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WEEKLY COMMENTARY

“You shouldn’t generalize and everybody in the world knows that”

Years ago, my uncle told me, “I told you a million times not to exaggerate.” It was, of course, a joke based in the obvious self-contradiction of the thought expressed in that statement. But it is not a joke the increasing number of people using similar expressions and fully unaware of the self-contradicting aspect of what they are saying.

For example, somebody recently told me “You should not generalize”, and then she immediately added, “And everybody in the world knows that.” Of course, “Everybody knows that” is a generalization, that is, precisely what this person said we should avoid. However, it was clear this person was unaware of that contradiction. O perhaps it was unimportant to her.

The same person told me that, based on what she experienced at her workplace, she knew that the problem we were talking about was not happening in any other workplace. Let me see if I understand: she told me not to generalize and then she takes her experience in one place and generalizes it to all other similar places to draw her own conclusions.

Regardless of the validity of those conclusions, the absence of awareness of the contradiction embedded in the argument made me think that “not thinking” is now the model for all dialogues (or, perhaps even better, alternated monologues.)

Then, another person sent me a message telling something I already know, and I fully agree with: a picture is worth a thousand words. And to make his point, this person wrote almost one thousand words in his message, adding no image (of course.)

Let me see: a picture is worth a thousand words (very true.) And, for me to understanding it, this person sends me one thousand words and no image. I was tempted to ask for an explanation, but I was afraid I could receive another long message.

Again, the contradiction was so evident I wanted to know why it was not immediately perceived as such and why contradictions seems to be irrelevant to thinking and to communication.

And don’t get me started about the person who sent me a message telling me that “God loves the whole world” and his very next message was asking “God” to “annihilate with fire” those who disagree with the expression of faith this person embraces. The “whole world” was just “a world without them.”

To be very clear, I am not talking here about ambiguities (there are too many of them) or about people changing their minds and one day saying one thing and the next day saying something else (that’s very frequent and too common). I am talking about those who contradict themselves in one and the same thought and they not even know it.

So, what’s the problem? Why should we care about somebody expressing self-contradicting thoughts and not being aware of them? First, because “not thinking” is not a joke, because decisions and actions are based on those contradictions. And second, because “not thinking” is way of not knowing ourselves.

The undeniable problem of our anxious, distracted, and empty minds

There should be no doubts that we live at a time when our prehistorical brain can hardly handle the multiple and unexpected challenges we now face and that we were not designed to face. We were designed to light a fire inside a cave, not to save a techno-globalized, overpopulated planet from self-destruction.

Our minds still use 19th century ideas, taught and promoted by 20th century people, trying to understand 21sr century problems. Every day, we are farther away from reality (whatever that may be) and we struggle to control our anxious, distracted, and empty minds.

I know such a statement is almost offensive. My apologies. Please, understand I mean no disrespect to anybody. Yet, that seems to be the only conclusion based on the books and topics included in the most recent catalogue of publications about minds and brains recently mailed by MIT.

One of the books listed in that catalogue says that, in the context of the current situation, we should spend our lives in a permanent state of “kindergarten”, that is, we should dedicate our lives to our passions, plays, and friends. (I think that many people are already living with “kindergarten minds” all their lives, regarding of their chronological age). 

Another book rightly says that our ignorance has reached such a level that we ignore our own ignorance (nothing new to Socrates, of course). At best, we confuse ignorance with lack of knowledge, but more frequently we confuse ignorance with knowledge. (A recent study published by a Harvard professor talks about living at a time of “aggressive ignorance”.)

Yet another book in the MIT catalogue explains that our minds lack meaning to the point that we don’t even understand our own ideas and concepts. And another book suggests that our minds lack content. Empty minds, we could say.

This is something that ancient philosophers and thinkers already knew, when they complained about immature adults acting like children, living unexamined lives, repeating thoughts but never thinking them, and accepting mere babbling as wisdom, while rejecting wisdom as babbling.

Today, technology is a good tool to empty our minds, not unlike the neural neutralizer presented by Star Trek in Dagger of the Mind (November 1966).

And there is still more. The MIT catalogue include other books telling us our minds are no longer thinking, but just calculating. That’s why, according to those books, we are always anxious and distracted.

In addition, we no longer care about truth (whatever that may be.) In our post-truth era, feelings and personal opinions, even lacking any solid foundation or evidence, replaced truth. And the past is no longer remembered but imagined. The omnipresent social networks, while taking away our privacy, seem to promote both post-truth and an imaginary past.

