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Weekly Commentary - NOVEMBER 22, 2021

Extraterrestrials, dead people, dinosaurs, or zombies: which invasion would be the worse?

In this new era of post-truth, when it is said that the truth no longer exists, or is unknowable or unattainable, the truth has become so irrelevant that everything simultaneously becomes true and a lie, without (apparently) anyone caring to examine his/her own life to stop deceiving themselves, which is why all "knowledge" is diluted into mere opinions.

As the tango Cambalache (“Second-Hand Store”) anticipated: “An ignorant and a great teacher are the same”. 

In this context, post-truth manifests itself in unexpected places, that is, those places previously dedicated precisely to a search (serious search, I would add) for the truth, however it was previously understood or practiced.

For example, I recently tuned into a radio program that I listen to with some frequency because of the constant presence of scientists talking about new discoveries and the new future. In this case, it was someone who was going to speak about the intersection of quantum physics and modern medicine.

Almost immediately at the beginning of the interview, the interviewee indicated that she was born on a distant planet where everything is always pink (literally) and where the inhabitants are so wise and intelligent that they get bored because they know everything. Because of that boredom, she said, she decided to come to earth. (All this said in a program supposedly dedicated to "science".)

Then, in a podcast where people are interviewed because they have interesting stories to share, the guest was a retired spy who was going to share some details of his work for the CIA. But what he really shared was that he communicated with the dead and that the dead gave him information that he later shared with the CIA.

And in a popular science magazine (it seems that’s no longer the case), an article was published on the subject of the possibility of time travel, announcing that a new way of doing it had been discovered. The article in question, without giving further details, "revealed" that three teenagers used a T-Rex egg to open a portal and travel through time. (I don’t have enough imagination to make that up.)

Since I have neither the knowledge nor the tools to disprove the existence of beings born on a pink planet, or communication with the dead, or a time portal created from dinosaur eggs, I cannot claim or deny their existence. But I can say that all this looks more like entertainment and fun than serious dialogue. 

And the reason it looks like (and in fact is) entertainment is precisely because it cannot be disproved. At the same time, the ability to refute an idea or (supposed) knowledge is the basis of both critical thinking and modern science. Suddenly, opinions and conspiracies are truer than any truth. 

But at the time of the zombification of Western culture (and perhaps of global culture), there is little interest is any glimpse of truth. Un-forgetfulness (aletheia) is impossible when we have forgotten that we have forgotten, including who we really are. 

Those things that we don’t know we don’t know should lead us to be intellectually humble

There are things that we know that we know. For example, two plus two is four, and water is made up of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. And there are things that we know that we don't know. For example, the exact number of stars in the universe or the exact number of grains of sand on the beaches of our planet.

But there are also things that we do not know that we do not know until we discover that we do not know. 

For example, NASA scientists recently announced that the Perseverance rover managed to open a Martian rock inside which "something never seen before was seen." In fact, it is not yet known exactly what was found in the rock, but it is believed that they could be signs of Martian microbial life from billions of years ago.

In other words, we did not know that we did not know that (if the finding is confirmed) there were traces of microbes on the rocks of Mars.

Also, we did not know that we did not know that in the center of the Milky Way there is a mysterious barrier that prevents half of the cosmic rays from reaching the center of our galaxy. But recently a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences detected the presence of this barrier, surrounding the central molecular zone of the galaxy.

We did not know that we did not know that this barrier existed and until now we do not know what it is.

And according to the English scientist Michael Rowan-Robinson, of the Imperial College of London, he and colleagues would have found a new planet in our solar system, orbiting about 15 astronomical units from the sun (that is, 15 times the distance from the sun to the earth).

We did not know that we did not know that there could be a planet several times larger than the earth at that distance from the sun.

The examples could be multiplied, but the teaching is clear: we do not know what we do not know until we begin to know it. Meanwhile, everything we think, say and do is based on our ignorance.

There was a time, until not long ago, when we recognized that there are things that we do not know, but could know (for example, the exact age of the earth) and things that we do not even know that we do not know, recognizing those situations, we say, led to an attitude of intellectual (and existential) humility.

However, ignorance has now ceased to be the learned ignorance of which Cusa spoke to become an arrogant ignorance that falls into the dangerous trap of believing that it knows, but it does not. Believing that you know when you don't know is worse than ignorance itself.

Therefore, discoveries like those mentioned and like many other similar discoveries throughout history are a constant invitation to be cautiously humble about what we think we know.

