I don’t like the main features of any flavor of religion: a deity, the supernatural, superstition, magic. All of those things are nonsense for which there is a total lack of evidence. What’s screwing up humankind is that the nonsense is laced with truth: be kind, love one another, don’t harm or cheat others, etc.
The problem then becomes that the nonsense and the truth are so intertwined that it seems to be like an all or nothing package. It’s easy to understand that being kind is the good and right thing to do. So if that’s so true, all the other stuff must be true, too. Right?
No. Dead wrong.
We must distinguish between the two. We know from real data that people cooperating and banding together (being kind and helpful in small and in very large, organized ways) actually improves the lives of human beings. We know this. And we also know that it is totally grounded in the real world. There is nothing supernatural or magical about it.
We also know, as much as anything can be known, that help for humankind does not come from outside of the real world. Both good and bad things happen, from the exhilaratingly wonderful to the horribly tragic, and everything in between. No amount of praying, sending energy, or any sort of ritualizing has ever prevented bad things or helped in the recovery from bad things. Nor have any of those things ever brought about good things. People who think so are being fooled by mere coincidental correlation. Any sort of careful, objective, proper investigations have borne this out.
And yet, overwhelmingly, the majority of people put stock into the magic. After all, it’s part of those great belief systems that tell you the true things like being kind and helpful.
I’ve often said that all religion is cherry picking. There are thousands of flavors of religion. People cherry pick which deity they believe in, and what said deity wants from them. They cherry pick which supernatural phenomenon “works.” It’s a no win debate over which brand of nonsense to defend.
But, maybe it’s time to cherry pick further. Discard altogether the magic – throw it away – and keep the good stuff, the stuff grounded in actual reality. Say no to the prayers and rituals. Say yes to action and working together. Understand that our plight is subject ONLY to the totally impartial laws of science combined with what we choose to DO, not say. Or think. Or imagine.
It seems like humankind behaves like an adolescent. It’s old enough to see real things, but still too immature to really let go of the (false) hope of magic. I wonder if one day our species will actually grow up. I wonder.
It’s such a shame that humanity as a whole can’t seem to learn how collectively helping one another out, especially on a grand scale, brings about significant improvements in people’s lives. Instead, the mode of operation is warring factions with a base of individualism. As if lying, cheating, and irresponsibility weren’t enough, one of the worst things that Trump did was deliberately and strongly promote division, a kind of crass tribalism. This kind of thing was already there, but Trump gave it a big boost.
Case in point now is the process in Congress that is considering Biden’s proposals for infrastructure and a stronger social safety net. Even by its own standards this “sausage making” has been unusually bad. And yet, every single proposal, on its own, is wanted by most people. Why wouldn’t we, using our collective power, make child care less expensive, make prescription drugs less expensive, provide for better, more affordable health care for everyone especially seniors, improve our physical infrastructure, make the internet faster, cheaper, and more accessible to everyone, do some serious actions (creating employment) that addresses an issue threatening the life of our species on this planet? Why wouldn’t we?
Apparently one side of the war, for the principle of winning, is willing to sacrifice completely, or at least greatly water down, all of those things. The propaganda has been so extensive that when people are asked if they’re in favor of the complete bills in Congress that would do those things, more people say no. Yet, when asked about each proposal individually, they say yes. The degree of our willingness to shoot ourselves in the foot for the principle of one side defeating another is staggering. Even the lessons of the pandemic haven’t changed us enough.
I suppose we can hold on to some optimism. History shows that all progress of a civilization seems to eventually happen in spite of the fact that every time, every single component has been strongly opposed by some (causing delay). “Eventually,” though, seems like it should be too long to wait. When the clock is ticking on climate change, and 7.6 billion people on the inhabitable parts of the planet have needs that could very plausibly be addressed, here we are dilly-dallying around with tribal immaturity, instead of putting our collective power to work for the good of all.
There is an effect of this ongoing pandemic that has really hit me lately. We all know the background story of all the waves that have happened. It’s important to note that experts have said each time before the next wave hit, that we had the power to stop it. Before the vaccines it was strict mitigation measures that would do it. If done by a high percentage of people for enough time, we really could have brought this to an end. This was highly sacrificial, but the reward would be that we would really end it. Short of that, the experts said, as soon as we get good vaccines, then that will be our way to end it. Now we have the good vaccines, and we aren’t ending it.
Not only are we not ending it, we’re prolonging it, which allows it to keep mutating, risking more and more contagious, life-threatening variants to emerge. And now, we’re at the point where most experts are saying that it’s just not going to end. It’s becoming endemic. Like common cold coronaviruses and the various flu viruses, covid variants are just going to be around every year. Only these variants of coronaviruses can lead to long-term health difficulties and deaths on a much grander scale than the flu viruses.
