I’ve been reading essays, lately by the 19th Century philosopher William James. W. J. believed the best path to a healthy happy existence passed through religious belief, which, he writes, involved embracing the best, ‘more eternal’ things in life. He poses his argument at a time when many were coming to grips with the revelations science had uncovered about the natural world. Mysteries previously attributed to the supernatural became understandable; an Enlightenment world view undermined religious belief for those who thought about such things. W. J. argues philosophical pursuit of ‘objective truth’ will only yield, in the end, a deadly dogmatism, an intellectual dead end unable to accommodate experiential re-discovery. Such a pursuit lacks grasp of the realization that scientific knowledge is but a drop in the sea of the unknown.
Our philosopher maintains all of us, everyone, has an ‘inner voice’, an intuitive sense beyond our rational, logical minds that we sometimes suppress, but, when acknowledged can contribute to a superior life experience. One must, he suggests, exercise intellectual bravery, seeking answers to Life’s Big Questions, to not fear being wrong, to conjure the faith to believe. Skepticism he writes delays man’s emotional, intellectual development, is no more than a delaying tactic for those afraid to be wrong. A foray into the metaphysical, the supernatural world is an enlightening prospect, a means of realizing possibilities of eternal entities which will convey a sense of optimism to those religiously embracing that which is beyond the confines of science.
On the face of it, to my 21st century mind, W. J. seems a bit too optimistic. Was the late 19th century a simpler more naïve time? Well, certainly not. It’s just that we’ve put the front and center LBQ’s on the back burner these days.
There are certain theoretical physicists contemplating, as I understand it, the idea that perhaps we are not living a base reality but are in a simulation, an artificial reality. We may be, they surmise, virtual beings created by a higher intelligence with infinite computational facility. These cyber-gods’ superior intellect along with our limited capacity to fully understand our world renders it impossible for us to grasp the closed system provided by our overseers.
The overseers, acting as game players, pit us against each other, create inventive situations for us to deal with and suffer through and then play favorites, much as the ancient Greek gods did. The idea is, I guess, our overseers are using us as pawns in the ultimate virtual Game of Life.
Well, if I am existing in a virtual closed system, I really can’t complain too much, reclining, as I am, in my lounger in front of a warming fireplace. I do, of course, face difficulties from time to time: existential psychological eruptions I must deal with, but all in all life is pretty good. If I am a virtual being in a created world it would seem my cyber-gods are fairly benevolent.
I found myself, the other day, unavoidably engaged, once again, in a conversation with a close acquaintance whose conspiratorial perspectives have expanded beyond a ‘deep state’ cabal controlling the mainstream media to revisionist history (deep sigh).
I granted him that a narrative account of historical events is vulnerable to the biases of the narrator and that specifics of time and place (within limits) and the underlying motives of the actors might be considered. After all, I went on, nothing is written in stone; new knowledge arises and accounts change, but the scholarship and peer reviews of generations of researchers has a legitimacy that defies any idea of ‘deep state’ agenda. I allowed that when it comes to narrative accounts hard facts and pure fictions will be reasonably seen as not so hard and not so pure. The sources of one’s information, though, must be determined to be free of deliberate distortion. Intuitively imagining the truth of unsupported premises really must be seen for what it is.
There’s a difference, after all, between questioning the accuracy of generally accepted accounts and undermining those accounts based on intuition, dubious sources and unsupported premises.
A few years ago, I made a hike into the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. The site contains fossils of pre-Cambrian life forms, many of which barely saw the light of day before fading into extinction. The most unusual of these early animals were asymmetrical, having three and sometimes five appendages, which, I suppose, might explain why these animals didn’t make it to the Cambrian era and beyond. It seems unlikely they’d have been able to compete well in a gravitational environment and it appears they were naturally de-selected in favor of the mobile superiority of bi- and quadrupedal life. I guess it will always be the case that some life forms will be naturally de-selected for an inability to adapt in a hostile and competitive world.
Given our difficulties dealing with our current dilemmas (i.e. dreaded virus, nuclear arms proliferation, political alienation, et. al.) I’m just wondering how close humanity may be getting to the top of the de-selection list.
I’ve been reading about an archaeological trek into remote Honduran jungle in search of a legendary ancient city. It was quite an amazing adventure, an Indiana Jones-like quest complete with impenetrable jungle, deadly snakes and swarms of biting insects. Upon the adventurers return to civilization several of them were found to have contracted a devastating disease: sand fly bites had introduced into their blood streams a most insidious parasite.
Due to the variety of mutations the tiny invaders assume, medical researchers were (and still are) hard pressed to even begin to eradicate the disease. No treatment now available will rid an infected body of the parasite completely, meaning, I guess, that one must play host to the uninvited community of little blood swimmers in perpetuity.
