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Weekly Commentary - MARCH 1, 2021

How tolerant should we be of intolerant people?

Many years ago, I read a science fiction story -I can't even remember its title- about a group of police officers chasing the last murderer on the planet in a technological future. After cornering him, a police officer shoots him and kills him. And the policeman then exclaims: "I killed the last murderer!"
 
At that very moment, the police officer becomes aware that, by having done what he did and having said what he said, he had become precisely what the world wanted to eliminate. He himself was now the last murderer, replacing the criminal whose life he had taken. So, what should he do?

I very vaguely remember the rest of the story, but be that as it may, the policeman had only a few options: to tell himself that he was doing his duty and therefore his actions were not murder; to accept that he had committed a murder and that, therefore, the police were going to kill him, and the cycle would repeat itself; or take his life thus ending the cycle.

The story came to mind (in a fragmentary way and without its end) when thinking to what extent we can be tolerant with the intolerant without becoming intolerant ourselves and without falling into the easy way of saying that because we practice intolerance then it is not intolerance.

At this time in history with so many divisions in any of the social spheres one finds oneself; at a time when arrogant ignorance reigns to the point that, knowing itself as ignorance, it does not seek knowledge; at a time when the dialogue is reduced to a monologue of whims, how tolerant can we be?

We already know the deadly results of intolerance. Millions and millions of people have paid with their lives in the battles and wars fought by bigots against bigots, each one hiding behind "his" truth and "his" rights. And each group, even holding totally contradictory positions, share the same position of intolerance.

But beyond those historical mega events, to what extent can we continue to be tolerant in our daily lives against intolerant people? How long will it be until we shout, "I have been intolerant of the intolerant!", only to find that we have become precisely what we wanted to avoid.

Or, perhaps, we have become worse than that because we have become aware of our situation and, generally, a contradiction arises within us between keeping an open mind and a willing heart and not listening to the nonsense uttered by the intolerant. To top it all, we don't even know how to feign intolerance without losing control.

So, what to do? Committing a (metaphorical) "ethical suicide" and setting aside our values when faced with bigotry? Being intolerant, but saying we are not because what we don’t tolerate is the intolerant? Nothing of that? Perhaps something else?

I don’t have answers, but I would like to have them. Maybe someone who has them will soon share them to educate us all. 

The existential distance between the first human and the last human keeps growing

Recently my son shared a short story with me, found in one of the many Internet sites dedicated to the topic of stories (or parables) which in just ten words tell a complete story and leave a lesson:

"Help me!" cried the last human. "No!" replied the first."

That's the whole story of the connection, or rather the lack of connection, between the first human and the last one, a connection reduced to a brief, monosyllabic dialogue to ask and refuse help. But who is this "last human" asking for help? And who is the first human denying it?

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche presents his version of the "last human" (that is, us). The last human lost the ability to create and only devotes himself/herself to consuming whatever it takes to satisfy his/her basest pleasures, aptly and perpetually hidden behind a cloak of decency and legality.

The last human can have it all without being happy because he/she lost the ability to transform himself/herself. It cannot be anything other than what it already is and, therefore, lives a miserable life, not in the sense of lack of material goods, but of lacking meaning and direction in life.

As Byung-Chul Han says, the last human (that is, us) exploits himself and calls that “happiness”. The last human internalizes the oppressor and asks for help to be free from his own insignificance. But in reality, he does not want to and cannot change.

And who is the first human? Among the ancient accounts of the Hebrews and, differently, but concordant, among the Greeks, the first human was not a human being like the one we see on a daily basis, but a cosmic being, aware of his/her spirituality and in perpetual connection with the infinite light of the universe (or, if you prefer, the deity.)

It could be said, if this oversimplification is forgiven, that the first human was a multidimensional human, as opposed to the "one-dimensional man", perfectly described by Herbert Marcuse in his well-known book on that subject.

Because of his/her expanded consciousness, the first human doesn’t cling to or limit himself/herself to pleasures, desires, or technologies. For his part, the last human does nothing but lock himself/herself within his/her desires and his/her technological devices.

The first human, ancient stories teach, lives with the universe and is inseparable from the universe. The last human only lives with an image of himself/herself, separated from himself/herself, from others. and from the universe.

Therefore, the last human asks for help, but does not really want to receive it because, in doing so, it would cost him/her everything. And the first human doesn't help because he/she knows that sometimes the best way to help is not to.