And how have we allowed every next wave to happen? I’m sorry if I offend, but honestly this is on the people who “do their own research” and “think for themselves” and claim their “freedom to choose” and somehow can judge that it’s plausible for career scientists, like the ones at the CDC, the FDA, the NIH, and countless hospitals and medical centers around the world would somehow benefit by lying to us. Imagine spending your entire adult life studying a particular, very complicated subject (after many years of training and education), and collaborating, consulting, and peer reviewing with colleagues all around the world, and doing this work all day long, day in and day out for years and decades, and then a substantial number of people distrust you to such an extent that they think they can, in their own spare time using their own instinct and Google, figure this out better.
And now I’m getting to what is at the heart of the crime of novice, everyday people who think they know better than field-specific career scientists. This pandemic-turning-endemic has robbed people unnecessarily. It’s robbed a lot of people of their health. It’s robbed a lot of people of their existence. And it’s robbed the rest of us of a significant degree of our quality of life. There are things we haven’t been able to do, and going back to that pre-pandemic life now seems like a sentimental dream. The distrust-the-pertinent-experts crowd is an accessory to this robbery. They are a key reason this robbery carries on.
I’m currently 67 years old. Maybe I’m feeling this more than those of you who are 10 or 20 or more years younger. But, the truth is, while that pre-pandemic life is in the past and might not return, the process of aging in a human being is not on hold. It carries on. Each of us has a clock ticking and we don’t know how many ticks remain. It is a good bet that I have far fewer ticks of my clock ahead of me than behind me.
Time is of the essence and time is a one-way path. It’s really sad that so many people’s actions have amounted to the wasting of our lives’ time. There will be no shortage of opportunities for humanity to learn the lesson of heeding the recommendations of field-specific experts – think climate change as a huge, species-threatening example. For the sake of the grandchildren, I hope this significantly improves.
If you’ve been following the news during that past several months, a lot has been said about the “Big Lie,” the idea spread by former President Trump that the 2020 US election had widespread fraud to the extent that he should have been the winner. Anyone with a modicum of reasoning ability and honesty has been able to ascertain that it is, indeed, a lie. But, it’s become very big, bought into by millions of people. Other people are rightly appalled.
But this kind of Big Lie is nothing new. Big Lies have been around probably throughout the time that humans have had language to communicate.
The list of Big Lies in history include major topics:
- God. Ouch — this one will sting a lot of people. But, honestly, the amount of evidence for God is the same as the amount of evidence for widespread fraud in the 2020 US election: pretty much zero. Yet somehow, this is far more widely accepted among the masses of people. It’s basically a huge example of presuppositionalism.
- Astrology. Again, zero evidence. It’s totally made up. The wobble in the Earth’s rotation has even changed where the constellations are on a given date from where they were a couple of thousand years ago. Yet, the same stuff continues to be passed along. Astrology should be laughed at as nonsense, but millions of people take it seriously with no proven basis in fact.
- Special effects from Full Moons. Kind of related to the above, but again there’s no evidence. It’s a Big Lie that keeps on going. No, there are not more babies born during full moons. No, there is not more crazy behavior or crimes during full moons. Any time people objectively look at actual data, it’s not there. But that doesn’t stop the Big Lie to continue to have a lot of believers.
- The After Life. This is so hard for people in spite of complete lack of solid evidence. We identify so strongly with our egos that to imagine that ego completely gone is too much for most people to bear. Our insecurities literally blind us from understanding clearly the situation in which we find ourselves. Honestly, a belief in a soul or a spirit or anything about us that outlasts our bodies cannot be squared with a basic understanding of evolutionary biology. In spite of that being like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, people pretend that it fits, because they are too scared/insecure to admit that it doesn’t.
- Prayer. This is so easy to dismiss! If prayer worked, why would we have such horrors in the world? We could either fix things consistently or we could simply pray to prevent anything bad from happening in the first place. Obviously it’s not working! And it’s certainly not for a lack of trying! There have even been double blind randomized control trials with four groups: 1) Ill people were told they were being prayed for and they were. 2) Ill people were told they were being prayed for but they weren’t. 3) Ill people were told they were not being prayed for but they were. And 4) ill people were told they were not being prayed for and they weren’t. And guess what? Outcomes were all the same. Zero effect, one way or another for any of the 4 groups. And just think of all the people who pray or “send energy.” The truth is, it flat out has no effect. Zilch.
