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Weekly Commentary - JULY 13, 2020

On this side of the galactic wall, dialogue has been infantilized and denial globalized

NASA recently announced that, hidden behind the Milky Way, there is a “galactic wall” of astonishing proportions and that, despite its immense size, we were only now able to discover because our own galaxy covered it up. I wonder then what is hidden that we still cannot see behind the galactic wall.

And I also wonder how it can be that troublesome featherless bipeds living on an insignificant planet orbiting a small star in a remote corner of the galaxy still believe that the limits of our knowledge are the limits of reality. After all, until less than a century ago we believed that the Milky Way was the entire universe.

An infant can usually only see no more than 18 inches away. He/she can be forgiven for believing that the world ends where his/her sight stops. This is why babies laugh when an object they thought was missing then reappears, like when the mother plays peek-a-boo, hiding and then showing a toy to the baby. 

Young children can also be forgiven for believing during several of the first years of their lives that their parents were born adults, that parents were never children. In fact, it takes several years for children to form the idea of "past" and even many more years to understand that there is a historical and prehistoric past. 

Meanwhile, with a limited understanding of time, children assume that before them there was nothing and only slowly understand that they actually came to a world that preceded them, both in a "geological" and "cultural" sense.

Children can be forgiven for confusing the limits of "their" world with the limits of “the” world, but for adults there are no excuses, whether or not they know what they are doing. Only the deepest arrogant ignorance, which knows it is ignorant, but it doesn’t care (whose examples are now repeated daily and at all levels) believes that "his/her" world is "the" world.

However, that is exactly what we see in these times and, perhaps, what has always happened to us humans: we take the part as if it were the whole, the provisional as if it were the final, and the temporary as if it were permanent. And we also confuse “everydayness” with “normalcy” and the map with the territory.

So, on this side of the vast galactic wall that NASA recently discovered, dialogue has become infantilized and “motivated denial” has become global.

Many dialogues now begin with "We shouldn't talk about those topics," but "those topics" are precisely those focusing on relationships between humans, between groups of humans, and between humans and the universe or divinity. That is, they are topics that we should talk about.

“Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own information universes”, said Adrian Bardon, a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, writing for Scientific American. 

“Denialism" has expanded so much that logic, if it still exists, must be hiding on the other side of the galactic wall.

There are plenty of themes and ideas, but there is a lack of open hearts and minds

I must confess that, almost two decades after deciding to write a weekly commentary (always exactly 500 words), I am not short of topics or ideas to explore or share. But the growing disappointment at seeing the loss of our capacity for dialogue and introspection makes me wonder whether to continue with this task that seems to become "a voice in the desert".

Among the many topics that could be discussed this week are, for example, the discovery that the whale shark has teeth in its eyes, something never before seen in the animal kingdom. Or the recent announcement that, in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, there would be tens of thousands of millions of planets similar to Earth, that is, with the capacity for "human" life.

Or perhaps we could analyze what Sartre said in 1943 (Being and Nothing): "What happens to me happens through me", underscoring the need to take personal responsibility for what happens to us even under the worst circumstances.

And why not comment on Fritjof Capra's harsh warning in 1982 (The Turning Point, chapter 8) when he said that "the Pentagon is planning to extinguish the human species as well as most others"?

However, it is useless to talk about this or many other issues with the potential to have a transforming effect on our way of thinking, deciding and acting, if, as a recent report indicates, one in three high school students in the United States never reads a book after finishing school. And among university students it is one in four.

Additionally, 70 percent of American adults have not read a complete book in five years. And 80 percent of families buy only one book per year, or none at all.

In that context, everything becomes opinion, that is, knowledge vanishes and it is assumed everything that is said is without foundation, and therefore it can be rejected and replaced by another opinion, also without foundation, but closer to what "one thinks".

Ignorance has become arrogant to the point that someone who "knows a lot" is someone who can correctly answer trivial questions about celebrities or entertainment.

We could have written about the nonagenarian Chilean philosopher Gastón Soublette's proposal on the "dangers and opportunities of the mega-crisis", as the subtitle of his new book Manifesto says.

According to Soublette, the current global crisis is not a crisis of health or economy (although undeniably those elements are included in the crisis), but a crisis of spirituality, not in the sense of religious dogma, but in the sense that we keep our eyes closed to change and the future and, therefore, we cling to the crisis that we have created.

Soublette suggests that the project of modernity that emerged in Europe 500 years ago is coming to an end because the myth of the “constant progress” is over now. Nothing of what once promised was delivered. Soublette is right: we are entering a new time, but you have to read it to believe it. 