Is it possible to overcome this situation where the last human doesn’t come out of his “cave” and the first human can’t help? In this context, and said with great care, perhaps the idea of a transhuman (neither alpha nor omega) is beginning to make sense.

Algorithms begin to replace scientific knowledge

lgorithms have reached such a level of sophistication and precision that some scientists argue that more is known by using these algorithms than by learning science. In other words, artificial intelligence has led to a rethinking of the utility, purposes, and methods of modern science.

It has been said, and with good reason, that modern science is an updated and technologized expression of ancient mythology, understanding 'mythos' as a narrative that, while giving meaning to reality, serves as a basis and guide for thought and behavior. Expressions like "Science says that ..." reveal that mythological aspect of current science.

But now, it seems, science will no longer be necessary because artificial intelligence algorithms will replace it. It may be premature to make such a statement, but, according to leading scientists in the United States, there are clear indications that we are moving in that direction.

Let's put it this way: I don't need to know how a combustion engine works to drive a car, nor do I need to know in detail all the technological elements inside my smartphone to use that phone.

In fact, if I had to first learn how a car engine works to drive the car or first learn what each component of my phone does to use the phone, I would most likely never drive or talk on the phone.

Something similar would be happening in terms of the relationship between algorithms and science, says scientist Hong Qin, from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory of Plasma (PPPL), under the U. S. Department of Energy. 

Basically, Qin argues, it is no longer necessary to learn, as was done before, all the elements of Newtonian physics to calculate the orbits of the planets because those calculations are now made by artificial intelligence algorithms, without the need to spend years and years studying physics or astronomy.

Even more specifically, Qin claims that algorithms are replacing traditional science with a kind of "black box", in the sense of a process unknown to the user, that provides "accurate predictions" and it does it (this is important) "without using any theory or scientific laws."

In other words, not only does the person who wants to calculate the orbits of the planets no longer need to know how or why those planets move, but the algorithms that perform these calculations do not know (nor are they interested in knowing) the scientific laws that they govern the orbits of the planets. Obviously, the example can be extended to almost any other scientific field.

But how does the algorithm do to accurately calculate the orbits of the planets if those calculations have no scientific basis? Because the algorithm teaches itself how to do it.

We are, then, seeing the beginning (I think) of a science without science and of a science without consciousness, in which everything is transformed into something calculable, but not in a materialistic sense, but in the sense that, according to Qin, the whole universe is a simulation inside a computer.

Dr. Hong Qin

“Nobody will ever want to go to space anymore!”

I recently shared on social media a story about the beginning of civil and commercial space flights, including flights for tourists, a historic moment for space travel. Almost immediately, someone responded: “But a rocket just exploded. No one will ever want to go into space anymore! "

But is it really so? Just because an experimental SpaceX rocket exploded, is no one going to want to go into space anymore? Obviously, the argument is meaningless. Throughout the history of the so-called "space race" there were numerous explosions and loss of life, including Apollo 1 (1967) and the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) space shuttles.

Despite that, and perhaps precisely because of the lessons learned after those tragedies (and others in both the United States and Russia), space travel continued and will surely continue.

The absurdity of believing that due to an accident people will no longer be interested in a certain mode of transport is evident when one thinks that, despite the fact that from time to time some airplanes crash, airplanes are still flying. And, if it weren't for the pandemic, those planes would still be full of people to many destinations.

At another level, closer to daily life, few are those who believe that we all should stop using cars due to the many car accidents almost anywhere those vehicles are used. In fact, I believe that, in many cases, the problem is the bad drivers, not the cars themselves.

If we refrained from doing something just because someone had a problem trying to do it (including regrettable loss of life), then we would never do anything. For example, countless ships have sunk throughout history and yet even today ships continue to be built and used.

But perhaps the most profound paralyzing effect of a tragedy, of a setback, of a failure is to paralyze us to the point of preventing us from seeing a future different from the present. The world of what we can do is a ridiculously small world. 

In his famous speech on September 12, 1962, President John Kennedy said, "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Precisely when facing difficulties or challenges (real or created by our imagination) we begin to know our own limits and, for that very reason, we learn to overcome them. Suddenly, what seemed impossible ceases to be. The unattainable is now reached. The dream comes true. But not because it is easy.

After all, if it were only for a matter of ease and simplicity, we would never leave childhood (maybe not even the cradle) and we would live our whole lives waiting for someone to feed us, take care of us, and protect us. But that eternal childhood (increasingly common in our days, unfortunately) is not life, but a mere perpetuation of immaturity.

