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Weekly Commentary - november 11, 2019

Our closed minds reduce our world to a very small world

I recently met a young man who shared with me his serious personal problems, perhaps only to have someone listening to him because at no time he asked for help. During his monologue, he said that "What happens to me must be normal because it happens to all the men I know."

The young man explained that his father and his uncles had similar problems (conflictive relationships, job instability, addictions), as his grandfather had had them before and as his co-workers and his friends do. Therefore, he thought that "if the same thing happens to them" these problems are "normal" and, in fact, are not problems at all.

The issue is that his many undeniably self-destructive behaviors are affecting him, his close family, and his extended family. But in the world in which this young man lives ("world" in the sense of interpersonal connections and shared and accepted ideas and beliefs), these self-destructive behaviors are so prevalent that they are seen as "normal."

This poor person is trapped inside his own world (literally). He not only rationalized his situation by justifying it in the oldest possible way ("Everyone does the same"), but he was unable to see the limits of his world and, therefore, to imagine beneficial alternatives for him and his family beyond that small world.

But let's be honest: we are all locked inside our small worlds. "It’s a small world after all " endlessly repeats one of the rides at Disney World. And, thanks to social networks and the omnipresence of smartphones, that “world” is getting smaller and smaller.

We accept as "normal" something we see every day simply because we see it every day, ignoring the historical, cultural, social, political, and ideological origins of that "normality."

And although that "normality" is as self-destructive to the life of the planet as the addiction that destroys every day the life of the young man mentioned above, we accept our global destructive behavior as "normal."

In fact, we thus normalize violence, injustice, exploitation and ignorance and then we give them "acceptable" names, such as "law and order", "justice", "work," and "education". Because that is the world we live in; we believe that it is normal and that there are no alternatives.

If the man with whom I spoke doesn’t change his behavior, in a short time he will lose everything, even perhaps his life. However, if he changes his behavior (with the professional help needed and in support of those who want to help him), he will probably save his life and his future.

On a global level, if we continue to do what we are doing, planetary ecocide will be a reality. And if we change our behavior (with the help of the great minds and hearts who want to help us), even so, there are no guarantees that we can save our future.

The Universe may benefit from the disappearance of our self-destructive and immature humanity. But the Universe could also benefit from a truly human humanity.

“I don’t have time for the future”

During a recent informal meeting with a business expert, in the context of a conversation about new community projects, this person told me "I don't have time for the future". And, with a kind smile and body expression, he ended the conversation.

The expression “I don't have time for the future” took me by surprise, because (without assuming for a moment I know what that means) it gave me the impression that the person who said it did not understand what he was really saying.

For example, is it really possible to "have" time in the same way that you “have” a car, or a house, or money in the bank? Certainly not, since time is not a “thing” we "control" or accumulate (unfortunately for us) as we do with strictly material elements designed for consumption or to facilitate consumption.

In addition, "not having time" generally means a life so busy (though not necessarily successful or happy) that it no longer leaves room for anything else, even for the future. But the paradox is that the future is where we will spend the rest of our life, regardless of the duration of that life.

Was this person saying he didn't have time for his own future life? He might not admit it, but that is what I thought was hiding behind his expression.

But if you don't have time for the future, why do you have time for? The only options are the past or the present. But the past already happened and, for that reason, it no longer exists, or it only exists as a memory. So, the only way to devote time to the past is to remember it or, in the worst case, trying to revive it or recreate it in the present.

Is the present then what fills our time so much that it leaves us no time for the future? But the present is a fleeting moment that immediately becomes the past. So how can we give time to something that as soon as we look at it ceases to be what it is?

Obviously, I do not think that the person with whom I spoke thought about having a philosophical debate about the essence of time or about the impact of temporality on humans (if one can really talk about "impact").

I think, however, that person was looking to express something more pragmatic: his future has no place for something other than the future that this person already had in mind. And that "future," which could best be described as a "perpetual continuity of the past," was then closed to any other alternative.

In short, "not having time for the future" seems to mean something like "being so caught up in everyday life that we see everything as 'things' and that we no longer see anything transcendental." If so, what we are saying is that we forget that humans, precisely because we are human, are possibility, project.

To be human is to be future.

The dispute is not between reality and fantasy, but between meaning and nonsense

For many years, in the context of my studies in philosophy, theology and comparative religions, I focused on understanding the difference between reality and fantasy, between what it is and what it seems to be, between what is present and what appears. And although those efforts were sincere and academically valid, and some results were achieved, they were also unsatisfactory.

