Archives for category: fail better
https://redeeminggod.com/genesis_3_1-5/

You might have figured out already that I don’t believe yet I find a lot of inspiration in the Bible.

I’d like to discuss today the subject of Eve.
Many people are adamant that she was instrumental in Adam being banished from heaven. That she was conned by the serpent into convincing Adam to commit the first – and most important, sin. Into disobeying God, his Father.
Hence Eve – and all her daughters, are the culprits for us, men, having to ‘toil for our daily food’. Outside of where we have been meant to live, the Paradise…

Really?!?

Then, if Eve was the root of all evil, why had God chosen Virgin Mary – Eve’s granddaughter, as the vessel for his beloved Son? For the instrument of our salvation?

Furthermore, if we treasure virginity – something which only man can spoil, then how come it is Eve – the entire womenfolk, who is considered the origin of sin?

Let’s move forward to the really hard questions.

Eve engaging in conversation with the serpent resulted in both Adam and Eve learning the difference between good and evil. In both Adam and Eve becoming full fledged, self aware human beings.
And what was wrong with that?!?
Becoming conscious was a bad thing? Thinking with our own heads is sinful?

I remember that, as a child, I had always experimented what was verboten. Except for the obvious things, of course.
And used the trick on my own son. Whenever I wanted him to try something, I led him to believe that that thing was dangerous or out of limits. For him, of course.

People had walked the Earth ever since they had climbed down the tree. Or had been created, whatever scenario each of us prefers. And their walking had resulted in the existence of trails.
After a while, some of them had became more powerful than others. They called themselves ‘kings’, assumed the property of everything in their grasp and built roads. They actually needed them to administer their property… Their private property….
Hence all roads had started as being private. Since everything belonged to the king…
In time, kings learned it was far easier to hire somebody to do their work. To administer their property. From that moment on, the roads had no longer been built by the kings but by their governments. But continued to remain private!
Flash forward to modern times. People have realized – some of them, anyway, that democracies work far better than any authoritarian arrangement. Regardless of the state being organized as a republic or as a constitutional monarchy. But most roads were still being built by the government. ‘His majesty’s government’ – as they still call it in Great Britain or a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”.
In the last half century or so, private roads have made fresh inroads into our lives. Some people have started to build them and others to accept them as the new normal.
Are we headed back to the old normal? Where people had to defend themselves because there was no government to do it? Or didn’t care about the private citizens?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CyfMYq8j6_s

Decision is the frontier between action and understanding.

All frontiers are, in fact, links.

Present decisions set the stage where future will be played, just as past decisions have built the theater.
While we, “the people”, are the building actors. The script writers. And the spectators who will eventually bear the brunt.

 

Reading this excellent article by James Poulter, BBC Three, I was reminded of Marx. Karl, not Groucho.

“The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance, they are revolutionary, they are only so in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests, they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.”

 Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.

The XX-th century had been torn apart by two totalitarian lines of thought. Communism and fascism/nazism.
The communists had backed their claims on Marx’s class struggle while the fascists/nazists had used a plethora of other authors as pretexts. Despite the differences, the results had been the same. Callous spin doctors had used popular discontent to get uncontested possession of the political levers. And kept playing with them until entire countries crumbled under their own weight.

But what was it that made some nations destroy themselves on the left side of the authoritarian spectrum while others have done the same thing but on the right side?

The nature of the popular discontent!

At any given point, the majority of the people living in a country might see itself as being in one of the following three situations:
– Leading a relatively comfortable life and having a decent perspective to improve its lot or at least to maintain its present status.
– Having always led a bad life and finding absolutely no perspective of improvement.
– Having led a relatively good life for a while, lost that status and finding no way to resume it.

According to Marx, the first situation would have necessarily led to the third and, eventually, to communism.
According to history, people living in the second situation had always been manipulated into communism while people struggling in the third have been led into fascism/nazism.

Meanwhile, people living in the first situation have remained there for as long as they maintained their social cohesion. But that will be the subject of another post.