In short, life is not easy, but that doesn’t mean it is not worth living it.

Narrative is the foundation of the future, the other, and ethical commitments

Throughout history and probably since human beings recognized themselves as such, innumerable tales and stories have been told that, and as they passed from generation to generation, converge in narratives so repeated that they are even accepted as the only reality. But without those narratives there would be no future, no others, and no self-aware persons.

As Dr. John Vervaeke (University of Toronto) explains, while individual stories and even group stories focus on remembering what happened to those people or groups (episodic memory), the great narratives (remarkably close, if not identical to the myths of ancient times in their functions) seek to give meaning to life and guide behaviors.

While personal stories tell what happened, narratives explain who we are and let us know why things happen the way they do. And by doing so and precisely by doing it, they invite us and even force us to put aside, even for a moment, that world in which each one of us is the hero and the only protagonist of history. In that regard, narratives are autonoetic memories. 

In other words, narratives force us to consider other possibilities and, for that very reason, to consider a reality other than the one we live in. And a reality different from the one we live in is the very definition of the future. As we said in a previous column, the future is not the time after the present, but an expansion of the consciousness of possibilities.

But if we leave the confinement of ourselves and at the same time we focus on the future, then inevitably we will meet "the others" and in a short time we will realize that we are "the other" of the others.

In turn, that temporary expansion and that exit or opening towards the other opens up the possibility of long-term work commitments and deep ethical commitments. The fact that we are no longer locked within ourselves and that we see ourselves potentially living in another time, in another space and with others also deepens our self-discovery.

For Vervaeke, the extension towards the future, the exit towards the others and the capacity to assume serious commitments (and to fulfill them) are three basic elements of being a person (or, I add, a mature and adult person).

For his part, for the writer and thinker Ítalo Calvino, the level of person is reached when the ability to "question normality" is acquired and maintained and, even more so, the ability to notice who is excluded from that "normality". In a sense, for Calvino, the person (in the profound meaning of the word) is the one who changes the narrative and starts a new story.

Unfortunately, in the world of “hypermodern idiots” (as described by the Spanish philosopher José Carlos Ruiz) there is no longer any place for a narrative that invites us and forces us to be people, nor for people capable of changing the narratives of exclusion. Or perhaps that is the commitment that we must assume.

I am tired of people telling me to focus only on the present

In the current context of uncertainty and anxiety, every time I mention the future, I find the same answer: "We should only think about the present because the present is the only thing that exists." Sometimes the phrase ends with "the only thing we have." Honestly, I'm already tired of that answer for philosophical and ethical reasons. 

First, whoever affirms that the "present is the only thing we have" shows little or no reflection on the endless and simultaneously essential problem of time. Obviously, it is not necessary to be a philosopher to express an opinion and each person has the right to express what they want to say. But be that as it may, the present is not the only thing we have.

This superficially short column is not the place to talk about what time is or is not. And this is not the time do it. But I will say the following: when "time" is reduced merely to chronological or mechanical time, the multidimensionality of time has been lost from our experience and, as a consequence, the temporality of the human being is neglected or forgotten. 

In this context, the impermanent is understood as permanent, the fleeting as lasting, and the perishable as immutable. It is wrongly assumed that neither the future nor the past exists. But the only thing they say exists (namely, the present) is precisely the only thing that doesn’t exist, since the present is the future of the past and the past of the future.

Second, leaving all philosophy aside, there is an ethical question. With immense frequency, those who ask me to think only about the present use this approach to detach themselves from their responsibilities, both current, past, and future.

As the Spanish philosopher Daniel Innerarity said, whoever uses the present to escape the past turns the future into a garbage dump. And that is exactly what happens: we have turned the future into a garbage dump to the point that we live in the ruins of the future. The present has been transformed, by our neglect, into the ruins of the future.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked that whoever is not thinking about his "grandchildren" (that is, those generations that we will probably not see) "is not thinking at all." And, to quote another Spaniard, Enrique Santin, “You remember the past. You live the present. You think the future”.

Therefore, the invitation to "focus on the present" (in any of its many variations) is, ultimately, an unbearable invitation to stop thinking and to fall into a fatalism that gives us the illusion of being "free" from all our responsibility to change the present and to build a new and different future.