The reason is quite simple: distinguishing between reality and fantasy means being predisposed to decide and express which is which, which in turn means accepting a certain scale of values in which the real, precisely because it is real, deserves greater attention and appreciation than the fantastic.

If we all lived all the time within what we accept as real, we would not only be slaves of that reality, but we would not even know that we are slaves and, therefore, we would do nothing to free ourselves. In that sense, imagination (not to be fully identified with fantasy) has a liberating effect.

Therefore, looking for the difference between illusion and reality is, in short, looking for that element or idea that serves as a point of support to overcome both, without getting rid of any, but keeping them in a constant dynamic interaction of unresolved ambiguity. Said with an example: virtual reality is no less real than real reality simply because it is virtual.

But, assuming that the old dichotomy between reality and fantasy can be overcome (and everything we now call "artificial" or "virtual" invites us to do so), what lies beyond that dichotomy? What lives in the center of the unresolved ambiguity that is presented as such and that does not want or seek to be resolved or overcome?

Perhaps the issue, then, is not what is real and what only seems to be, but what makes sense and what does not. But then we enter a dangerous area: if we want to know if something makes sense, we must first define the meaning of meaning, which can lead us to an infinite regression in which we will never find a primordial turtle that will serve us as a solid foundation.

In other words, all meaning is, as far as we can know or imagine it, contextually and historically determined. Laws regulating vehicle traffic only make sense in a context of mass use of trucks and cars. In the same way, the laws that in the Middle Ages regulated the entry of horses into cities now make no sense.

And what we say about the laws can be applied to almost human activity: education, justice, government, religion. All these activities make sense (or seem to have it) in a certain context or paradigm. But what happens when that paradigm disappears, and a new reality emerges?

An obvious and widely spread response is to hold on to the present and the past as the source and basis of meaning. But as Milton and Proust taught us, paradise and time are already lost. Holding on to them is nonsense.

We live in such a meaningless world that we even want to make sense of nonsense

We live in an interesting time when, because nothing makes sense, no narrative is acceptable to us and no explanation convinces us, we seek to make sense of nonsense, without even becoming aware of the paradoxical and contradictory nature of that action.

It is clear that our uncultured culture, our uncivilized civilization, our dying planet, are in crisis. The crisis is evident in two undeniable facts: we repeat again and again the same behaviors and solutions waiting for different results that will never come (the classic definition of insanity) and even experts can’t find true and lasting solutions.

In that context, nothing makes sense. And nothing makes sense because trust in the institutions, organizations and people that previously generated and imparted meaning has been lost. Let's see explore some alternatives of people and professions we used to trust. 

The banks that are supposed to be there to protect our money, wasted it and lost it, as it was seen in the economic recession of 2008 (not yet fully overcome). And doctors, who are supposed to be cure us, prescribe "medications" that make us addicted.

Confidence in politicians has not existed for a long time (unless blind idolatry is confused with confidence). We cannot trust politicians nor can we trust priests, as evidenced by numerous cases of very serious expressions of immoral misconduct.

In the past, scientists could be trusted, but now, although there are still many excellent scientists, it is also indisputable that many of the scientific "studies" are not such, but in reality they are propagandistic expressions paid by corporations only interested in "science" to boost their own business and to deter competitor’s businesses. 

So, who can you trust? Certainly not the media, which even with good and noble intentions distort and fragment reality. And we can’t trust social networks, whose only function is to enhance the negative elements of our personality to generate profit (of money and data) for large corporations.

Can we trust teachers? It is doubtful, since there are few schools where teachers reflect the demographic situation and socio-economic life of their students. And the classroom is no longer the center of the learning experience. In fact, in many cases, classrooms hinder learning. The teacher is no longer the only one with knowledge. 

What about parents? Can we trust parents? In this time of rapid, profound, unexpected and irreversible changes, the traditions and experiences of our parents are of little help and of great hindrance to the children. For that reason, and because the generation gap is now an abyss, trust in parents has been greatly eroded.

God? No: he/she no longer satisfies us and is farther and farther away. Ourselves? The mental health epidemic shows that in practice we cannot trust even ourselves. So, what can we do? After all, it makes no sense to look for sense in meaninglessness. We have embraced nihilism so much that now even presides over us.

But, as Holderlin said, "Where the danger is, the saving power also grows."

We are witnessing the end of education and we still don’t know how to react

If we really open our minds, hearts and will and just see reality instead of only seeing and perpetuating our ideology, if we let the future emerge instead of insisting on living inside an echo chamber, then we would see that we are witnessing the end of education. And, whether we accept it or not, we don't know how to react.