Do you notice a theme here? Indeed, religion/religiosity is it. Religiosty, is basically religious like beliefs not necessarily as part of a formal religion. All New Age and any other “spiritual” sets of ideas are included here. Religion and its cousin, religiosity, is the Big, Big Lie. Even beliefs about special powers of certain foods (there is no such thing as a “superfood”) or effectiveness of “alternative medicine” have a religious like basis behind them.
Invariably, the people who buy into the current, Trump-incited Big Lie are religious. And, yes, I know, many religious people don’t buy it. But, the ones who do are virtually all religious. The uptick in anti-Semitism is carried out by people who are strongly religious. And, yes, there are strong adherents to other religions who aren’t anti-Semitic. But, all the ones who are anti-Semitic, are virtually all strongly religious. Basically, people fight each other and hate each other over beliefs about contradictory Big Lies. Never mind that one Big Lie is just as false as another Big Lie.
The point is that the human capacity to buy into a Big Lie is quite impressive and seems to be ingrained in all of us. Humans even have the capacity of seeing clearly one Big Lie while simultaneously and blindly buying into another Big Lie. It’s amazing. Perhaps some people who start Big Lies are aware of it being a Big Lie and just exploit it for their own aggrandizement, while others aren’t aware and actually believe it. It’s hard to tell sometimes; but at the end of the day, a Big Lie is still a Big Lie and people will buy it.
I wish this weren’t so pessimistic. But, as I’ve said in previous posts, an accurate picture of reality may not be rosy or feel-good. However, what is actually true is actually true, whether anyone believes it or not or how much we may or may not like it. What is a Big Lie is false, no matter how many believe it or want it to be true. To me, a very high ideal is to understand the world and universe as accurately as possible. A full 100% accuracy will never be possible. But we can pursue closer and closer successive approximations of the truth.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation. To mark the occasion, I now share this essay I’m calling my “Elder Wisdom.” You’re not obligated to read this, of course. And if you do, you might very well take issue with some or all of it. That’s okay. Feel free to skip it completely, or take in parts that resonate and disregard parts that don’t. (Isn’t that what we all do?) It’s what I’d like to say; and now I’m going to say it.
1) PAY ATTENTION! Each of us has a finite number of minutes to live. How many minutes a person has is unknown and varies widely. What I do know is that each minute that passes is one more subtracted off of one’s unknown, finite total. I also know that each minute that passes is gone forever and cannot be brought back. So, pay attention! If you are young, one day way down the road you are likely to look back and ask yourself: “where has the time gone?”. When you do ask yourself that question, my wish for you is that you will have a good answer: I made the most of my minutes, consciously aware that any minute might be my last one.
2) IT IS NOT TRUE THAT YOU CAN ACHIEVE ANYTHING YOU PUT YOUR MIND TO. As someone who has always had ambitious goals toward which I have worked hard to reach, I say this with emotional scars in my heart. It’s easy for someone who did achieve something big they went after, to think that any person always can. (“If I can do it, you can too!”) But the truth is: that proclamation does not hold up consistently in reality.
I’m definitely not saying don’t put your mind to things. If you want something, go for it! But… I can’t tell you how many times I hit the wall with this belief: If I do A – long enough and hard enough, continually improving on it – I will eventually achieve B; and then (often, many times) I don’t, or ever, get B. It can or it might happen, but that equation is certainly not reliably true every time; and I doubt it’s true even most of the time. Believing this is true absolutely is a setup for frustration and emotional pain. Why? There are too many factors beyond a person’s control.
Each person’s brain has inherent skills and talents at all sorts of levels. Each person’s physical body has inherent pros and cons. To a significant degree, a person gets what they’re born with, physically and mentally, the “cards” that they are dealt. Yes, you can work hard and expand your skills quite a lot (that’s the going for it part!); but that path is not infinite. And then there is luck and chance, which are enormous factors, always present, which might help or hurt a cause, and which are completely beyond a person’s control. In addition, in many cases, what a person is going for also depends on decisions made by other people, decisions over which there is zero control. All anyone can do is increase the probability of getting what they want by doing what is in their control to the best of their ability.
So… I cringe when I hear people say that you can achieve anything you put your mind to, or that your only limit is you (meaning your only limit is the amount of effort you choose to do). Nonsense! There are multiple, multiple limits and constraints that have nothing to do with you, and some that do have to do with you but are still beyond your control. For example, if you’re a chess player, you very well might not have the mind of a Bobby Fischer. Most people simply are not going to become chess Grand Masters no matter what their efforts. There are limits concerning you, the luck of (usually complex and unique) circumstances, and others’ free choices. If you try to pretend otherwise, it is likely you will experience emotional pain when, at some point, inevitably, the disappointment hits. (“I tried sohard! I did everything I could! Why didn’t this happen???”)
