Reading for our Sixteenth Meeting — THE FUTURE

What do you think of when you think of a (possibly) non-supernatural future?

Do we have a vision of a meaningful future? Or of an increasingly fractured and meaningless one?

Do you fear or welcome the advance of technology? Are you comfortable with the likelhood of the Singularity occurring in our, or at least our childrens’, lifetimes?

Our main book will be HOMO DEUS by Yuval Noah Harari.

Any suggestions for supplementary readings or images, please send them in! See you on the 26th.

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Well, I finished Homo Deus, and I found it very thought-provoking.

Even when I disagreed with Harari, he certainly led me down lines of inquiry I would not have otherwise followed…

In case it is useful, here are some very abbreviated notes on the book.

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Notes on Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Chapter One: A New Human Agenda

An amazing thing has happened in the last 500 years.

We have ended famine, plague and war, for most human beings.

So what now?

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Harari argues that we have to come up with a new agenda.

He thinks that it is taking shape around three main goals:

  1. Immortality

Death is now commonly seen as a technical problem to be solved.

(Note that we will still be mortal (from, say, accidents), just not from disease. So perhaps the goal, properly stated, is “a-mortality” instead of immortality.)

  1. Happiness

Happiness is also increasingly seen as a technical problem to be solved.

Sure, there seems to be a “glass ceiling” of happiness, due to:

–Our expectations always getting reset, higher and higher, so as to keep driving us forward (this drive is due to evolution).

–Note that some (e.g. Buddhists), reject this goal entirely – say it leads to suffering.

–But most people reject such renunciations. Instead, they seek a biochemical fix… Through drugs, through entertainment, and through technology.

  1. Godliness – i.e. Power

Humans want increased power in their lives.

We are focused on three ways to achieve this:

  1. genetic and hormonal engineering
  2. becoming cyborgs by adding technology to our biochemical selves
  3. replacing ourselves entirely with a technological Homo Deus (following the Singularity)

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This all sounds scary. Can we hit the brakes? Or as Harari puts it: can a gun appear onstage without being fired?

No, because:

  1. We don’t know how to stop it.
  2. Our capitalistic economy relies on growth, or it will collapse.
  3. No clear line separates healing from upgrading anyway.

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Chapter Two: The Anthropocene

Roughly 70,000 years ago, one species of the greater apes, Homo sapiens, made a Cognitive Leap.

But what exactly was it that set us apart from all other animals?

Not our “intelligence” – it’s pretty marginal, really.

Not tool-making.

No, it was our ability to collaborate through collective fictions.

We could organize ourselves better than other animals and other human species.

Then about 10,000 years ago, as we developed agriculture and the domestication of animals, we needed new cosmological myths, new religions.

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We went from being animists to being… theists.

We developed the idea of the Great Chain of Being.

We insisted that humans alone were made in image of God.

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The rest of the world has suffered ever since.

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Chapter Three: The Human Spark

Our new cosmological myths offered many justifications of human difference:

  1. Souls
  2. Consciousness
  3. Free will

Of course all of these are collective fictions. But they worked!

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And then Scientific Revolution took it even farther.

We silenced the gods. We became our own creators.

Humanism.

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Chapter Four: The Storytellers

5000 years ago Sumerians invented writing.

This habituated humans to symbolic thinking – abstraction.

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Human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction.

But these stories become ever more powerful.

More than ever, we need to learn to distinguish truth from fiction when necessary!

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Chapter Five: The Odd Couple

Harari claims that science and religion rely on each other, and cannot function separately.

He thinks that values must come from our collective fictions – they are derived from some “superhuman legitimacy.”

Science can check and correct religious claims but not replace them.

(I am not sure about this. Not sure it has to remain superhuman at all.)

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Chapter Six: The Modern Covenant

The modern deal: humans will agree to give up meaning… to gain power.

We developed the fictions of money, credit. This spurred development.

“More stuff” at the expense of traditional values and identities.

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Yet resources are finite…

Possibility of ecological collapse…

Also, we suffered increased psychological and emotional stress, caused by the competition.

A new cosmological mythology was needed to assuage us: humanism.

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Chapter Seven: The Humanist Revolution

Think Goethe, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, William Blake, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Franklin Roosevelt…

The creed: Humans can give meaning to the universe themselves!

The basis of everything is how we feel.

Each person is a single authentic self.

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The formula:

Knowledge = Experiences x Sensitivity

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Humanism split off into three main branches:

  1. Liberal humanism holds that each person is unique ray of light
  2. Socialist humanism emphasizes collective action – less feeling, more facts.
  3. Evolutionary humanism focuses on conflict and allows for judgments of superiority and inferiority.

The 20th century was marked by “religious wars” between these three branches. Authoritarianism, fascism vs. communism, socialism vs. capitalism, liberalism.