When we lose the ability to dialogue, we lose everything

I recently read the story of a California attorney who reported corruption cases to the office of certain District Attorney. In response, the accused prosecutor told the if he attorney that if he (the attorney) did not like the profession, he should resign and pursue something else.

That's one of the countless examples that we can no longer even have a decent, adult conversation. We have lost the ability to dialogue, that is, the ability to connect through reason and speech. By the way, that’s the etymology of “dialog”: connecting through (dia) what is already connecting us (logos). 

In the example just mentioned, the central theme of the complaint was the corruption of a prosecutor and not the ability or desire of a lawyer to continue his/her profession. However, in a move that reveals all disdain for understanding and truth, the issue went from corruption to the “inability” of the complainant, questioning his/her credibility and motives.

But that same disdain for dialogue is seen at all levels of communication. In the place where I live (Denver metropolitan area) fireworks are prohibited for private use, that is, they can only be used by professionals. However, like everything in life, people still buy and use fireworks.

Obviously, what for some is "fun", for others it is a great annoyance, especially if the noises and explosions are repeated night after night and too close to their own home.

A few days ago, neighbor posted a message on the neighborhood social network asking those who launch fireworks without authorization that, if they don't want to think about their neighbors, at least think about the impact the explosions have on pets, especially dogs.

In response, one of the people responsible for illegally launching the fireworks said, "If you don't know how to take care of your dogs, then don't have dogs."

Once again: the topic of the conversation was not the ability of a person for taking care of their dogs, but the fact that someone, by not complying with the current municipal ordinances, caused problems for their neighbors and for the pets in the neighborhood.

But, instead of assuming personal responsibility for the results of his actions, the inconsiderate individual preferred to “lecture” anyone who asked him to reconsider his actions, as if verbally attacking other people exempted him from his responsibilities.

The examples could be multiplied because, as we have already said, we have lost the capacity for dialogue, including internal dialogue. But then the question arises: when someone responds in such a disconnected and aggressive way as in the examples mentioned, is it done deliberately or perhaps out of ignorance? (I don’t think there are any other options.)

If it is a deliberate and calculated act to "harm" the other person, that is ethically unacceptable and highly destructive. And if an act of ignorance, then we are faced with an existential reality that brings us to the brink of the abyss: there is no future if we do not understand each other.

Reason without wisdom becomes the unreason of fanaticism

A few days ago, on June 18, 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled on the continuation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Leaving aside all political issues, this ruling includes an element that must be highlighted and analyzed: the separation between wisdom and reason.

"The wisdom of those decisions (about DACA) is none of our concern," wrote John Roberts, President of the Supreme Court. The Court's determination, Roberts said, was based on the Executive Branch's request to end DACA and did not include a "reasoned explanation" of that request.

Even more specifically, Roberts insisted that the government's actions must be based "on reasons" and on "rational procedure", which clearly did not happen in the case in question.

It is not up to us (much less within the limited space of this column) to analyze that opinion (or any other) of the highest American court. But it must be said that separating wisdom from reason is, at best, risky and, most likely, very dangerous.

Since I lack both the academic and the intellectual capacity to speak about the United States Supreme Court, I will leave that subject entirely, but I still think the recent ruling serves as a clear example of one of the deep roots of the current meaning crisis: separating what is wise from what is rational.

That doesn’t mean, obviously, that wisdom and reason must be fused and confused as if they were a single "thing". That is not the case. But neither should they totally cut off from each other because, although different, they coexist in a ceaseless feedback loop.

The danger of separating them is clear: when reason is disconnected from wisdom, dialogue becomes argument, the purpose of life is reduced to winning arguments and, ultimately, the best arguments succeed, even if they totally lack wisdom.

And while the wise person, precisely because he/she is wise, doesn’t speak, but listens, the argumentator, preciously for being so, doesn’t listen, but speaks. But they speak not to teach, educate, or inspire, but to convince, or, more strictly, to manipulate ideas and wills in a certain direction.

The problem is not new. Those argumentators who sold themselves to the highest bidder to win arguments and who ignored Plato's wisdom called them sophists. They were neither wise (sophos) nor lovers of wisdom (philo-sophos), but lovers of appearances (philo-doxos). And they made tons of money for doing what they did.

In other words, when wisdom is separated from reason, however lacking in wisdom, ethics, or beauty an idea or proposal may be, if its acceptance seems reasonable, it will be accepted. And, at the same time, regardless how wise as an idea or a proposal is, if it seems irrational to accept it, it will be rejected. The examples of those two possibilities are countless.