 

“God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Hence all people, male and female, have been created equal. Simply because all of them have been cast in the same mould.
And all of them, male and female, harbor a spark of divinity. Simply because the mould into which all of them have been cast had been made “in the image of God”.

Simple logic would tell us that all people who believe mankind had been made in the image of God would behave in a certain manner.
Because of the reasons I mentioned above.
That kind of behavior had been called ‘ethical’ by well established thinkers. Plato, for instance.

“Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” “

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.
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“This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground”

Same simple logic I’ve invoked earlier tells me that God had created ‘the heavens and earth’ in two different stages. More or less like we do things.
First we think about the things we are going to do – ‘design them’ would be a more modern term, and then we put our thoughts into practice. ‘Execute’ our designs, according to the practical aspects which always limit our actions.

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

The Bible itself seems to agree with me. When God finally decided to put into practice his idea of a man, he started with something he already had at his disposal. Just like we have to do whenever we attempt to accomplish anything.
“Dust from the ground”.
Man, ‘made in the image of God’, was fashioned from already available material, not from ‘thin air’.

Could this be the origin of man’s limitations?
His ‘earthly’ nature, no matter his divine likeliness?
Could this be the reason for God going back on his words?

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” “

What made God change his mind?
In Genesis 1 – the R&D phase?, he had planned a world where man was allowed to feed on everything under the sun while in Genesis 2 he had established rules about what Adam was allowed to eat and what not.
Furthermore, why make a ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ in the first place? If you were going to forbid your favorite pet from eating its fruit, under the most drastic penalty…

No!
This is not yet another half backed attempt to deny the existence of God under the pretext that the only source describing its existence is full of inconsistencies.
Pretending that God does not exist simply because those who tried to describe him had not been able – or willing ?, to present a more coherent image of him is equivalent to pretending that God exists simply because we haven’t found, yet, an exhaustive explanation for everything.

You ‘see’, the Bible, no matter how holly we might consider it to be, is nothing but an image of God. A Man made image of God.
A Man written image of God, to be more precise.

The fact that the Bible is chock-full of wisdom can not be denied.
Which fact remains true regardless of whether it had been written ‘under guidance’ or ‘on their own’ by a group of ‘free agents’. Or, even, by a combination of both.
Unfortunately, there is another fact which seemingly contradicts the first. The Bible had been used as pretext for horrible crimes. Committed by ‘over-zealous’ believers, by ruthless ‘self serving’ operators or by a strange combination of both.

In order to encompass the simultaneous existence of both aforementioned facts each of us must take a step back-wards.
Extract ourselves from the fry.

Each of us must start thinking for ourselves.

How to do that – become ‘independent’, and yet preserve our chances to survive? As in remain connected with the day to day, hard-core reality?

Stay tuned. That will be my next subject.

I was arguing yesterday that life, as a biological phenomenon, depends on membranes doing their jobs.
Keeping the inside in, the outside out and managing the transit of substances. Nutrients in and excretions out. For some organisms, their ‘membranes’ also act as a thermo-regulators.

‘Watching’ a membrane in action, one might get the impression that it has been endowed with a certain ‘awareness’. The membrane acts as if it were aware of the differences between its inside and its outside. It recognizes what belongs where and keeps them there. It also recognizes nutrients for what they are – and lets them in, and excretions for what they are – and where they should be.
OK, the membrane does what it does simply because it was ‘pre-programmed’ in a specific way, according to the genetic information each organism has received from its predecessors. There’s nothing supernatural involved here. For what we currently know, anyway…

Watching, as a dispassionate outside observer, the evolutionary process unfolding one might get the impression that life itself has a certain awareness.
‘Rules of life’, read genetic information passed along from one generation to another, are diligently updated to fit the changes in the environment. Nevermind that the whole process is ‘impersonal’, ‘goal-less’ and is fueled by haphazard trial and error, the end result is what we currently consider to be ‘learning’!
That’s what we try to code into our artificially intelligent machines, don’t we?