But in recent decades, the rise of new technologies – biochemical and cyber – are making this cosmological mythology of humanism obsolete.

Are new “techno-religions” coming (based on the third branch of humanism)?

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Chapter Eight: The Time Bomb in the Laboratory

Humanism has been exposed as wrong by neuroscience and statistics.

  1. Idea of free will is incoherent at best (driven by desires, yes, but they are determined)
  2. No singular “self” (experiencing self, narrating self, multiple biochemical systems)

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Chapter Nine: The Great Decoupling

As a result, we are currently decoupling from humanism (read: liberalism).

Why is this happening?

Humans are losing their economic and political usefulness.

  1. They are not needed in war.
  2. They are not needed for the production of consumer goods.
  3. They are easily manipulated as consumers.
  4. They are easily manipulated for political purposes.

So the hard truth is that the rights and liberties of the masses are becoming of less and less interest to the elite! (Think Koch brothers, Ivanka…)

Oh, and for you romantics… Harari says that even art is not a refuge.

Soon computers will do better than humans at this too! (They are already writing symphonies and doing digital animation.)

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All of this has given us a hazy, new understanding of humans:

  1. We are made up of organic algorithms and entirely divisible (not in-dividuals at all)
  2. These algorithms are not free but determined.
  3. There are in theory more efficient algorithms possible.

In response, the Quantified Self movement says, “To hell with human individuality!”

But most of us cling to the old threadbare ideas of ourselves as special.

Soon, our personal data will know us better than ourselves… Could shop and vote and work for us, and do a better job advancing our interests.

We are becoming part of an all-knowing network – and will perhaps soon find it impossible to detach from it (without huge costs to our health, our relationships, the quality of our lives). See Katy Perry: We are all “chained to the rhythm,” as it were.)

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Chapter Ten: The Ocean of Consciousness

 Two new cosmological mythologies are emerging:

1. Techno-humanism

Seeks to upgrade the human mind and body.

To expand our limited cognitive frame (looking to animals as well as unknown)

2. Dataism

Celebrates trans-human values of data-processing

Recognizes that it could lead to end of the relevance of Homo sapiens.

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Harari is concerned and wants us to focus on present choices.

He ends: “Today having power means knowing what to ignore.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Notes on Our Fifteenth Meeting — DEPRESSION

We had a lively meeting. Considering the personal nature of our topic this time, I won’t give my usual dramatic rendering of our back-and-forth discussions.

Instead, here are a few of the areas we covered…

1. Depression as Both a Challenge and an Opportunity

Some members of the group spoke of their own or their family’s experiences with depression, and how it presents at once a challenge and an opportunity.

When you finally recognize depression for what it is, they agreed, there is a kind of relief to be had.

You have to accept that it is not likely to go away, this shadowy character (one member even gives her depression a name: “Demetrio,” a dangerous, handsome, dark-haired figure, always trailing her and looking for vulnerable moments to step into her life. She likes him but knows to keep him at bay).

Instead of trying to abolish depression from your life, these members explained, you learn to cordon it off, control it, anticipate its attempts to insert itself. Perhaps, too, you learn to avoid its familiar means of access, like alcohol or lack of sleep or poor nutrition.

One member spoke of making it conscious (so far as possible) and willfully turning his back to it, all the while knowing that at times he might have to face it again to subdue it.

Some spoke of learning to recognize its lies, particularly its false certainties about the utter emptiness of life or… their own shame and failure. “Ah,” you might say to yourself when your thoughts begin to gravitate towards a particularly brutal assessment of life or yourself, “I have heard that before!” You learn to discount the language depression uses to draw you in.

One member spoke of how she has actually learned to love her capacity for depression. Acceptance, in her case, does not require passive resignation. Instead, she has learned to celebrate the wide-ranging emotions given to her by depression. She plays “big,” as she put it. So she has learned to think of her depression as more than a threat, but as something that is the shadow side… of a part of herself which she cherishes. She wouldn’t want it any other way. It just requires more vigilance than for some who live with more of an even keel.

2. Depression As Seen From the Vantage Point of… Infinity?

Should depression be understood as a heroic struggle for Meaning in the face of the infinite abyss?

Or should be understood, to the contrary, as merely a frustrating set-back and time-suck in a person’s admittedly finite life, something to be given no particular value (or no more than, say, shingles)?

I suggested that the ways we talk about depression seem to fall into one of these two camps.

In the first camp you have Tolstoy’s Confessions (which Setenay summarized for us), or the “dread” of the existentialists, or traditional religious narratives of sin and redemption through faith. At least since the early 1800s we have the popular conception of the moody, shaggy-headed genius, heroically resisting the conventions of society or the world, at a cost.

George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2).jpg

Lord Byron, depressed genius.

