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Weekly Commentary - August 3, 2020

How much longer, God, how much longer?

Years ago, when my children were young, we went with the family on a trip to the mountains. On the way there, my children frequently repeated a single question: How much longer before we get there? And at the end of the day, on the way home, they again repeated the same question. It is the question we ask ourselves during this pandemic: How much longer?

In ancient times, in times of crisis, the prophets and believers raised their hands, their eyes and their voices to heaven and exclaimed “How long, God?”, requesting the intervention of the divinity to end a crisis that would otherwise end with the people afflicted by that crisis.

In the 21st century we no longer implore to the divinity nor seek his/her intervention. And not because, as Nietzsche said, God is dead and we have killed him, but because we no longer even care if God is dead or alive, or if he/she ever existed. In fact, in the middle of this crisis, we have gone from "How much longer, God?" to "Who cares?"

Although we no longer seek God (in fact, we no longer even bother him/her to find out if he/she really said what we say he/she said), we find other quasi-supreme entities, such as government and science, We beg them to speed up the process of getting us out of this crisis. And if they don't, then we no longer "believe" in them.

We are like children in the back seat of the car: we are part of the trip, but we don’t drive the vehicle, we don’t know the route, we don’t know how long the trip will be, and we have no idea where we are going. Even worse, the "drivers" (the government, science) are almost helpless in their task of getting us on the road and cannot even offer moderately coherent answers.

Arguably, we are treated like children in the car: they give us evasive responses to calm us down, but those responses can only be used a few times before they get "worn out" and become unacceptable. To be more direct, they become lies (perhaps they were).

Unlike a trip to the mountains, in this crisis there is no “going back”. We can’t go back to “normal”. Something definitely changed forever.

Although everything looks the same (the parks, the restaurants, the gym, the schools), nothing feels the same. An invisible and evil entity stalks us and, contrary to what happened in ancient times, we no longer have a divinity to question, or rituals or amulets that protect us. In the meantime, we don’t know where we are going or how long the trip will be.

Perhaps this is why this is an excellent time to return to the stoicism of antiquity, a philosophy that (although many people don’t know it) serves as the foundation of both Christianity and modern psychology. Perhaps this is the time to simply go, without asking how much longer or where we are going.

Neither entrepreneurs nor business leaners, but just techno-greedy people

In 2003, in the third edition of his book Entrepreneurship, in addition to speaking for the first time about electronic commerce, Marc Dollinger updated his definition of "entrepreneur" to describe the person or group of people capable of "creating and innovating" for economic purposes "in conditions of risk and uncertainty".

In this context, “risk” refers to the variations in results or profits that a certain commercial activity can generate. "Uncertainty" is the difference between what the entrepreneur knows and what the entrepreneur must estimate to obtain the desired results.

Dollinger updated his book and definitions when the United States was still recovering from the attacks of September 11, 2001 and when, both individually and nationally, the levels of risk and uncertainty were soaring.

As Dollinger explained, after 2001, a “new entrepreneur” had emerged. The entrepreneur was no longer he who founded a small business and became the boss, but he/she who created networks of organizations in which he/she might or might not be the leader. The new entrepreneur was not focused on a trade, but on a business. And he/she did not want technology, but innovation.

Even more importantly, the new entrepreneur acted globally, and it was no longer just about men nor were men the majority among the new entrepreneurs. For entrepreneurs, uncertainty about the future opens the opportunity to create a new future.

Yet, less than two decades after that book, having faced the Great Recession of 2008 and now in a global pandemic, in conditions of risk and uncertainty that Dollinger probably could never have imagined, “entrepreneurship” has become so devalued that it means to become a member of a program multi-level after seen an ad on social networks.

Where are those characteristics of dealing with risk and market variations? What happened to the ability of knowing what you know and also knowing what you still need to learn? And why is it difficult to find someone with a true global and inclusive vision, that is, with a mind, heart and open hands to the world and the future?

A possible answer is what could be called techno-greed, or, in other words, the desire to generate "abstract wealth" quickly and without work, by becoming an "intermediary" ("affiliate", some say) between the creator of a product or service and the consumer.

Wealth without work is one of the seven deadly sins that Gandhi enumerated. In this case, "without work" doesn’t mean "without a job", but rather not assuming the responsibilities that are incumbent upon entrepreneurs (such as, knowing the market, seeing opportunities, developing a product) and not assuming the risks of an undertaking , but wanting all the results and profits.

Now, at a crucial moment in history in which a virus reveals the shortcomings of the system that for almost 500 years has been almost non-functional and of a philosophy that for two and a half millennia governed Western thought, the visions and actions of true entrepreneurs are more urgent than ever. But they almost don’t exist.

