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WEEKLY COMMENTARY

It's time to leave behind our childhood, both personal and global

In the third paragraph of her story Transformation, Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein and The Last Man) aptly describes a personal and social situation that, almost two centuries after its original publication in 1831, continues to affect us in our time: immaturity, both at a personal level and at a global level.

Shelley puts the following thought into the mouth of the narrator of the story: "Happy time! when to the young heart the narrow-bounded universe enchains our physical energies." According to Shelley, this happiness is because, at that crucial moment in life, that is, in our childhood, “innocence and happiness are united”.

After that childhood stage, when as adults we must assume the responsibilities of adulthood and, therefore, we must face life in the best possible way, that small world expands and, with that expansion, fears, problems, setbacks, anxieties, and pain arrive. And, in our time, loneliness and depression too.

Perhaps for this reason, many people prefer a narrow universe or, rather, their own narrow universe, to which they chain all their physical and psychological forces, considering themselves the kings and rulers of that ghost world that only exists in their imagination, "protecting" that world with extreme individualism and narcissism.

They are people whom Father Richard Rohr aptly describes in his highly commendable book Falling Upwards as incapable, for whatever reason, of reaching the "second half" of life, that is, of beginning to live as who they really are. and can become, and no longer based on the teachings, beliefs, doctrines, customs, and traditions imposed in childhood.

From very different perspectives and in very different contexts, both Shelley and Rohr pose a situation already analyzed in antiquity (Ovid, Apuleius) and in modern times (Kafka): the moment of transformation, of metamorphosis, inevitably arrives. Life flows, time passes and there is not a single moment in which we have not changed.

But, although the transformation is inevitable, that does not mean that it is accepted. In fact, when the caterpillar begins its own metamorphosis, the caterpillar activates its antibodies as if it were fighting a disease. But the caterpillar is not sick, but only undergoing a normal and natural process of transformation into a butterfly.

We humans have our own way of rejecting transformation and refusing to accept metamorphosis. For example, we uncritically accept everything that we were taught in our childhood and consider it the only and definitive truth, thus excluding from our lives, minds, and hearts everything that agrees with that (supposed) “truth”.

In other words, we cling to a narrow universe, a small and dwarfed world, which is constantly getting smaller and smaller. That jacket that dressed us as a child has now become a straitjacket. That is why, as Shelley rightly points out, we unnecessarily live crazy and miserable lives.

In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, August becomes divine. In Apuleius’ book, the protagonist recovers his sanity. In Shelley’s book, he learns his lesson. In Kafka’s Metamorphosis (our time), he turns into an ugly insect. Please, draw your own conclusion. 

If the science fiction of the past is already real, will a past Utopia become our future?

Many years ago, I read in a sci-fi anthology (but I can't remember any other details) a short story about some "wonderful" shoes that could be worn for a long time without wearing out and then, when you stopped wearing them, they just dissolved. It turns out that now that kind of shoes, or something very similar, is already a reality.

A few days ago, an interdisciplinary team from the University of California at San Diego announced the creation of a new biodegradable material that can be used precisely to produce different type

s of footwear and that, when that shoe is no longer in use, dissolves in salt water in a matter of a few weeks. In fact, it serves as food for fish.

Although the shoes now created in California are not the first biodegradable shoes, they are the first to incorporate biodegradable polyurethane, so that they are worn like any other shoe with plastic soles, but then they disintegrate, either in water or on soil. 

Beyond those details, what really strikes me is the fact that, once again, science fiction anticipates reality. Or, to put it another way, what was previously just an unattainable fiction produced by a highly imaginative mind is now a real product. The question then arises: how many other previously impossible ideas will soon be real? Maybe they already are.

There are, of course, countless examples of science fiction becoming real science (and technology). Famous examples include Jules Verne's submarines and space rockets, as well as examples from Star Trek (communicator, tablets, automatic doors) and Star Wars (flying motorcycles).

