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Weekly Commentary - August 9, 2021

From stability to risk and from progress to fear

The recent United Nations report on the plight of humanity due to the plight of the planet (and refusing to see the challenge does not solve it) led me to think of a book I read some time ago about the transition from a stable society to a society in constant risk.

Almost 30 years ago, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck warned in his book The Risk Society that the “new modernity” was (is) similar to “building a civilization on a volcano” where, due to lack of social stability, everything becomes political, everything becomes fragmentary and conflictive, and, ultimately, even science is a reason to return to obscurantism.

Obviously, Beck was right: we are now living and undergoing that transformation from global human society, previously relatively stable, to a society that constantly lives on the edge of the precipice, never knowing where the next conflict will arise, where the next virus will come from, or how long the current madness will last.

In other words, we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex. and ambiguous world (VUCA), first described as such in 1987 by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus within the framework of their leadership theory. in highly unstable conditions and situations. 

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) revisited the issue in 2014 stating that the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of today's world have been mistakenly taken as the basis of inaction and fatalism, while in reality they are an invitation to restructure resources, design experiments, train for the new future and learn to receive, interpret, and share relevant information.

Although that advice is absolutely true, there is nevertheless a factor that complicates its implementation: the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences. But even before the pandemic, in 2018, another German thinker, Hartmut Rosa, warned that "we are no longer moved by the idea of progress, but by the threat of disaster."

This threat of disaster has already materialized: the coronavirus has arrived, the world's climate has changed, and what seemed unthinkable (the extinction of humanity) now seems a real possibility. As Rosa rightly says, we are faced with a world in which we can no longer inhabit and to which we no longer belong. In other words, we are exhausted from the world. (The "burnout society" that Byung-Chul Han talks about).

Rosa describes this situation as "the new poverty", which is no longer a "poverty" because it lacks money or resources, but an existential poverty because it lacks a life with purpose.

In the middle of the last century, the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis characterized “poverty” not as the luck of money, but as the inability of one generation to prepare the next generation for its own future. Those who only want to repeat the past and perpetuate the present leave no room for the future to emerge.

We have become so “impoverished” that we now live in an unstable, risky, stagnant world on the brink of disaster. And then we call ourselves "smart," "modern," and "advanced." What a great self-deception!

The world changes really fast between just a couple of phone calls (and we don’t see it).

"How are you, Francisco? We haven't spoken in several weeks,” a friend told me in a recent phone call. "I'm fine and I hope you and your family are all fine too," I replied. And then he said, "Any news?"

The conversation continued for several minutes, focusing on the more trivial topics that abound in such conversations. However, a thought came to my mind, and it continued there for some time even after I had finished talking to my friend: Why is he asking if there is "something new"? There have been a lot of changes since we last spoke!

In the few weeks between the conversations with my friend, scientists discovered a new form of quark (one of the building blocks of matter) that until now was not known to exist. And other scientists created a "time crystal", that is, a stable but fluctuating structure at the same time.

In another remarkable advance, scientists claim to have discovered the area of the human brain that "filters" reality, allowing some signals to reach our consciousness and other signals, similar in intensity and duration, to go unnoticed.

In addition, experiments are already underway to determine how the DNA of humans living permanently on Mars will change, and therefore to determine whether those changes can or should be made before those people travel to Mars. In other words, we are about to create real Martians.

This is not science fiction. The technological tool CRISPR, used to edit genes, is already used to stop rare diseases, so it is anticipated that in the near future CRISPR will be used for "other therapeutic purposes."

And those are just some of the many advances that will surely in a short time completely transform our lives. Meanwhile, my friend and I talked about trivia, as if nothing had happened in the world during the few weeks between our two conversations.

Obviously, we cannot be continually "running" after every technological advance or every scientific discovery, in the same way that it is ridiculous to "chase" every new fad or every new "idol."

The examples listed above are not an invitation to read science and technology stories (although I think it is beneficial to do so), but to expand our awareness about the speed of transformation and the irreversible impact of that transformation in our lives and in our future.

However, despite the fact that every day we move further and further away from a stable and known past to arrive at a future in constant fluctuation ("Everything flows", said Heraclitus) and unknown only to those who do not want to know it, despite of that, we refuse to expand our consciousness.

So, "news" now is what happens to this "celebrity" or that one, or to some intentionally controversial statement, or to a new trend on social media. Thus, the vision of the truly new is lost and then the consciousness of the future is closed. When that happens, we are trapped in the illusion of the present. 