In conclusion, we live with childish, ignorant, meaningless, calculating, anxious, and distracted minds, indifferent to reality. And we call it “civilization” and “society” and “progress.” Even worst, that’s what we want to perpetuate, export and impose on the world and on future generations.

What does it mean to live in a post-planet era?

I have a limited understanding of what it means to live in a post-truth era, that is, at a time when we only pay attention to our own ideas and never analyze them. And I also have some understanding of what it means to live in a post-democracy world (many examples around us.) But, what does it mean to live in post-planet era? Is Start Trek becoming a reality?

Perhaps. Or perhaps it is closer than we think. Or perhaps that “future” is already here and we don’t know it. So, what does it mean?

During a recent online presentation, Dr. Otto Scharmer, of MIT and founder of the Precensing Institute, shared three megatrends now impacting “our current collective condition”. Those are the three trends mentioned above.

Scharmer said that post-truth means to live “trapped” inside our own “digital echo chamber”. And post-democracy means “societies breaking apart” and “blaming others”.
I have some understanding of those two trends. But, what about a “post-planet” era? I initially thought that it was about space travel. And I think it is, as we will see below. Yet, according to Scharmer, a post-planet time is not to go to space, but to live unconnected from this planet.

In other words, I feel the race to get space, both by nations and by private companies, from space stations to trips to Mars, is not based on our technology to go to space, but on our desire to leave the planet. But, why should we leave the planet? Is this planet in such a bad situation that we can’t save it?

Sometime ago, a person from a Latin American country told me, “My country is in such bad shape that it will be cheaper to buy a new one than to fix it.” I wonder if this new post-planet era, the one Scharmer describes as a “lost connection”, means that we are becoming aware that it will be “cheaper” to leave our planet than to save it.

Perhaps that’s why Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are interested in space travel and in colonizing the Solar System. Perhaps that’s why countries and companies want to go to the moon and to Mars. And perhaps that’s why Orion Span has no problems in finding space tourists for the Aurora Space Station, to be launched by 2021.

According to information published by Orion Span last week, 12 days in space will cost $9,5 million. And they are already taking reservations, with a deposit of $80.000. They expect for the Aurora Station to eventually become a condominium in space, with people living in Aurora and buying, selling, and renting apartments at the space station.

So, is the post-planet era only for multimillionaires who can afford to pay their tickets out of this planet?

It is frightening to think we are about to witness a “technological rapture” taking a few selected ones to the “heavens”, while the rest of us will be left behind, facing the tribulations of this “abandoned” planet.

Sometimes, the universe hears our thoughts

A few days ago, a good friend of mine invited me to have lunch with him because he wanted to share information about the important progress he was making in a community-oriented project he began decades ago. I immediately accepted the invitation, but I didn’t like the restaurant he selected, because it is a noisy place and I knew the conversation would be difficult.

I was thinking about meeting at a different place or even getting there early enough to see if there is was a table available in one of the corners or the restaurant, but then my friend sent me a message telling me he was already at the restaurant and he had a table for us. No chance to change places or table. So, I was ready for a conversation with constant background noise.

I arrived at the restaurant and, to my great surprise, it was closed. A sign at the door said it was not open to the public. And nobody was inside. I thought I went to the wrong place, but I was indeed at the right place.

I went inside the exterior door of the restaurant to avoid the street noise to call my friend. I was wondering where he was. Then, a waitress came and asked me if I was looking for somebody. I told her I was supposed to meet my friend there. She told me, “Your friend is waiting for you over there.”

He was sitting at a table in the center of the restaurant. An empty restaurant, with only the two of us there and, of course, the staff. A nice, soft music was playing in the background, something I never heard in my previous visits to that place.

My desire of having a nice, quiet conversation, with no background noise, was now a reality. But I was confused. How was my friend able to have only for the two of us and at noon a restaurant located at a busy intersection?

“I didn’t do it,” he said. I still wanted to know why the restaurant was open only for the us.

“The universe heard my thoughts,” he said.

He told me one of his appointments was cancelled, so he went to the restaurant two hours before our meeting. He sat at the only available table and, while waiting for our meeting, made a few phone calls. Then, a waitress came and told him there was a minor problem in the kitchen. If he could place his order at that moment, he could stay. Otherwise, he would have to leave.

We know each other for many years, so he ordered lunch both for me and for him. He decided to stay and make more calls. Later, a few minutes after I arrived, lunch was served. Meanwhile, everybody else left. And because he decided to stay, they even brought delicious dessert for us, at no extra cost.

The universe listens to our thoughts, but we don’t always listen to the universe.

