Saturday, February 17, 2024

Are We Humans or Machines?


My neighbor's beloved horse

We fool ourselves by believing if only we had more facts and better technology, we could solve any problem, even climate change and,  perhaps,  even death itself.  

But that’s not how the world works, according to psychoanalyst and philosopher Jonathan Lear. He says it’s pure fantasy to believe that every want can be gratified, although it is a phase that babies go through.  That’s because, for the baby, it’s all or nothing: “Either you want to be omnipotent, or you want someone else to be omnipotent for you, or you want to kill everyone else.”⁠1 (Doesn’t that sound like someone currently running to be president? But that’s a story for another time.)

Lear’s psychoanalytic insight – so essential for us today – is that healthy development requires outgrowing the notion that humans have god-like powers. “Approaching the world with the expectation that every problem must be solved, soon and completely, comes from a failure to reckon with our own and the world’s limits.” 

But, even though we may be frail and flawed, we can’t curl up in a ball when an overwhelming crisis arises. We have no choice but to stand tall and do what we can: “Take care of the people close to us. Work politically to improve things. Appreciate beauty and nobility in others. Be an exemplar for others. Make meaning. Creatively and repeatedly engage with the past. Have hope. Resist despair.”⁠2

Conducting ourselves in such a stand-up manner – beyond the actions themselves – has existential importance because it is precisely these relational qualities that make us uniquely human and give meaning to our lives. Unfortunately, for some time now, rather than celebrating our humanness with gratitude, we have been seduced into worshipping the false god of technology.

Yes, technology has augmented our limited capabilities, but in doing so, it has hoodwinked us into believing humans can do anything,  replacing our caring human values with machine algorithms prioritizing efficiency and profit. 

Rather than paying attention to others through kindness and empathy, we are being forced into an ‘iron yoke of efficiency and meritocracy” by technocrats like Elon Musk, Bill Ackman, and Mark Zuckerberg.⁠3

We are rapidly being transformed into automatons who meekly report to our online masters, obeying online prompts to wait for hours to speak to the next customer representative, who, at the end of the call, tells us they can’t help us. Personally, I look to the past for wisdom and guidance from mentors like that living exemplar of the past himself, Wendell Berry. 

Berry has long warned us of the dangers that lie ahead: “It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.”⁠4

Berry disputes the notion that the definition of an intelligent person is “the Quiz Kid—a human shape barely discernible in a fluff of facts.” Instead, he proposes a solution remarkably similar to that of Jonathan Lear:

“To think better, to think like the best humans, we are probably going to have to learn again to judge a person’s intelligence, not by the ability to recite facts, but by the good order or harmoniousness of his or her surroundings. We must suspect that any statistical justification of ugliness and violence is a revelation of stupidity.”⁠5

In the end, Lear and Berry both contend that no matter what happens – or how catastrophic –  we will be judged in the end, not on whether we won or lost, but by how we lived our lives.

Or, in Berry’s words, quoting an earlier student of agriculture, “The intelligent man, however unlearned, may be known by his surroundings, and by the care of his horse, if he is fortunate enough to own one.”⁠6




2 Ibid


4 Berry, Wendell. Standing by Words (p. 84). Catapult. Kindle Edition.

5 Ibid. Page 84

6 Ibid. Page 84

Sunday, February 4, 2024



Pickeral Weed in Jenness Pond (2020)
CC Jean Stimmell

As a teenager, I avoided silence at all costs. Even in nature, I had a crackling transistor radio glued to my ear, tuned to the beat of rock and roll. Now, with the wisdom that comes with age, silence is my best friend.

Most of us don't give silence its due, regarding it merely as the absence of noise, somewhere to escape today's 24/7 drumbeat of raucous political combat and exploding doomsday catastrophes from around the world. 

 I recently read a Substack⁠1 essay by L. M. Sacasas that finally gives silence the credit it deserves: It explains why silence, rather than the lack of something, is an active force that shapes us at every moment. 

He writes: "I came to describe the experience as the feeling of silence carving away at my interiority like a sculptor chipping away at stone, as if silence were stripping me of all that was not  essential.”⁠2

If this sounds mystical or even religious, you would be right.  Sacasas is following up on the work of the religious thinker, Max Picard.⁠3 This commonality shouldn’t be surprising to us  because, it goes without saying, silence is central to every spiritual tradition.

In Buddhism, the religious tradition I am most familiar with, the goal is to silence both the noise of the exterior world and the  chattering monkeys of our ruminating minds. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us we can switch gears quickly:

In just two or three seconds of breathing mindfully, we can awaken to the fact that we’re alive, we’re breathing in. We are here. We exist. The noise within just disappears and there is a profound spaciousness—it’s very powerful, very eloquent..”⁠4

Regular meditation is the preferred Buddhist method to reduce toxic noise. Escaping into nature alone is insufficient because, as Picard writes, people “will carry the noise of the great towns and the noise of their own souls out into the country with them.”⁠5 

Picard wrote his book during simpler times and spent considerable time railing against that new-fangled device called the radio because it “pushed silence to the margins of our experience by filling our spaces with a practically infinite supply of noise.”