When we openly state that wisdom is not our concern, we have already irretrievably opened the doors to the unreason of fanaticism. That door, as history reveals, is extremely costly to close. 

Appearances are deceiving ... and everything is just an appearance

Many years ago, when I was still a child in primary school, the teacher asked us to draw a picture. A classmate, Guillermo, completed the task and handed it to the teacher and (as I recall) she said it was "a very poor drawing." Guillermo then took two coins, glued them on the drawing and returned it to the teacher.

I remember the incident, but I don't know how the story ended. But that moment stayed in my memory because it was one of the first times that I became aware (although I couldn't verbalize it until much later in life) that words have more than one meaning and that the way we interpret words has consequences in our actions.

Obviously, when the teacher referred to “a poor drawing” she was talking about a basic drawing to which other elements could be added to complete it. But when Guillermo heard "poor" he understood him (perhaps mischievously, perhaps due to his own situation in life) as "lacking money". And that led him to act the way he did.

We are all in a similar situation every day with every word and phrase we hear because, to react to what is said to us and act accordingly, we must first interpret that phrase. And there is no guarantee that our interpretation is correct.

In fact, interpretation or, technically, hermeneutics is an ancient problem that the Greeks and Romans of millennia ago contextualized in the framework of the relations between human beings and the gods. After all, if the gods say anything to humans, it is of utmost importance to interpret that message correctly.

The god in charge of carrying messages from the gods to humans was Mercury among the Romans or Hermes for the Greeks. He is recognized for wearing wings on his heels and on his helmet. Furthermore, its name in Greek is the origin of our word "hermeneutic" (process of interpretation).

Now, when someone receives a message and understands it (in whatever way they understand it), that person went from one situation in their life to another, from not knowing to knowing, from not understanding to understanding. That is to say, he crossed a "threshold", so to speak. For this reason, Mercury / Hermes was also the god of thresholds, either at the doors of houses or at the entrance to the city.

But Mercury / Hermes, when carrying his messages, never presented himself as who he was, but disguised himself. He did not lie or cheat: the message was transmitted correctly. But, because of Mercury's disguise, the message always had more than one interpretation. Always. And beyond the myth, the situation has not changed.

We can laugh when a young child understands a word with a different meaning than the one his teacher was trying to give it. But what happens to us, adults, with words of great impact on our lives, such as "poverty", "racism", "reform" and even "democracy"? Mercury / Hermes continues to deceive us even today.

Our destructive power has already far exceeded our maturity level

On May 4, 2020, a five-year-old boy living in Orem, Utah (United States) decided to do what every child of that age does when the mother refuses to buy him a real Lamborghini: he got into the family truck and started driving down the highway to head to California to buy that expensive vehicle in person.

Two miles later, on the highway, a police officer stopped him without incident. The boy, who had never driven a car before in his life, not only started the truck, but he also read the road signs to drive in the right direction and knew what to do and how to stop when he saw the lights of the police car behind him. 

After the incident, the boy's family was criticized on social media for allowing someone "without enough maturity" to be left unsupervised so he was able to drive of a family van on an interstate highway. And although nothing happened, the argument is that a tragedy could have happened due to the child's immaturity.

But the truth is that the chronological age and the level of maturity don’t go together. On the road, I've seen teens and adults drive worse than the Utah boy reportedly drove. And I have seen "adults" (please note the quotation marks) in high positions in their organizations or companies acting far worse than an immature child.

In our time, immaturity affects an increasing number of individuals, becoming dangerous for all every time one of those individuals start his/her own journey on the highway of life with the sole purpose of satisfying his/her desires, without consideration for their families or for others, nor for the consequences.

Even worse, humanity as a whole is acting from time immemorial with a high level of immaturity, as evidenced by centuries and millennia of wars, hunger, poverty, discrimination, and endless conflicts across the planet. We are so immature that even a virus can easily stop and derail our lives. 

Recently, futurist Nikola Danaylov, founder of the Singularity blog and author of the book Conversations with the Future, warned that the barrier that previously allowed the destructive power of humanity to be controlled by humanity has already been crossed.

According to Danaylov, our capacity for destruction already far exceeds our collective wisdom, especially in the West. Specifically, he said, the technological power that humanity now has in its hands (such as artificial intelligence and nuclear energy) outweighs the wisdom to use it.

From that perspective, we are all young children driving a truck for the first time on a busy highway, putting our lives and the lives of others at risk. But, contrary to what happened with the Utah boy, no one will come to stop us or help us before we cause a tragedy. Not even aliens. 

