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Weekly Commentary - April 05, 2021

What are the main questions people have about the future? Cars and food

In a recent survey (February 2021), the Kaspersky company asked about 7,000 people around the world what were the main questions those people had about the future. In other words, the survey sought to determine what the general public around the planet really wants to know about the future. And the answer was clear: cars and food.

When analyzing what the survey participants said, Kaspersky found that the most common question about the future was "What will the cars of the future look like?" In some cases, that question was asked in a specific context, such as "How long until the flying cars arrive?" or "Will we be able to use a 3D printer to print a car?"

The second place was taken by the question about food and meals. That question was commonly phrased as "Will there be healthy food in the future?" There was also interest in the quality of future pet food and the possibility that food may eventually be produced by means of a replicator, as in Star Trek. 

The third place in topics of interest about the future was occupied by health, something that is almost obvious due to the pandemic, although one wonders if, for that very reason, it should not have been the main topic of interest, above cars and meals.

Be that as it may, other topics, such as artificial intelligence, space travel, extraterrestrial civilizations, or parallel universes, were not among the most worrying topics. Not even climate change or the continuity of the human species were among the most frequently asked questions about the future.

It is clear, then, that for most people the future equates to have a good car and a good meal. Therefore, any other issue, such as possible human immortality (be it biological, digital or hybrid), is not a priority. Neither is the possible extinction of humanity.

The future thus becomes hedonistic ("I just want to satisfy my pleasures"), narcissistic ("My only concern is myself") and short-term ("Whatever I want, I want it right now"). In other words, the future is seen as an extension of childhood in which we are only interested in what we are going to eat and how big our new toy is going to be.

But that, obviously (or it should be obvious), is not future because the attitude just described does not include an expansion of consciousness towards others, towards nature or the universe, and much less towards transcendence (in whichever way you understand it). In other words, the perpetuation of immaturity is incompatible with the true future.

It is perfectly understood that we must be concerned with meeting our basic needs, such as food and transportation. We need our daily bread today and tomorrow and cars are already more of a tool for work than a luxury item to travel. That is very well understood.

What is unacceptable, if we want to build a future for ourselves and our descendants, is allowing cars and food to limit our future thinking. 

Closing your eyes to the future will not stop the future from arriving

Someone recently contacted me asking for my help to "see the future with more clarity." This is a businessman who, due to the changes caused by the pandemic, considered it prudent to spend some time thinking about how his business could be part of the new future. But, despite his request, he didn’t really want to see the future with clarity. 

When we speak of "seeing the future" we are not talking, obviously, of any kind of divination or prophecy. We are talking about carefully analyzing the present on the basis of the information already available to see where and in what direction the new future emerges.

There is nothing to guess, but a lot to study. But first you must understand two things: the future is always already here, although not necessarily in its full form; and the future is not a time after the present, but an expansion of consciousness.

Regarding the first point, let’s share this example: the first airplanes have little to do with modern airplanes, except that in both cases they are flying machines. And, to give another even clearer example, the first phones have little resemblance with today’s smartphones.

But the first airplanes, as well as the first telephones, already indicated a certain direction of the development of those technologies and, in fact, many thinkers at the beginning of the last century were able to imagine and anticipate those developments. At the same time, although the examples given are technological, the emerging future is not limited only to new technologies.

And that brings us to the second point: the future is not a time that comes later, but an expansion of consciousness in which consciousness unfolds to embrace the potential for new opportunities for self-discovery and action previously unexplored.

In other words, the future is an open mind. One who has a closed mind, as happened with the man mentioned in the first paragraph, cannot and does not want to see the future and, therefore, only seeks an infinite repetition of the past or a perpetual continuity of the present. But for that person, there is no future because their consciousness has not expanded to see it.

Something said, and for good reason, that the opposite of "love" is not "hate", but "indifference", because in indifference there is not even any relationship between one person and another. In the same way, the opposite of "future" is not "past", but "dictatorship" (in whatever form), because in dictatorship there is no place for the future. Dictatorship is often self-imposed.

Therefore, when I invited the aforementioned businessman to think about a future that is no longer a continuity of the present (which now includes space hotels, trips to Mars, general artificial intelligence, constant pandemics) his answer was none of that is relevant to his business, when, in fact, it is.

Closing our eyes to the future does not invalidate or modify its arrival, but it certainly excludes us from the new future. Therefore, let’s open our eyes. 