Regrettably, in the years since Picard ranted against the radio, our noise problem has worsened exponentially with the advent of TV, portable devices, the internet, and smartphones. Not only has it driven silence from our world, but crippled language itself. Words originally meant something: they were connected organically to what is really real: our bodies, nature, and sense of place.⁠6 They were direct links back to silence.

Unfortunately, since technology's take-over, as Picard explains, we are no longer governed by words intimately connected to the realm of silence but to formulas and algorithms. Words that merely come from other words are hard and aggressive,” he counsels. "Such words are also lonely, and a great part of the melancholy in the world today is due to the fact that man has made words lonely by separating them from silence."⁠7

The more I explore the subject, the more I am convinced: Far from being nothing, silence is everything. Complexity Theory has even advanced the mind-boggling theory that silence is nothing less than what we call consciousness – but it is not ours alone. Rather than springing from our puny two-pound brains, it emanates from a source infinitely greater.

According to Neil Theise's "Notes on Complexity," our brains aren't fleshy computers that create consciousness but, instead, act like transducers that connect us to a single, all-encompassing consciousness in the same way my tiny transistor radio could link up to a rock and roll radio station when I was a teenager.⁠8

That's pretty heavy stuff: Our consciousness lives not in our skulls but hides in a profound silence that permeates the universe.




2 Ibid.

3 Picard, Max. The World of Silence. Originally published in Switzerland, 1948..Reprint edition copyright 2002, Eight Day Press

4 Hanh, Thich Nhat. Silence (p. 5).HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

5 Picard, page 132.

6 The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature and Place in a Hypermodern World by Charlene Spretnak


8 Theise, Neil. Notes on Complexity (p. 153). Spiegel & Grau. Kindle Edition.

Friday, February 2, 2024

Living in the Age or Romantasy and MAGA


Taylor Swift
Eras_Tour: Red Act,     Inglewood,California.    2023

Listening to PBS like the old fogey I am, I discovered that among the hip, a new fiction genre is sweeping the country: It's called romantic Fantasy, commonly called Romantasy.

Romantasy is a sub-genre of Fantasy that pairs this theme with a solid romantic subplot. Reviewers call it pure escapism with a 'refreshing lack of shame' while featuring all the hallmarks of romantic Fantasy – brutal action, high-stakes drama, and plenty of  sex.⁠1

Craving pure escapism makes perfect sense right now since the whole world appears to be going straight to hell in a wheelbarrow as a consequence of mushrooming wars, climate apocalypse, cultural breakdown, and mind-numbing barbarity.

Then I had an epiphany – at least as much of an epiphany as one can get at 78 –  the same escapism is alive and well in politics and goes under the handle of ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA).

MAGA also is built on pure escapism, this time being promoted for self-advancement by the greatest carnival barker of modern times: Donald J. Trump. He preforms his shtick in massive rallies like the medicine shows of old, promising to cure the gullible of whatever ails them – all they have to do is worship him and give him money – and keep giving it.

Old-school Republicans would have giddily endorsed the current romance between wholesome, All-American celebrities like Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift: A manly football star and a pretty singing sensation, who, as Politico notes, writes love songs with a straightforward, boy-meets-girl, happily-ever-after kind of narrative.’⁠2

But this isn’t your father’s Republican Party.! It is now the party of Trump, and Donald hates Taylor.  Why? Because she is more popular than he is. 

According to Rolling Stone magazine, Trump insists he has more committed fans and is 'more popular' than Swift. He has been miffed ever since he was snubbed as Time magazine's 2023 Person of the Year — an honor that went to none other than Swift.⁠3

Again, romantic Fantasy and Trump have much in common: both are self-serving, have no shame, and love high-stakes drama, involving, until he got too old, plenty of sex with many partners. MAGA supporters also dislike Swift, seeing her as the antithesis of what they love about football: its machismo, regimentation, nationalism, and violence. 

Luckily, a contest between Trump's support base and Swift's diehard fans would be a joke.

As a matter of fact, Jimmy Kimmel thinks this is the final straw that will bring down The Donald when nothing else could: "It won't be Jan. 6, it won't be the election fraud or the sexual assault or dancing with Jeffrey Epstein, or even fathering Don Jr. What's finally going to bring down Donald Trump will be an army of pissed-off  Swifties.”⁠4

There is no doubt about it: In times of Romantasy, life is stranger than fiction.