Danaylov based his warning after having discussed the subject with dozens of scientists, philosophers, and experts. Its conclusion is undeniable: the exponential growth of intelligent technologies is accompanied by the exponential growth of human immaturity.

They told me that in the Upside-Down World ...

The well-remembered Argentine singer María Elena Walsh introduced us in one of her songs to the Upside-Down Kingdom in which “two and two are three” and where “if you look, you don't see”. It is obviously a fantasy world where the same rules that we follow in our world don’t apply. But maybe it's not just fantasy.

Recently, NASA indicated that its scientists working in Antarctica detected " evidence of a parallel universe -- where the rules of physics must be the opposite of our own."

In this Upside-Down Kingdom, detected by NASA thanks to particles called tau neutrinos, time moves towards the past (from our perspective). At the same time, says the NASA statement, if there were inhabitants in that other parallel (but opposite) universe, they would consider our universe to be the Inside-Out World.

This idea is not new. The idea of a parallel universe has been explored by thinkers, writers, scientists, and mystics for millennia.

But perhaps one of the best representations (full of humor and color) is the episode The Farnsworth Parabox in Futurama, from June 2003, which precisely explores what universe "Universe A" is and, among other existential themes, how fragile every universe is.

Ultimately, the order we see in our universe is nothing more than the chaos we have become accustomed to. And the rules and laws of our universe apparently only apply to our universe, that is, they are "regional", or, to put it another way, they work only within our "bubble", but not in the entire multiverse.

Perhaps the inhabitants of the parallel world are right when, seeing what is happening in our world, they affirm that it is we who are moving in the wrong direction. After all, while we are born to die, they (because time flows in another direction), emerge from death, and live to be born (an absolutely compelling idea.)

But, in addition, in our daily life, we are at a time when, as María Elena Walsh said, our small world is literally upside down, where two and two are no longer three, but whatever the boss decides (as Anthony taught De Mello in The Song of the Bird) and where we look, but do not see.

We watch the news and we read the social media posts, but we don't see reality. We look at the masks, but we don't see the people. We look at the profound and irreversible changes that a virus forces us to make, but we don’t see the opportunity to create a new future and, even worse, we want to return to a nostalgic past that never existed.
Gandhi said it well in his list of the Seven Deadly Sins: we want wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, business without ethics, science without humanity, religion without sacrifice and politics without principles.

We are in a real upside-down world (or society): we have now a great opportunity to move into the future, but we are going back to the past.

We always live near Lethe river and keep drinking its water

One way to know how much we have forgotten about the past is to see how many monuments were erected to remember important events for those was who lived at that time. For example, with the exception of small monuments in Colorado and Australia, practically nothing was built to remember the pandemic that struck the world after 1918.

In fact, it is said that despite the millions of deaths worldwide from the so-called "Spanish flu" around 1925, the case had been practically forgotten and that forgetfulness seems to have been one of the reasons why the world, when facing a new plague (another on a millennial list), appears to be poorly prepared.

But the problem is not just forgetting an important historical fact. That in itself is already risky because history, like life, has its many twists and, therefore, forgetting the past is perpetuating and repeating it.

Our forgetfulness goes beyond dates, politicians, and statistics. It is such a deep forgetfulness that it becomes unrecognizable: we have forgotten ourselves. Even worse, we forgot that we have forgotten.

Therefore, not only do we not erect monuments to remember the past, but we also do not erect monuments (write books, create art) to communicate with our own future. Since we already forgot being ourselves, we also do not know what we can become, and we do not even try to communicate with our future self.

Plato, in his typical way, described it with a myth at the end of The Republic. And although much is said these days about the famous myth of the Cave (also in The Republic), the Myth of Er is more interesting to me, both for the story itself and for its immense philosophical, theological, psychological, and literary impact for the next 2400 years.

Those interested can read the Myth of Er in book 10 of The Republic or can easily find it online. In his most basic element, Er dies in battle and then comes back to life and tells the story of what he saw "on the other side." And what Er tells us is that each one of us, before being born, drinks the water of the Lethe river, the river of Oblivion (Forgetfulness).

In other words, we are born having forgotten who we are and not knowing that we have forgotten. That is why, during life, we continue to drink from the river of Oblivion over and over again (we call it amusement, education, religion, or whatever other name), deepening our existential oblivion to the point of no return.

Then, every once in a while, something happens that shakes us and shakes the very structure of our world, our culture and our society. That “something” (a pandemic, for example), by revealing our vulnerability and fragility, our nothingness, can potentially make us think that we are forgetting something and lead us to recover what has been forgotten.