Let’s stop being addicted to our own incorrect understanding of reality

Decades ago, when I was still a philosophy student at the University of Buenos Aires, I overheard a conversation between two students at the university’s cafeteria. One of them told the other: “Last week, in Angola, a Cuban man gave me a grenade”.

Due to what was happening in the world at that time, I thought that, unintentionally, I was listening to a mercenary talking about what had happened to him a few days ago on the African continent. I imagined that the young man in question was in an armed conflict. After all, "Angola", "Cuban" and "Granada" allowed that interpretation.

The conversation continued and then it became clear that "Angola" did not refer to the African country of that name, but to a bar near the university, very popular with students. In that bar, one of the people in charge of preparing the drinks was a Cuban man. And "grenade" was one of the drinks prepared by the Cuban bartender.

In short, far from being a case of a mercenary with explosives, the young student was talking about how a few days ago he had gone to a bar in the area and tried a new drink. My mind had misled me, and this time I had the opportunity to obtain additional information to correct my self-deception. However, such an opportunity doesn’t always exist.

That event from decades ago during my time as a college came and went without major consequences. But other misunderstandings can lead to unpleasant consequences for those affected.

For example, recently a woman and a girl were detained and questioned when arriving by plane in Denver because someone from the airline had denounced that the girl was a victim of human trafficking and that the woman was responsible.

The facts were clear, one could even say unobjectionable. The woman was white, and the girl was dark. In addition, the tickets were bought at the last minute. The woman and the girl were the last ones to board the plane and, although they received separate seats, the woman asked to sit next to the girl. During the whole trip they didn’t speak to each other.

Uniformed police officers questioned the woman and the girl separately, convinced that they were rescuing the child from a tragic future. But someone had interpreted the facts incorrectly, to the point of distorting them. In reality, the woman and the girl were a mother and her daughter.

The skin color of mother and daughter differed because the daughter had the skin color of her father. The tickets had been purchased at the last minute because they had been notified of the death of a family member and were traveling to the funeral. That was why they asked to sit together and why they didn’t speak during the trip. It wasn’t human trafficking, but a family in mourning.

Getting addicted to our own interpretation of reality is very dangerous because eventually we come to believe that this is the only possible interpretation.

We need to open our minds and hearts to recognize when life is calling us to act

Recently, a man went hiking in the mountains in Colorado, USA and, as it often happens, he got lost. When the man did not return in time to the place where his family was waiting for him, the family alerted the authorities to begin the search. But before going out to look for him, the rescue team decided to call the man on the phone.

In fact, rescuers called several times, but to no avail. For reasons unknown at that time, the man did not respond. Obviously, it could simply be that the man was in a place where there was no signal. Or maybe the phone's battery was dead. The family, however, sensed the worst.

Finally, the next day and with some difficulty typical of the mountainous terrain, the rescue team located the lost man, and, to everyone's astonishment and relief, they found him in excellent health. Furthermore, the phone was working perfectly: there signal was strong, and device's battery still had enough charge.

They then asked him why he had not responded to the numerous phone calls since, had he done so, it would have brought peace of mind to the family and the rescuers would not have spent hours and hours trying to locate him.

The man's response was immediate and direct: "Because I did not recognize your phone numbers." 

Lost in the mountains, unable to find his way back, the man could have received complete and immediate help if he had simply answered a call from rescuers and said "Hello!" However, he decided to ignore those calls, giving priority to his fears and ignorance, and even the fact of remaining lost, instead of simply accepting saving help.

Let's be honest: we do the exact same thing in our daily lives. Here we are, walking aimlessly through life and living senseless lives (that is, lives without direction and without meaning).

And then, when those around us (mostly family or friends, but not necessarily) realize that we are lost and decide to intervene to help us, when that message of help reaches us, we simply ignore it again and again. 

"I was very busy," we say. Or maybe "I don't know that person or that group, so I better not let them help me." Or, even worse, "I've already gotten used to this situation of being lost and I don't know how to live any other way."

In other words, life itself calls us, asks us to act, offers us a call and a vocation so that our life will have meaning and purpose, and we do not even open our mind, our heart, and our will at least to say, “Hello there!" because we are probably afraid of transforming ourselves. 

And, contrary to what happened to the man in Colorado who was rescued so everything ended well for him, when we refuse to listen to the call of life, things rarely end well. In fact, we have the problems that we have for not responding to life.