Further more, recent research points out that individual organisms share information with their brethren.
Bacteria can share antibiotic resistance genes through lateral transfer.
Physarum polycephalum, a unicellular organism, seems to be able to share information already learned when it comes in contact with other members of the species.
Plants “can “talk” in several different ways: via airborne chemicals, soluble compounds exchanged by roots and networks of threadlike fungi“.

Since communication itself is a process which implies the ability to differentiate between a ‘run of the mill’ situation and one special enough to warrant the effort to ‘talk’ about it, I find all these to be compelling arguments for life itself to be considered as implying certain forms of awareness.

According to ‘science’, life is nothing but a process through which (genetic) information is passed, with small alterations, from one generation to another and during which the environment is, however minutely, changed by whatever the living organisms do during their lifespans.

‘Individually’ – organism by organism, life takes place inside a ‘membrane’. Which you might call it ‘skin’, if you like.
That membrane separates the ‘inside’ – the living organism, from the ‘outside’ – otherwise known as the ‘environment’.
Each individual organism continues to be alive for as long as the membrane manages to keep the inside in, the outside out AND to properly regulate the exchanges between the inside and the outside.
This being the moment when we need to remember that each living organism needs to eat, to drink, to breathe and to excrete. Meaning that it needs a more or less continuous flow of certain substances from the outside and to periodically clean itself. And the moment to understand that each organism continuously changes its environment. By incorporating some of it while feeding/breathing and by ‘polluting’ it when ‘throwing out’ the by-products of its metabolism.

For all the activity above to take place, each individual organism needs to follow some ‘rules’. It’s ‘membrane’ needs to ‘know’ which substances to allow in and which to keep out. Which substances to throw out and which to keep it.
To perform all these duties, the membrane itself needs to be organized in a certain manner. For all to happen as it should, the ‘interior’ has to be organized in a certain – and specific, manner.

On the other hand, for any (set of) rule(s) to make sense, it has to be congruent to the situation it ‘attempts’ to manage. For instance, the rule about what substances are to be ‘allowed in’ has to be adapted both to the specific needs of the organism following it AND to what substances are available in the particular environment in which that organism attempts to survive/thrive.
Since the environment in which the living process attempts to take place is subjected to continuous change – both as a consequence of organisms living in it and as happenstance happening, the ‘rules of life’ cannot be ‘set in stone’.
For life to continue in a consistent manner, it has to preserve its rules while for life to survive in an ever-changing environment it has to adapt its rules to fit the changes in the environment.
This being where evolution takes charge.

That’s why the life we’re familiar with, ours, is comprised of successive generations of many individual organisms which somehow pass genetic information (rules of life) from one another. The fundamental ‘trick’ which makes everything possible being that during the ‘passing’ process the genetic information is slightly altered.
Sometimes with beneficial results – those individuals thrive and, eventually, new species appear. Other times, the results are tragic. The individuals which receive bad – read unfit, rules of life do not survive.
Equally tragic is the fate of those species, otherwise ‘successful’ until that moment, which, at some point, are confronted by so momentous changes in their environment that they are no longer able to adapt. Dinosaurs are the first examples which come to my mind but the list is so long that we’ll never learn about all of them.

A pessimist might conclude that life is all about species and that individuals are expandable.
Au contraire, mon cher ami. Since there’s no way in hell – or in heaven, for anybody to know which individual organism has that particular piece of information which will enable their successors to survive the next alteration in the environment it would be rather dense to consider any individual as being expandable. In fact, it was the ‘individualization’ of the living process that made possible the evolutionary process.

Life is about both individuals and species, simultaneously and with equal importance.

What we currently call ‘science’ is both an activity and an attitude. Something some of us do and the way in which some of us see the world.

In current lingo, those who ‘do science’ are involved in ‘technology’ while those who see the world ‘scientifically’ partake in a certain philosophical tradition.
If we look at things in this way, it becomes obvious that doing science and thinking scientifically might not be the same thing.

Science, as an attitude, had sprung up in Ancient Greece, been kept alive by the early Islamic scholars, rekindled by the Medieval Catholic theologians, come of age during the Renaissance and ‘exploded’ after the Enlightenment.
Technology, on the other hand, is way older. And had been developed mainly elsewhere than the scientific attitude. China and India had been technological powerhouses and thriving civilizations in times when Europe was still learning to wash its hands before dinner.