In fact, for the Greeks, learning was remembering. And the opposite of Lethe is aletheia, that is, truth.

We are back inside the cave, too soon and to overconfident in ourselves

We already returned to the cave, too fast and too confident that this was the only and best option. Or, if you prefer, we returned to Egypt because we prefer what is already known (even if it was bad) to the responsibility of building our own future. The hope for a virus to teach us something about ourselves was short-lived. Neither viruses nor gods can do it.

We left the cave (we call it "normal life") for just a few moments and the sun blinded us, but instead of waiting for our eyes to get used to the new light and for our minds to reevaluate the old reality, we ran back to the shadows that, although illusory, are the shadows that we have always known.

For a moment, the illusion cracked, but before it completely collapsed. we fell into the worst illusion of all, to believe that we had overcome the illusion. We force ourselves to believe, with the deepest self-deception, that the best thing was "to return to normality", even if that "normality" was a life in chains looking at shadows on a screen.

We went out into the desert and when we saw no roads (or food) we returned to the known roads, where slavery guarantees that, as slaves, they will feed us (but only, obviously, to a certain extent.)

We were so seduced by the security and stability of slavery (in Greek, “doulos” means both “slave” and “employee”) that prevented us from assuming our individual and collective freedom to march to a promised future, where there are no roads, there are no guarantees, and there are many enemies. 

We prefer to be part of somebody else’s future instead of being part of our own future. 

The stupefying screen was stronger than the bright sun. The image of the pharaoh on duty was more than the impulse to allow our own being to be born. The message of returning to normality (that is, perpetuating the past) caught us as the siren's song would. In fact, we were captivated in every sense of the word: we are held captive by our own captivity.

The sun shone, the sea split, thunder spoke, and the future summoned us. But we, childish, narcissistic adults with closed minds, prefer darkness, closed-mindlessness, anti-dialogue, and existential failure to opening our mind, heart, spirit, and will to our own multidimensionality.

For a moment, for just an instant, a virus (or the divinity, or the Universe, or all of them together) showed us a butterfly and we caterpillars did not see ourselves in the butterfly. We didn't recognize ourselves. We didn’t know that the butterfly was ourselves. The quarantine locked us in a small world, so small that it gave us no escape.

The cocoon is also a form of confinement, but the chrysalis is not there to go back to the past, but to transform its body and mind for a new future. Others in other places will fly. We, Kundera said, are still beginners.

Every piece of a puzzle not yet finished is still valuable

Let's do this thought experiment: Suppose for some reason every day we get a piece of a puzzle. We don’t know how many pieces the puzzle has. and we don’t know how the final image looks like. So, the question arises: what do we do with the pieces of the puzzle that we already have?

There are obviously several options. For example, we can keep them until we have enough pieces to start trying to put something together. Or we can ignore all those pieces, as we don't know if we will ever receive the final piece and it would be ridiculous to spend time on an impossible task.

One thing is certain: with each new piece the chances increase that we can begin to build at least part of the image and, for that very reason, the chances that one day, under the right conditions, we will solve the puzzle also increase. But if we discard all the pieces, we will never solve the puzzle.

We have to decide, then, if each piece is valuable in itself, even if we do not see that value immediately, or if, precisely because we do not see any value immediately, the pieces of the puzzle are worth nothing, and in fact, the puzzle itself is worth nothing.

If we accept the first option, we will order and reorder (that is the key) the pieces that we already have, not to adjust them to what we see in them, but so that they show us what they want to show us. 

If, on the contrary, we accept the second option and discard all the pieces, then there are no pieces left and there will be no puzzles to solve. Each new piece will be as meaningless as all those that preceded it and all that will follow it.

But what if at some point, by some kind of mysterious circumstance, we realize that, although the pieces came one by one, we always had with us and in us all the pieces of the puzzle? Maybe we were so focused on the new piece that we didn't understand that we already had all the pieces.

This mental exercise, well understood and taken to the extreme, should indicate that we don’t see the future because we do not want to see it.

"We are being confronted by something so completely out of our collective experience that we don't really see it, even when the evidence is overwhelming," wrote Ed Ayers. But Ayers didn’t write that observation now, nor did he refer to the pandemic or coronavirus. He did this in his book The Last Offer of God in 1999.

Why Ayers could see the future and we could not? Because, Ayers said, "Threatened human society becomes more blindered as it falls." And the blindness (ignorance) is so great that we are not aware that we can’t see. We already have all the pieces of the puzzle together and in order, and we don't see them. 

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