We have separated ourselves from everything and everyone, even from ourselves

I recently learned that in Bali, Indonesia, people's names include eight components that, for those who understand them, reveal numerous details about the family and the history of the bearer of that name. We, meanwhile, have only a first and last name, and in many cases our identity comes down to a number.

In chapter 10 of her interesting book Tales of a Female Nomad, Rita Golden Gelman recounts her arrival in Bali and the meeting with a man who, after giving his name, explained each of the components: a prefix indicating male or female, then, to what social level he belongs, where he was born, how many siblings does he have, what does his name and surname mean, and what village and province does he come from.

In the specific case of the person Golden Gelman met, the name indicates that he is a high-class man born in a palace and with four older brothers, his own name means Big Shell from the Great Palace, and the other elements are the village and the city where his family lives.

In this way, the name of that person is connected with a social, cultural, historical, and geographical context that, for the listener, allows knowing a lot about the person by only knowing his name. In other words, the name is much more than just an identification label.

Meanwhile, in our case, the names have practically disappeared and have been replaced by numbers, mostly the identity document and the driver's license, but also the passport and the credit card number. And even if someone asks us for our name, the identification is not complete until they verify the numbers mentioned.

This means that we have separated, alienated, from our society, culture, geography, and history. We are disconnected from ourselves and, being just numbers, we stop being people to become just calculations.

And what we do with people, we also do with cities. On September 4, 1781, a group of Spaniards founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula.

The name indicated that the place was no longer a mere settlement, but a town (that is, planned and with authorities, that the new town was dedicated to the Virgin Mary in her characterization as "Queen of the Angels" and that the name was in homage to the Church of St. Mary of the Angels, in Assisi (central Italy), located next to the Portiuncula river (in Italian).

With the passage of time, that city was simply called "Los Angeles", without reference to either the Virgin Mary, Assisi (where some of the founders came from) or the Portiuncula River. And now not even the angels are left, and the city is known only as "L.A." Of thirteen words, only two letters remain, revealing nothing of the story of “L.A.” 

When we disconnect from ourselves, because of that, we also disconnect from others, from nature and, ultimately, from the universe. That alienation leads us to forget our own being.

On this side of the galactic wall, dialogue has been infantilized and denial globalized

NASA recently announced that, hidden behind the Milky Way, there is a “galactic wall” of astonishing proportions and that, despite its immense size, we were only now able to discover because our own galaxy covered it up. I wonder then what is hidden that we still cannot see behind the galactic wall.

And I also wonder how it can be that troublesome featherless bipeds living on an insignificant planet orbiting a small star in a remote corner of the galaxy still believe that the limits of our knowledge are the limits of reality. After all, until less than a century ago we believed that the Milky Way was the entire universe.

An infant can usually only see no more than 18 inches away. He/she can be forgiven for believing that the world ends where his/her sight stops. This is why babies laugh when an object they thought was missing then reappears, like when the mother plays peek-a-boo, hiding and then showing a toy to the baby. 

Young children can also be forgiven for believing during several of the first years of their lives that their parents were born adults, that parents were never children. In fact, it takes several years for children to form the idea of "past" and even many more years to understand that there is a historical and prehistoric past. 

Meanwhile, with a limited understanding of time, children assume that before them there was nothing and only slowly understand that they actually came to a world that preceded them, both in a "geological" and "cultural" sense.

Children can be forgiven for confusing the limits of "their" world with the limits of “the” world, but for adults there are no excuses, whether or not they know what they are doing. Only the deepest arrogant ignorance, which knows it is ignorant, but it doesn’t care (whose examples are now repeated daily and at all levels) believes that "his/her" world is "the" world.

However, that is exactly what we see in these times and, perhaps, what has always happened to us humans: we take the part as if it were the whole, the provisional as if it were the final, and the temporary as if it were permanent. And we also confuse “everydayness” with “normalcy” and the map with the territory.

So, on this side of the vast galactic wall that NASA recently discovered, dialogue has become infantilized and “motivated denial” has become global.

Many dialogues now begin with "We shouldn't talk about those topics," but "those topics" are precisely those focusing on relationships between humans, between groups of humans, and between humans and the universe or divinity. That is, they are topics that we should talk about.

“Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own information universes”, said Adrian Bardon, a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, writing for Scientific American. 

“Denialism" has expanded so much that logic, if it still exists, must be hiding on the other side of the galactic wall.