Experts get so used to their own thinking that they make mistakes

In 1991, French diver Henri Cosquer, while exploring an area near Marseille, found the underwater entrance to a cave where, to his amazement, there were prehistoric paintings on the walls. In fact, hundreds of paintings, including penguins. When Cosquer announced his discovery, many "experts" indicated that neither these paintings nor the images of penguins existed.

The truth is that those "experts" were wrong. The cave exists (the only cave with underwater access and painting on the walls) and there are there paintings of penguins and dozens of other animals, some already extinct or no longer living in that area.

Now, in just a few weeks, a “duplicate” of the Cosquer Cave will open to the public in Marseille, so that those interested can enjoy, without having to dive, the beauty of its paintings.

But what led the "experts" to deny Cosquer's discovery? Simply, that they "knew" that there were no underwater caves with prehistoric paintings on the walls and that they "knew" that there had never been penguins in South France. And they "knew" it without ever doing what Cosquer did: go diving and enter the cave.

It is easy for anyone to assume he/she is an "expert" if all they do is denying any new discovery or theory that modifies what that "expert" already believes. And in fact, 30 years after the cave's discovery, certain "experts" in Paris still deny its authenticity.

There are many similar cases. For example, in 1883, Moses Wilhelm Shapira announced that he had purchased 15 ancient manuscripts in Jerusalem and that one of them was an ancient version of the book of Deuteronomy. However, "experts" from the British Museum declared the manuscripts to be fake, even though they only saw them for a few minutes, without examining them.

The attack on Shapira was so intense that six months after announcing the purchase of the manuscripts, he committed suicide. In 1885, someone took the Shapira manuscripts, and they were probably destroyed. 

But now, with new technologies and information not available in the 19th century, Dr. Idan Dershowitz (University of Potsdam in Germany), expressed that linguistic and literary evidence shows that the manuscripts were not only authentic, but that they were indeed as old as Shapira had said.

Obviously, the great difference between Cosquer and Shapira is that Cosquer was vindicated while alive for the error of the "experts", while Shapira paid with his life for the error of the "experts". And, unfortunately for us, we live in a society of "experts."

We could say that this is a society of "instant experts" who, after reading a couple of books or, worse, even watching a video or attending a webinar, assume they are experts. Or, as the philosopher Renata Seleci (University of London) puts it, we live in the age of "passionate ignorance", where knowledge no longer has any function in society.

In that context, we cannot challenge our assumptions or argue for another point of view. Thus, we are trapped inside our own ignorant “expertise”.  

What lessons has this pandemic taught us during the past 12 months?

One year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a global health crisis that in many ways paralyzed the planet, what lessons has this pandemic taught us? The answer is clear: many lessons. But how many of those lessons have we learned? The answer is also clear: none.

I have heard many times that there are two kinds of children with bad behavior: the badly educated and the “badly learned”. The badly educated children are those who, for whatever reason, did not receive a good socio-affective education from their parents or the adults in charge and could not or knew not how to adapt to society.

The “badly learned” children are those who were educated in the best possible way by their parents or the adults in charge and, even so, for whatever reason, they do not manage to adjust to an acceptable social life and, in fact, generally cause problems and pain for those close to them and even for strangers.

On a planetary level, we humans act like “badly learned” children: no matter how many good lessons we are taught, we never learn them. By now, we should have learned to be mature, responsible beings. 

The COVID-19 pandemic (one of the many pandemics that has plagued humanity for millennia) exposed the fragility and irrationality of our actions and our thoughts, always and only obsessed with the ephemeral, the superficial, and the inconsequential, regardless of the irreparable damage caused to the planet and others. 

So, any lesson we might have learned from the pandemic is long gone. In fact, I think we put more mental energy into not learning those lessons than fighting the pandemic.

The virus still continues, and the threat is still real. We have not yet stopped the pandemic, yet a whole way of thinking based on anti-science and anti-rationality has clearly gained new momentum. (By saying "anti-science" I am not suggesting for a moment that science should be deified or considered the final word. And true rationality surpasses mere syllogistic thinking).

The virus removed the veil of self-deception that we had imposed on ourselves believing that everything was fine and that everything was going to be fine. Or, if you prefer, the self-deception that mistakes new technologies for progress and useless and debt-creating purchases for happiness.

The days of not listening to human noise to listen to the messages of nature did not last long. It was considered unnatural to stay home and ask parents to help educate their children. Human lives took second place because, obviously, the important thing is to save the economy, that is, the same economy that caused the pandemic. 

All the lessons that we could have learned and could have led to a rebirth and transformation of humanity were quickly crushed by countless conspiracy theories and by a religious fundamentalism so uncompromising it hurts to think it is real.