Denying reality might help you by motivating you to make efforts toward your quest (and as I said, please go for it!), but it won’t change the facts about limits (within and without). For people trying to achieve something big, I say: Cheer them on for going after their goals. Support them in the pursuit. Tell them how proud they should be for the hard work they are doing. But don’t tell them they can achieve anything they put their mind to. Practically everyone can do diligent work. Only some who have done their due diligence (and even some who haven’t!) will get the prize they want in the end. Maybe that old expression “A for effort” really is the most important thing.
To me, this is the bottom line to keep in mind: one person’s achievement story, while it probably contains some potentially helpful advice, is a not a blanket strategy that “works” for everyone else. There are too many variables. Anecdotes are not data. Correlation is not necessarily causation. Nothing is 100%. Each person is different and each situation is different. Understand this so you can save yourself or others some misery and grief. I can tell you that I have suffered embarrassingly way too much heartache over this very thing.
3) THERE IS NOT A “REASON” FOR EVERYTHING, unless the reason is luck and chance combined with the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. We humans are absolutely a part of the universe, but what doesn’t exist is “The Universe” that cares in any way (good or bad) about little old you or me. If you’ve been generally fortunate (as many of us have), it’s easy to think the occasional misfortune or setback has some sort of cosmic “reason.” But what about, to give just one of countless more dire examples, the millions of young children who die of starvation or diseases every year? What would be the “reason”?
No. The so-called “Universe” does not care or take sides, whether you are kind or evil, innocent or guilty. There is no Cosmic Coordination going on of any sort that is leading things in any purposeful or organized way (other than following laws of science), or leading things toward a “higher good.” What we humans think of as progress and improvement, individually or collectively, is neither inevitable nor going to happen by cosmic design. “The Universe” is as impartial and neutral and completely lacking in concerns about humanity as it possibly can be. This is ruthlessly and constantly shown day in and day out; and the science of our universe’s 13.8 billion years of history amply shows it, too. That old expression is true: (all kinds of) shit happens. And as 19th century writer and orator Robert Ingersoll said: “In nature, there are no rewards or punishments, there are only consequences.” This also means that the popular idea of karma (in either direction) is a myth.
I tried for decades to see some sort of cosmic, guided, rhyme-or-reason for this occurrence or that occurrence, and anything I came up with (or someone else came up with) usually drove me into a terrible state of cognitive dissonance. Outcomes, for me and for others I observed, were way too inconsistent as they matched up with efforts made and what seemed “deserved” or fair and just. Finally, after decades of banging my head against that wall of the mysterious “reason” for everything, I decided to try the flip of that: There is not a “reason” for everything. What a relief! It’s not necessarily rosy or feel-good. But – the world/universe that is finally makes sense!
There is nothing cosmic out there that is out to get me, or that’s out to help me, or that’s listening to or caring one way or another about my desires (for myself or for others), or that’s out to teach me “lessons.” (Which is not to say that I can’t choose to learn a lesson from an experience. But the lesson to learn is my choosing, my interpretation, my deriving meaning, not a cosmically-delivered “reason” from “The Universe” for the occurrence.) And, for me, there is much more peace of mind in clearly understanding the actual reality rather than fooling myself.
I know a lot of people will not agree with this or might consider this pessimistic. To me, whether it’s pessimistic or optimistic is really beside the point. It’s simply what actually is. It’s reality. Inherently speaking, there is no fairness, justice, score keeping, balancing, teaching you something until you get it, or anything that was “meant” to be in any particular way. There is only what happens to happen. What happens to happen is a mix of people’s actions (yours and others within the defined limits) combined with luck, chance, and the absolute, inviolable laws of physics, chemistry and biology. Any further interpretation is simply made up! Understanding this brings peace. (Although even with understanding, a disappointment can still hurt.) Refusing to accept this or using your own lacking in evidence, made up cosmic explanation – if you’re really honest – brings cognitive dissonance. And for the big picture, this means…
4) SCIENCE RULES (to borrow from Bill Nye), AND THERE IS NO MAGIC. The existence of magic (e.g. the supernatural, superstition) would mean science principles have exceptions. And science principles demonstrably and relentlessly show no exceptions. Science exclusively rules. In the big picture, including and beyond our little personal lives, the laws of science are strictly carried out with no anthropocentric regard for how something turns out. (A perfectly good example: the Covid-19 pandemic.)
