is perhaps the most popular volume of stoic literature.)
4. Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl; original publication in German in 1946, earliest copyright in English in 1959, last preface by Frankl in 1992, most recent edition published by Beacon Press (Boston) 2006.
Four of my favorite books on the Eastern tradition of this ‘stoical nexus’ are (original texts from oldest to newest):
1. The Dhammapada, translated from the Pali by Juan Mascaró (by 1971), Penguin Books (Great Britain), 1973.
2. One Robe, One Bowl, The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan (‘Ryokan,’ without the bar over the “o”), translated by John Stevens, Weatherhill (NY & Tokyo), 1977.
3. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps (transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki) in the 1930s and published by Charles E. Tuttle (Rutland, VT, & Tokyo), republished by Anchor Books (Garden City, NY), ~1960s (my guess as it’s not stated).
4. The Way of Zen, by Alan W. Watts, Vintage Books (NY), 1957.
I discuss a great deal more about the topic (the Eastern wing), and some of these books, at the following website:
Asian Philosophies, Oppenheimer, & the New Age
“He has gone where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no more.”
—Jonathan Swift (1666-1747), his epitaph for himself, from the Latin
People listen to what they want to hear. What they want to hear is that they are righteous, they deserve what they take, they are free agents of independent mind, they are valued members of their group, their beliefs are justified, their actions are blameless, and they have no requirement to change. Prophets are doomed to exile accompanied by their insanity.
We huddle in our comfort groups, behind the circled wagons of our circular-logic orthodoxies, preserving the warm certainties of our virginal delusions against the hostile assaults of painful reality; our brave protectors sending out righteous fire onto a heathenish enemy intent on our dissolution. But God is on our side, because we created Him. He is our disembodied superiority, the source point of our primacy, the divine root of our power. So long as our circle remains unbroken, we bask in the certainty of this heavenly delusion, the Eden womb of ignorance. Truth is cold, knowledge is hell, awareness is exile.
This is why “under God” must stay in our loyalty prayer to our national flag; of course it is unconstitutional, but thank God our Supreme Court understands the will of the people is beyond constitution and law, and yearns most deeply for the one true faith to unite us all in one true state under one true God — unchallenged by the unthinkable.
Faith and religion must be crammed down the throats of non-believers because until all conform, believers insecure in their belief will agonize over their fears and doubts. People who have actually had a religious experience do not require anything of anyone else, at most they feel joy they may wish to share and a sense of compassion for the continued suffering of the unenlightened. Organized religion and dogmatic faith are impediments to actual religious experience. If you actually want to know God, you have to let go of religion. The burning bush of Moses, the blow that struck St. Paul off horseback, the fire that burned in St. Teresa’s heart are not for the weak, the self-satisfied, the fearful of denial being exposed; so instead, most choose to cling to religion. Religion is the great protector of prejudice, and our prejudices define the egos we cling to as self-definitions. How could we jeopardize THAT? How could we abandon ourselves to an overwhelming unknown that would burn all THAT away in a flash? And so the circles are drawn tight.
God, as the invention of war lords who justified their tyrannies by divine right descending from a remote Almighty above us, is very much the American God whose wrath falls on the poor of this earth, whom we war against for a greater good — to our benefit. This is why today even Salvadoran and Nicaraguan peasants, who may have lost family to the guns and machetes of our missionary wars, must surely feel some sadness as the most successful American fascist leader, Ronald Reagan, is laid to rest. Is not our glory worthy of such reverence? Do not our blessings from God deserve such honor? Surely, even those who may have felt the sting of actions by our freedom-loving agents and proxies, promoting the selfless civilizing efforts we make on behalf of world order, will understand the overriding benefits we have been empowered to provide. Surely, in time the world will be grateful, and God will bless us with the profits of that gratitude.
God, The Atheist
Are we alone in the universe? Will our rovers on Mars or our probes to the moons of Neptune and beyond ever find life? Instead of flinging ourselves into the cold, dark, near-vacuum vastness of space, seeking to answer “is there life in the universe?” (besides Earth), take a shortcut, go to the bathroom mirror and look at the universe to see the obvious: the universe is alive.
Imagine that our universe is just a fluke of randomness that clumped and rippled as it expanded away from the singularity of abstraction called the Big Bang — where nama and rupa, the names and forms carried by language can begin the illusion of containing the larger reality. Out of this, precipitated molecular fragments that settled as dusts and pooled as droplets drawn into the rocks and oceans of worlds drifting in space. In this one of uncountable and unknowable other worlds, conditions were just so that heat, light, water, minerals, organic molecular fragments, electricity and time could combine to produce DNA strands, and these in turn evolved with astonishing complexity and rapidity. A radiating cascade of energetics, flowing from the Big Bang through cosmogonic physics, material accretion during gravitational infall, radiochemical and thermo-electrochemical organosynthesis, biochemical elaboration, life, evolution, us.
If our science can dissect this process with sufficient precision, could we then produce life synthetically? Could we produce a sentient being directly from chemical elements, given sufficient energy, technology, and investment? Obviously, we can reproduce any living species — at least in theory — by modern artificial insemination, cloning and recombinant DNA methods. However, this is always never more than adjustments (of exceeding scientific refinement, to be sure) to existing natural biological systems of reproduction. To actually be God and create life, we would have to be able to do so from elements. We would synthesize our own DNA (which is routine today) and then build up our being from masses of basic synthetic organic material.
