The Best of Times, the Worst of Times…

What is the state of things on planet earth? As Dylan said in his “Song to Woody” 
Seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn
It looks like it’s a-dyin’ and it’s hardly been born 
Oh planet earth, so tired and old from blood and death, torture and injustice, waste and poverty, ignorance and oppression. Yet I believe things infinitely BETTER in our time than at any other time in history. All the indices one could point to are slowly arching toward truth, justice, and a more kind and equitable world of peace and goodness. It seems slow but if you could somehow gauge any other time in the past you would be stunned at the progress. The 100 years War. The Thirty Years War for that matter. And wars through the ages beyond calculation. The Inquisition. Crusades. Slavery. Child abuse. Denigration of women. Rich over poor. Genghis Khan…I am being random here, jumping from this to that, traversing millennia. No one could possible take it all in. Not to mention the tragedies of “Nature,” with millions starved, frozen, crushed, drowned, or otherwise wiped out with this or that disaster, plague, or disease. We historians know this. That does not diminish in the least the personal tragedies, injustice, waste, and evil, that happen close to us and all around us and touch our lives. We mourn and hurt and cry and try to turn back to our individual lives, trying to make this world a “better place” in some way large or small. Sounds trite but as one gets older–and yes, I am beyond your three-score and ten–one realizes what Dylan expresses in his incomparable song, both lyrics, music and his uniquely haunting voice, “Every Grain of Sand.” Listen and feel the message. Short of a decent sized astroid hitting, a nuclear winter, or our climate going into complete chaos, we can have hope. 
In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.

The Day the Earth Died (Almost)

Of his discovery, DePalma said, “It’s like finding the Holy Grail clutched in the bony fingers of Jimmy Hoffa, sitting on top of the Lost Ark.”

The current issue of The New Yorker (April 8, 2019 print edition) has a “grippingly sobering” article by Douglas Preston titled “The Day the Dinosaurs Died.” No matter what you know of or have heard about this “event,” if we can minimize it with such a vapid characterization, one should read Preston’s account for its sheer art of narration–not to mention the remarkable discoveries of DePalma.

For we North Americans it hits “home” in a particularly disturbing way, since we are close to “Ground Zero” for the most cataclysmic disasters in our earth’s “recent” living history–namely the Yucatán peninsula. Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” should be watched and listened to monthly if not weekly by our  homo stultus species, and yet it comes across like a peaceful wave of nostalgic longing compared to the utterly TERRIFYING cosmic violence and chaos of our Solar “System.” Freud, Norman O. Brown, Becker, and Koestler, all had it right. We desperately “long to count” in our tiny little socially constructed perceptual “worlds” projected onto a “physical” reality that seems utterly dead to our longings and dreams. And yes, frightening “things happen” outside these Gates of Eden in the Land of Nod that yields only thorns and thistles. Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return. Ah, but the Serpent me beguiled and I did eat. The Bible tells me so.

 

Some Thoughts on “Virtual Immortality” from Dr. Robert L. Kuhn

Many of my readers know the extraordinary PBS program hosted by Dr. Robert Kuhn, “Closer to Truth.” Simply put, Kuhn explores the deepest questions of our existence related to Cosmos, Consciousness, and Meaning…

Here is one of Kuhn’s most provocative published articles titled “Virtual Immortality” published in Skeptic Magazine in 2016. I use it in my classes:

Kuhn - Virtual Immortality - Skeptic Magazine - 21-2 - 2016

Dreaming Dreams

All men dream; but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.

T. E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (original suppressed introductory chapter)

A Letter to the 21st Century

I wrote this in the late 1990s as I was contemplating the coming Millennium and absorbed with Millennial Thinking and Optimism. I had not the slightest idea how things might unfold, with 9/11, the horrors of the Gulf War and its aftermath in the Middle East, our Environmental precipice, three very divergent Presidents, and the troubled, divided, and chaotic state of our country and our world today…

 

What does the future hold? What can we realistically do, now in the late 20th century, to insure a brighter future for ourselves and our children?

Current scenarios regarding the 21st century and what it will be like are fascinating and alluring, but at the same time frustrating and confusing. In listening to even the most informed and expert prognosticators, we are faced with two starkly opposite projections.