In the second camp you have William Styron’s and Sylvia Plath’s memoirs, both of which are descriptive of a grim ride down to the rock bottom… pretty much without redemption. I mentioned in this context that perhaps I like Kafka so much because he doesn’t give his protagonists a heroic stature when he depicts their despair and disorientation. Yet somehow he makes their narrative arcs compelling to his reader anyway. Deeply depressed himself, he manages to straddle this gap between the heroic and the mundane.

3. Social and Cultural Aspects of Depression

We talked at one point about how different cultures, and different generations within cultures, have developed different norms around depression.

Jaimey mentioned how first-generation Holocaust survivors generally resisted speaking about their experiences. Yet as we see in the documentary Shoah, when pushed by the filmmaker’s insistent questions, they finally can be made to break down emotionally. Is anything gained by making them talk in the face of such pain — other than satisfying our prurient interest?

The filmmaker in that case faced criticism for pushing them too far. Yet…their sons and daughters and grandsons and grand daughers often seek talk therapy to enable them to emotionally process their family histories. Is one approach right, and the other wrong?

Setenay talked about how some Armenian survivors of the Turkish genocide, particularly those still living in Europe, preferred not to speak of it, while their American children (in a group she attended) actively sought to put the pain and suffering of that experience into words. What is perceived as good for one generation may not be perceived that way by the next.

This brought us to a discussion about how depression has been feminized in American culture, so that men are often depicted as stoic and silent… but rarely labeled as depressed (Florence brought up Nicholas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas as an exception to this). We talked about how it is surprising that there are so few words for such a nuanced state: “melancholia” being one, “anomie” another, “ennui,” “malaise.”

It seems to be difficult to speak about — words fail. We are just scratching at the surface of our understanding of this aspect of experience.

4. The Relevance of Childhood Trauma or Loss to Adult Depression

Some members of the group spoke of painful events in their childhoods, and how these events continue to drive their darkest times.

Yet some of these same people noted that, at a certain age, they were able to distance themselves from it. “That was not me, and it had very little to do with me!” they tell themselves, and a great weight lifts.

Whether through geographic distance — moving to another coast — or simply through the passage of time, some people are able to adjust their focus to keep those old neural networks from lighting up too brightly.

I mentioned how in The Crack-Up F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of refusing to hold a “sad attitude towards sadness” or a “tragic attitude towards tragedy” — instead drawing a bright-line distinction between the hardships of his life and his own self. After coming across it a few weeks ago, I have found this observation useful for my own life. Since then I have reminded myself on a few occasions not to over-identify myself with my circumstances and the daily, hourly emotional responses I have to them. This is of course part of the practice of Buddhism, as well as aspects of all religious traditions (“turning it over to God,” etc.).

Some in the group who had enjoyed happy childhoods spoke of the opposite challenge: not so much trying to establish a useful distance from childhood trauma but, rather, trying to find ways to cope with the relentless, almost banal accumulation of suffering as we grow older.

In this respect, I admitted that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, and his struggle to bear up under the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” didn’t speak to me at all as a younger man. “What is this guy’s problem?” I thought to myself. “Why would anyone want to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’?”

Yet as life has gone on, I can relate more. At least I understand now what Hamlet is asking. How are we to deal with our suffering? When does the burden become greater than the reward? These are unquestionably valid questions at 48; they seemed silly to me at 18.

5. Achieving a Clarity of Understanding 

Some members pointed out that understanding itself may have quite important role to play in the avoidance of depression

Not only can people start to recognize depression’s language and familiar means of access, and hence tamp it down when it tries to poke its ugly head into their lives. More than that, some suggested that clarity of understanding can sometimes turn depression into something more akin to grief. It makes our response to suffering a manageable feeling as opposed to an intractable condition.

For some, the capacity to clearly understand and articulate the sources of suffering, when they were children, helped them to order it and contain it and overcome it in later years. For one member, it wasn’t even her own understanding. It was her friend’s extraordinary clarity at the time of her death that brought a sense of gratitude and peace, which would have been otherwise difficult to find.

We talked about how in an evolutionary sense perhaps depression has a distinct purpose. Maybe it functions to… slow… us… busybody… bipedal primates… down. To shift our attention away from our usual daily tasks towards more large-scale problems of existence in a longer time-frame. Maybe this is useful on some occasions.

In a fascinating way, when it comes to depression it seems that what goes on in our heads directly impacts our neurochemical state — and the reverse as well. Our heads and our bodies are working in such complicated ways together that it is not possible, sometimes, to distinguish where one begins and the other leaves off (ok, don’t say, “The neck?” — you know what I mean).

6. Taking Leave

As it got to be 11, we had to leave the discussion there.

Thank you to all who came and shared your reflections. What a rare and valuable opportunity to discuss some of the more unpleasant aspects of life with an open-hearted and open-minded group of friends.

See you next meeting!