‘Modern’ science – what we have now, appeared only after technological prowess had been married to the right attitude. 

OK.
It is easy to accept that technology, the more widely distributed part of ‘science’, had appeared as a consequence of mere necessity. People needed things in order to survive, then wanted things in order to increase their comfort… things which had to be produced… as efficiently as possible… hence people had put their minds to it and … voila!
But what had driven some of those around the Mediterranean Sea to develop the scientific attitude?

The same thing which drives us?
The attempt to find out the future, one second earlier than it really happens?
Because they thought, like we do, that reality is unique and that man is meant to master it?

Man, the guy who was made by God in His own image and who was told to rule the world?

Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, Occam,  Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Georges Lemaitre… some of them might have been persecuted by the church – personally or had their their ideas ‘challenged’, but they all had been raised in the Christian tradition and had been active members of their religious communities. Even Galileo, the only one among these who had been ‘physically’ affected by the way in which his ideas had been received by his contemporaries, had a more or less ‘functional’ relationship with the heads of the Church… he had died in his own bed, arrested in his own villa, not at the stake …



Christians call it fate while Buddhists call it karma.
Christians’ main goal is called salvation while Buddhists’ is called nirvana.

And no, these are not exactly the same thing.
Not different enough to separate them easily, not similar enough to consider them the same thing.

Fate depends on what God has in mind for you while karma depends exclusively on what you have decided all along your life.

Salvation is even more complicated.
Catholics believe that each individual can obtain it, regardless of what they had done until that moment, by simply acknowledging ones sins and by repenting before God/priest. Protestants, on the other hand, believe that individual salvation is entirely at God’s mercy. Mortal individuals can do nothing more than putting their faith in God’s all encompassing love and waiting for it.
Meanwhile, since Buddhists don’t have a God, they believe that accomplishing nirvana is the responsibility of each individual… All somebody has to do in order to achieve this goal is to transform their inner self. There is no outside, objective (?!?) benchmark to be reached here… no other arbiter to please…

Yet fate and karma are not that different either… Life experience in Asia may be different from that in Europe but the differences aren’t huge enough to consider them two different things. Not to mention the growing number of Buddhists living in the Euro-Atlantic region and the burgeoning number of Christian converts in Asia….

As for salvation versus nirvana… the man made Catholic one is almost similar – even if a lot easier to obtain, to the Buddhist nirvana while the Protestant one is just as dis-similar from it’s Catholic equivalent as it is from the Buddhist nirvana.
Yet, again, is it really possible for peace of mind to be that different on the opposing ends of EurAsia? Peace of mind experienced by very similar human individuals…. The only difference between them being the culture they have grown into….

Which brings us to chance.

Rationally minded people – scientists, economists, etc., are convinced that any decision can be perfect… If  only people were diligent enough to educate themselves properly, to think with their brains instead of allowing their hearts to take over…

‘Rationally minded people…’
But how rational is to expect a human being – an animal, first and foremost, to behave in a perfectly rational manner?
How rational is to expect a human being to overcome all emotion AND all biases? Known and unknown….
How rational is even to expect a human being to ‘diligently’ research all available data before making a decision? How much time would that take? When should someone be satisfied enough with the information gathered about a particular subject?

How much is each of us indebted to Lady Luck about the place we’ve born into?
Christian Europe or Buddhist Asia?
About the time of our birth? Before any of Christ/Buddha had preached or after?
How much is each of us indebted to Lady Luck about the amount of opportunity each of us have had to decide about during our lives?

My last question was a tricky one, indeed.
OK, Lady Luck is responsible for many things. For the place and time of our birth. For the fortunes of the families we’ve been born into and for the mental and physical each of us enjoys. Or lacks…

Only we do share in the final responsibility for our fate/salvation/karma/nirvana!

Our decisions are equally shaped by the circumstances in which we’ve reached those decisions AND by our diligence in making them.
Each of our decisions opens up some new doors and shuts down others. Or, at least, turns our heads towards new openings and away from others.