A recent article by Rodrigo Assael published on the Educación Futura site highlights something that should be obvious: education is no longer preparing us for the future. In fact (we say), maybe it never did it. Perhaps education was and is only the necessary level of domestication to perpetuate the present.

According to Assael, the Fourth Revolution (artificial intelligence, biotechnology, 3D printing, 5G network, Internet of Things, and quantum computing) has made the current educational system (which still prepares workers and employees for repetitive, mechanical work, specialized or a lifetime) obsolete and outdated. 

In other words, current education prepares good workers for the First Industrial revolution two centuries ago. But we are now in the Fourth Revolution (or in the fourth stage of the same revolution, if you prefer.) 

And in this new revolution, education (understood as the transfer of information in a formal context controlled by teachers or professors) is coming to an end. It remains to be determined how long the agony will be or if the end will be anticipated or sudden. Perhaps, in the post-truth and deep fakes era, no one will cry for the death of education.

Paraphrasing Nietzsche, education is dead, and we have killed her. Or almost, because there are still certain elements of post-education hope because of the actions of those who know, understand, feel, and live that the future is not continuity of the past.

Consider, for example, the case of BR, a young woman from Argentina who at 13 completed her secondary studies online at a school in the United States and then enrolled in a nationally accredited university to study mathematics.

None of that was to the liking of the local school district that refused to accept BR studies and wanted to force her to return to traditional school and to begin therapy sessions for having studied alone. But it all ended in a good way when a local court ruled against the measures of the school district.

The judges forced the local district to accept BR's studies and argued that the girl, although she sought a “heterodox educational solution” to her desire to study, had to do so because that was the only way in which “she could exercise her right to educate herself ”, something that “the inefficiency of the educational system” didn’t offer her.

There are already hundreds of thousands of and perhaps millions of young people like BR who, tired of their dying education, create their own solutions without waiting for adults to act. To those adults who still confuse education with straitjackets, young people respond as Greta recently did: How do you dare!

How absurd is to assume that the absurdity is abnormal!

Recently, I decided to make the monthly payment of my credit card by phone (I was not near a computer at that time), and, to complete that task, I had to digitally enter numerous personal information, including part of my credit card number, and my date of birth, telephone and zip code. But that was not enough to make the payment. 

After entering all the requested information, the system automatically transferred me to a human operator (I assume he was human) who asked me to repeat all the previous information and then asked me to spell my full name and verify my email and my phone number. I did so and his next question was to explain the reason for the call.

I explained that I was calling to make a payment on my credit card. I remembered that I had to make the payment and, because I didn’t have access to a computer, I decided to call. The representative then asked me to confirm the last four digits of the bank account that I was going to use for the payment. I confirmed the digits and then he said:

"I'm sorry, but we can't complete the transaction because we can't verify your identity." And that was the end of the conversation with that person, but not the end of my internal dialogue about what just happened.

I would have liked to ask him how it was possible that after answering all the questions they asked me and after they themselves verified that the answers were valid, they still could not determine that I am really me. What more they wanted from me, a sample of my DNA?

Perhaps the level of skepticism about my identity was so high for the customer service representative of this company that he could not have been convinced of my identity unless an angelic being with a thunderous voice appeared with the good news that I am me.

And if the angelic being was not available, perhaps an alien descending from his spaceship could do that job.

Another question also came to my mind: how many people call the credit card company and say they want to pay my card? And how many people (including me) are told that this transaction cannot be completed, even after having answered all security and identification questions truthfully?

If there is someone who impersonates me to pay my debts, I would like to know it so as not to interfere with that person's noble task, but I doubt anyone will do it. In fact, I am sure that the only person who, by phone or online, pays my debts is me. Otherwise, I would not have those debts.

But there is still another problem, in my opinion even more absurd and worrying. Before interrupting the conversation, the customer service representative told me that the transaction could not be carried out "to protect your security", that is, my security. But "my security" is useless if it’s used against me.

How much good information and opportunities did we throw away due to our ignorance?

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of parents about the (relative) importance of college education and, at the end of the meeting, a mother approached me indicating that she had a question.

The mother contextualized her question by saying that her daughter was already close to finishing high school, with intentions to continue studying. "Is that why she always gets so many letters from universities?" asked the mother. "Yes," I replied.

“Because I didn't know it, every time one of those letters arrives, I throw it away. Since I don't understand what those letters say, I thought my daughter didn't need them,” the mother explained.