Our foolish presence hurts the planet. Earth is in pain. But we still haven't learned it. We are bad learned adults. 

How tolerant should we be of intolerant people?

Many years ago, I read a science fiction story -I can't even remember its title- about a group of police officers chasing the last murderer on the planet in a technological future. After cornering him, a police officer shoots him and kills him. And the policeman then exclaims: "I killed the last murderer!"
 
At that very moment, the police officer becomes aware that, by having done what he did and having said what he said, he had become precisely what the world wanted to eliminate. He himself was now the last murderer, replacing the criminal whose life he had taken. So, what should he do?

I very vaguely remember the rest of the story, but be that as it may, the policeman had only a few options: to tell himself that he was doing his duty and therefore his actions were not murder; to accept that he had committed a murder and that, therefore, the police were going to kill him, and the cycle would repeat itself; or take his life thus ending the cycle.

The story came to mind (in a fragmentary way and without its end) when thinking to what extent we can be tolerant with the intolerant without becoming intolerant ourselves and without falling into the easy way of saying that because we practice intolerance then it is not intolerance.

At this time in history with so many divisions in any of the social spheres one finds oneself; at a time when arrogant ignorance reigns to the point that, knowing itself as ignorance, it does not seek knowledge; at a time when the dialogue is reduced to a monologue of whims, how tolerant can we be?

We already know the deadly results of intolerance. Millions and millions of people have paid with their lives in the battles and wars fought by bigots against bigots, each one hiding behind "his" truth and "his" rights. And each group, even holding totally contradictory positions, share the same position of intolerance.

But beyond those historical mega events, to what extent can we continue to be tolerant in our daily lives against intolerant people? How long will it be until we shout, "I have been intolerant of the intolerant!", only to find that we have become precisely what we wanted to avoid.

Or, perhaps, we have become worse than that because we have become aware of our situation and, generally, a contradiction arises within us between keeping an open mind and a willing heart and not listening to the nonsense uttered by the intolerant. To top it all, we don't even know how to feign intolerance without losing control.

So, what to do? Committing a (metaphorical) "ethical suicide" and setting aside our values when faced with bigotry? Being intolerant, but saying we are not because what we don’t tolerate is the intolerant? Nothing of that? Perhaps something else?

I don’t have answers, but I would like to have them. Maybe someone who has them will soon share them to educate us all. 

The existential distance between the first human and the last human keeps growing

Recently my son shared a short story with me, found in one of the many Internet sites dedicated to the topic of stories (or parables) which in just ten words tell a complete story and leave a lesson:

"Help me!" cried the last human. "No!" replied the first."

That's the whole story of the connection, or rather the lack of connection, between the first human and the last one, a connection reduced to a brief, monosyllabic dialogue to ask and refuse help. But who is this "last human" asking for help? And who is the first human denying it?

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche presents his version of the "last human" (that is, us). The last human lost the ability to create and only devotes himself/herself to consuming whatever it takes to satisfy his/her basest pleasures, aptly and perpetually hidden behind a cloak of decency and legality.

The last human can have it all without being happy because he/she lost the ability to transform himself/herself. It cannot be anything other than what it already is and, therefore, lives a miserable life, not in the sense of lack of material goods, but of lacking meaning and direction in life.

As Byung-Chul Han says, the last human (that is, us) exploits himself and calls that “happiness”. The last human internalizes the oppressor and asks for help to be free from his own insignificance. But in reality, he does not want to and cannot change.

And who is the first human? Among the ancient accounts of the Hebrews and, differently, but concordant, among the Greeks, the first human was not a human being like the one we see on a daily basis, but a cosmic being, aware of his/her spirituality and in perpetual connection with the infinite light of the universe (or, if you prefer, the deity.)

It could be said, if this oversimplification is forgiven, that the first human was a multidimensional human, as opposed to the "one-dimensional man", perfectly described by Herbert Marcuse in his well-known book on that subject.

Because of his/her expanded consciousness, the first human doesn’t cling to or limit himself/herself to pleasures, desires, or technologies. For his part, the last human does nothing but lock himself/herself within his/her desires and his/her technological devices.

The first human, ancient stories teach, lives with the universe and is inseparable from the universe. The last human only lives with an image of himself/herself, separated from himself/herself, from others. and from the universe.

Therefore, the last human asks for help, but does not really want to receive it because, in doing so, it would cost him/her everything. And the first human doesn't help because he/she knows that sometimes the best way to help is not to.