Our first synthetic beings were viruses, which were created by November 2003. Scientists in the United States assembled a bacteriophage — a virus which infects bacteria, not humans — by stitching together the more than 5,000 DNA building blocks of the organism, from pieces of DNA available commercially. It will be some time before American industry can synthesize a perfect butler, or a perfect prostitute.
A bacteriophage is certainly a being, but probably not one of significant consciousness. To prove to ourselves we are God, we would have to produce a creature of significant complexity and consciousness, like a hamster, or even synthetic soldiers for our military. Wouldn’t that prove we were God, and wouldn’t that prove there is no God? Then our Pledge of Allegiance could be corrected from “under God,” to “under Us,” note the capital U.
What the production of synthetic sentient life would prove is that sentience is an elemental embedded potentiality. Whether the chemist is cosmogonic, or geochemical, or a postdoctoral student in a laboratory, the yeast of sentience is intrinsic to the chemicals of life, and if the recipe is followed the hand of the maker is irrelevant. It is that intrinsic potentiality of sentience that is God. So we are God, inasmuch as we are no more than the dust and ooze of the universe and God suffuses it all, and we are not God in that we can never possess an exclusive unique power to create synthetic subservient life. Life we can create, and we may learn more ways to do so, but it will never be other than we ourselves are.
So the Almighty — God the Tory Lord — is a fiction. God is a communist and an atheist, and we are it! Tat vam asi — you are that.
Imagine the change in our politics if Americans could look into the mirror and see themselves as God, no different from looking into their neighbor’s eyes and seeing them as God, no different from looking into the beady little eyes of their child’s hamster and seeing it as God, and looking at news photos of Salvadoran and Nicaraguan peasants, and southeast Asian water buffalo boys, and seeing them as God as much as the viewers themselves. Our American God would die, his self-righteous empire would collapse, and with it the great weight of a bloody and godless idol would fall away.
East Of Eden
Jonathan Swift, the great satirist and champion of the Irish people against their oppression by his fellow Englishmen, went insane because he hated humanity but loved people. “His concern lay in his earnest, and as it happens his Christian, belief that mankind is not only susceptible to salvation but worthy of being saved.” Miriam Kosh Starkman continues, “Swift spoke meaningfully when he claimed to “hate and detest that animal called man,” but to “heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth;” for his professed hatred of the animal called man spells his dissatisfaction with mankind, and his love for the individual, his hope for mankind.” (1)
There are many Swifts in our modern day, railing against the follies and injustices of our time. Most are destined for obscurity, as American SUV excess lumbers blissfully on in our rapidly warming, desiccating world, which might snap into a mini Ice Age if the thermohaline cycle of ocean currents is diluted sufficiently by the melting of polar ice caps to change the planetary heat balance and with it world climates. Why worry, our SUVs will be perfect vehicles for cold, windy drought-parched land as long as we have…oops, no gas.
Today’s Swifts see the European tundra, the expanded American desert and the semi-arid savanna south of the Ohio River, the oil wars in the Persian Gulf, the Eastern Mediterranean and Southern Caribbean, the boat people from collapsed eco-systems landing on southern European and southern United States’ shores, the end of middle class comfort with the fading of oil-fired transportation and industry, the loss of carefree freedom with military needs never-ending in a world where survival is more difficult, living is more expensive, and life was never cheaper among its up to 8 billion people.
The Swifts of today know that if there is to be any equity, sanity, justice and peace in a climatically altered, largely oil-depleted world, in as soon as two decades, it will be that equity, sanity, justice and peace that carries forward from mechanisms that we form today and in these next few years. We will never adjust instantly, with grace and dignity, to the impact of abrupt climate change and significant oil depletion against our selfish and wasteful inertia.
The only certainty we have is that whatever changes occur, we will experience them together, locked on this island Earth. We have the wherewithal to “save ourselves” from what we can estimate might happen, if we get busy now, setting aside our petty penurious profiteering, and organize our use of resources for the best ends of society and for a planned transition to a sustainable national and world energetics.
Alas, the Swifts of today must go mad, because their messages violate every aspect of “what people like to hear.” It is the fate of most prophets to go insane to one degree or another. Driven by visions of a catastrophe they can see yet not prevent, they rail and become public nuisances, and must be forcibly silenced by stoning, or blocking with spam filters, and in any way possible sent off into a wilderness where their cries dissipate out of earshot from polite society. This time, our Titanic is the whole planet.
An American Prayer
God, let me experience life without thought of profit, preference or death. Let me know justice, by allowing me to experience the consequences of my acts as others experience them. Let me know You for what You are: the life in all, the knower, the known and the unknown. Let me be curious without fear of thought. Let me be expressive without thought of fear. Let me be forgiving, an instrument of compassion. Let me be alert, an instrument of knowledge. Let me be humane, an instrument of peace. Let me know truth. Let me be grateful.
1. Gulliver’s Travels And Other Writings By Jonathan Swift, edited by Miriam Kosh Starkman, New York: Bantam Books, 1962, ISBN 0-553-21232-X
The above was originally published as:
5 July 2004
My Pledge of Allegiance
I pledge allegiance to the flag
of the altered states in America,
and to the republic-of-dreams for which it stands,
one nation under the gods,
the goddesses, the spirits of the ancestors,
and the great unknowable void,
with liberty to imagine justice
28 June 2002
Capitalism is the worst disease for a planet.
Addiction is the worst disease for a body.
Bigotry is the worst disease for a mind.
Greed is the worst disease for a soul.
Compassion is the best health for a soul.
Rationality is the best health for a mind.
Moderation is the best health for a body.
Socialism is the best health for a planet.