‘And your point is?’

Don’t blame others for your bad decisions and don’t praise yourself too much for your good ones.
Don’t blame others for their bad decisions. Are you sure they had a real alternative for the situations you found them in? Mind you, not whether there was a real alternative! Did THEY had access to that alternative?
Extend a helping hand. You’re not responsible for saving everybody else but to see somebody in need and not offer your help sets the stage for you needing help and everybody else passing by without noticing you.
Don’t overdo it. When you see someone drowning, get them out to safety. That’s enough. Don’t lecture them about the dangers of getting into water. Firstly, you don’t know how they got in and, secondly, if they are not able to figure this out by themselves you’re wasting your time.
Don’t prevent everybody else from getting in simply because somebody had (nearly) drowned. You’re not God. You don’t know everything. You just happened to be there when somebody was drowning and you was strong and brave enough enough to save them. That’s all there is to it.


The oldest surviving civilized nation, China, calls itself Zhongguo.
The Middle Kingdom. ‘In the middle’ of the barbaric people that surrounded her but also at middle distance between Heaven and the rest of the Earth. The aforementioned barbarians.

And, according to Confucius, it was the emperor’s job to ‘keep things as they should remain’.

Which makes sense. After all, the whole kingdom was the exclusive property of the emperor. And whose job is to watch over one’s property?

Well, things went on long enough for those involved to believe this was the natural order of things.
Until the whole arrangement was upset by a small number of people which had come, more or less ‘under their own steam’, from the other side of the world. And who were, at that time, a lot less civilized than the Chinese.

How can be explained something like this?
OK, the Aztec and the Inca empires might have been primitive relative to the Spanish invaders. They might have prevailed over the small number of invaders by brute force but they had been overcome by the sheer novelty and the apparent sophistication of the assailants.
But China had been in contact for centuries with the rest of the ‘civilized’ world! And way advanced than the rest. Both culturally and economically.

So, what had happened?
How can something like this be explained?

We might try to take the ‘historical route’. And observe that, exactly as Confucius and Laozi had told us, China’s destiny had been tightly linked to the ability of those in charge – the emperors, to manage the empire. From the paleolithic migrations until the Mongol invasion in 1271, nothing from outside had any significant impact over the Chinese hinterland. But the fortunes of those living in that hinterland had oscillated from the misery induced by almost constant ‘live conflict’ during the Warring States period to the various prosperous eras. The Han, Tang and Song dynasties, to mention just a few of them.
The same principle had been valid also for what went on while foreign dynasties had been in power. As long as the ‘managers’ were doing their jobs, things continued to improve. As soon as the helm was grabbed by an incompetent leader… all hell broke loose.

But is the emperors’ incompetence enough to explain what had happened during the XIX-th century? The most advanced, and numerous, nation on Earth had been subjugated – for all practical purposes, by a bunch of drug pushers pretending to act in the name of the far away, and far weaker, British King?

Or we can take the sociological route.
Along which we’ll notice that the ‘drug pushers’ were only nominally subjects of the British Empire. Which empire was behaving imperially only towards the exterior while inside it was already a democracy!

Sounds familiar?

Ancient Athens, the first known democracy, had dominated the Eastern Mediterranean for as long as it had retained its democratic character and had failed, abysmally, each time it had reverted to tyranny?
Ancient Rome had established a huge empire as a democratic republic and collapsed four short centuries after becoming a totalitarian empire?
And so on…?

And what might be the difference between a totalitarian empire and a democratic one?
On the face of it, a democratic empire sounds like an oxymoron… yet there’s plenty of such examples in our history…

As you might guess from the title of this post, the ‘famous’ middle class was both the engine and the explanation for the ease with which the ‘democratic’ empires had been established. And yes, the Spanish and Portuguese ones can be explained in the same manner. At that time none of the Iberian monarchies was yet behaving in the absolutist manner they had pursued as soon as the looted precious metals had started to pour in…

But what makes the middle class so special?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb would tell you that the middle class has enough skin left in the game to really care about the outcome and I’m going to add that the middle class is simultaneously distanced enough from the fray to act in a reasonable enough manner.