Is it possible to overcome this situation where the last human doesn’t come out of his “cave” and the first human can’t help? In this context, and said with great care, perhaps the idea of a transhuman (neither alpha nor omega) is beginning to make sense.

Algorithms begin to replace scientific knowledge

lgorithms have reached such a level of sophistication and precision that some scientists argue that more is known by using these algorithms than by learning science. In other words, artificial intelligence has led to a rethinking of the utility, purposes, and methods of modern science.

It has been said, and with good reason, that modern science is an updated and technologized expression of ancient mythology, understanding 'mythos' as a narrative that, while giving meaning to reality, serves as a basis and guide for thought and behavior. Expressions like "Science says that ..." reveal that mythological aspect of current science.

But now, it seems, science will no longer be necessary because artificial intelligence algorithms will replace it. It may be premature to make such a statement, but, according to leading scientists in the United States, there are clear indications that we are moving in that direction.

Let's put it this way: I don't need to know how a combustion engine works to drive a car, nor do I need to know in detail all the technological elements inside my smartphone to use that phone.

In fact, if I had to first learn how a car engine works to drive the car or first learn what each component of my phone does to use the phone, I would most likely never drive or talk on the phone.

Something similar would be happening in terms of the relationship between algorithms and science, says scientist Hong Qin, from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory of Plasma (PPPL), under the U. S. Department of Energy. 

Basically, Qin argues, it is no longer necessary to learn, as was done before, all the elements of Newtonian physics to calculate the orbits of the planets because those calculations are now made by artificial intelligence algorithms, without the need to spend years and years studying physics or astronomy.

Even more specifically, Qin claims that algorithms are replacing traditional science with a kind of "black box", in the sense of a process unknown to the user, that provides "accurate predictions" and it does it (this is important) "without using any theory or scientific laws."

In other words, not only does the person who wants to calculate the orbits of the planets no longer need to know how or why those planets move, but the algorithms that perform these calculations do not know (nor are they interested in knowing) the scientific laws that they govern the orbits of the planets. Obviously, the example can be extended to almost any other scientific field.

But how does the algorithm do to accurately calculate the orbits of the planets if those calculations have no scientific basis? Because the algorithm teaches itself how to do it.

We are, then, seeing the beginning (I think) of a science without science and of a science without consciousness, in which everything is transformed into something calculable, but not in a materialistic sense, but in the sense that, according to Qin, the whole universe is a simulation inside a computer.

Dr. Hong Qin

“Nobody will ever want to go to space anymore!”

I recently shared on social media a story about the beginning of civil and commercial space flights, including flights for tourists, a historic moment for space travel. Almost immediately, someone responded: “But a rocket just exploded. No one will ever want to go into space anymore! "

But is it really so? Just because an experimental SpaceX rocket exploded, is no one going to want to go into space anymore? Obviously, the argument is meaningless. Throughout the history of the so-called "space race" there were numerous explosions and loss of life, including Apollo 1 (1967) and the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) space shuttles.

Despite that, and perhaps precisely because of the lessons learned after those tragedies (and others in both the United States and Russia), space travel continued and will surely continue.

The absurdity of believing that due to an accident people will no longer be interested in a certain mode of transport is evident when one thinks that, despite the fact that from time to time some airplanes crash, airplanes are still flying. And, if it weren't for the pandemic, those planes would still be full of people to many destinations.

At another level, closer to daily life, few are those who believe that we all should stop using cars due to the many car accidents almost anywhere those vehicles are used. In fact, I believe that, in many cases, the problem is the bad drivers, not the cars themselves.

If we refrained from doing something just because someone had a problem trying to do it (including regrettable loss of life), then we would never do anything. For example, countless ships have sunk throughout history and yet even today ships continue to be built and used.

But perhaps the most profound paralyzing effect of a tragedy, of a setback, of a failure is to paralyze us to the point of preventing us from seeing a future different from the present. The world of what we can do is a ridiculously small world. 

In his famous speech on September 12, 1962, President John Kennedy said, "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Precisely when facing difficulties or challenges (real or created by our imagination) we begin to know our own limits and, for that very reason, we learn to overcome them. Suddenly, what seemed impossible ceases to be. The unattainable is now reached. The dream comes true. But not because it is easy.

After all, if it were only for a matter of ease and simplicity, we would never leave childhood (maybe not even the cradle) and we would live our whole lives waiting for someone to feed us, take care of us, and protect us. But that eternal childhood (increasingly common in our days, unfortunately) is not life, but a mere perpetuation of immaturity.