There are plenty of themes and ideas, but there is a lack of open hearts and minds

I must confess that, almost two decades after deciding to write a weekly commentary (always exactly 500 words), I am not short of topics or ideas to explore or share. But the growing disappointment at seeing the loss of our capacity for dialogue and introspection makes me wonder whether to continue with this task that seems to become "a voice in the desert".

Among the many topics that could be discussed this week are, for example, the discovery that the whale shark has teeth in its eyes, something never before seen in the animal kingdom. Or the recent announcement that, in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, there would be tens of thousands of millions of planets similar to Earth, that is, with the capacity for "human" life.

Or perhaps we could analyze what Sartre said in 1943 (Being and Nothing): "What happens to me happens through me", underscoring the need to take personal responsibility for what happens to us even under the worst circumstances.

And why not comment on Fritjof Capra's harsh warning in 1982 (The Turning Point, chapter 8) when he said that "the Pentagon is planning to extinguish the human species as well as most others"?

However, it is useless to talk about this or many other issues with the potential to have a transforming effect on our way of thinking, deciding and acting, if, as a recent report indicates, one in three high school students in the United States never reads a book after finishing school. And among university students it is one in four.

Additionally, 70 percent of American adults have not read a complete book in five years. And 80 percent of families buy only one book per year, or none at all.

In that context, everything becomes opinion, that is, knowledge vanishes and it is assumed everything that is said is without foundation, and therefore it can be rejected and replaced by another opinion, also without foundation, but closer to what "one thinks".

Ignorance has become arrogant to the point that someone who "knows a lot" is someone who can correctly answer trivial questions about celebrities or entertainment.

We could have written about the nonagenarian Chilean philosopher Gastón Soublette's proposal on the "dangers and opportunities of the mega-crisis", as the subtitle of his new book Manifesto says.

According to Soublette, the current global crisis is not a crisis of health or economy (although undeniably those elements are included in the crisis), but a crisis of spirituality, not in the sense of religious dogma, but in the sense that we keep our eyes closed to change and the future and, therefore, we cling to the crisis that we have created.

Soublette suggests that the project of modernity that emerged in Europe 500 years ago is coming to an end because the myth of the “constant progress” is over now. Nothing of what once promised was delivered. Soublette is right: we are entering a new time, but you have to read it to believe it. 

When we lose the ability to dialogue, we lose everything

I recently read the story of a California attorney who reported corruption cases to the office of certain District Attorney. In response, the accused prosecutor told the if he attorney that if he (the attorney) did not like the profession, he should resign and pursue something else.

That's one of the countless examples that we can no longer even have a decent, adult conversation. We have lost the ability to dialogue, that is, the ability to connect through reason and speech. By the way, that’s the etymology of “dialog”: connecting through (dia) what is already connecting us (logos). 

In the example just mentioned, the central theme of the complaint was the corruption of a prosecutor and not the ability or desire of a lawyer to continue his/her profession. However, in a move that reveals all disdain for understanding and truth, the issue went from corruption to the “inability” of the complainant, questioning his/her credibility and motives.

But that same disdain for dialogue is seen at all levels of communication. In the place where I live (Denver metropolitan area) fireworks are prohibited for private use, that is, they can only be used by professionals. However, like everything in life, people still buy and use fireworks.

Obviously, what for some is "fun", for others it is a great annoyance, especially if the noises and explosions are repeated night after night and too close to their own home.

A few days ago, neighbor posted a message on the neighborhood social network asking those who launch fireworks without authorization that, if they don't want to think about their neighbors, at least think about the impact the explosions have on pets, especially dogs.

In response, one of the people responsible for illegally launching the fireworks said, "If you don't know how to take care of your dogs, then don't have dogs."

Once again: the topic of the conversation was not the ability of a person for taking care of their dogs, but the fact that someone, by not complying with the current municipal ordinances, caused problems for their neighbors and for the pets in the neighborhood.

But, instead of assuming personal responsibility for the results of his actions, the inconsiderate individual preferred to “lecture” anyone who asked him to reconsider his actions, as if verbally attacking other people exempted him from his responsibilities.

The examples could be multiplied because, as we have already said, we have lost the capacity for dialogue, including internal dialogue. But then the question arises: when someone responds in such a disconnected and aggressive way as in the examples mentioned, is it done deliberately or perhaps out of ignorance? (I don’t think there are any other options.)

If it is a deliberate and calculated act to "harm" the other person, that is ethically unacceptable and highly destructive. And if an act of ignorance, then we are faced with an existential reality that brings us to the brink of the abyss: there is no future if we do not understand each other.