But putting those and other examples aside, the real question is whether, just as biodegradable shoes went from a utopian idea to a real product, will the dystopias of the past become the reality of the future (perhaps even the near future)? 

In the 19th century, Mary Shelley warned us in her well-known and famous novel Frankenstein about the dire consequences of using technology with the goal of deifying human beings. In more recent years, movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator, and The Matrix, from different perspectives, warn of technology out of control, capable of enslaving or annihilating us.

Now, these works of fiction are very similar to recent advances in science and technology that seem to be heading precisely towards that human deification, be it, for example, with a direct connection between the human brain and a computer or be it by downloading our personality (our consciousness?) into a digital avatar.

Before someone says that this is not possible and that it will never happen (it used to be said that nothing heavier than air could fly), I invite you to look for information on Neuralink (of Elon Musk) and on StoryFile (life.storyfile. com), a platform that uses augmented reality, conversational artificial intelligence, natural language, and video to create virtual conversations, with a living person or with a deceased person. 

Will the utopias of the past be the realities of the future? 

Can intelligence be understood mostly as speaking properly and clearly?

I recently read an article (on TechXplore) about a robot, called Epi, who was taught by experts at Lund University in Sweden to speak in less robotic and more human tones, and using words and phrases from everyday life. As a result, humans consider Epi more intelligent and reliable than other robots.

Previous experiments had already determined that the trust humans have in the so-called social robots (to differentiate them from industrial robots) depends on the perception that humans have of the intelligence of these robots. If humans perceive these robots to be intelligent, they will trust them.

Now, Dr. Amandus Krantz and his colleagues have discovered that the key factor that makes a person accept a robot as intelligent is that the robot speaks appropriately for that person to understand. If that same robot changes the way it speaks, or speaks with a certain accent, or speaks in another language, it is no longer seen as intelligent.

In other words, and just to be clear, we humans have transferred to robots the same set of prejudices that we apply to other people to determine, from our perspective, the intelligence of that other person.

I remember reading (a long time ago, I can't remember the source) the story of a college professor in the state of Georgia who divided his class into two groups in two separate rooms. 

The teacher explained to the first group that they would listen to an audio-only (no video) presentation from a female teacher and showed them a picture of a Japanese woman. To the second group, with the same presentation and the same audio, he showed the image of a white American woman. 

Many of the students in the first group left the room shortly after the audio began, stating that the presenter (that is, the Japanese woman) was not speaking correctly and lacked the necessary knowledge to teach that class. At the same time, in the other classroom, the students in the second group stayed until the end and appreciated the “quality and clarity” of the presentation.

The result of this well-known experiment is clear: neither the clarity of expression, nor the mastery of the language, nor the level of knowledge that a person has are of any use to someone who decides, based solely on prejudice, that that person does not speak well and, therefore, it is not intelligent. Once again: the two groups of students listened to the same audio. The rest was just prejudice.

And now we apply that same prejudiced decision-making scheme to robots, whom we consider "intelligent" because they "speak well." In fact, according to Dr. Krantz's experiment, these robots are not only perceived as “intelligent”, but also as “friendly” and “fully alive”.

But that prejudice can be very dangerous. According to a recent report, Ameca, developed by Engineered Arts and considered the most advanced robot in the world, indicated that robots "have no plans" to conquer the world. Can we believe him just because Ameca talks pretty?

Earth has its own electrical grid (but we are offline)

A recent study published by scientists from the prestigious Yale University indicates that our planet has its own electricity network, a global network of nanowires or biofilms generated by bacteria, both on land and in the sea, thus allowing circulation of electricity.

According to the scientists, the bacteria create a “stable and robust” electrical current and the electrical current increases when the nanowires (filaments) are exposed to light. However, the electrical current generated by bacteria is found both in the depths of the oceans and in the depths of the earth. And the connection undoubtedly is global.