The reality of the situation rather takes the romance out of it all for us armchair adventurers: I suppose National Geographic will have to suffice.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination these days (for scifi buffs especially) to envision the collapse of civilization, an ensuing dark age in the not so distant future. For those suffering the hardships of living paycheck to paycheck when there isn’t one, a harsh reality has set in and shouldn’t be made light of. But for fans of apocalyptic literature a certain symmetry is to be found and acknowledged, if not enjoyed, as the various narratives and behaviors brought on by fear of the dreaded disease plays out.
The ever-present media coverage reveals incidents of hoarding of basic needs, stand-offs with armed militias, the spreading of deep-state conspiracies, but also compassion and self-sacrifice of many not the least of which are health-care workers. All these scenarios can be found in the best doomsday fiction. The zombie invasions of ‘World War Z’ come to mind as does the devastating epidemic in ‘The Stand’ and the cannibalism in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. And then, after civilization’s total collapse, centuries pass and the remnants of the 21st century are discovered, archaeological artifacts, as in ‘A Canticle for Liebowitz’.
Such fictional story lines remain entertaining because, of course, no one really believes things will become all that dire. Maybe there’s a bit of cathartic relief, after all, in imagining how much worse things could be.
I read recently science has assembled small creatures from the cells of frog embryos within which robotic controls have been introduced: a biological entity with cybernetic components. The surrogate parents of these small cyber-animals have great hopes their progeny will provide significant advancement in certain medical procedures they tell us.
I must tell you the idea of such a creature brought to mind the Borg: a sci-fi creation I saw on Star Trek some years ago. These alien cyborgs assimilate human captives into a ‘collectivity’ through robotic infusion that melds them into the ‘one mind’. Their intention is to achieve inter-stellar domination. Upon encounter, all they meet are informed, ‘resistance is futile’ and the captives are promptly assimilated into the collective. Even Captain Picard found himself part of the collective for a few episodes.
As frightening as the conception may be, I suppose it’ll be awhile before the small cyber-creatures morph into the Borg, but if it happens it wouldn’t be the first time sci-fi has predicted a future reality.
I’ve been reading about how, as the hunter/gatherer of our pre-historic past transformed through domestication of plants and animals into sedentary farmer, became an unwilling host for viruses carried by animals. The enterprising virus found fertile ground to breed and grow and very little resistance to his (or her, who can tell with viruses) incursions into the human blood stream.
The results of this viral attack were massive die-offs of all but a small percentage of people who were fortunate enough to have a natural or cultivated resistance. These survivors passed their genetic wherewithal to their progeny and from there on to future generations, who would over time encounter new and exotic viruses they had never before encountered that would attack the unsuspecting and appetizing innocents and the cycle would begin again.
Civilizations evolved, became more complex and medical science made amazing advances. Hubris and inattention led to the belief we had won the battle with invasive viral infection.
As we humans we have striven over the years to improve our quality of life by developing innovative technologies that have provided everything from central heating to voice controlled communication devices, we have at the same time made life more complex, in some ways more frenzied.
I’ve been reading about early forager tribes living in the fertile Crescent of western Asia. This particular area was at the time rich in what turned out to be domesticable plants and animals. The foragers, over time, learned to harvest and plant wild wheat signaling the beginnings of the agricultural revolution.
I guess becoming farmers must have seemed a great idea. Having a reliable food source without having to forage everyday meant having a surplus and a sedentary lifestyle. As it turned out, though, after not so considerable a time (relatively, anyway) our early ancestors ended up working harder, eating a less varied diet, contracting unheard of diseases and, all in all, living shorter lives than they had enjoyed in their now long forgotten foraging days.
And so it goes, we as a species strive to produce innovations meant to improve our quality of life that all to often have produced negative effects like obesity, alienation and lives devoid of time for contemplative reflection.
Not that I’m a luddite or anything. I do love my various devices, easy access to friends and family miles away, ready availability of the arts I love. I just need to exert a bit more self-discipline, shut down the devices and get face to face with real-life on occasion.
I’ve been reading, lately, that there is reason to believe that the earliest notions of the existence of God, entertained by our primeval ancestors, may have been the result of an idea of an inhabiting soul; something existing within that transcends physical existence. I have to wonder, if my scholarly source is accurate, how such a belief came about.
The idea that a serendipitous organization of protrusions and gaps in an old gnarled tree might take on the appearance of a human face would reasonably, I suppose, lead to anthropomorphizing, to the idea of Being within, spirit even, a belief that might grow with the enthusiastic agreement of one’s cave cousins. The tree could be thought to be of a special sort, sacred even, and if ‘spirit’ existed in certain trees it reasonably follows that the same would be true of animated nature.
From such ruminations, I can’t doubt, the realization of a super-natural spirit could fairly easily grow into a hierarchical spirit world with a God in charge. The real magic in all this, it seems to me, is the wondrous imagination of the human animal.