In this life, we are all just beginners

I recently enrolled in an online course because I liked the key question of the course: If you are so intelligent, why aren’t you happy? I decided to jump right away into the first video, but there was a problem: no audio. The professor was clearly speaking, but I couldn’t hear a word. I was frustrating.

I checked, of course, all the connections of the computer speakers and, as I expected, everything was in order. Obviously, I also checked the speakers to be sure they were on. The green light in front of one of the speakers indicated they were on. Satisfied, I returned to the video ready to listen and… silence.

It was a mystery. I decided to watch the video on my tablet and not in the computer. I opened it on the tablet and there were no problems with the audio at all. Everything was normal. But I prefer the computer because it is easy for me when I need to answer quizzes or complete questionnaires.

So, I decided it was time to check the computer. A troubleshooting program almost immediately detected a problem: I was using a generic audio driver instead of a specific driver. I installed, of course, the new driver.

Now the computer asked me to “optimize” the sound of the speakers moving the speakers around. And it also allowed me to decide what kind of sound I wanted to use for my earphones if I was not using the speakers. With the updated and the optimization done, I went back to the course, and… silence.

If the computer was not the problem, my other option was to check the browser I was using. I thought that perhaps the settings of the browser were preventing the audio of the videos to be played. I reviewed the settings, but I found nothing out of place.

The next step was to check if any extension in the browser was blocking the video. I thought that perhaps the extension I use to block certain ads was, for whatever reason, also blocking the video I wanted to watch. I deactivated the extension for the web site of the class, but there was still no audio in the video.

By this time, my initial enthusiasm about learning something new about the connection (or lack of thereof) between intelligence and happiness was rapidly diminishing. But I decided not to give up because, after all, it is good to search for both intelligence and happiness. Then, an idea came to my mind and I did something that, in retrospective, I should have done at the beginning. I checked the audio setting in the video: it was “mute”.

I felt like a beginner in life. Here I was, trying to understand the mysteries of intelligence and happiness, and failing to see and solve simple things. I realized then that the reason why intelligent people are not happy is that perhaps they, like me, are not as intelligent as they think they are.

What should we do when our own leaders become our worst enemies?

I recently met by chance with a local community leader recognized for his many years of working supposedly “for the benefit” of the local community. I said “supposedly” because, according to this person, we (our community) deserves to live in poverty and ignorance. Hence, the question of the title: What should we do when our own leaders are our worst enemies?

I wish I could say the meeting I just mentioned with the community leader is just a creation of my imagination. But the meeting was real. Also, I wish I could say this is the only time a community leader said anything like that. Unfortunately, I have heard similar statements many times.

This self-described “agent of change” told me we should focus on “surviving”, because, for “people like us” it makes no sense to try to go to college. In fact, he said “we were not born” to study. And he added that, instead of thinking about building a new future, we should spend our energies preserving the tradition and education we received.  

I asked him with sincere curiosity how we could preserve a tradition when the world is not what it used to be, the future has changed, and the “tradition” he cherishes so much is just the life he had decades ago at a different country, in a context almost unconnected with our present reality.

He then told me I should attend the services at his church to listen to his sermons (that is, I add, his version of the Christian message) and then I will find the answer to my questions.

I must say I am not against, not even for a moment, the possibility of divine revelation (in whatever spiritual o religious context it could happen). But I am against anybody who assumes his own dogma is that revelation and that he is the doorkeeper of such revelation.

Even worst, those are many of the same persons who are invited as “experts” to radio and television programs, where they “lecture” us (in the worst sense of the word) about how to live our lives. Then, they are invited to every committee, board, or focus group out there, they get the grants, and every year they receive awards for their “contributions”.

But when they are just talking about the table at a small restaurant, they reveal who their true intensions: to oppress their own community by letting us to believe that there is no alternative and no future for us, and by deciding they are the limit of what we should achieve.

I remained calmed while listening to such a litany of nonsensical statements. And then, even worst, he expressed his negative opinions about women and about the LGBT community, while proclaiming he was a person with “an open heart.”

What, then, should we do? Against such a person, perhaps we can ask the divinity to intervene. But it is time to create sacred, safe self-discovery spaces for all those affected by those so-called “community leaders.” 

It’s not me: it’s the old virus infecting my brain (and yours)

Francisco Miraval

Some time ago, when I was given the opportunity of teaching philosophy, I asked my students to tell me what the did the day before the class, and then two days before, and we kept going until we found a day where nobody in the room remembered what we did on that day. We have reached the end of our collective, continuous memory.

That exercise helped to demonstrate the connection between memory and personal identity. It is obvious that each of us can say we are who we are because we remember our life (or at least parts of our lives). Yet, sooner or later, we will find a “gap” in our memories. If we take it seriously, we could even doubt about our own identity.

