What I have learned, What we should be thankful for, What remains to be done, part 2

29 10 2013

This is the second instalment of a three part essay by Dr Geoffrey Chia whose other essay If we can’t save Society, we must save ourselves I posted here last year…..
PART 2: WHAT WE SHOULD BE THANKFUL FOR
Each individual who reads this will have different aspects of their life they treasure. You should write down your own personal list. I will not discuss the obvious topic of love (or “lurve”) which has been endlessly covered by countless novels, songs and poems much better than I ever could. Suffice to say that those who have found one or more soulmate confidantes in life and have a strong supportive social network can consider themselves extremely lucky. You are a wealthy person indeed. On the other hand, if your social network is tightly bound to a rigid delusional mindset which prevents reflection and adaptation, and if you are unable to escape their grip, you could be in trouble.

I cannot speculate on everyone’s individual circumstances but will focus on those things I believe the potential readers of this piece will probably have in common, aspects of our lives today for which we should all be thankful.
We have been the beneficiaries of a relatively long continuous period of peace and prosperity since World War II from our (Western Industrial) perspective. We should be thankful for this. However we do not comprise the majority of the world’s population, ours is a minority perspective. Most of our (Western Industrial) wealth has been obtained by plunder (from native indigenous people or from other countries), particularly oil.  We need to put our good “fortune” in perspective. Much of Africa has remained a basketcase, especially those locations with the oil we covet such as Nigeria and Angola. Libya has now transitioned from a Gaddafi dictatorship to a foreign corporate dictatorship and remains unstable. Let’s not even mention Iraq. The victims of Imperialistic legacies in Vietnam, Afghanistan and many former colonies such as Rwanda will beg to differ they have enjoyed much peace since 1945. Latin American politics and policy have been severely corrupted to their detriment by the US in order to serve US corporate interests (read John Perkins “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”).

Other countries have experienced internal strife. Stalin and Mao killed millions of their own people after WW II and life had been miserable for many in those countries till fairly recently. The Indian subcontinent has experienced civil war (Sri Lanka), cross border conflicts and has been rife with poverty and power struggles which are ongoing even now – with the Naxalites who are fighting against corporate exploitation – which could erupt into civil war.

The situation in developed countries such as ours at present is that of low infant and low maternal mortality, low incidence of infectious diseases and the longest average healthy lifespans ever – more than 80 years in Japan and Australia. Compare that with the average lifespan of 28 years during the Roman empire (a statistic which included their high infant mortality). These advances were largely due to public health measures such as clean water, sanitation, vaccination and good nutrition. We have also seen marked reductions in cardiovascular mortality and remarkable advances in cancer therapy. All made possible by the discoveries of science.

Ordinary Australians enjoy a material quality of life far superior to even the kings and emperors of old, thanks to our fossil fuel powered slaves – technology once again derived from scientific discovery. For example, Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Caliph, loved sherbet desserts and commissioned regular deliveries of snow from Mount Olympus, carried by donkey and boat to his palace – which would have mostly melted by the time it reached him. Nowadays we think nothing of grabbing an icecream from our home freezer, purchased from among the dizzying
array of consumer items in the supermarket.

Ancient Kings were just as susceptible to death from pneumonia or appendicitis as their lowliest subjects. However ordinary people these days have access to lifesaving antibiotics and emergency surgery. And Suleiman could never have imagined flying in comfort at jet speed between cities. Then there are computers, smart phones and the Internet which when used wisely can be a tremendous boon, but are also creating a generation of timewasting fantasist thinkers who cannot tell the difference between cyberspace and reality. We need to reflect on these remarkable privileges and thank our simple dumb luck that we were born in these modern times in our particular location, into a tremendously fortunate situation never before enjoyed by previous generations.

Unfortunately it is the very science and technology delivering the benefits above, which have now led us to climate chaos, ecosystem destruction and our likely extinction. Are science and technology the culprits then? Was the only other alternative a repudiation of scientific advances and to remain with lives that were nasty, brutish and short? Is this a Faustian pact we have entered into, that we could briefly sample all these enticing luxuries, however the price to pay would be the collapse of global civilisation and human extinction?