Reason without wisdom becomes the unreason of fanaticism

A few days ago, on June 18, 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled on the continuation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Leaving aside all political issues, this ruling includes an element that must be highlighted and analyzed: the separation between wisdom and reason.

"The wisdom of those decisions (about DACA) is none of our concern," wrote John Roberts, President of the Supreme Court. The Court's determination, Roberts said, was based on the Executive Branch's request to end DACA and did not include a "reasoned explanation" of that request.

Even more specifically, Roberts insisted that the government's actions must be based "on reasons" and on "rational procedure", which clearly did not happen in the case in question.

It is not up to us (much less within the limited space of this column) to analyze that opinion (or any other) of the highest American court. But it must be said that separating wisdom from reason is, at best, risky and, most likely, very dangerous.

Since I lack both the academic and the intellectual capacity to speak about the United States Supreme Court, I will leave that subject entirely, but I still think the recent ruling serves as a clear example of one of the deep roots of the current meaning crisis: separating what is wise from what is rational.

That doesn’t mean, obviously, that wisdom and reason must be fused and confused as if they were a single "thing". That is not the case. But neither should they totally cut off from each other because, although different, they coexist in a ceaseless feedback loop.

The danger of separating them is clear: when reason is disconnected from wisdom, dialogue becomes argument, the purpose of life is reduced to winning arguments and, ultimately, the best arguments succeed, even if they totally lack wisdom.

And while the wise person, precisely because he/she is wise, doesn’t speak, but listens, the argumentator, preciously for being so, doesn’t listen, but speaks. But they speak not to teach, educate, or inspire, but to convince, or, more strictly, to manipulate ideas and wills in a certain direction.

The problem is not new. Those argumentators who sold themselves to the highest bidder to win arguments and who ignored Plato's wisdom called them sophists. They were neither wise (sophos) nor lovers of wisdom (philo-sophos), but lovers of appearances (philo-doxos). And they made tons of money for doing what they did.

In other words, when wisdom is separated from reason, however lacking in wisdom, ethics, or beauty an idea or proposal may be, if its acceptance seems reasonable, it will be accepted. And, at the same time, regardless how wise as an idea or a proposal is, if it seems irrational to accept it, it will be rejected. The examples of those two possibilities are countless.

When we openly state that wisdom is not our concern, we have already irretrievably opened the doors to the unreason of fanaticism. That door, as history reveals, is extremely costly to close. 

Appearances are deceiving ... and everything is just an appearance

Many years ago, when I was still a child in primary school, the teacher asked us to draw a picture. A classmate, Guillermo, completed the task and handed it to the teacher and (as I recall) she said it was "a very poor drawing." Guillermo then took two coins, glued them on the drawing and returned it to the teacher.

I remember the incident, but I don't know how the story ended. But that moment stayed in my memory because it was one of the first times that I became aware (although I couldn't verbalize it until much later in life) that words have more than one meaning and that the way we interpret words has consequences in our actions.

Obviously, when the teacher referred to “a poor drawing” she was talking about a basic drawing to which other elements could be added to complete it. But when Guillermo heard "poor" he understood him (perhaps mischievously, perhaps due to his own situation in life) as "lacking money". And that led him to act the way he did.

We are all in a similar situation every day with every word and phrase we hear because, to react to what is said to us and act accordingly, we must first interpret that phrase. And there is no guarantee that our interpretation is correct.

In fact, interpretation or, technically, hermeneutics is an ancient problem that the Greeks and Romans of millennia ago contextualized in the framework of the relations between human beings and the gods. After all, if the gods say anything to humans, it is of utmost importance to interpret that message correctly.

The god in charge of carrying messages from the gods to humans was Mercury among the Romans or Hermes for the Greeks. He is recognized for wearing wings on his heels and on his helmet. Furthermore, its name in Greek is the origin of our word "hermeneutic" (process of interpretation).

Now, when someone receives a message and understands it (in whatever way they understand it), that person went from one situation in their life to another, from not knowing to knowing, from not understanding to understanding. That is to say, he crossed a "threshold", so to speak. For this reason, Mercury / Hermes was also the god of thresholds, either at the doors of houses or at the entrance to the city.

But Mercury / Hermes, when carrying his messages, never presented himself as who he was, but disguised himself. He did not lie or cheat: the message was transmitted correctly. But, because of Mercury's disguise, the message always had more than one interpretation. Always. And beyond the myth, the situation has not changed.

We can laugh when a young child understands a word with a different meaning than the one his teacher was trying to give it. But what happens to us, adults, with words of great impact on our lives, such as "poverty", "racism", "reform" and even "democracy"? Mercury / Hermes continues to deceive us even today.