In short, life is not easy, but that doesn’t mean it is not worth living it.

Narrative is the foundation of the future, the other, and ethical commitments

Throughout history and probably since human beings recognized themselves as such, innumerable tales and stories have been told that, and as they passed from generation to generation, converge in narratives so repeated that they are even accepted as the only reality. But without those narratives there would be no future, no others, and no self-aware persons.

As Dr. John Vervaeke (University of Toronto) explains, while individual stories and even group stories focus on remembering what happened to those people or groups (episodic memory), the great narratives (remarkably close, if not identical to the myths of ancient times in their functions) seek to give meaning to life and guide behaviors.

While personal stories tell what happened, narratives explain who we are and let us know why things happen the way they do. And by doing so and precisely by doing it, they invite us and even force us to put aside, even for a moment, that world in which each one of us is the hero and the only protagonist of history. In that regard, narratives are autonoetic memories. 

In other words, narratives force us to consider other possibilities and, for that very reason, to consider a reality other than the one we live in. And a reality different from the one we live in is the very definition of the future. As we said in a previous column, the future is not the time after the present, but an expansion of the consciousness of possibilities.

But if we leave the confinement of ourselves and at the same time we focus on the future, then inevitably we will meet "the others" and in a short time we will realize that we are "the other" of the others.

In turn, that temporary expansion and that exit or opening towards the other opens up the possibility of long-term work commitments and deep ethical commitments. The fact that we are no longer locked within ourselves and that we see ourselves potentially living in another time, in another space and with others also deepens our self-discovery.

For Vervaeke, the extension towards the future, the exit towards the others and the capacity to assume serious commitments (and to fulfill them) are three basic elements of being a person (or, I add, a mature and adult person).

For his part, for the writer and thinker Ítalo Calvino, the level of person is reached when the ability to "question normality" is acquired and maintained and, even more so, the ability to notice who is excluded from that "normality". In a sense, for Calvino, the person (in the profound meaning of the word) is the one who changes the narrative and starts a new story.

Unfortunately, in the world of “hypermodern idiots” (as described by the Spanish philosopher José Carlos Ruiz) there is no longer any place for a narrative that invites us and forces us to be people, nor for people capable of changing the narratives of exclusion. Or perhaps that is the commitment that we must assume.

I am tired of people telling me to focus only on the present

In the current context of uncertainty and anxiety, every time I mention the future, I find the same answer: "We should only think about the present because the present is the only thing that exists." Sometimes the phrase ends with "the only thing we have." Honestly, I'm already tired of that answer for philosophical and ethical reasons. 

First, whoever affirms that the "present is the only thing we have" shows little or no reflection on the endless and simultaneously essential problem of time. Obviously, it is not necessary to be a philosopher to express an opinion and each person has the right to express what they want to say. But be that as it may, the present is not the only thing we have.

This superficially short column is not the place to talk about what time is or is not. And this is not the time do it. But I will say the following: when "time" is reduced merely to chronological or mechanical time, the multidimensionality of time has been lost from our experience and, as a consequence, the temporality of the human being is neglected or forgotten. 

In this context, the impermanent is understood as permanent, the fleeting as lasting, and the perishable as immutable. It is wrongly assumed that neither the future nor the past exists. But the only thing they say exists (namely, the present) is precisely the only thing that doesn’t exist, since the present is the future of the past and the past of the future.

Second, leaving all philosophy aside, there is an ethical question. With immense frequency, those who ask me to think only about the present use this approach to detach themselves from their responsibilities, both current, past, and future.

As the Spanish philosopher Daniel Innerarity said, whoever uses the present to escape the past turns the future into a garbage dump. And that is exactly what happens: we have turned the future into a garbage dump to the point that we live in the ruins of the future. The present has been transformed, by our neglect, into the ruins of the future.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked that whoever is not thinking about his "grandchildren" (that is, those generations that we will probably not see) "is not thinking at all." And, to quote another Spaniard, Enrique Santin, “You remember the past. You live the present. You think the future”.

Therefore, the invitation to "focus on the present" (in any of its many variations) is, ultimately, an unbearable invitation to stop thinking and to fall into a fatalism that gives us the illusion of being "free" from all our responsibility to change the present and to build a new and different future.

What then is the alternative? To understand that the future is not chronological time after the present. The future is a state of consciousness: the unfolding of consciousness towards itself, that is, towards opportunities not yet explored. Therefore, the future (and time) is the opening towards the Other.

 

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