I felt the urge to kneel on the ground, extend my arms, move my head back and, under a black storm cloud and heavy downpour, shout "Nooooo!" for several minutes.

I did nothing. Instead, I said, “Some of those letters may be worth several thousand dollars to your daughter. From now on, every time you reach a letter, give it to him. She will know what to do.”

But the truth is that, throughout our lives, each of us receives valuable information or unmissable opportunities that we "throw in the trash" because of our own ignorance, be a real ignorance or, worse, self-imposed and consciously repeated ignorance so that the truth does not threaten or change our little world.

In fact, I am absolutely sure that I myself have thrown it away, certainly even without knowing it or without becoming aware of it, information and opportunities that, if properly activated, could have been of great benefit to me and, even more important, for those around me.

(Incidentally, I learned a long time ago that the best opportunities I receive are not for me or just for me, but to be shared with others.)

In a sense, it is better not knowing that, due to our ignorance, good information was lost or a good opportunity no longer exists, because becoming aware of the consequences of our ignorance would mean becoming aware of our ignorance and, therefore, ignorance no longer would serve us as an excuse.

But sooner or later, by those turns of life, we reach a point where we understand that we have wasted information and opportunities, in some cases unrepeatable and of high quality, simply because we prefer to cling to our ignorance (which we call “common sense”,  “tradition”, and “education”, among other many names) than to open our mind and heart to a new reality.

We may need to adopt the habit of assuming that every message that comes our way is a message for us or for someone close to us. To think what that message may be is, therefore, to resist ignorance. As Socrates said, wisdom is knowing our ignorance. 

Two millennia ago, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) taught in his speech in Athens that what God really forgives is our ignorance. Therefore, with that forgiveness already received, do not discard the next message that comes to you.

There are elements in human nature that make the gods powerless 

There are, without doubt, some elements of humanity against which, it seems, the gods (whoever they really are, if they exist) have no power. In other words, certain human characteristics make the gods powerless. Let's see three examples.

In 1801, Friedrich Schiller presented his play The Maid of Orleans, an adaptation of the well-known story of Joan of Arc. In the sixth scene of Act IV, Talbot, one of the characters, exclaims: "Against stupidity the very gods / Themselves contend in vain."

More than 200 years after that wise affirmation, the current process of infantilization of adults in the "Western" countries and the constant process of loss of our cognitive abilities (the so-called "Flynn Effect) widely confirm the growing human stupidity, promulgated inside echo chamber of social networks.

But Schiller goes beyond just pointing out the undeniable reality of human stupidity and affirms that not even the gods themselves can change that condition. And he is right.

We live, as it is obvious, in a world where all disagreement means disliking the other, where every dialogue turns into a debate, where listening is an exercise of closing our ears to everything that invites us to think, and where the extended helping hand becomes the a bitten hand.

As Schiller said, deities, in spite of all their divine powers, can do nothing against human stupidity. But there is another human element that takes away divine powers: boredom. 

In 1888, the last year in full use of his mental faculties, Nietzsche wrote The Antichrist and, in section 48, with full awareness of paraphrasing Schiller, he states that "against (human) boredom the gods themselves fight in vain".

Nietzsche is not talking about that feeling of annoyance for having nothing to do while one does not want to do anything or is interested in anything. It could be said that Nietzsche did not focus on “doing nothing”, but on “being nothing” (or on feeling nothing), so that nothing of what one does, has, or achieves serves as motivation. In fact, Adam was bored in paradise.

Paradoxically, Nietzsche suggests that the divinity cannot do anything against human boredom because humans are a kind of entertainment for the divinity. And there is still a third element that prevents all divine actions: the closed mind.

In 1972, Isaac Asimov published his novel The Gods Themselves, in which he explicitly cites Schiller's phrase quoted above. In this case, the book is about how to save the earth in the 21st century from a planetary and galactic catastrophe, created by human technology.

This is not the place to summarize Asimov’s novel. We will only say that, in the novel, not everybody listens to scientists trying to prevent destruction and death.  

Suffice it to say that the social field of negativity that now prevails on our planet brings us quite close to the "Great Crisis" anticipated by Asimov. And not even the gods will save us from closed minds, hearts and hands. Salvation, then, is in us and our intentions.

The future is now in the hands of adults with closed and childish minds

I recently heard a pastor preaching to the several hundred members of his congregation and telling them that, according to recent scientific studies, “almost one hundred percent” of human beings will die one day. Unfortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to ask him what that “almost” means.