What then is the alternative? To understand that the future is not chronological time after the present. The future is a state of consciousness: the unfolding of consciousness towards itself, that is, towards opportunities not yet explored. Therefore, the future (and time) is the opening towards the Other.

 

Humbly and respectfully share what you know: that’s the foundation of wisdom

Many years ago, when I was still in college and one of the subjects of study was Greek, at that time I went to visit my cousins in Uruguay and when walking along a beach I noticed an interesting inscription on the door of a house. Then, I said, “Zoé. Life”, and I kept walking.

A few steps later, I stopped and discovered my cousins were still in front of the door of the house, looking at the same inscription in Greek that I had seen a few seconds before, but amazed that now someone had finally "deciphered" the mystery of that inscription.

They told me then that for years they had passed through that place almost daily, always noticing those strange three letters in front of the house, but not knowing what they meant. And one day, I arrived and suddenly I clarified the meaning to them. But the truth is, what was “almost a miracle” for them was simply the result of a few years of studying Greek in college.

I remember that anecdote every time I meet someone who assumes that I know what I know (practically nothing) because I have absorbed it from some strange source, and not because I have dedicated decades to study.

In other words, I have no superpower and there is nothing magical or supernatural in my (almost non-existent) knowledge. In fact, many of those who, before or after me, traveled a similar path of study have reached levels that I can only dream of. And situations like the one I went through years ago with my cousins put me back into my own ignorance.

For this reason, when I meet someone who amazes me with what they know because they know it spontaneously and share it without boasting or arrogance, I enjoy it greatly.

A few weeks ago, for example, I met a friend to deliver something to him. Due to the pandemic, we agreed that I would not get out of the car, so the transfer of the package was made with me inside the vehicle, and my friend and I both with our arms outstretched.

After receiving the package, my friend told me “That doesn't sound good” and, using only the sound of my car running, he accurately detected a problem that otherwise would not have been detected in time and it would have costly to repair.

I can read and understand Greek, but I can't hear and understand cars like the person I just mentioned. There is no point asking my friend to translate Greek and there is no point in asking me to diagnose a car problem by listening to its sound.

But it does make sense to share that knowledge when it is prudent, necessary, or possible. After all, sharing knowledge with others in the right circumstances and at the right times is the very foundation of wisdom, both personal and collective, with the humility of knowing that you don't know and respecting those who know.

It is time to wake up from the dream of believing that we are already awake

It could be said that throughout history, great thinkers and mystics share the same and urgent message for each of us, regardless of our culture, language, nationality, or other personal factors. And that message is: Wake up!

In current times and moments (chronological times and kairological moments, a distinction that we have already lost), we live asleep and believe that we are awake and therefore never wake up and remain as asleep as before, confusing our mental fantasies with reality.

Already in ancient times Heraclitus complained about those who lived asleep and, therefore, were unable to connect with others and with the universe, living -without knowing it- within a confinement of self-destruction that at the same time destroys the lives and futures of others.

Then, in his famous Allegory of the Cave, Plato graphically helps us to visualize that life of living asleep believing that we are awake, mistakenly assuming that the reality we know is all reality and the only possible reality. Thus, we prefer the permanent chains of ignorance to the temporary blindness of seeing the light for the first time.

Centuries later, Calderón de la Barca reminds us that "The king dreams that he is king, and he lives with this deception, commanding, arranging and governing." In that well-known expression of Life is a dream, Calderón emphasizes the word "deception" and rightly warns that the person who clings to that "deception" will wake up "in the dream of death."

Last century, Borges wrote somewhere (I don't know where) that the person who really begins to wake up will wake up more times than he went to sleep and began to dream. In other words, if you dream that you dream and in your dream you dream that you dream and so on several times, when you begin to wake up you will wake up more times than the dream levels you had.

And that is necessarily so, I add, to avoid the pernicious self-delusion of believing that because one has already awakened once then one is already awake. The levels of consciousness and self-consciousness are so many that awakening is both a single and multiple act, as Ksemaraja taught in his Doctrine of Recognition a thousand years ago.

Only a few years ago, the well-known trilogy The Matrix exemplified the possibility that our entire existence could come to be lived as a kind of technologically induced dream. A platonic, but technological cavern, where we believe we are autonomous humans, but we are just mere batteries totally manipulated by intelligent machines.

Be that as it may, we are still asleep. Perhaps in some moments we managed for a few seconds to half open our eyes and see reality briefly. But immediately, thanks to strong social and cultural conditioning, we close our eyes again. So, we "live" believing ourselves in control when we are controlled and accepting all deception as if it were true.