And now there is a new element which can create even more doubts about who we truly are, or we think we are. According to a study published last January in Cell (a specialized magazine focusing on experimental biology), our long-term memories are formed thanks to a virus that infected the brain of our ancestors hundreds of million of years ago.

And that virus, or its successors, act now as a platform for our neurons to communicate with each other and, therefore, to create our memories. (For technical details and explanations, please see the above-mentioned publication.)

So, it can be said that everything I remember about my past and also about my expectations about the future is the result of the HIV retrovirus infecting a mammal 400 million years ago. Thanks to that infection, we have now the Arc protein, which is the based for the neurochemical operations of our brains.

I can say, then, that I am not who I think I am. I am just the result of an old virus infection an extinct animal. According to the researchers, without that infection, our brain wouldn’t have the “plasticity” needed to create long-term memories.

In other words, the Arc proteins, needed to have memories, are similar to those retroviruses that infected our ancestors. In the same way that viruses spread their genetic material from cell to cell, Arc proteins encapsulate their ARN and transfer it from neuron to neuron, thus creating memories.

I feel now it’s not me remembering “my” past. After all, “I” don’t even now that a certain infection “created” the proteins now playing games with “my” neurons. Perhaps “I” don’t now it because there is no real “I” to know it.

Should I be upset to this new strike against my own sense of being human? Perhaps I should feel relieved. If fact, it doesn’t matter if I am upset or relieved because there are perhaps many more “viruses” infecting my brain and playing games with my mind.

Is there any reason why I should know that a brain infection that happened hundreds of millions of years ago is still affecting me? Perhaps we should realize how much we still don’t know about what it truly means to be human.

What should we talk about when we are told “not to talk about that”?

I was recently invited to talk to a group of community leaders and I decided to talk about one of the topics that I have been studying for many years: the emerging future. The presentation and the dialogue went well, even when of the participants said, “We shouldn’t be talking about that”.

I asked the participant –not in a confrontational way, but with sincere curiosity– what then should be the topic of a conversation among community leaders if we can’t talk about the future. The answer was clear and immediate: we should talk about “work” and about “practical things”.

I was tempted to ask the participants to raise their hands if they were over 18 to see how many “adults” were in the room. Obviously, I said nothing of that. I simply asked again, this time more firmly, what should be the topic of the dialogue if we can’t talk about the future. If, as it is clear, things are not working in the present and if the future is no longer a continuation of the past, why can’t we talk about the future?

I was not trying to “force” my presentation on the group. After all, what I was about to tell them I already knew it. I was more interested in listening to the group –most of them with college degrees and years of experience–, to see what they had to say about their experience of the tension between a present (almost) impossible to understand and a future (almost) impossible to anticipate.

My desires were fulfilled only up to a point because some participants “suddenly remembered” they had other meetings or places to go and others “suddenly” received phone calls they had to answer. A few decided to stay, and we had a good, solid, productive conversation.

Later, on my way back and with time to reflect, I understood two things. First, it was the case that participants didn’t want to listen to me or to talk about the future: they didn’t want to listen to themselves.

One of the participants told me that, despite his studies, degrees, and experience, in spite of all that and of his high position in the organization, he was still unable to understand what was happening in the community and. therefore, he was unable to respond in any meaningful way to the needs in the community.

In other words, that nameless feeling of sending that in the emerging future they will become obsoletes, instead of listening to that challenge, they decided not to listen, a natural reaction of protecting oneself by closing your mind, heart, and ears instead of challenging oneself in the new future.

Second, I also understood that if you are not in a safe, secure, comfortable place, it would be difficult for anybody to become aware of his/her adherence to obsolete ideas and of the need to mature as a person. And then I realized that I myself had to let go some of my own obsolete ideas.

There is no room for experts in a narcissistic society (and that’s dangerous)

Francisco Miraval

Several years ago, when my son was still in high school, one day he returned home with a very low grade in his Spanish test, a language that represents no problems for him and that it is also my native tongue. Intrigued and upset, I asked him to show me the test. I saw it and I was surprised to discover that all his answers were correct.

Yes, he did get a bad grade and, yet, he wrote down the correct answers, be in in Spanish or when translating from Spanish to English or from English to Spanish, or vice versa.

