Category: Human Nature

Will the last to go please turn out the lights…

I once heard author Jared Diamond speak about his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” As he was addressing Easter Island, a once forested isle that was eventually denuded by its inhabitants (leading to their demise), Diamond wondered aloud about the last tree. What must the guy who cut it down have been thinking? Now, as the global human population exceeds seven billion, and we watch real and potential cataclysm unfold around us—civil war, collapse of ocean and tropical ecosystems, global warming, storms and floods, the emergence of new pathogens, nuclear holocaust—I can’t help but  ponder the eventual extinction of our species. And I can’t help but wonder what it will be like for the last man or woman left...

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Maybe he was just bored…

Authorities are having trouble with motive behind the Las Vegas shooter.  None of the usual apply.  Here’s a comfortable white guy, no criminal history or history of violence, relatively wealthy, stable, has a girlfriend.  Not political or religious, not angry.  So why did he do it?  Maybe they’re looking too hard. Maybe the truth is more frightening yet.  Instead of fringe, maybe he was mainstream.  Maybe, like the masses, he was just bored....

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I’m reading “Straw Dogs,” by John Gray…

…and he is describing the fiction of the self, the fictive self. He posits that life is really only a series of discreet but connected perceptions tied together by the capacity for reflection we call consciousness. The crux of his view is that the self I think of as me does not exist. It is an illusion. Instead, I am only a series of analog moments that came about through subconscious stimulus-response reactions. What we attribute to decisions, whether the habitual decisions of living day-to-day or ethical decisions based on some moral code, are really responses to ingrained genetic, biological and cultural programming. Nor do I remember more than a nanoscopic (my word) subset of the responses I have made. Indeed, those conscious moments I have assembled into a “self” are only the few I actually recall, whether by choice or otherwise. As such, this illusory self has neither a future nor a past (as we tend to think of these), and never has had. Instead, we exist (we, that is, as in our thoughts, not our physical bodies) only moment to moment. Our construction of those moments into a past, like our projection of them into a future, is only an unconscious intellectual exercise.  [Note: Gray does not say this (maybe because he didn’t think if it), but he makes me think of Alzheimer’s patients…of whom we often...

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On significance (or lack thereof)…

Remember Genesis 1:28? “…God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'” As I write, the remnants of Harvey continue to wreak havoc in southeast Texas. Even as I sympathize, I remember the adage, “There but for chance…”.  My own home on a hill won’t flood, and we don’t get hurricanes in Tennessee. But tornados? Hail storms? Fire and lightning? As a certain ex-governor would say, “You betcha!” Harvey reminds us how wrong-headed we are about nature. Consciously or not, Genesis 1:28 still holds sway in Judeo-Christian and related cultures. But thinking we are in charge of anything is laughable. The lessons just keep coming: Chinese floods, 1931: 3.7 million to 4 million dead. Galveston Hurricane, 1900: 6,000-12,000 dead. Spanish influenza, 1918-1920: 50 to 100 million dead. Bhola Cyclone, modern Bangladesh, 1970: 500,000 dead. Indian Ocean tsunami, 2004: 230,000 dead. Haiti earthquake, 2010: 50,000 to 200,000 dead, depending on sources. Hurricane Katrina, 2005: $108B damages. Tōhuko earthquake and tsunami (i.e., Fukushima), 2011: $300B in damages. Superstorm Sandy, 2012: $75B damages. Hurricane Harvey, 2017: possibly $190B, per USA Today And what’s on the horizon? In the U. S. alone, we’ve yet to flood Biloxi or Miami or...

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Review of “the soul to the marionette: a short inquiry into human freedom,” by John gray

Uber-marionettes do not have to wait until they can fly before they can be free. Not looking to ascend into the heavens, they can find freedom in falling to earth. — John Gray, in “The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom.” (Farrah, Straus and Giroux, New York. 2015) From the title, one might expect Gray’s book to explore the concept of free will. But it does not, at least not directly. It is much more than that. Instead, the author explores a central premise of all modern religions: the idea that we can know who we are, from whence we come, the meaning of life and death. Or that, not knowing, we can somehow find out. His backdrop for the inquiry is the current secular faith in knowledge and science, which he interprets as the modern incarnation of ancient Gnosticism. In essence we either put our faith in the mythologies of religion, or in the equally groundless belief that we can rise above our limitations through knowledge.   Gray neither affirms nor denies arguments for either side. Rather, he simply explores how civilizations both ancient and modern have approached them. The breadth of his sources is intimidating, and his style can be oblique to the point of obfuscation. But to the curious, he is eminently readable. You stay with him because you have to wonder...

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Thinking and drinking…

In today’s world, critical thinking can get you branded as “elitist.”  A bit of irony, that, as thinking critically is the only way one could understand what a silly idea that is.  But one thing is certain, truly critical thinking will set you up for being alone, at least existentially.  At the very least, it can lead to desperation at times as you cast about for someone to understand you.  And it will certainly limit the satisfying conversation you can have over a bottle of whiskey....

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The good and the bad…

“When I tried day after day to do good and to relieve the suffering of my patients, I was myself. And when I let myself go and plunged into shameful activities, I was also myself. My scientific studies forced me to the following truth–man is not truly one person, but actually two.” –Dr. Henry Jekyll, in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by Robert Louis Stevenson (various publishers). Thinking about human cruelty these past few weeks, I found myself reading Stevenson’s classic allegory of good and evil, the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Like many, I suspect, I knew something of the story but had never actually read it. Doing so after the last two posts was discomfiting. “Jekyll and Hyde” is an allusion to the very things we’ve been considering. In a sense it’s a parable, because of its implicit warning. Jekyll is a respected, upper class physician with a bent towards tinkering. He’d always lived within cultural norms. But, having long sensed his personal darkness, he wondered how it would feel to indulge it. So he developed a potion to allow himself to do that. The heart of the story is that his dark side proved stronger than his good. Eventually it began to take him over without the potion. The more it indulged itself, the greater became it’s greed and disregard...