A brief and modest defense of philosophy in the 21st century

A report from the World Economic Forum lists some of the skills required for jobs in the 21st century. It seems to me all of those skills are within the realm of philosophy. And many of the issues that overwhelm and worry us today are, without any doubt, philosophical issues. Like it or not, we need philosophy.

The World Economic Forum report specifies that new jobs require skills such as complex problem solving, the ability to follow a decision-making process in complicated situations, developing a strategic vision, and two must-have skills: critical thinking and expertise in multilevel communication.

Let's be honest: none of these skills or abilities is the exclusive domain of philosophy, but, at the same time, all of them are deeply connected with the thinking, knowledge, and practice of philosophy, understood here as a discipline for life and not only as a mere academic exercise.

From its very origins, philosophy has analyzed complex problems (what could be more complex than finding a purpose and meaning for our mortal lives?), has promoted critical thinking, and has sought answers and ethical and even metaphysical foundations to key questions, such as “What should I do?" and "What am I really saying when I say what I think I am saying?"

Therefore, the discipline that philosophy imposes on the mind serves as a foundation and helps develop many of the skills listed above, such as problem solving, decision making, strategic vision and critical thinking. Let's be honest: philosophy doesn't solve problems, but it does provide a framework and some tools to do so. 

At the same time, our current life is bombarded by challenges that until not long ago were considered unthinkable and believed to happen only in science fiction, such as ecological extinction (including human extinction), post-human ontology (Are we the last fully biological generation of humans?), the omnipresent digital horizon (Do we think or just post?), the technocontrol of biology and politics, and the arrival of superhuman artificial intelligence.

Simultaneously, the profound social changes, the undeniable climate change (whatever its origins and causes), the fragmentation of art and discourse, and the nakedness and incapacity of the current way of life left in evidence by the pandemic fill us with anguish as see that we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.

All the topics mentioned in the last two paragraphs are philosophical topics (exceeding the merely academic) because they are topics that do not seek answers just to satisfy a curiosity, but rather seek answers to determine if we are asking the right questions. 

In our context, where people believe that getting just a few "Likes" means they have been forgotten by the universe, philosophy is more urgent than ever, being forced to leave the classrooms and the books where (unfortunately) was previously relegated.

In ancient times, philosophers were the physicians of the soul. They were said to heal the soul. In Greek, "healing the soul" is said (not by chance) "psychotherapy", “psyche” meaning both “soul” and “mind”. 

The system never reveals to us all of the future possibilities

I recently learned, and I regret not having done it sooner, that the system in which one lives (whatever system it is and at any time in human history) never presents us with all future possibilities due to the complexity and multiplicity of those possibilities. In other words, the system always reduces and limits the future and our future.

However, when cracks arise in the system, as they do today, those cracks invite us to expand previously unexplored possibilities. In other words, when the system no longer offers answers to increasingly existentially disturbing questions, in that moment and if one really pays attention, a new future emerges.

At the same time, as the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann explains well in his book Trust and Power, this connection with future possibilities can be misleading in the sense of making us believe that the future means a “return to normality” (a phrase that you hear a lot in this time of pandemic), but not a new future.

In other words, even exploring options before even thought for the future, even in the midst of that change in consciousness, we can decide that the best option is to go back to the past, that is, to remain trapped within the same system that limits us in as for our options for the future.

To paraphrase Luhmann, we confuse familiarity with normality and normality with security. So, we erase the future and make it a repetition of the past or an extension of the present. In this way, the same system that cracks gives us a glimpse that it is possible to escape from the system creates the illusion that the only escape is not to escape.

This situation had already been explored, obviously, by Plato in his famous Allegory of the Cave, when the prisoners inside the cave do not even know that they are prisoners and, therefore, do nothing to escape. They settle for seeing shadows of reality, believing that this is the whole of reality.

In fact, even when any of these prisoners are rescued and released outside the cave, not even that experience allows the former prisoner to appreciate their freedom and therefore desperately seeks to return to their chains.

Beyond the metaphors used by Plato and the multiple levels of interpretation of his Allegory of the Cave, the truth is that this is our existential reality: we see what they let us see and what we can see and, therefore, we confuse the future with tomorrow, and we assume that tomorrow is "again today", as regrettably happened to Sisyphus.

Meanwhile, as Luhmann points out, the "world" (if you will, the universe, or the totality of reality) is always much larger than any system that tries to contain or explain it. And when we forget that basic difference, when we confuse the "world" with the system, we believe that the end of the system is the end of the world.

