Reading for Our Fourteenth Meeting — THE LIVING PLANET

FRIDAY, JANUARY 6, 2017

For this meeting we will read THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES by Peter Wohlleben.

*

The vegetable world surrounds us and sustains us. What is our relationship to it?

We admire its beauty, and we benefit from its nutrition. But aren’t there more ways we can experience it than those?

Can we ever hope to communicate with it? (What does communication really mean, anyway?)

What is the line that separates animals from plant-life? Is there one?

Do we have moral responsibilities to the living world around us? What can we learn from trees? From roots? From rain?

In addition to THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES, other readings and sources may come to mind on this rich topic. Please email me any suggestions you have for supplementary materials (an excerpt from Thoreau or Whitman or one of the nature poets? A video, a piece of animation, a painting?). As they come in I will add them.

For now, I happened to see this the other day. What do you think? Isn’t it amazing that merely changing time scale changes our perception of the living planet so drastically?

*

Setenay sent in this poem:

The Silence of Plants

Our one-sided acquaintance
grows quite nicely.

I know what a leaf, petal, kernel, cone, stalk is,
what April and December do to you.

Although my curiosity is not reciprocal,
I specially stoop over some of you,
and crane my neck at others.

I’ve got a list names for you:
maple, burdock, hepatica, mistletoe, heath, juniper, forget-me-not,
but you have none for me.

We are traveling together.
But fellow passengers usually chat,
exchange remarks at least about the weather,
or about the stations rushing past.

We wouldn’t lack for topics: we’ve got a lot in common.
The same star keeps us in its reach.
We cast shadows based on the same laws.
We try to understand things, each in our own way,
and what we don’t know brings us closer too.

I’ll explain as best I can, just ask me:
what seeing with two eyes is like,
what my heart beats for,
and why my body isn’t rooted down.

But how to answer unasked questions,
while being furthermore a being so totally
a nobody to you.

Undergrowth, coppices, meadows, rushes-everything I tell you is a monologue,
and it’s not you who listens.

Talking with you is essential and impossible. Urgent in this hurried life
and postponed to never.

–Wislawa Szymborska

She also sent in a link to a book, “What a Plant Knows” (click here).

*

Richard sent in a story by John Muir about climbing to the top of a tree in the Sierra-Nevada during a ferocious storm (click here for pdf).

*

The opening two stanzas of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), in which the poet beckons the reader, in erotic language, “undisguised and naked,” to embrace the living planet:

I CELEBRATE myself;
And what I assume you shall assume;
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my Soul;
I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.          5
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes—the shelves are crowded with perfumes;
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it;
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume—it has no taste of the distillation—it is odorless;
It is for my mouth forever—I am in love with it;   10
I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked;
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
2
The smoke of my own breath;
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine;
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs;   15
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore, and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn;
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice, words loos’d to the eddies of the wind;
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms;
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag;
The delight alone, or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides;   20
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;   25
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun—(there are millions of suns left;)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.

Reading for our Fifteenth Meeting — DEPRESSION

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2017

For the next meeting, on March 22, 2016, we will take on the theme of… depression.

Certainly this qualifies as one of the boundary-lines of the human experience, right?

How do we approach the feeling of emotional and moral collapse, in a world without supernatural solace? What are the handholds we can use to grope our way towards recovery from such a state?

Are there any truths to be found when we find ourselves face down in the mud and experience a sense of smallness and nothingness? Religious people talk of humbling themselves before God… What are we humbling ourselves before when we feel low?

Or is depression, properly seen, just a bummer and a “time suck” caused by chemical imbalance?

Let’s start with the writer William Styron’s legendary memoir, DARKNESS VISIBLE: A MEMOIR OF MADNESS. In it (so I have read) Syron lays bare his own harrowing experience of depression.

Also, go find that faded copy of Sylvia Plath’s THE BELL JAR you have in a box somewhere. Please send in other suggestions…

Meanwhile, keep your chins up, as they say.

*

More reading!

Heather wrote in with some more suggestions for the reading for this month’s discussion. I am going to look at both of them. They are:

THE NOONDAY DEMON: AN ATLAS OF DEPRESSION by Andrew Solomon.

In this book, Solomon, who himself suffers from depression, blends personal narrative with detailed research. It is a touchstone in the field of psychology.

THIS CLOSE TO HAPPY by Daphne Merkin.

Published in 2016, this has been widely praised as a searching exploration of the author’s experience of clinical depression.

I would add to these a classic:

THE CRACK-UP by F. Scott Fitzgerald (click on the title for a link to the essays in Esquire magazine).

In his uncannily beautiful sentences Fitzgerald lays bare his self-perceived failures and his hopes for restoration. This raw and honest piece broke ground when it was published in Esquire in 1936, and it still feels fresh today.

*

Walden sent in a video of a great lecture on depression by Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky:

http://www.openculture.com/2014/08/stanfords-robert-sapolsky-demystifies-depression.html

Reading for our Sixteenth Meeting — THE FUTURE

MONDAY, MARCH 27, 2017

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.

*

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.

*

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?

*

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)

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

The rest of the world has suffered ever since.

*

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!

*

And then Scientific Revolution took it even farther.

We silenced the gods. We became our own creators.

Humanism.

*

Chapter Four: The Storytellers

5000 years ago Sumerians invented writing.

This habituated humans to symbolic thinking – abstraction.

*

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!

*

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.)

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

The formula:

Knowledge = Experiences x Sensitivity

*

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)?

*

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)

*

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.)

*

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.)

*

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.

*

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

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