Our destructive power has already far exceeded our maturity level

On May 4, 2020, a five-year-old boy living in Orem, Utah (United States) decided to do what every child of that age does when the mother refuses to buy him a real Lamborghini: he got into the family truck and started driving down the highway to head to California to buy that expensive vehicle in person.

Two miles later, on the highway, a police officer stopped him without incident. The boy, who had never driven a car before in his life, not only started the truck, but he also read the road signs to drive in the right direction and knew what to do and how to stop when he saw the lights of the police car behind him. 

After the incident, the boy's family was criticized on social media for allowing someone "without enough maturity" to be left unsupervised so he was able to drive of a family van on an interstate highway. And although nothing happened, the argument is that a tragedy could have happened due to the child's immaturity.

But the truth is that the chronological age and the level of maturity don’t go together. On the road, I've seen teens and adults drive worse than the Utah boy reportedly drove. And I have seen "adults" (please note the quotation marks) in high positions in their organizations or companies acting far worse than an immature child.

In our time, immaturity affects an increasing number of individuals, becoming dangerous for all every time one of those individuals start his/her own journey on the highway of life with the sole purpose of satisfying his/her desires, without consideration for their families or for others, nor for the consequences.

Even worse, humanity as a whole is acting from time immemorial with a high level of immaturity, as evidenced by centuries and millennia of wars, hunger, poverty, discrimination, and endless conflicts across the planet. We are so immature that even a virus can easily stop and derail our lives. 

Recently, futurist Nikola Danaylov, founder of the Singularity blog and author of the book Conversations with the Future, warned that the barrier that previously allowed the destructive power of humanity to be controlled by humanity has already been crossed.

According to Danaylov, our capacity for destruction already far exceeds our collective wisdom, especially in the West. Specifically, he said, the technological power that humanity now has in its hands (such as artificial intelligence and nuclear energy) outweighs the wisdom to use it.

From that perspective, we are all young children driving a truck for the first time on a busy highway, putting our lives and the lives of others at risk. But, contrary to what happened with the Utah boy, no one will come to stop us or help us before we cause a tragedy. Not even aliens. 

Danaylov based his warning after having discussed the subject with dozens of scientists, philosophers, and experts. Its conclusion is undeniable: the exponential growth of intelligent technologies is accompanied by the exponential growth of human immaturity.

They told me that in the Upside-Down World ...

The well-remembered Argentine singer María Elena Walsh introduced us in one of her songs to the Upside-Down Kingdom in which “two and two are three” and where “if you look, you don't see”. It is obviously a fantasy world where the same rules that we follow in our world don’t apply. But maybe it's not just fantasy.

Recently, NASA indicated that its scientists working in Antarctica detected " evidence of a parallel universe -- where the rules of physics must be the opposite of our own."

In this Upside-Down Kingdom, detected by NASA thanks to particles called tau neutrinos, time moves towards the past (from our perspective). At the same time, says the NASA statement, if there were inhabitants in that other parallel (but opposite) universe, they would consider our universe to be the Inside-Out World.

This idea is not new. The idea of a parallel universe has been explored by thinkers, writers, scientists, and mystics for millennia.

But perhaps one of the best representations (full of humor and color) is the episode The Farnsworth Parabox in Futurama, from June 2003, which precisely explores what universe "Universe A" is and, among other existential themes, how fragile every universe is.

Ultimately, the order we see in our universe is nothing more than the chaos we have become accustomed to. And the rules and laws of our universe apparently only apply to our universe, that is, they are "regional", or, to put it another way, they work only within our "bubble", but not in the entire multiverse.

Perhaps the inhabitants of the parallel world are right when, seeing what is happening in our world, they affirm that it is we who are moving in the wrong direction. After all, while we are born to die, they (because time flows in another direction), emerge from death, and live to be born (an absolutely compelling idea.)

But, in addition, in our daily life, we are at a time when, as María Elena Walsh said, our small world is literally upside down, where two and two are no longer three, but whatever the boss decides (as Anthony taught De Mello in The Song of the Bird) and where we look, but do not see.

We watch the news and we read the social media posts, but we don't see reality. We look at the masks, but we don't see the people. We look at the profound and irreversible changes that a virus forces us to make, but we don’t see the opportunity to create a new future and, even worse, we want to return to a nostalgic past that never existed.
Gandhi said it well in his list of the Seven Deadly Sins: we want wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, business without ethics, science without humanity, religion without sacrifice and politics without principles.

We are in a real upside-down world (or society): we have now a great opportunity to move into the future, but we are going back to the past.

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