Let me put back, for a short while, my historian’s cap.

Most of us consider that the middle class is a late appearance. That most of the time, humankind had been divided in two. The haves and the have-nots. The powerful and the meek.
Well, I’m not so sure about that…
For the first 60 000 years after we had learned to speak – which had made us really human, we had been living in small packs. Led by the more powerful male member of the group – if we consider that our ancestors used to behave like our Chimpanzee cousins, or ‘self managed’ in a more or less democratic manner if our ancestors had used the model followed by our other cousins, the Bonobos.
Or we could look at how the surviving ‘primitives’ lead their lives. None of the Hadzabe, Yanomami or Inuit, who have survived in the most difficult conditions on Earth, have a hierarchical social structure.
Primitives?!? Maybe… but not because of their social arrangements. After all, they are freer than most of us.
And what is it that we, proudly modern people, value more than our individual freedom?

Money? I’m going to let this rest… for a while.

Let’s go back to our ancestors.
Who, by all indications, had been living as ‘extended middle class societies’. Without any 0.1% and without people who went to bed hungry while the rest of the gang had been gorging themselves.
Let’s remember now that during those times we had actually transformed ourselves from apes to humans. And if you consider this to be a small feat, just try to teach a bonobo to speak. Then remember how many people who had been born in poor and backward countries are now successful business people or scientists. After passing through a thorough educational process, true! Only that educational process is in no way accessible to any bonobo…
Don’t disparage the long evolution we had graduated from, as a species, while living in ‘extended middle class societies’.

‘But you haven’t explained what you mean by middle class! Most of us see the middle class as those people who make a certain amount of money each year and you keep speaking about primitive people… who have absolutely no use for any money…!’

OK.
For good or for bad, our present society consist of three categories of people.
The haves, the in-between and the dirt poor.

I’m not going to assign numerical values to any of these.
Taleb’s Skin in the Game criterion is far more useful in this situation.

The haves qualify only after they have no skin left in the game. In the sense that they have so much ‘money’ that come hell and/or high water they feel safe. What they make of this world is heavily influenced by the thick ‘insulation’ which separates them from the rest of the world.
The dirt poor – or the lumpen proletariat, in Marx’s terms, have all their skin in the game. In fact, they are the famous ‘Boiling Frog’. They have no way of leaving the kettle so…

In a sense, both haves and the dirt poor are  prisoners. Neither can leave their respective cell blocks. Simply because the dirt poor have no way to go anywhere while almost none of the haves would be able to survive ‘outside’.

the boiling frog

Wesley Chang, The Boiling Frog, Medium.com

Which leaves us with the middle class.
Who have some resources stashed away – or enough credit available, to weather some crises. But not enough to last them for their entire remaining lives.
Which makes the middle class the only really interested people in the long term well being of the entire society. The only ones really interested in maintaining the freedom of the market as the main economic engine. The only ones really interested in maintaining democracy as the main manner of avoiding catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by the too powerful autocrats.

Or, from a psychological point of view, we can look at the haves/dirt poor as being stuck in an immobile state of mind while the middle class are the only open minded members of the society.
In fact, I prefer this last approach.
You see, until recently the American Dream was relatively accessible. With some luck, a ton of determination and a fair amount of brain power, the sky was the only limit. Belonging to any of those three categories, haves, middle class and dirt-poor was as much about the state of mind of those involved as it was about actual economic conditions.
The haves were free to consider the big picture, the dirt poor could contemplate brighter perspectives while the middle class were doing their thing. Keeping the whole show afloat.

I’m afraid we have reached an inflexion point. A watershed mark, if you prefer.
For whatever reason – I’m not ready to tackle this subject right now, we’ve become so preoccupied with something in particular that we’ve lost sight of everything else.

Including the middle class.

Exactly those which were supposed to maintain their cool heads and open minds.

part of the problem

Matthew Stewart,
The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy,
The Atlantic

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