As a matter of fact, science is neutral. Science is utterly indifferent, it just tells us how the Universe works. It is we who determine whether we use such knowledge for good or ill. Unfortunately most of the decision making in society as to how we apply our scientific knowledge has been hijacked by the rapacious psychopaths and fools:

foolishness + impulsive greed + clever science and technology = self inflicted extinction wisdom + judicious restraint + clever science and technology = paradise on earth

It goes back to the principles of medical decision making. The wise practitioner looks at the various treatment options and chooses the one with the greatest benefits and least disadvantages, taking into account the short, medium and long term consequences to the patient. “Free market” decisions in our freakonomy however just thoughtlessly grab the quickest short term profits to benefit a privileged few, leaving the toxic legacy of harm to those in the exploited areas and to future generations. Externalities which the bean counters simply ignore in their balance sheets. A greedy and dishonest system, established by the greedy and dishonest to serve the greedy and
dishonest. The material benefits described above are obvious to all of you. However living a gormless unquestioning life for 80 or 100 years before dropping dead is, I would argue, a completely meaningless existence, a waste of space. You would be just one blob of pointless protoplasm among many other billions whose existence (or not) simply did not matter one way or another. You may as well be a cow being fattened for the kill before being led to the slaughterhouse. The unexamined life not being worth living and all that. Dmitry Orlov calls the teeming mindless debt slaves of our GIMME establishment “office plankton”.

In my view perhaps the greatest gift we have, being born into this modern era, is the gift of true awareness, of genuine enlightenment regarding the situation we find ourselves in. What a gift it is to be truly oriented in person, time and place for the first time ever in the vastly ignorant history of humankind. To know we are a semi evolved species of ape, descended from earlier mammals and ultimately from microorganisms. To know that all other creatures utilise the same DNA instructional codes, demonstrating our common evolutionary origin. To know we live on a planet 4.5 billion years old in a universe 13 billion years old which exploded into existence from a
singularity. To know that this planet is one of eight in our solar system and our sun is one of billions in our galaxy which is one of billions in the known universe (Queue in Monty Python’s Galaxy song here https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=vIy76M-4txo#t=43 ).

All these realities have been determined definitively beyond any shadow of a doubt by the scientific method. To have gained such profound insights into the nature of Nature is an achievement to be celebrated. We also know this: our mind, our consciousness, our personalities, our cognitive processes, our very sense of self are emergent properties which arise from the complex firing of neurons. When that neuronal activity eventually ceases, we as an entity will cease to be. We know that when we die we will merely return to the same situation as before we were born (nothingness) which is true for all animals, and yes, we are animals. This realisation is not nihilistic at all because it means we no longer have to fear Death! To be liberated from the fear of Death is no small thing. We know that Hell is just an imaginary threat made up by cult leaders to keep their simple minded flock in line for not following their edicts. We have been freed from the shackles of scary superstition by scientific discoveries and must be exceedingly thankful for that. Unfortunately the saddest fact is that so many idiots in the modern world (particularly America) choose to remain in willful ignorance despite our indisputably validated scientific
understandings, to the detriment of us all.

The questions of what we are, where we are and how we came to be could only be wildly guessed at by the Ancients, who fabricated all sorts of fanciful legends: harmless and entertaining if  taken as metaphor, but dangerous and deadly if taken literally and co-opted by power mad clerics to be used as brain viruses to instigate holy wars or suicide bombings. One of the most corrosive lies is this: that a cosmic Jewish zombie, who was his own father, was born by parthenogenesis 2000 years ago and was subsequently tortured to death so that humans could be forgiven the sin of the first woman, who ate a magical apple at the behest of a talking snake. The Father of this zombie, so we are told, has instructed us to go forth and multiply and exercise dominion over everything and smite our enemies.