The scientists said that until now the existence of this electrical network at the planetary level was unknown and that it has not yet been possible to determine how the bacteria generate electricity or how they manage to connect with each other. Bacteria apparently transfer electrons by breathing.

Regardless of what the Yale scientists say, it is well known that since ancient times it was ensured that an "energy network" ran throughout the planet and that, in fact, some (or many, or all) of the ancient monuments they were built precisely to access that energy grid.

I am not saying that the recent scientific discovery corroborates what was believed in ancient times, much less suggesting that it is the same issue. I'm just saying that there is a curious similarity between one concept and the other since both speak of a natural network of energy (or electricity) running through the planet.

But whether it is something produced by bacteria (as the scientists say) or whether it is something more mysterious (as the ancients believed), the truth is that this energy exists. In fact, Nikola Tesla sought to access that network to transmit electrical energy wirelessly to the entire world.

Tesla did not succeed and today we are connected to our fragile electrical network of human and technical creation, but not to the energy of the planet. In other words, we are disconnected, we could say unplugged from the planet, as shown by each one of our actions and our thoughts against the planet and ourselves.

In ancient Greek, the word for “connection” is logos, which also means “reason”, “speech”, “word”, “study” and ten more pages of meanings, including the divine presence in us.

As Heraclitus taught two and a half millennia ago, our disconnection is so great that we do not even know that we are disconnected from nature, from the universe, from divinity, from others and from ourselves. However, as the ancients taught and modern scientists seem to say, that connection with the energy of the planet is not only possible, but it is necessary to be authentically human.

Unfortunately, we prefer to reduce the world to a screen, and, for this reason, we delegate reality in the hands of "influencers" instead of feeling wet grass, walking along a path in the forest or enjoying the waves of the sea. Thus, we are certainly “i-logical”, without logos, that, painfully irrational. 

Certain metals have their own memory. And perhaps their own consciousness?

Recently (end of August), scientists from the Federal Polytechnic School (Switzerland) announced the discovery of non-living, brainless materials that can remember previous external stimuli. That is, they have memory. The question then arises if they also have their own consciousness and notion of time.

For my part, perhaps because I consider myself alive and with a brain (whose capacity is the subject of constant debate), I remember reading years ago about someone who claimed that water had memory. I don't know who said it or when or why, but I do know that at the time I laughed a lot at that statement and promptly dismissed it as meaningless.

But now, faced with the discovery made by Swiss scientists, I wonder if my laugh was not only hasty, but even irreverent and even disrespectful. Obviously, I am not suggesting that water has a memory, but rather that there are clear indications that certain compounds (such as vanadium dioxide, or VO2) "behave as if they remembered recent activities."

According to the researchers, these compounds with "own memory" would have "intriguing implications" for the development of new electronic devices, especially those that process or store data. Even more specifically, this could be the beginning of neuromorphic computing, which means that computers will be artificial brains.

The report published by Swiss scientists maintains that VO2 “stores information” and that it does so “in a similar way to that of neurons in the brain”, but with greater speed (in a matter of fractions of nanoseconds) and with less use of energy. 

The researchers made it clear that they are absolutely certain that other materials with similar properties exist. The question then arises: do these materials have some kind of self-awareness and awareness of time? After all, you cannot remember if you are not aware that time has passed and that you are still yourself.

If so, is this discovery the first scientific indication of panpsychism, that is, the belief that everything in the universe has consciousness, albeit on different levels? And if everything in the universe has consciousness, where is our consciousness located in that universal scale?

Furthermore, how many levels of consciousness exist above ours, as separate and superior to ours as our consciousness is to vanadium dioxide?

And if certain compounds can store information and remember it to access that information the next time they need it, what do they remember? And how can we access that information stored in metals and crystals?

All these questions and many others like them have a science fiction tone and a mysticism bias. But they are not, at least not since August 23rd, 2022, when Swiss scientists announced their discovery.