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The eternal struggle…

Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it. It is a trait that is not known to the higher animals. –Mark Twain, “The Lowest Animal,” (an essay). Those ideals and convictions which resulted from historical experience, from the craving for beauty and harmony, have been readily accepted in theory by man — and at all times, have been trampled upon by the same people under the pressure of their animal instincts. –Albert Einstein (“Ideas and Opinions,” Broadway Books, reprint edition 1995. A friend read my last post and pointed me to Mark Twain’s essay, “The Lowest Animal.”  It’s a commentary on Man’s singular penchant among other animals for cruelty greed, rapaciousness, and other uniquely human hobbies. Twain pushed me to consider this further. Somewhere in our evolutionary ascent (or, per Twain, descent) humans seem to have gone over the edge.  We changed from instinctual automatons to objective, sentient beings who can consciously participate in overt acts of extreme selfishness, regardless of their effects on others.  Recognition of this penchant for personal excess predates, or at least coincides with, the origins of Judaism. The modern western idea of good and evil probably originated in ancient Zoroastrian dualism, around Persia, some three thousand years ago. Original Sin, a Christian invention, was the early...

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Oh, the humanity!

I’m following news about the latest radical Islamist atrocity, this one in Manchester.  And I see once again that most ubiquitous term of self-deception by our species:  “Oh, the inhumanity…!” Or some variant of that, anyway.  After 5,000 years of recorded history, you’d think we know by now that such behavior is nothing if not human.  In fact, mass intraspecific murder is probably uniquely human.  I certainly can’t think of another species that engages in it.  And religion, while not the only cause we kill for, certainly seemed to kick things off. Presaged by prolific Old Testament slaughter of enemies by Jews (or their god), the Jews (using the Romans) tortured and killed Christ, catalyzing the big BC/AD time change.  Over the next two or three hundred years, the Romans tortured and killed Christians.  But then Constantine converted around 315 and took all the fun out of it, so Catholics (the home team, now that Constantine had bought them), killed the gnostics.  But then Islam turns up three hundred years later and takes over, killing pretty much anybody who didn’t agree with them.  They had a good run for a couple hundred years, from China and India, clear across the Middle East to Spain.  By the end of the millennium, though, the Catholic Church got its second wind and started killing Muslims.  When that got tiresome, it went north...

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On T.F. Powys and “The Soliloquy of a Hermit”

Man is a collection of atoms through which pass the moods of God…” T.F.Powys, “Soliloquy of a Hermit,” (Hardpress Publishing, Miami. Originally by G. Arnold Shaw, N.Y., 1916) On first read, this work comes off as obtuse commentary on the nature of man, the appeal of simplicity, and the misguided desire for immortality…with some incomprehensible Jesus language tossed in. I was unsurprised that both it and Powys are little known to modern readers. Finding its core, if core there were, would take patience. Who has time for that these days? But I’d come to the book via John Gray, a British political philosopher. Gray spends several pages in “The Soul of the Marionette” discussing Powys. So I explored what Gray and others had to say about him, then gave the book a second read. At some point (and with much help from Gray, on whom I draw for this review) I began to understand it.  Once I did, I found it so insightful I had to read it yet again.  It’s so full of pithy and even humorous commentary, I want to break it into chapter and verse and quote it like the Bible: Powys 6:23, or the like. The book’s original publisher calls it “religious psychology.” Gray and others speak of Powys’ as being “deeply but unconventionally religious.”  I presume, they mean religious from the monotheistic perspective. In...

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Empathy, acceptance and tolerance

This is a followup to my last post, because it seems mildly incomplete. I should have perhaps mentioned empathy.  Empathy seems to me the only means of truly communicating with anyone, of understanding them. It’s what we all want, for someone to see the world as we see it. And yet, a fully empathetic experience, actually getting into the head of another, being in their mind and experiencing emotions from their perspective, is not possible. Nor, I suspect, are we capable of understanding just how far apart from one another we really are. All of this begs for tolerance and acceptance of differences as critical to building relationships.  And it goes a long way towards explaining why the human race is in such trouble…and maybe why humanity today can be such a lonely...

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Reflections on early civilizations and social stratification

I’ve spent six years now traveling throughout Western Europe, also reading histories of western civilization…from earliest prehistory to modernity.  I’ve but scratched the surface, I know…an adequate appreciation would require a lifetime.  But even with my limited exposure, there is one theme I see virtually taken for granted rather than deeply explored:  social stratification, class and the distribution of power and wealth.  The effects have been hugely studied: feudalism, the French Revolution, colonialism and imperialism, capitalism and Marxism and communism, slave revolts, American civil rights,  even in budding movements like Occupy Wall Street within the U.S. today.  And the recent election in the U.S. is no less a reflection of its continuing dominance.  But I want to know the when, the how and the why:  When, how and why did differentiation and stratification by income and social status begin?  What are its drivers?  Why has it been so ubiquitous throughout history, and why have the less empowered classes accepted it so readily?  And what’s more, why throughout history have those in power so insistently treated their “lessers” like dirt…and why do the underprivileged so readily put up with it? This seems indeed a ubiquitous theme throughout all recorded history, and not just in the West…Ancient Egypt, the Middle East, the Orient, India all did the same.  A cursory consideration would suggest it arose in the Neolithic with the onset...

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