Politicians cannot be elected to office in America without publicly proclaiming their deep adherence to such blithering insanity. And in Australia we have the mad Abbott (a former wannabe Catholic priest) and his lunatic sidekick Bishop dismantling the science ministry and railroading us all into hell. Global warming is NOT crap Mr Abbott, it is your brain that is full of crap. Unfortunately scientific enlightenment is also a double edged sword. Those of us who have a reasonable understanding of the science of our situation now realise how dire it is, as we peer into the abyss of despair. On the other hand, this very angst itself forces us to appreciate how precious our remaining life may be, on this, the eve of our destruction.

Next to reflect on are the artistic accomplishments of humanity. We have all experienced the joys of uplifting music, entrancing dance, exhilarating art and inspiring literature. Whereas it is true the Universe is a meaningless place, indifferent to humanity, it is also true that humans create their own meaning. I hereby declare the achievements of the creative geniuses of humanity to be substantial, worthwhile and meaningful and we should be tremendously thankful for having had the opportunity to enjoy them. With such gratitude also comes the sad mourning of their passing, of the demise of all human achievement.

Should we, as humans, regard such scientific and artistic legacies as worthy of preservation? I now put this to you: if there was a mere 0.1% or 0.001% chance that just a few sapient humans, along with a concentrated archive of our best achievements, could survive and muddle through the next 500 years until the climate stabilised, should we not take that chance? Not to try at all, to assume we will fail, will become its own self fulfilling prophecy. Hence my view is that we should try, even if the outlook seems hopeless. More about that in part 3.

Here is a sideways take on why we should be thankful for our new perspective of probable NTHE. A basic Buddhist tenet is this: suffering is caused by unfulfilled desires. Hence the way to avoid suffering is to abandon all desires. If you want nothing, you won’t be unhappy if you get nothing. Simple in theory but difficult in practice. Put another way, disappointment arises from unfulfilled expectations. Our expectations in the past were those of limitless future wealth, lives of unimaginable luxury facilitated by whizbang technology and ultimately travel to the stars and
colonisation of other planets. Having since learned the evidence-based reality of our situation, our new expectation is that of near term human extinction. NTHE is the rock bottom of low expectations, humans cannot have expectations any worse than that. Accordingly no matter what the future holds, we will not be disappointed. We can be thankful for this new Buddhist perspective. Being born into this particular time at the twilight of human existence we have the unprecedented opportunity to witness the most collosal events which will ever take place in the sad story of our species. That alone in a perverse sort of way is a unique privilege some might be thankful for. The problem is, if you have a front row seat to this carnival of carnage, you yourself will be rapidly caught up in the mayhem and perish quickly and thus will not be able to discover the next exciting installment of the unfolding saga. Morbid curiosity may be one motive for some of us to linger on for as long as possible. What bizarre, unusual and unexpected event will happen next?

Certainly all the front and middle row and most likely all the back row seats will be consumed by the conflagration in the grand finale. If however you can retreat to the highest rear seat of the arena and wear a flameproof suit and somehow survive events while watching it all through a pair of longrange binoculars, it will be the most fascinating spectacle ever observed in the history of our species. We certainly live in interesting times.
Geoffrey Chia, October 2013

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2 responses

29 10 2013
Nathan A

Chia’s “new Buddhist perspective” is actually very old (as early as 5th Century BC). While I admire his dedication to the rigours of the scientific method, and acknowledge the huge importance of scientific discovery, the wider philosophy evinced here seems to me full of internal inconsistencies, possibly more so than the faiths that he ridicules. (This he does in such a childish manner (“zombie”?) that I can only put it down to honest or wilful ignorance of their depth and meaning.)

We are to be “thankful” for being utterly insignificant. For some unexplained reason there is value in examining one’s utterly insignificant life. Like the true post-reformation individualist, Chia takes a further step and declares value in things without reference to anything other than himself. We are “semi evolved” (possibly an oxymoron, based on the scientific definition), yet we are to create our own meaning while at the same time abandoning all desires. We are freed from the fear of death just in time to realise we are not the most important thing in the cosmos. Sorry, but theologians were there a few thousand years before you.

Mixing New Atheist reductionist naturalism with modern individualist naivety and a sprinkling of Siddhartha Guatama doesn’t make it sound wise or humble.

29 10 2013
gbell12

“Only can go up from here” seems less like a Buddhist perspective, and more like a Stoic one…

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