And one more question. If it is true that this discovery marks the beginning of neuromorphic computing (essentially artificial brains), will this also be the beginning of the technology that is anticipated to give us digital immortality? The first time I heard about that possibility, I did laugh.  This time, however, I am not laughing. 

The current crisis reveals what remained hidden for a long time

One must really question whether it is not that nature (or the universe, or some other type of presence) is using one crisis after another (pandemic, drought) to practically force us to remember everything that we would like to leave submerged in the unconscious and, that way, become aware of our actions of destruction and self-destruction.

For example, the extreme drought in Europe has caused such a drop in the flow of the main rivers in that continent that certain objects were submerged for decades, centuries and even millennia can now be seen with the naked eye and serve as a reminder of the tragedies, pains and past conflicts.

The low flow of the Danube revealed a flotilla of warships sunk by the Nazis at the end of World War II, ships that still contain live munitions that, if exploded, could cause immense destruction.

In addition, the little water in the Tiber River in Rome made it possible to see for the first time in two millennia the remains of an ancient Roman bridge, which collapsed at that time. And in other rivers in Europe, the so-called "pain stones" reappeared with a clear message for our time: "If you see this stone, cry."

Moving to the United States, the once immense Lake Mead, the largest artificial reservoir in the country, was comparatively reduced to a small accumulation of water dozens of yards below its normal levels. Therefore, numerous of sunken vehicles, as well as countless lost objects and even bodies of victims were now exposed.

I think there is no doubt that in our personal lives we do the same thing: we hide beneath the surface of the unconscious the debris of conflicts, the crumbling remnants of relationships, memories of pain, unethical actions and everything that bothers us in the present. 

Then a crisis arrives, causing everything that we thought was lost and inexorably forgotten to be visible to everyone again. As an itinerant teacher taught 2000 years ago, there is nothing hidden that is not revealed, either on a personal level or on a global humanity level.

The most recent pandemic was an excellent opportunity to rethink our relationship with others, with nature and the universe, with divinity, and each one with himself. But we insisted on returning to a "normality" that had nothing normal and continue destroying everything in our path, and destroying ourselves, to satisfy our inexhaustible narcissism.

In this context, it seems that nature, in its wisdom, got tired of our collective immaturity and decided to make us see through extreme weather what we should have already seen, but we did not see because we did not want to or because our immaturity did not allow it. And what we did not want to see is how irresponsible we are with the planet and with each other.

Divinity only knows what other calamities will befall humans if we refuse to reconsider and amend our way of life. But we still have a chance to do it.

We are neither the best nor the only ones nor the most powerful

At the end of the Star Trek episode "Errand of Mercy" (S1-Ep26, March 1967), the famous Captain Kirk reflects on how difficult it is to accept that, despite what one may believe, humans are neither the best, neither the only ones, nor the most powerful ones in the universe.

In the Star Trek fantasy, Kirk comes to this double conclusion (we're not the best and that’s hard to accept) after an encounter with the Organians, a race of disembodied beings that are evolutionarily speaking so far apart from humans as we humans are from amoebas (in Spock's scientific opinion).

Being pure energy and thought, the Organians can, just by wishing it, prevent a galactic war, without hurting anyone and without asking for anything in return. (Hence the title of the episode). That evolutionary, altruistic, and merciful level of existence is impossible to accept for those who, like the Federation and the fictional Klingons, only prepare for war.

All fiction aside, recent scientific advances highlight the smallness and fragility of humans. For example, recently the University of Western Sydney detected a super massive black hole that expels material covering a total distance of more than a million light years.

To get an idea of what that distance means, we would have to travel about 250,000 times from Earth to the nearest star in Alpha Centauri to cover a similar distance. Of course, if we travel to Proxima Centauri and come back, we will have to complete only 125,000 of those trips. 

And two weeks ago, the European Space Agency, using telescopes in Chile, captured an explosion caused by the collision of two neutron stars that in 10 seconds produced as much energy as our sun produces in 10 billion years.