But can we really wake ourselves up from our own sleep? You find the answer. 

The more connected we are, the more unconnected and fragmented we become

The great paradox of our time is that the more connected we are through all the technologies now available to us, the more fragmented we are within ourselves and, in fact, the more separated we are from others, from nature, from the universe, and even from ourselves.

It has been rightly said that the question is no longer "Who am I?", But "How many am I?", Because our "I" (which in reality does not even exist) is no longer one, but many. And those “many”, in a kind of enhanced neurosis, are so many that we no longer even get to know them all. And nothing unites them, except that “we” meet each of “them” every day.

Am I who I am at work? Or the one with the family? Or am I the one who is alone, and no one sees what I do? Am I the one who goes to church services every week or am I the one who passionately watches sports? I certainly am not the one who posts messages on social media.

The tragedy is that now that I can see live what is happening in remote countries and I can participate in unexpected and profound educational experiences on the other side of the world (recently, for example, I participated in an online seminar with a German teacher teaching from Egypt), I can't communicate with myself.

This "connection with everyone" is thus deceptive because it is a connection that disconnects, that fragments, that divides and that, ultimately, separates. It is a connection that, by forcing me to put on a mask (that of an employee, a religious person, a friend, or whatever) prevents me from maintaining a genuine and authentic contact and leads me to forget myself.

Obviously, I am not against technology (although I dislike what is seen and published on social networks), nor do I dislike the possibility of "connecting" with the world.

But that connection is so fictitious that the person on the other side of the screen during a video conference wants me to believe that they are in the mountains or in space, when in reality they are simply in their office. In other words, in order to communicate, we must even hide where we really are.

And where we are is separated from nature (we consider it “natural resources”), separated from others (there are no “others” in a hyper-individualistic and narcissistic society), and from ourselves (we are the product of a culture and a history in which we never think and act according to how the market manipulates us to which, voluntarily or not, we contribute).

Although we have more access to information and faster than at any other time in history, we are not wiser for that. And although we can directly or indirectly access the most brilliant minds in history, we no longer think, but merely calculate. In this way, the future closes and we fall into the worst addiction of all: we become addicted to ourselves.

Why do I need to prove to a robot that I am human and not a robot?

With certain and annoying frequency, to access websites I am asked to prove that I am not a robot and, therefore, to verify that I am human. They then show me mixed images of various elements or places and ask me to select a specific element or place.

The interesting thing about this is that I, a being human, must prove to a robot or artificial intelligence that I am not a robot or artificial intelligence and to do so I must go through a simple test that any artificial intelligence would easily pass in a matter of milliseconds.

Perhaps, then, it is my slowness in selecting the correct answer that makes me human. Or maybe it's the mistakes that I make because if when they ask me to select all the mountains that appear in the image, I must also mark those that for me are simply hills.

Be that as it may, due to delay or ignorance, either of these two options seems to be enough to convince a non-human intelligence that I am human. But there is an even bigger problem: if I want the robot to prove that it is a robot and not a human, I have no way of doing it.

Obviously, I can ask a direct question, like "Are you a human being?" But that does not guarantee that the answer "Of course I am" means it is a human, since the robot could have been programmed to describe itself as an artificial human and respond, without lying, with "Yes, I am".

Any other question I ask could be answered in the same way, so that, without being untrue, artificial intelligence reveals its "humanity" without revealing its "artificiality." But there is an even bigger problem: you never ask robots to identify themselves as such.

We humans must prove that we are human, but we do not require robots to do the same. Think about the well-known and popular chatbots, which, with current technology, can have a full, complete, and coherent conversation without us ever suspecting that we are not conversing with a human.

This asymmetry in the need to verify or not the humanity of the interlocutor leads us to suspect that we are using artificial intelligence as a mirror in which to see our own humanity, but without caring how dehumanized it is to see ourselves in that mirror.

We kneel in front of our own creation and ask it to humanize us, to recognize us as human. And that is dehumanizing because the human being, as a life project, does not have a fixed essence, much less a definition. In other words, my humanity doesn't need to be verified by artificial intelligence for me to be human.

Before, as a measure of humanity, we compared ourselves with God or with gods, or with angels or demons or animals. Now, we compare ourselves to the artificial and we thank you for considering us human. It’s an unacceptable mockery of our own humanity.

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