The future is not tomorrow, but an expansion of consciousness. 

Should I hug my Teddy bear, or should I plant my apple tree?

I recently read that, according to NASA, starting in 2030 the moon will wobble in such a way that it will cause large tides on Earth. And when I had not yet recovered from that news, I read another story that indicates that the studies done in 1972 by MIT experts are correct: humanity will disappear in 2040 or shortly after. So, what options do we have?

An obvious option is to stop paying attention to those predictions (even if they are based on the best available scientific knowledge) and deny their reality and their veracity. That is, act like little children: close your eyes so as not to see what we do not want to see, trusting that, by not seeing it, the problem will disappear.

This attitude of refusing to see reality and believing (wrongly) that something ceases to exist if we do not see it is what I call "hugging the teddy bear", that is, assuming that nothing is going to happen or that whatever is going to happen will happen without us being able to do anything about it.

And when closing our eyes to reality or using any activity or addictive substance to avoid seeing it does not work as we would like, then, in addition to hugging the teddy bear, we start looking for culprits (better said, scapegoats) who we will hold responsible for what what's happening to us. And if that doesn't work either, we'll start with attacks and even destruction.

The other option is to open our eyes to reality and recognize two things: we ourselves are the main reason and cause of the serious problems afflicting us, and we humans are no longer the most intelligent or most “necessary” species on this planet.

This attitude is what I call "planting the apple tree", in reference to the phrase "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree", an expression thought to be (without proof) from the reformer Martin Luther and used last century by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This attitude, as reflected by the fact of planting the apple tree, allows to maintain composure and, at the same time and for that reason, to maintain an open mind, an open heart, and an open will. For this reason, instead of looking for culprits, we look for companions on the path of life. And those acts of destruction become acts of co-creation.

In other words, faced with inevitable changes that are beyond our control and that, apparently, will not be beneficial for the future of humanity, we can adopt two positions: despair or hopelessness. Despair paralyzes and blinds us. The desperate person will try anything, regardless of cost or consequences.

However, the hopeless person, having become aware of his/her place in the universe, feels liberated from the need to "take control" and, for that reason, he/she faces and awaits the new reality with his totality of his/her being, now also transformed.  

When the storm comes, we must feel it with body and soul

Recently, I have repeatedly heard that expression that says that the best way to cope with a storm (that is, the chaos we now live in) is to be close to the storm. I must say that, at first, it seemed like a wrong suggestion because, after all, isn't it better to get away from the storm and find a safe place?

But then I heard an interview with a maritime safety expert and that interview helped me better understand the deep meaning of the mentioned phrase.

Last April, Australia's National Radio interviewed Brad Roberts, an officer with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. In this context, Roberts explained that ship captains prefer to be near the storm because that way they can "feel" it in a strictly literal way, that is, feel it with their body.

"Feeling" the storm with the body leads to the storm "making sense", not as if it were talking about a dictionary definition or a historical or scientific explanation, but in the sense (used here intentionally) that the ship's captain "connects" with the storm.

At the same time, the more experienced captains “feel” their boats as extensions of themselves, a feeling that they know how to convey to their crew. That allows the captains to connect with the ship and its crew as if they were all “one organism,” explained Roberts. 

That way, when a storm hits and the storm becomes unavoidable, the captain, his crew, and the ship act in unity not to fight the storm, but to know where to be at each moment of the storm, so that the storm do not sink the ship.

According to Roberts, his research indicates that those captains who "seek shelter" or decide to "wait for rescue to arrive" tend to face greater problems and worse consequences than those who decide to face the storm. (By the way, Roberts based his research in the new discipline of neurophenomenology.)

The latter, Roberts emphasizes, use not only their instruments or their knowledge to decide, but also their own bodies. And, according to Roberts, that practice of "embodied knowledge" (or "incorporated" if this word is understood in its sense of "in the body") can be applied to almost any circumstance in life.

Unfortunately, I add, we have not been educated to "pay attention" to our own body, much less to access the knowledge and wisdom of the body. For this reason, we are no longer part of a tradition in which the body is one of the "souls" (manifestations of being) of each one of us, and not just a purely material element. 

In fact, we are taught to reject our body, for example by not letting it rest or modifying it to align with more socially accepted body types.

As a consequence of belittling our body, when the storms of life (personal or global) arrive, we are no longer connected or even with ourselves to respond adequately to the storm. Let's learn the lessons of the wise sailors. 