Because of that, I asked to speak with his Spanish teacher and, a few day later, I met with the teacher. I explained the situation to her and I asked her why my son received a low grade when his answers in the test were correct. I will never forget what that teacher said to me that day:

"Mr. Miraval, you don't understand. I studied Spanish for six months in Barcelona"

Six months! As I said, Spanish is my native language. In addition, I studied Spanish every year at school for 12 years and then I studied it for seven more years (seven years!) in college. I am also a certified language instructor and I have decades of experience as a professional translator, from sermons to community events to live theater.

According to the teacher, her "six months" were, in her opinion, undoubtedly superior to my studies and experience. She even suggested that perhaps I needed to learn Spanish.

I have faced similar situations many times. For example, after a presentation about the emerging future at a local college, one of the attendees came to me and asked me which book (a "book", in singular) I read for the presentation because she wanted to read the same book so she could offer a seminar about the same topic a few days later. "This coming Saturday", if I remember correctly.

And somebody (whom I know personally) spent two weeks in Mexico and, being that his only international experience, suddenly organized talks about "Mexican-American international relations". "But I watched many YouTube videos", he told me.

For a long time, I didn't understand that situation, but I recently discovered Tom Nichols'sThe Death of Expertise. I know now the age of experts (those who dedicated thousands of hours for many years to master o topic or activity) is now over.

An old tango, Cambalache, said decades ago that "an ignoramus and a great professor are now the same". And according to Nichols, that's exactly what is happening. (For details, see an article about him in the latest number of Harvard Magazine.)

Basically, according to Nichols, easy access to information and a narcissistic mind create the illusion of knowledge and generates an "aggressive ignorance" that prevents people from learning and from recognizing what others know. "ignorance is insolent", my grandmother often said. I am not an expert, but I think ignorance is also dangerous.

El narcisismo colectivo acabó con los expertos (y eso es peligroso)

Francisco Miraval

Hace ya varios años, cuando mi hijo aún estaba en la escuela secundaria, un día él regresó a la casa con una calificación muy baja en su examen de español, un idioma que, además de ser mi idioma natal, él domina sin problemas. Intrigado y algo enojado, le pedí revisar el examen y entonces me llevé una sorpresa: sus respuestas eran correctas.

Aunque su calificación en ese examen había sido baja, sus respuestas estaban bien, tanto en cuanto al uso del español como en cuanto a la traducción del español al inglés o del inglés al español.

Ante esa situación, pedí hablar con la maestra de español y finalmente pude encontrarme con ella. Le expliqué el problema y le pregunté por qué mi hijo había recibido una calificación baja cuando las respuestas al examen eran correctas. Nunca me olvidaré de lo que me dijo esa maestra:

"Sr. Miraval, usted no entiende. Yo estudié seis meses de español en Barcelona"

¡Seis meses! Yo, por mi parte, hablo español como idioma natal. Pero no solamente eso: lo estudié cada año de la escuela primaria y secundaria y luego durante siete años más (¡siete años!) en la universidad. Soy instructor de idioma certificado y tengo décadas de experiencia como traductor profesional.

Pero nada de eso le importó a la maestra, para quien sus "seis meses" eran más valiosos e incuestionablemente superiores a mis estudios y experiencia. Ni sus respuestas ni su pronunciación, me dijo, estaban equivocadas. E incluso insinuó que era yo quien necesitaba aprender español.

Esa situación se ha repetido una y otra vez. Luego de una presentación sobre el futuro emergente en una universidad local, una de las participantes me pidió que le diga qué libro (así en singular) había leído yo sobre el tema porque ella quería leer el mismo libro para hacer un seminario sobre el mismo tema pocos días después. "Este sábado", si no recuerdo mal.

Y alguien a quien conozco personalmente, cuya única experiencia internacional fue dos semanas en México, ya diserta sobre “relaciones méxico-americanas”. “Pero miré muchos videos en YouTube”, me dijo.

Durante mucho tiempo no supe que existía un nombre para describir ese tipo de situaciones y que el tema ya había sido analizado en detalle. Pero ahora, gracias a Tom Nichols y su libro The Death of Expertise, ya sé que la época de los expertos (aquellos que le han dedicado miles de horas a un tema o actividad durante años) ya ha terminado.

“Lo mismo un burro que un gran profesor”, ya decía el tango Cambalache. Y, según Nichols, eso es exactamente lo que está sucediendo. (Para detalles, ver el número más reciente de Harvard Magazine.)

Básicamente, dice Nichols, el fácil acceso a información y una actitud narcisista provoca que muchos crean que saben y lleva a una “ignorancia agresiva” que no solamente les impide aprender, sino que les impide ver lo que otros saben. “La ignorancia es atrevida”, decía mi abuela. Y también, agrego yo (aunque no soy un experto), es peligrosa.

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