After all, if this good man has access to a scientific study that shows that human mortality is less than one hundred percent, it would be good for him to share that study with us to see if the “almost” means  0,01 percent, or 1 percent, or whatever that (fictitious) number may be. 

And then, by chance, I heard a conversation of someone talking about a bear that was shot, skinned, dismembered, and its head cut off. And the other person then asked: But sis the bear die? It was not my conversation, so it was not for me to say anything, although I kept thinking how and why someone could even ask that question.

The reason why someone needs explanations to determine if a bear shot, skinned, dismembered and beheaded died is the same reason why someone claims that human mortality is "almost" one hundred percent: infantilism. But this statement needs to be explained.

In his classic and controversial 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom already said that education in the United States had “impoverished the soul of students”. And then, in 2000, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Christian Smith, and other researchers began talking about emerging adulthood, that is, the long time it takes now for young people to mature.

But according to recent studies, it is no longer a closed mind (as Bloom anticipated) or that adolescence now lasts for almost 20 years (as Arnett explained), but that adults remain and act as children.

In 2014, the Lumen Research Center in Social and Humanistic Sciences (in Romania) published an article by Dr. Jacopo Bernardini, entitled The Infantilization of the Postmodern Adult (that is, to be clear, ourselves). According to Bernardini, the contemporary adult lives in a state of perpetual “conscious immaturity” that allows him/her to “escape his responsibilities.”

As Bernardini says, the “kidult” “dresses without formality, has sex without reproducing, works without discipline, plays without spontaneity, buys without a purpose, and lives without responsibility, wisdom or humility.” 

That is possible, says Bernardini, because we live in a society in which “childish attitudes and the model of adolescent life are promoted in the media and tolerated by institutions.” In other words, being young “has nothing to do with age, but is a lifestyle attitude”, meaning “youth is no longer a transitory stage.”

In brief, infantilization is “a collective regression” of postmodern society that gives priority to “speed and possibilities” and to the “effective model of youth”, with the consequent “psychological rejection of adult condition”.

Thus, our future is now in the hands of closed, childish, and narcissistic minds. I would like to write much more on this subject, but it is time for me to watch my favorite cartoons.

How many more years will we live and for what?

I recently told a friend that insurance companies currently (in fact, for some time now) issue coverage up to 120 years of age, anticipating that in a short time that will be the duration of our active and healthy life. Obviously, my comment was rejected with total skepticism, both for "scientific" and "theological" reasons.

Be that as it may, and leaving aside the fact that in the visionary animated series Futurama Professor Farnsworth remains active at 160, a recent clinical study published in California indicates that a “cocktail” of three common medications can reverse biological age of a person in up to 2.5 years.

In other words, and so that there are no doubts, with these medications the person rejuvenates 2.5 years. And that is achieved with the knowledge and technology now available, which suggests that, once both knowledge and technology progress, the number of years of rejuvenation will grow.

Due to the fact that the current technoscientific development is exponential, one can think that in the near future the number of years that a person can rejuvenate will be a considerable amount, perhaps even tens of years. In fact, according to the aforementioned report, that is exactly what already happens in animal experiments.

But, as the ancients already said, a healthy body needs a healthy mind. And, in that sense, recent studies in the human brain have already confirmed both the phenomenon of neurogenesis (the brain creates new neurons, contrary to what was taught before) and the phenomenon of neuroplasticity (the brain creates new connections between neurons).

Also, Elon Musk and others want to establish a direct connection between the human brain and artificial intelligence, a development that, when added to that new understanding of our brain, means that the "new" brain would continue to operate at full capacity for years and years.

In fact, according to a recent article in the specialized journal Nature Biotechnology, two Harvard scientists, Shaun Patel and Charles M. Lieber, have already developed a system that allows, through a network of neuronal implants (and direct connections between the brain and computer) treat diseases (Parkinson's, Alzheimer's) and addictions, and it is even possible to "prevent the brain from degrading with age."

When that improved human brain (a project that is already underway) is "merged" (as Patel suggested) with artificial intelligence, the brain will not only be able to perceive its own thoughts, but to "manifest" them, then developing the ability to cure itself. 

Given these advances, and taking into account that until a little over a century ago the life expectancy was less than 50 years, it is then clearly possible to think that in a short time living an active and healthy life until 120 years or even beyond that it is no longer a simple fantasy, and it is not something contrary to science or, in fact, to theology.

What will we live for? After all, the mere extension of life creates a longer future, but not necessarily a new meaning for life. 

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