From a human point of view this makes things seem rather crazy, random, and aimless – not to mention, difficult. Everything is just following scientific laws, from the birth of stars and planets to (here on Earth) the weather, microbial activity, consequences of human activity and choices, and so on. As an example, one thing happens like a sudden change in a genetic code. Then that “accident” starts a whole chain of events (strictly following the laws of science) for new things and new events to happen over inconceivably long time scales. Study cosmology, the 4.5 billion year planetary history of Earth, and evolutionary biology, and this understanding is clear.
Our planet we live on and its moon might not have happened in the way they did – or at all. The same is true for the homo sapiens species to which we belong. (Check out changes that happened because of the impact from the major asteroid that hit the Earth about 65 million years ago.) The window of time on Earth in which conditions are possible for humans even to exist is strictly governed by the laws of science. That window suitable for humans wasn’t open for eons. Now it is, and at some point, it will begin to close.
Many happenings really are just meaninglessly coincidental. Again, this comes from the fact that the interplay of physics, chemistry, and biology is relentlessly doing its law-abiding, utterly impartial thing in response to countless situations that previously were following scientific principles; and these things have zero concern in any way about individuals like you or me or anyone else. I know I’m in controversial territory here. However, there really isn’t any solid evidence to the contrary; and those fields of study I mentioned above have mountains of compelling evidence to back up what I’m saying here. If you haven’t delved into cosmology and evolutionary biology, I highly recommend it! Perspective gained from that is literally life changing.
5) Now – this is perhaps my most important point: this perspective greatly magnifies the realization of how INCREDIBLY LUCKY OUR LIVES ARE. By that, I don’t mean how lucky you’ve been during your life. That’s going to vary greatly because of chance nature of luck, your actions and actions of others, and how all that mixes with the laws of science. What I mean is how lucky you are THAT YOU EVEN EXIST!
Being born as a human on this Earth is far less likely than the odds of winning the lottery. Humanity’s scientific investigations conclude that you and I exist against truly and literally astronomical odds. For you and I to be here today, it took billions of years with inconceivably countless occurrences of scientific principles in cosmological history and the process of evolution. And after all of those inconceivably countless moments through the billions of years – that could have gone differently at any number of points in time – here we are. We are sentient, conscious beings alive and here now. We are individual members of a species on one tiny planet in a remote part of one galaxy among billions, a species which might not have come about at all, but which has evolved with enough brainpower to piece together a pretty good picture about how all this happened. We are the ones here now, who are able to experience being alive in the sunshine for a minuscule cosmological moment.
Our lives are incredible, mind-boggling, freakishly lucky events. And furthermore, scientific observations indicate that all things/objects that do come into existence (animate or inanimate) have a certain window of time and then die or cease to exist. This is what has been objectively observed: Molecules (and the atoms that comprise them) continue and recirculate. (For example, atoms/molecules within our bodies were once part of stars!) Sentience and consciousness, as well as the physical forms of animate and inanimate things always end. That means that we are not in any sort of waiting room or dress rehearsal for something else. No “transition” to a “better place” has been credibly shown to exist. This is it!
Why else are people sad when a loved one dies? My hunch is that deep down we all get that “pass away” is not the accurate term. In reality, the term that’s accurate is death. There is no solid indication to conclude otherwise, and that’s with all of humanity searching for thousands upon thousands of years. Unless you’re a molecule, endings happen. Therefore, in light of all of the above, my message is this: Cherish the amazing phenomenon that is life and that is your life. It’s a damn lucky gift, there are no “do overs,” and whenever the end comes – it’s final.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. If some of it resonates and helps you, I’m thrilled. If that isn’t the case, I still love you, and we can connect in our common areas of harmony. I’ll end this elder wisdom essay with a quote again from Robert Ingersoll. “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.” I only have to remind myself of this several times a day. But it’s true: when I do something that another person likes, it makes me happy, too.
Be well. Be happy. Pay attention! This experience of being alive is rare and precious; and your unknown amount of daylight is burning.
It’s finally winding down. The US has been on this 4-year nightmarish national experiment: what would happen if the top leader of our country never tells the truth AND doesn’t give a shit about major problems plaguing the people, problems which are society-wide, national, and even global in scope? We’ve been getting the answers to that question. But, it may be that the damage we know now is just the tip of the iceberg. I suspect a lot more damage will be uncovered in the weeks, months, and even years to come.