Therein lies our problem. On the one hand we are asked to imagine and anticipate a glittering, near utopian, Paradise in which most of the ills of the late 20th century will disappear forever. The dazzling array of scientific and technological advances, already dimly visible on the horizon, will bring astounding progress in every area of human civilization–communications, medicine, agriculture, manufacturing, space exploration–the list is endless. We will live in a tightly knit “global village” in which national and regional conflicts become increasingly a thing of the bygone and primitive past. Our highly integrated, multi-national economies will gradually eliminate the divisions between the First World, Third World, and Least Developed Countries. Democratic ways and advantages will inexorably spread to the most remote corners of the earth. Personal freedom, leisure, and creativity will be premium. We will even experience unexpected breakthroughs in understanding our origin and place in this marvelous and mysterious universe. Such discoveries will make our 19th and 20th century philosophical and theological perspectives appear strangely parochial and naive. Times might be tough getting where we are going, but we have the sense that our species, like an infant leaving the nursery, is going to come of age. We will put behind all the childish ways of our sad and tragic history and grow up into a new a promising future.

On the other hand, despite all hope and optimism, when one soberly and sanely “takes the pulse” of our current world, factoring in our all-too-human nature, quite the opposite picture can emerge. The staggering realities are familiar to us all, indeed, they compose our daily headlines: the irreversible pollution of air, land, and water; massive world debt; our crushing overpopulated cities with their seemingly unbreakable cycles of poverty, decay, crime, and drugs; our numerous moral, ethical, and social dilemmas; the constant outbreak of unsolvable regional disputes; and always, the ominous and absolutely stark possibility of a nuclear holocaust. Are we facing a slow but steady slide into some kind of an apocalyptic nightmare, despite all of our scientific and technological advances, and regardless of our best intentions?

What are we to make of these opposite visions of our future? Both are held by sincere, well informed, professional prognosticators. Both can be supported by an array of facts and hard evidence. Is this predictive enterprise wholly subjective, more reflective of individual psychological disposition than hard and fast “reality?”

Here we must resist two tendencies, common to most of us. First, we like to be optimistic; we prefer to believe the best. Imagine a President of the Earth giving his or her “State of the World Address” in the year 2020. Despite all problems and potential disasters we would want to hear a rousing speech that would rally us to our best collective efforts.
This is normal and natural. We want to believe that no matter what the challenge, somehow, we will muddle through it all. But the terrifying lessons of history tell us that things do not always “work out for the best” just because we wish it to be so. History offers us no guarantees; platitudes offer deceptive comfort. Second, we often have a tendency to be fatalistic. We sometimes feel, that given the incomparable nature of our problems, there is little we can do one way or the other. No matter what we think, or imagine, or do, things will tend to move along in patterned directions, largely beyond our control. Looking back at history, it is amazing how we easily assume that this or that event, good or bad, was almost “inevitable.”

I propose another course. I maintain that both of these disparate scenarios of the 21st century are “true.” We are speaking of the future, a future yet to be determined. Our best and most expert attempts to assess our situation, and look ahead, present us with the very ambiguity we find so confusing. Our problems are staggering, massive, and apocalyptic in their proportions. And at the same time, we stand on the threshold of the most incredible opportunities for that near-utopian world that humans have dreamed of for millennia. This complex and equivocal picture is essential for us. It is our reality. Perhaps it would help to go back to the turn of the last century. How did things look
in 1899, when the triumphs and the horrors of the 20th century were yet ahead? Frankly, such a look back makes looking forward a bit frightening. The 20th century opened with great optimism: science, technology, and the post-Enlightenment Weltanshauung combined to paint an extravagantly hopeful picture. It was almost wholly wrong. Can we expect to do any better?

I think we can. Our advantage is that we have lived through the ambiguities and horrors of the 20th century; yes–the good, the bad, and the ugly. We have seen it all, in combinations that have been unparalleled in world history: Apollo 11, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima–the towering symbols of our 20th century realities. We are not compelled to judge and guess about the future in the dim firelight of a forgotten or idealized past. We have no cause to naivelychant the praises of unbridled scientific advances or inevitable human progress. Therein lies our hope. So much that we face is new to our species. Our newly acquired, global “selfconsciousness” is our potential salvation. As individuals we remember, regret, plan, and dream. The 21st. century offers our species a collective opportunity, probably the first in human history, to do just that.