The decision to close our minds to the present closes our beings to the future

After a recent presentation before a group of entrepreneurs where I was asked to talk about the emerging future, one of the participants approached me and asked me why I had wasted his time and the other entrepreneurs’ time talking about the future because “everything it is already written and explained in the Apocalypse” (Revelation, the book of Christian scriptures).

In another presentation, this time on the dangerous and tortuous transition from modern times to postmodern times (and possibly to a post-biological humanity), one of the participants told me, in direct and almost vulgar terms, that she only listens to presentations. by women. (I wonder why she waited until the end of the presentation to say so).

And on yet another occasion, where the theme chosen by the organizer was the historical origins of Christianity (specifically, the undeniable influence of Stoicism on Christian ethics) one of the participants, through an intermediary, let me know of his “displeasure" of my "ignorance" of what he called "the truth," as opposed to my "lies about history."

At the same time, this good man stated in his message to me that "the Bible" (his words) had been written "by Jesus in the Middle Ages, some 800 years after the birth of Christ." And he added: "Learn more about history, Francisco."

How do you dialogue with someone who, when he hears the word "future", immediately thinks of the Apocalypse and, worse still, based on an erroneous and limited interpretation of that text so full of symbolism, that man decides that it is not necessary to speak about the future?

How do you dialogue with someone who decides to listen to someone else based on a person's gender or sexual orientation, but not based on what that other person says? How is this attitude different from judging someone by the color of their skin, but not by the content of their character?

How do you dialogue with someone who, when faced with the historical context of their beliefs, decides to focus their energies on the presumed ignorance of the presenter, leaving aside all reference to their own obvious ignorance?

In all cases, the answer is the same: no dialogue is possible. And since authentic dialogue is a double opening towards one's own vulnerability and simultaneously towards still unexplored realities, to refuse dialogue is to close oneself to the future. 

Some years ago, I heard someone say that one of the ways that God (however you understand it) punishes certain people is by allowing those people to believe what they believe. I'm not so sure that's true, but in certain cases, like the ones mentioned above, it appears to be.

Be that as it may, a high price is paid for reducing the multidimensionality of human experience to the straitjacket of an ideology: the price of never seeing the future realized, that is, of never becoming what one really is. Opening oneself to the future is such a transformational experience that no ideological straitjacket can ever stop. 

The railroad killed time and digital technology killed truth

On November 18, 1883, the railroad companies in the United States and Canada self-adopted a new standardized “time” system that consisted of four time zones (East, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) so that all clocks within each one of those zones were synchronized.

In other words, the railway killed multidimensional and kairological time and reduced it to a one-dimensional, mechanical, and chronological time. We are all still trapped inside that time, a time that controls everything (think computers) regardless of nature’s time or our psychological time.

Now, digital technology (which become commercially available in 1991) has had a similarly deadly effect on another element that was once an integral part of being human: truth.

Digital technology in general and more specifically social networks and programs and applications that allow creating "deepfakes" (something like “very realistic fakes”) have caused that everything is now just an “opinion” so nothing (not even the truth, whatever it may be) causes anybody to change his/her mind.

We must be clear: we are no longer facing a relativistic approach to truth where everyone has or believes they have their own truth. Now we are facing a situation where truth has become irrelevant and unnecessary.

As Shelly Palmer (a recognized technology expert) said in a recent interview, the arrival of deepfakes marks "the end of the truth” because technological advances have reached the point where “you really won’t be able to tell what is real and what is fake.”

At the same time, according to Palmer, this lack of distinction between what is real and what is fake or false, although solidified and promoted by digital technology, is not based on any technology, but on something totally human, that is, the uncritical adoption of some dogma or ideology.

As the aforementioned expert suggests, it is useless to propose laws to regulate new technologies if the source of disconnection from reality (and, therefore, from time and from truth) is deep within each one of us.  

We have killed so much time that, after objectifying and quantifying it, we have reduced what used to be time for study and meditation (scholé, in Greek) to the “free time” that work leaves us, that is, to a time of rest and recovery of energy to return to work. And now that initially railway time has been computerized, globalized, and digitized.

And we have killed the truth so much (aletheia, in Greek) that nothing remains of the unveiling and lack of forgetfulness inherent to the truth of existence and it all comes down to "I believe that ..." and the unpleasant expression "We agree to disagree ", where "I believe that ..." should be understood as" I am not going to think" and "disagreeing" as "I am not going to think either".

But can we live without time and without truth? Rather, what have we become by killing time and truth? Murderers of God, as Nietzsche said in Also Spoke Zarathustra? “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” 

Facebook is back! (thanks to a rapid divine intervention)

"Facebook is back!" wrote a female "pastor" (quotes used to indicate sarcasm) last Monday, October 4, after that well-known social network stopped operating for several hours. But the message continued with this statement: “Christ did the miracle! God heard us!"