The new reality unfolds faster than we can understand it

Until just under 100 years ago, the Milky Way was believed to be the entire universe, that is, it was not known that the Milky Way was just one galaxy among countless others, but it was assumed to be all that existed. Then Andromeda measurements confirmed that Andromeda was another galaxy and not a nebula within the Milky Way. Suddenly, the universe “expanded”.

The progression seems clear, starting with the ancient times when human beings assumed that there was nothing beyond the village or city that they knew (or at least there was nothing good). Then, it was assumed that nothing existed beyond one's own country (or at least one's own territory was the only truly civilized one).

Later it was argued that this continent or that other one was the only ones and when finally, the entire planet was explored, it was believed that there were no other planets similar to earth anywhere else in the universe (that is, at that time, the Milky Way.) Finally, the Milky Way was also dethroned as "the whole and only universe." And now it's our universe's turn.

The growing idea of a multiverse, a kind of sea of universes among which ours is only a bubble, is accompanied by the idea of an oscillating universe (that is, the universe expands and contracts, creating successive “universes”). and the idea of the multidimensionality of the universe (within our own universe there would be dimensions that we still do not perceive.)

In other words, in the same way that a baby can only see during the first months of his life up to half a meter away before his eyes "learn" to see greater distances, we, as humanity, only see what we see. Perception allows us to see what we see now, and we won't be able to see anything else until we learn to see it.

Therefore, I believe that, with the constant, profound and irreversible changes that we are facing, and with the constant scientific and technological advances, we are almost forced to expand our awareness of what is and what is not real and, as consciousness, to begin to see what we did not see before. For example, earth has a pulse. 

For example, commercial space flights are already a reality, as are artificial human organs and virtual doctors (even surgeons). All these elements are interconnected because for long-distance space travel or for permanent human colonies in space, artificial organs and virtual doctors will be necessary.

However, most of us continue our lives ignoring the arrival of the new reality and ignoring that this new reality is not only already here but it affects us. For example, due to the aforementioned changes, it is estimated that in the near future hundreds of millions of people around the world will have to learn our jobs to find employment.

Whether we are ready or not, the multiverse, the multidimensional universe and the new future await us. So, let’s prepare ourselves for the new reality. 

We live in a frozen society, as frozen and cold as our hearts and minds

We sit in front of a screen (it doesn’t matter which one) to watch something and immediately we say there is nothing to watch, even after browsing dozens of channels, or searching hundreds of options. And if we watch something, even if it is new, we already know what is going to happen because it is the same plot we have seen before in another movie or in another series.

So, we decide to watch the news or search for it online and we found ourselves in a similar situation: the names and places change, but the stories are the same: a war here, a massacre there, a corruption scandal over there. And, as always, someone who is only famous for being famous says nothing that makes no sense, but it is repeated again and again. 

Perhaps to escape this situation, many people go to churches or religious centers to listen to sermons and preaching. And they soon discover that week after week the exact same sermon is repeated, over and over again, without progress and without delving into the subject. Always the same, as if it were something new, but it is not. What has already been said is repeated without acknowledging that it has already been said.

These and many other similar situations are clear examples that our society (that is, ourselves) is frozen, both figuratively and in reality. We have entered a cycle of continuous repetition of the same thing to the point that neither entertainment entertains us, nor does the news inform us, nor preaching transform us. 

“Everything is the same, nothing is better”, said the tango Cambalache wisely in reference to the 20th century. And in the 21st century, that repetition of “Everything is the same, nothing is better” has become technologized and globalized within the framework of the social media, where, despite billions of people participating, you just see the same thing over and over and over again.

Our thoughts, our ideas, our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our spirits are frozen, immobile, unable to allow life to flow again. And we call that awful situation "normality" and "reality."

Two and a half millennia ago, Heraclitus taught that life was (is) a river that “cannot be entered twice”, thus underlining not only the fluidity of life, but the fact we can only experience life living it.

If that river of life flows and an ice cube is deposited in it, the ice becomes water, and the river continues to flow. But if an immense amount of ice reaches the river (for example, a heavy snowfall in winter), the water in the river turns to ice and the river stops flowing. That is what happens to us.

But who froze us? Who put us in a freezer and keeps us there, even if they have to pay the electricity bill? I don't know, but according to Dante in his Divine Comedy, the very center of hell, where Satan himself can be found, is frozen.