There are people who voted for Trump, in 2016 and 2020, who knew he was a jerk (arrogant, lying, misogynist, racist), but either preferred his political positions or were afraid of the other choice being too extreme to the left and “socialist.” To these people I ask two things. The first is: can you see how the degree of a person’s human decency has a huge effect on how said person would do an important job – regardless of political views? Surely, a lesson to draw is that the content of a high officeholder’s character really matters, even to the point of life and death.
Second, the pandemic has especially shown a number of issues in our society that need rectifying, and that’s in addition to overcoming the pandemic itself. In all of these issues there are things that can be done personally as individuals. We can each do our part toward a cause (e.g. wearing masks and social distancing). But, that’s never enough. These kinds of problems are institutionalized, and to be addressed to some significant, meaningful degree, it takes much more large scale coordination than can be done with personal, individual efforts. The most efficient way for effective, large scale coordination to address major problems is through the CENTRAL GOVERNMENT. This, however, is contrary to the pervasive sentiments that smaller government is better (Republican principle especially since Reagan) and that collectively coordinating and helping the people through a central institution (denigrating this as “socialism”) is bad. Those sentiments have been put to the test numerous times in recent decades, usually alternating with modestly backing off of those sentiments when Democrats are in charge. Objectively looking at data (both in our country and in other countries around the world), one can see that the smaller government with weaker and less central coordination has not worked out better. The strongest proof of that is the Trump presidency; and the strongest proof within the Trump presidency is the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. (Just one quick example: there have been numerous SINGLE DAYS in the US with more covid deaths than the nation of South Korea has had during the ENTIRE PANDEMIC.)
Voting for smaller government and being against a strong, central government has had major negative (and even deadly) consequences. Nothing will be perfect, but these ideas of less government are clearly and demonstrably inferior with respect to human beings’ quality of life. At the very least, the next time someone is elected advocating smaller, less involved central government (it’s inevitable), let’s hope said person, while unfortunately being less wise about their views, is at least basically honest and gives a shit.
If you’re fortunate enough to have survived 2020 and the ongoing pandemic with your life, house, health, and income intact, that’s great. But, if you’re going to philosophize about how you’ve faced the challenge and learned the “lessons,” I say: that’s easy for you to say. You did some things well AND you got lucky. Others haven’t been so lucky.
More than 1/3 of a million Americans and counting are dead from the pandemic. A couple of million more are left with long term health problems. Millions have lost their jobs, record numbers are going to food banks, and who knows how many thousands or millions can’t make the rent or pay the utilities. These people, and those who have lost loved ones, don’t need to hear from us lucky ones about the “lessons” we’ve learned. Very easily, they could have been us, and we could have been them.
Nonetheless, there is a universal principle that both the fortunate and the unfortunate should heed, and it’s a very serious one: Nature kills. That’s what it does. Other than recirculating molecules, nothing survives. Eventually, all things die. Nature relentlessly succeeds in this; and its success rate is 100%. Sometimes it’s a trickle here and there, and sometimes it’s death and misery on a more massive scale. And everything in between.
This boils down what’s important to two things: 1) How long can we prolong and lengthen our window of time before our inevitable death? And 2) How enjoyable/comfortable and meaningful/productive can we make this window of time and do so without adversely affecting the length of it?
The current pandemic is one of countless examples of calamities in the 4.5 billion year natural history of planet Earth. It would be a mistake to think that once we get through this, then the next thing of this magnitude won’t be for another 100 years. That kind of thinking is one of the main reasons we’ve handled this event as poorly as we have. We were caught not well prepared. We didn’t take seriously the principle about nature, that it’s relentlessly going about the business of finding ways to kill us, be it weather, disease, or other ways. Sometimes the effects are mainly in a local region and sometimes it’s global. But all of it relentlessly goes on every day of every year.
All we can do is look at this from the palliative point of view. We can’t stop the inevitable, but we can push on the inevitable and make things better along the way. We can stop being fooled by temporary periods of good luck and stay more vigilant. We can use the best tools and be as cooperative as we can. The best tool, of course, is science. And cooperativeness is our choice to make or not. Science and cooperativeness together is our best effect.
Nature is still going to win, and for every one of us. Count on it. Expect it. We can hold it at bay to some extent, lengthen our window, and improve our experience. That’s the most we can do, and we might as well do it as much as we can. Certainly we can do a better job going forward than we have with the current crisis. Nature won’t stop. But together, using science, the hope for 2021 and beyond is to up our game.
I have thought, especially since 2016, that a root cause of our societal ills is our electoral system. The Electoral College, winner-take-all, 2-party system has bad outcomes. It needs to be replaced with ranked choice voting, proportional representation, removal of power/career incentives with term limits and reducing other benefits, removal of private money from campaigns and officeholders, etc. These things would dramatically improved our government and our society. Dramatically.