I must say that I am totally in favor of asking the divinity to intervene in those situations in which it seems that there is no other solution than precisely the direct intervention of the divinity, that is, a miracle. But can Facebook's returning to normal operations be considered a miracle?

Also, if God can perform the miracle of reactivating Facebook, does that mean that Facebook enjoys a privileged position in God's eyes and that if another social network goes down then there will be no divine intervention?

In other words, is Christ so concerned to see Facebook operating normally that he even works a miracle for that to happen, perhaps fearing that without Facebook there is no other effective way to proclaim the message of salvation?

Be that as it may, I must confess that the overlapping of "Facebook" with "God heard us!" is (in the best of cases) problematic for me because it reveals the extent to which social networks have become a kind of virtual cave that, keeping us locked inside, now appears as if it were the totality of our reality.

Paraphrasing Wittgenstein (and asking him to forgive us), the message of the aforementioned "pastor" seems to express that "the limits of my Facebook are the limits of my world." And although it is reckless to appropriate Wittgenstein's words, I consider that this comparison between "social networks" and "my world" is a reality for many people.

In addition, extending to social networks what Byung-Chul Han says about smartphones, it could be said that social networks, far from being a communication technology, are a control mechanism, with virtual chains that fulfill the same functions as the real chains mentioned by Plato in his Allegory of the Cave.

Be that as it may, when someone considers an outage of Facebook services so dramatic that divine intervention should be implored and when someone celebrates the restoration of Facebook services as a divine miracle, an existential line has been crossed and something (or a lot) has been lost of the sense of transcendence. 

But it is not only what the "pastor" said, because many of her followers added numerous comments supporting and reaffirming that God intervened in favor of Facebook. Of course, no one asked for a similar divine intervention to end wars, poverty, disease, or discrimination.

We live in such a strange time that if Facebook suddenly “falls”, people immediately pray for God to intervene, but if someone “falls” due to the blows of life, God is no longer needed, and that person (hungry, helpless) must solve his/her problems on their own.

We need real miracles in our lives, whether Facebook works or not. Perhaps expanding our minds, hearts, and courage to act will indeed take a divine miracle. 

Interpersonal dialogue no longer exists (perhaps due to lack of sufficient introspection)

Among the many consequences of the current pandemic is the acceleration of the adoption and use of virtual meeting platforms by people who before the pandemic used practically no technology. The purpose, it has been said, is to foster dialogue between people when face-to-face meetings are not possible or desirable.

But that desired dialogue no longer exists. Its increasing non-existence is not due to the fact that in videoconferencing people are reduced to small squares on the screen or because the level of participation is limited both by the technology in use (which is often unidirectional) and by the options that technology offers not to participate.

The non-existence of dialogue is due to the fact that before the dialogue begins the alleged interlocutors have already decided not to listen to each other and, therefore, nothing that is said is relevant to the other.

In that way, the dialogue is no longer even a succession of alternating monologues, but rather a cacophonic overlay of sounds uttered by narcissists (whether they admit it or not), unable to open their minds and hearts to others or to themselves.

Recently, for example, I filled out an online order for a certain restaurant, and at the appointed time, it went to get the food. Behind the counter, a young lady (probably still in high school) asked for my name, and I gave it to her. She immediately told me that I had probably ordered from another restaurant.

I said “No” and emphasized that I had ordered the food at the restaurant where we were. She then told me that I had probably ordered from the same restaurant chain, but elsewhere. I said “No” and showed her the order confirmation message, stating that I was in the right place.

She then told me that the request was made over the phone and that it had not been processed. I showed her once more that the order had been placed online and that it was confirmed. The young woman told me that she could not help me because she did not understand what was happening and called someone else to help me.

This second person, also very young, asked me exactly the same questions. My answers were obviously the same. And then, unable to help me, the second person went to call a third one and then a fourth one came and finally a fifth one. None of those five people accepted that the order had been made online and without errors. 

When everything seemed useless and my frustration was almost uncontrollable, the supervisor of the place arrived, asked me to see the confirmation number, turned around, said "Francisco?", I said "Yes", and he immediately gave me the food, which it had been there the whole time.

One more thing: these young people, so incapable of dialogue because they are locked inside their virtual echo chambers, are the ones who represent the future of humanity and the planet. 

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. 

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