Images of The Apocalypse

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.

How Language Came About

One of the big questions science continues to seek answers to is, that, after thousands of years of guttural commands, slaps on the back of heads and so forth what compelled primitive man to develop language.  Why did the close descendants of mitochondrial eve ( the mother of us all) suddenly take an interest in finding audible correspondences to the specifics of her environment?  No doubt genetic natural selection slowly, blindly, stumbled along in the right direction but perhaps a chemical boost sped up the development of the primitive mind.

As our hunter-gatherer forbearers became adept at locating native vegetation of all sorts that was palatable and nourishing they might have happened upon a most unusual fungus, a mushroom that when ingested expanded mental capabilities, awakened their minds to possibilities beyond the wildest imaginings. The psilocybin in the mushroom just may have been the catalyst responsible for the development of a nuanced language. I suspect it may have had something to do with the discovery of supernatural beings as well.

 

Computer Chess

I’ve been finding myself, lately, in these days of social isolation, playing a lot of chess against a computer. As we become increasingly intimate, I find that I tend to assign a gender to him/her, usually him (am I sexist by nature?) as I attempt to counter his increasingly sophisticated attacks. I say increasingly because the program I’m using allows me to choose the level of expertise suited to my skill level and then, if I get competent enough, move up, allow him to use the abilities, and insights he holds back at the lower levels so as not to discourage me.

Well, it’s really algorithms isn’t it? For each of my moves the computer races through possible countermoves at blinding speed settling on the one that will be optimally successful, never getting tired or bored or losing focus. When I occasionally happen on a favorable advantage, he patiently plays it out rather than resign allowing me to realize a rare win. It makes him seem almost likeable.

I’m finding playing the game an intriguing way to pass the time these days but as I think about it it’s also kind of sad that a program on my laptop can almost replace social contact.

Great Mysteries

I’ve been reading lately about the difficulties purveyors of religious faith have had over the centuries reasoning about the nature of the supernatural. Take early Christianity. The concept of a singular all-mighty deity the early Christians inherited from their Hebrew forebears had to be reconciled with the son as well as the Holy Spirit. How, after all, can three be one. The controversy roiled for centuries, I guess, until Augustine of Hippo settled the issue. God is one, he said, but it exists in three forms and if you find this idea contradictory, if it defies reason, then, as a believer get over it, accept it as a mystery and move on.

I guess there’s something to be said for embracing mystery; the existent unknown, if you think about it, never gets old, keeps one wondering about something that can never be fully grasped; curiosity, without a doubt, can be compelling. Which, I bet, is a significant reason so many people maintain a religious faith, not wanting to deny the existence of something mystical defined as all-powerful.

Of course, in order to be reasonably functional in one’s daily life in the real world the working admonition the devout practitioner pretty much must accept is: Just don’t overthink it.

 

How the Dark Ages Began

I’ve been reading, lately, about the extreme self-denial, masochistic behaviors really, some of the early Christians imposed upon themselves believing they could atone for their inherent sinfulness and bring them closer to God. In the third century the apparent suffering of choice was to walk off into the desert without food or water in the hopes that denial of basic human needs would gain them a foot up toward heavenly rewards, which, I suspect, they were looking forward to sooner rather than later. There were other ascetics, the Stylites, who tied themselves atop pillars where some of them would stand for years (really!) while their muscles atrophied, hoping to be swept upward when the rapture happened.

Well, such extremes didn’t work for everyone. There were many men and women who wished to gain spiritual acceptance by denying the needs of the flesh but only up to a point. Monasticism provided opportunity to practice a humble, ascetic life of obedience, gain mutual support from their fellow monks or nuns and engage in service to community as they knew God would want them to do.

Such an organization required a rigid structure, though, rules to help everyone maintain the necessary austerity such a life demanded. There was little room for self-expression or individuality; thinking for oneself was pretty much out of the question. Even those faithful individuals not inclined toward the monastic life understood the sacred duties of denial and following the dictates of the church.

Such behavior, it’s been credibly suggested, can account, at least in part for the Dark Ages lasting for 1000 years.

Politics and Reason

I’ve been reading that one’s social affiliation is the primary determiner of the position one assumes regarding the hot-button issues of the day. Well, maybe not everyone’s, but the suggestion is that a political stance is determined to a great extent by social relations, how one identifies with those around her: a kind of in-group, tribal association that leads to consumption and regurgitation of the appropriate sound-bites consistent with the ‘correct’ political view.

To support such a perspective my very credible source suggests that, when questioned, most on the political fringes (which now make up around 40% of the electorate) have little knowledge of the nuances of the issues: global warming, health-care for all, world trading agreements, capitalistic regulation, the social safety-net, the plight of immigrants are all seen through the lens of political bias; which accounts, pretty much, for the divisiveness in the contemporary social dialogue: each side demonizing the other aided and abetted by profit-seeking punditry.

So, I guess the question is, how to discourage unreasoned dogmatic belief and encourage critical thinking: thinking carefully about both sides of issues and side-stepping political flashpoints. It may fall to the younger generations to re-find enlightened thinking.  Their power is growing after all, funeral by funeral.

Faith over Reason

I’ve been reading how, early on, Christian thinking gradually undermined and overwhelmed the philosophical tradition of the Greeks and Romans who had made great strides toward understanding the natural world through empirical investigation.

The Early Christians had found something better: a realm not of this world that promised, with certain caveats, eternal bliss. Faith was the key to finding one’s way to God’s good graces and came to supersede reasoned thought, replaced it actually, subordinated it to the extent paradox and contradiction became acceptable. The conjured god was simultaneously terrible and loving, torturing the sinful while embracing the virtuous. Faith came to mean a leap beyond reason into absurdity in the interests of eternal salvation.

I find it amazing how such conceptions remain embedded in so many minds even today. Thoughtlessness, I wonder, or just wishful thinking?

Chalk One Up for Viral Life

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.

I guess we have to chalk one up for the viruses.

Where the Truth Lies

I’ve been wondering, lately, about the public discourse with its multiple narratives, each of which attempting to rationalize and validate perspectives of what was, is and eventually will be.

These conflicting views that are clearly apparent in the political and religious realms are adhered to sometimes vehemently and with little room for compromise, the facts offered in support varying according to the narrative embraced. Support for the facts appears pretty flexible, based on political expediency or scriptural sources that have evolved over the centuries to accommodate changing world views.

So, without any sort of absolute truth I guess one’s preferred philosophical beliefs must derive from some sort of intuition: an intuitive sense of the social milieu and one’s personal stake in it all. In the interests of a sustainable future I can only hope that more than a few of us choose a humanistic perspective in support of our fellow man.

The Walking Dead

Heading to Arizona as I am, masked, buying gas at the pump, maintaining a safe distance from others, in constant use of antibacterial wipes, eating in my car I feel pretty safe although people in the streets stare, seem suspicious and I speed by them. The recent health scare, the pandemic, has me thinking of ‘The Walking Dead’, you know, the TV series in which a few stalwart survivors find themselves in constant danger, being pursued by the ravenous infected hoards. Civilization has collapsed and our heroes are on constant lookout for temporary safe havens and stores of canned goods on which to survive.

I really don’t think civilization is in danger of imminent collapse, but my journey has taken on an air of excitement (trepidation?) and as someone of advanced age I’m led to believe my very mortality may be at risk. If you don’t hear from me next week you might possibly suspect the worst: I may be quarantined in a senior retirement community.