But, there may be a root cause deeper than electoral reform. That would be education. I have great respect for educators. At the same time, there are things not right. First, we need more equality, more equal access, more equally distributed resources, including money and facilities and equipment. More emphasis on helping and encouraging education at all levels for minorities and for girls and women would make a huge difference. We surely know how to this part.
We also need to prioritize differently what’s taught. Important stuff: 1) Critical thinking — the ability to discern and investigate and determine accuracy with proper skepticism and methodology. 2) Science literacy — including understanding the philosophy behind the scientific method, the tool of randomized control trials, evolutionary biology, principles of chemisty and toxicity. 3) History — not just typical sutff, but the history of the cosmos, the 4.5 billion year history of planet Earth and how massive changes in life over the last few billion years came about by freak accidents, as well as more recent history but told from the point of view of the oppressed, not the ruling class. 4) What might be more controversial — the study of Ethics from a purely secular point of view. There are thousands of manifestations of religiosity, both formal religions and not. And no two are exactly the same, and there are many, many disagreements. Yet, there are ethics principles that can be shown to be beneficial from actual data learned through history. Secular ethics is better because it’s totally INCLUSIVE. Not only is any particular religious slant not necessary, it’s counterproductive because if one particular way is emphasized, large groups of other people will take offense. Secularism is the place where EVERYONE can meet. We cooperate, serve one another, create true equality, clearly see what’s going wrong and fix it, not because a faith or any spiritual belief says so, but because with critical thinking, science literacy, and understanding long-perspective history, we actually KNOW that these things produce the best society-wide results. We can show this clearly and graphically, and that will be readily understood with a properly educated populace. The reason we embrace principles of ethics is because, without any religious referrence, it demonstrably WORKS and gives us — all of us — a better quality of life. We can therefore all unite around what is the right thing to do.
My thinking is that a better educated populace would produce better election results, even with the bad electoral system that we have. Unfortunately, there is a Catch-22. If you don’t know these things, you don’t know what you don’t know.
There’s so much work to do.
“Your personal astrophysicist” Neil deGrasse Tyson is always reminding people to think with a cosmological perspective. When looking at the global pandemic, this perspective seems largely missing in the public discourse. So, let’s take a look at it.
Planet earth is about 4.5 billion years old, about one-third of the age of the entire universe. For almost all of that time, planet earth has existed without our species. Homo Sapiens have only been around for about the last 200,000 years (.004% of earth’s history).
For much of those 4.5 billion years of earth history, the conditions were not conducive to supporting our species. We’re currently in a window of time in which the conditions are conducive. For example, this is a period of tens of thousands of years between Ice Ages. However, it needs to be said, humans are messing up that window with our causing of climate change.
During the history of life forms on earth, about 99% of all species which have existed have gone extinct. There have been 5 major Great Extinction periods identified in earth’s history, and many expert observers think we have now entered the 6th.
To speak the obvious, Homo Sapiens is a species; and planet earth has gone along its merry way throughout its history no matter what species come and go or suffer. And, it will continue to do so.
Further, there have been a number of times when our species took serious hits on our numbers because of events like plagues. And once, around 70,000 BCE, our species came very close to going extinct. That was due to a massive volcano erruption which wreaked havoc on the weather for several years. Scientists think our numbers may have dropped to under 20,000 people in the entire world.
Recovery from these events has always been long and arduous. Technology and medical science were not well developed until relatively quite recently. From that low point, it took all the way until the early 1800s before the world human population hit 1 billion. Then in a mere century and a half, the population tripled to 3 billion by 1960. Now, just 60 years after that, we’re at 7.5 billion, with estimates of 9 to 10 billion by 2050.
It’s easy to see from above how things like recent advancements in technology, food systems, and medical science have been hugely successful. Maybe too successful, in the sense that now the large number of humans is stressing everything, especially noting the ramifications of human caused climate change.
This kind of growth is extremely fast on a cosmological scale. Climate change with (suddenly) this many resource consuming humans will have a variety of far reaching effects. And there are a few things which should be noted here. One is that the principles of physics, chemistry, and biology continue to go about their merry ways. They go about it based on all conditions at a given time (whatever those conditions might be), and they go about it with complete impartiality and absolutely no regard for desires, wishes, or needs of any species, including us.
It seems quite clear that there isn’t anything “out there” (deity, karma principle, any sort of coordinating “Universe”) that cares at all about how anything works out for anyone, anything, or any species. There is “no hint of anything that will save us from ourselves” (Carl Sagan). And I’m saying this about the entire 4.5 billion year history of this planet. Clearly, large catastrophic events can and do happen. A huge asteroid hits the earth and most of the living species of the time go extinct. Volcanoes erupt, geologic faults move, more and more severe weather events happen, viruses evolve, new diseases appear, epidemics and pandemics happen.