We are disconnected from the future because we are disconnected from ourselves

About 2500 years ago, at the beginning of the so-called Western civilization, Heraclitus warned about the negative consequences for the entire society of those people unable to relate to others because they could not even relate to themselves. Two and a half millennia later, the situation has worsened.

Heraclitus spoke of what he saw in his native Ephesus and in the context of Greek culture. Today, however, the disconnection with oneself, with others, and with the universe (nature) is already global, undoubtedly exported to the whole world by the so-called Western “civilization” and its individualism and narcissism.

As Heraclitus already warned, many people in his time and even more in ours not only do not connect with others, but do not even know that this connection exists. Someone might object that we are always connected with other people, but we are not. We are connected with clients or bosses or employees. We connect with masks, but not with humans.

And then, as Heraclitus said, people think they know simply because they think they know, but in truth they don't know. And since there is no connection with others, much less with true sages, and since they don’t participate in an ecology of practices to get out of ignorance and reach wisdom, the ignorance of ignorance is perpetuated.

This situation affects everyone in society, from children to kings in the time of Heraclitus, and from children to presidents in our time. It is a situation of "living asleep", of never waking up to reality, of being so locked up within oneself that it is believed that this is the whole of reality. 

Or, as Father Richard Rohr says, these are people who never get out of the "first half" of their life, the one in which they depend on others (parents, teachers, priests), so they never get to the "second half" of their life, the one in which they depend on themselves both for their successes and for their mistakes.

That is why, regardless of their chronological age, they never really leave childhood and spend their entire lives trying to solve problems that they will never be able to solve because, as Jung said, you don’t solve your problems: you outgrow them. 

This existential closure and its consequent mental closure are exacerbated in our time when social networks, far from being instruments of connection, are mostly "echo chambers" where we only listen and see what reinforces what we already believe. And the same happens with the media, which no longer share news, but only stories that "sell".

How do you get out of that situation, out of that confinement? It has been said that there are only two ways to change our thinking: an open mind or a broken heart. Yet it appears that not even a global pandemic opens minds or breaks hearts. In fact, in many cases, minds are willingly closed, and hearts harden.

There is no future for closed minds, only a hellish, Sisyphean repetition of the present. 

It is time to start thinking about the 27th century

When civilization fell apart globally (and by many of the same factors that plague us today) in the 12th century BC, a group of dedicated forward-thinking people pledged to preserve and stabilize civilization, which it happened some 600 years later. Similarly, today we have to start thinking about the 27th century.

Let's be honest: we live in a time of constant, deep and irreversible change. Unexpected changes only unexpected by those who never learned, as Heraclitus suggested, to expect the unexpected. In fact, it is said that in the next ten years the transformation of humanity will be greater than in the entire previous history of humanity.

In addition, we still have the same problems that civilization had 3,200 years ago: wars, inefficient governments, pandemics, famines, massive displacement of people, abandonment of traditions and growing intergenerational disconnection. Life become a meaningless slow death, with no alternative in sight. 

For our part, we added our own problems and challenges, such as destruction of the environment, climate change, acute socioeconomic inequality, technology (almost) out of control, and militarization and commercialization of space. And, of course, a planetary population far superior to what existed just over three millennia ago.

In other words, in the 12th century BC civilization collapsed because it was unable to respond to only part of the problems that we now have. Therefore, it is better to prepare ourselves not for what is going to happen, but for what is going to happen after what happens in the near future and even in the long term.

But will there be among us skilled, dedicated, and trustworthy people to sustain what remains of civilization for centuries? People who consider themselves neither divine nor gifted, but merely human, but with a variety of studies and interests? People from the most different occupations willing to do multicultural and intergenerational work?

Around 3,200 years ago, that kind of people (some of whom we know by name and have their writings) were called "ummanu", a word that has many meanings, but can be translated as "person of absolute confidence", so reliable that "ummanu" means from "nanny" to "adviser to the king."

The "ummanu" were highly educated, spoke multiple languages, traveled, and performed numerous tasks, from astronomers and historians to generals and architects. But above all they were trustworthy people with a clear long-term vision of not letting science, history and thought disappear.

Where are the "ummanu" of today? Are there any? Probably not. Perhaps Internet, mass media, and social media are too much for the “ummanu”. At the same time, it may be our responsibility to become the best possible ancestors of our distant descendants in this turbulent time of transition for humanity.

The "ummanu" knew how to connect with others, with themselves, with the universe, and with divinity. Several of their words of wisdom have come down to us (the book of Proverbs, for example). So, what advice would we give to the humanity of the 27th century? Let us assume our responsibility today.

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