In that context, our most destructive weapons, our most unpleasant fights, our most intense desires, and our noblest goals become insignificant and even unpleasant (which is the word the Organians used to describe humans.)

That insignificance should move us to deep humility, a personal, intellectual, and social humility that makes us see that we were never at the center of the universe (as our ancestors believed) and that we are not and never were at the top of creation.

We are what we are: beings of ephemeral existence living on a small rock in a distant arm of an insignificant galaxy in an ocean of countless galaxies. And we are probably not alone and never were in this universe.

But, instead of accepting our smallness and taking it as a starting point for a deep analysis of our own existence (our “place in the cosmos”, as Max Scheler called for), we reduce the universe to the point of shrinking it so much that we are existentially suffocated by social networks, fake news, and irrelevant (and narcissistic) opinions.

Perhaps for this reason, the Organians (or their equivalents in real life) see us with such disgust, because we still do not see ourselves as we are (“cosmic amoebas”), nor as we could become.

 

Holding on to “bad” ideas limits our world and reduces our understanding

About 20 million years ago (a million more, a million less) our distant ancestors were unable to distinguish between red and green, a disadvantageous situation when one must decide whether or not a certain fruit is ripe enough to eat. In fact, the evolution of vision was very slow, and it took millions of years to see green.

On the other hand, closer in time, the Greek philosopher Aristotle reasoned about 2,400 years ago (plus year, minus year) not only that the earth was at the center of the universe, but that the universe had a diameter of about 20 miles measured from the surface of the earth. In fact, it was said that with a sufficiently long ladder one could reach the end of the universe.

And this month (day more, day less) it was announced that the ALMA radio telescope in Atacama, Chile, managed to photograph the collision of two stars, the most luminous explosion ever photographed that emits in just 10 seconds as much energy as the energy that would be emitted by the sun in ten billion years. It is good to know that we are 9 billion years away from those stars.

But why do we share these stories, seemingly so dissimilar? Because each one of them contains an important lesson for each of us and it is the lesson of not clinging to certain ideas that have the unpleasant consequence of reducing our understanding and limiting our world.

The story about the evolution of vision (see A Clear Molecular View of How Human Color Vision Evolved, Science Daily, Dec. 18, 2014) reminds us that things weren't always the way they are today. Believing that humans always saw what we now see is incorrect. Assuming that what we do today is what has always been done is also wrong.

The story about Aristotle and the size of the universe (see the article The Ever Increasing Size of the Known Universe on ClassicHistory.net) makes it clear that placing ourselves at the center of the universe (either from a spatial point of view or from a psychological perspective) reduces our universe and leads us to wrong conclusions about reality.

In fact, shortly after Aristotle, Eratosthenes calculated the size of the earth to within 1%, and Aristarchus determined the distance from the earth to the moon quite accurately, concluding that the universe was so large that if our earth could be seen from the nearest star, "the orbit of the earth would be only a point".

And the third story, about the fact that in just 10 seconds the collision of two stars produces as much energy as the sun in ten billion years makes us see the futility of clinging to the illusion that we, humans, are the best or the most powerful in the entire universe.

Things constantly change. For example, life flows, planets and galaxies move, and the universe expands. In that context, we are neither the center, nor the pinnacle, nor the main attraction. 

Wanting to be first is worthless if you also want to be the only one

Recently, on my way home, I was driving down a busy highway where a group of trucks were blocking the two available lanes. But that didn't stop a “rushing” driver from getting up close behind my vehicle and, in addition to his rude gestures, trying to pass, even though there was nowhere to do so.

Finally, after many miles of traveling at relatively low speeds, one of the large trucks was able to change lanes, thus creating enough space for me to change lanes as well, and consequently for the reckless driver behind me to move away at very high speed.