This is the situation we find ourselves in. Now it is a pandemic that is serious. But if you think that once we get past this pandemic, then the next thing on that level of seriousness won’t be for another 100 years, you are fooling yourself. The current mix of conditions has way too much potential for misery. Physics, chemistry, and biology are in charge, and the laws of those sciences have no care or regard for anything one way or another, and they always have their way. This has been amply demonstrated for billions of years.
On the one hand, we humans alive today have won the lottery of birth with the freakishly lucky accident to be a relatively highly evolved living being on a tiny little planet in one solar system among billions in a remote corner of one galaxy among billions to experience existence for a precious, cosmologically brief moment. How grand!
On the other hand, looking at this precious, brief existence at this point in time in a serious, rational, cosmological way shows that our existence is extremely precarious and fragile. While our population may be so large that extinction is unlikely, major degrees of suffering and deaths are quite possible. This pandemic and the myriad of other potential things on that level of seriousness are no joke.
There is so much we cannot control. The few things we can control are brought to us by scientists and experts in specific fields of study for the purpose of working with the principles of physics, chemistry, and biology to make our situation less precarious and fragile. That’s all we have. I say we make use of what we can do as best we can.
I just finished reading a great book called The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova. You can see it on Amazon here. The book chronicles the author, who is a psychologist, on her journey to learn the game of poker on a high, professional level. The idea was to explore poker, and specifically No Limit Texas Holdem (the version of poker played at professional tournaments), as a metaphor for life.
In poker, and in life, you get dealt cards which are random and unknowable ahead of time. The cards you get dealt you can see, but the cards for the other players you can’t see. Then, there are community cards in the middle that everyone sees. The goal is to put together the best 5 cards combining your own cards with the community cards. The trick is, there is some information you know, some information you don’t know, but maybe you can make some rational guesses about, and there’s luck. You can’t control the luck. But there are skills that will bring about good decisions based on the partial information that you have. However, even with the best possible rationally based decision, things still may not turn out well.
The book is entertainingly written and gives the reader a great understanding of the metaphor. To give you a taste, I’d like to give you a few quotes from the book that show the insightfulness of this metaphor. When reading these, you can imagine a poker game; and you can also see how it’s good wisdom for living your life.
You can’t control what will happen, so it makes no sense to try to guess at it. Chance is just chance: it is neither good nor bad nor personal. Without us to supply meaning, it’s simple noise. The most we can do is learn to control what we can––our thinking, our decision processes, our reaction.
Admitting to unknowing, accepting a lack of agency without resorting to gimmicks, and instead attempting to analyze the unknown as best we can with the tools of rationality: those are some of the most powerful steps we can take.
And then there’s this:
We have won the impossible, improbable lottery of birth. And we don’t know what will happen. We never can. There’s no skill in birth and death. At the beginning and at the end, luck reigns unchallenged. Here’s the truth: most of the world is noise, and we spend most of our lives trying to make sense of it. We are in the end, nothing more than interpreters of static. We can never see beyond the present moment. We don’t know what the next card will be––and we don’t even know when we see it, if it’s good or bad.
And I have to love her quoting Carl Sagan:
Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who wish to pretend to non-existent knowledge and control and a Cosmos centered on human beings, will prefer superstition. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from our wishes and prejudices, to those people belongs the future. Supersitions may be comforting for a while. But, because they avoid rather than confront the world, they are doomed. The future belongs to those able to learn, to change, to accommodate to this exquisite Cosmos that we have been privileged to inhabit for a brief moment.
And now back to Konnikova and her main point:
Nothing is all skill. Ever. Luck will always be a factor in anything we might do or undertake. Skill can open up new vistas, allow us to see the chance that others may miss. But should chance go against us, all our skill can do is mitigate the damage. And the biggest bluff of all? That skill can ever be enough. That’s the hope that allows us to move forward in those moments when luck is most stacked against us, the useful delusion that lets us push on rather than give up.
So…skill is only one part about how things turn out. Things we don’t know about other people and luck play huge roles. To carry on in the face of bad luck and with lots of unknowns, one option is to use “the biggest bluff” and pretend that skill is everything. This delusion can take us to another moment where, perhaps, the luck turns out better. By understanding the role of luck and understanding that it’s not personal, we can carry on with the controllable aspects, most especially decision making using the best possible rationality.