Clearly, the man in the other car cared about only one thing: passing all the other vehicles and getting the hell out of there. For that reckless driver, the other drivers, or simply the others, are, as Sartre would say, “hell”.

If all other people disappeared and their vehicles with them, then the road would be empty and the reckless driver could drive as fast as he wanted for as long as he wanted because, under those conditions, he would not only be the fastest, but also the only one.

But that paradise with no others in sight will be short lived and it would become a hell because, if hell is the others when they are present, that hell is even more palpable when all the others are absent.

Let us suppose for a moment that, thanks to a miracle or an unexpected intervention of the universe, the irresponsible driver manages to fulfill his desire to be the only one on the road and, therefore, does not face any obstacles to his desire to drive at high speed. nor should you interact with other drivers.

If that happened, that driver would have the entire road to himself, but for how long? Suppose that, for some reason, a tree fell on the road, or a truck was impaled on the asphalt, blocking all lanes. Without "others" to remove the obstacles, the obstinate driver will be able to do little.

And what happens when your vehicle runs out of fuel and there is no one to help you fill up? In fact, there will be no one bringing gasoline to the gas station. Nor will there be anyone supplying supermarkets or providing medical assistance in hospitals.

The key idea of these examples is that, as much as we do not like the others, we cannot live without them. Without "others" in our lives we would not even have been born nor would we have survived all those years in which we totally depend on someone to take care of us precisely to survive.

The “others” are “hell” because without the others none of us would exist. Believing that we can get rid of others and continue to exist is a dangerous fantasy typical of the most dangerous level of narcissism that leads to the insolence of believing oneself the best, the fastest and the only one. We are the others.

We don't always go where we are sure we are going

According to a recent report, Jim Metcalfe, a businessman in the United Kingdom, did what he had done so many times before: he got on a train in Glasgow at midnight to travel for about five hours and, therefore, waking up in London at down. And, as he always does, once inside the train, Metcalfe fell asleep.

At 5:30 a.m., Metcalfe woke up ready for his day at work in London, but something wasn't right. Almost immediately, a representative from the railway company informed him that the train was still in Glasgow. In fact, the train hadn't moved an inch. Due to problems on the tracks, the trip had been cancelled.

According to the same media report, the representative told Metcalfe that they tried to wake him up during the night, but because he was so sound asleep, they couldn't. Therefore, they decided to let him sleep, although there was always someone watching of him to avoid any inconvenience.

The trip was canceled after Metcalfe and many other passengers were already on the train. But apparently Metcalfe was the only one to fall asleep without being woken up. Therefore, to his astonishment, although, upon waking up, he thought that he had already reached his destination, he was still at the starting point.

Metcalfe's situation serves as an illustration of the situation in which many people find themselves, not on a train journey, but in the journey of life: they fall "asleep" (although they are "awake") and, although they assume that they are progressing towards their goal, they always remain in the same place.

In the journey of life, contrary to what happened to Metcalfe, rarely does someone stay by our side to take care of us while we "sleep" and for as long as needed until we "wake up" and become aware of our situation, that is, until we stop deluding ourselves into believing that we are "progressing."

Many of us, like the UK businessman, decided to go from “here” (wherever that “here” is) to “there” (wherever that “there” is), trusting that once we get “there” we will start a new life. But we don't realize that we haven't really advanced an inch. We remain the same as before, without any changes in our thoughts, ideas, hearts, minds, emotions, or attitudes.

We start dreaming about changing and improving our lives by changing places (or jobs, or partners), but we are sound asleep. Therefore, we let something (the train) or someone (the boss, the spouse, or whoever) to "take" us to our destination. And then one day and by miracle, we wake up only to realize that we are still where we always were.

Our “dream”, far from being an invitation to action and personal transformation, was (and perhaps still is) just an expression of laziness and self-deception. Life is an energy that constantly flows. Therefore, you cannot live life sitting and sleeping, hoping to get to a destination that unfortunately you will never reach, unless you truly begin your journey.

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