Death on A Pale Horse, by Benjamin West

The Future, and You: ‘Place’

    Now is an age like no other. Never before have we been so globally connected, nor had such levels of scientific knowledge and technology. But alongside these, however, has arisen a new burden of responsibility. Our access to increasingly advanced technologies at the same time as our struggle for global cooperation, has lead to a new level of threat, now being referred to as “existential risks”. All the while, beneath the weight of these two ever-growing pillars of rational discovery sit our fragile, individual consciousnesses. We are being forced to define ourselves and find contentment in the face of a weight of knowledge that no other generation has had to bear before us:
    On the one hand, we are a tiny lump of star-stuff, able to interact with reality and warp it to our every desire. On the other, we are a tiny mote of nothingness, adrift in an indescribably vast void, at odds with an existence that can crush us in an instant. In this first part of a short series, I want to focus on how we come to define ourselves in such circumstances– how we come to ‘place ourselves’ in the face of such overwhelming knowledge.

(~6 Minute Read)
 
    Since the first world war, there has been a notable shift in societal philosophies. With each new world-shaking event, we have collectively been forced to take stock of the current reality: we are no longer simply playing with rocks and metal, but now have the potential to destroy our species, even the planet, as a whole. First it was wars threatening to reshape the planet as we knew it. Then came nuclear weapons, giving us a few decades of quiet uncertainty and doubt. Now they are old news; forecasts for the consequences of a nuclear exchange between two powers (India and Pakistan being the most likely at present) do not infer extinction–we could recover, eventually. Instead, we face new and more devastating threats.
    First and foremost, is the ever-accelerating self-destruction of our habitat. Some believe we still have time, many believe we’re too late to avoid the tipping-points that will push us over the edge. Then there are hazy but ominous potentials on the horizon, most notable of which is the moment at which AI becomes capable of self-improving far beyond our own capabilities, known as ‘the Singularity’. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and many more major intellectual figures have all gone on record cautioning AI as being our biggest threat yet. There’s also even less predictable threats like super-viruses becoming vaccine-resistant or even being released (accidentally or otherwise) by testing facilities, or nanotechnology being designed that relentlessly breaks down organic matter. Beyond these is the ever-looming possibility of something we haven’t the foresight to predict. But my intent here is not to discuss the realities of each (take a look at this article if you’re feeling keen, otherwise I’ll likely tackle some of them in coming posts), instead, I want to begin raising the question of what it all means for you and me, as individuals.
 

    It is becoming increasingly difficult to blind yourself to the looming possibilities of our future. We go about our daily lives, and schlep to and from work, doing as we always have–trying to find contentment and forge a pleasant existence out of what is available to us. But (this year more than ever!), beneath this basic human quest, existential angst is raising his boney finger and jabbing it into the ribs of our psyche.

“What the hell is going on?” 
“What am I supposed to do when everything is so out of my control?”
“What is the point of all this; where is the stability and reward I work so hard for?”
    In our everyday lives we drift around in a world designed for us, with everything at our fingertips and everything so neatly arranged as to make us happy and keep us entertained. Only now, the dissonance between our human-made world and the natural one is getting louder and harder to bear. The shape of that boney existential finger is becoming sharper and clearer: 
 
This Universe is not designed for us.
    Philosophy has been grappling with this awareness for more than a century. With the Copernican revolution, and then the clarity of Darwin’s evolutionary biology, leading into all the proceeding strikes at the foundations of religion’s “God made this universe for you”, more and more thinkers have tried to find suitable answers. In fact, the now-normalized, millennial response of ‘YOLO’ and finding ironic humor in the heart of such existential uncertainty, actually traces its roots back to Soren Kierkegaard in the late 19th Century. He, and later Albert Camus, looked out on all the chaos and pain of their existence, and asked “What should we do in the face of such absurdity?” Camus’ argument (the defining thread of ‘Absurdism’) was to state that, just as life is so absurd that we could just commit suicide (yippee!), it would in fact be equally absurd to waste this experience–you die anyway, so why not just make the most of it, to see where the rabbit hole leads?
 
    Teenage me loved this. A great excuse to be rock’n’roll at the same time as behaving like a French philosopher. But it quickly got tiring. It might look like an empowering statement on paper, but in reality we need more reassurance and motivation than “why not?”
    Luckily for me (and for the West in the 70s), I encountered Buddhism, Zen, and meditation. Turns out, that the East has had this whole existential-angst thing nailed for a few thousand years. I reference this a little in MEANING IS A WORD, but simply put, Zen argues that a lot of problems are only problems because we try to pick at them; we try to answer them only with our verbal minds, instead of respecting our physical, experiential knowledge/awareness in our response (for those interested in more philosophical avenues, this is, to a degree, in line with a response Phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty might give, or more recent thinkers like David Abrams).
 
    Devout rationalists and academics typically see this response as “just learn how to ignore the problem, by not thinking about it”. But that, in my experience (and the philosophy of Zen and Taoism), is to stay trapped within the mind, within the thoughts enabled by language. We don’t even have a word for ‘experiential knowledge’ in English, so we don’t even recognize the possibility of knowledge that we can’t verbalize or rationalize–but can you rationally explain to me why you exist (in non-biological terms)? Or why you choose to love even when it hurts? Or how you move your arm? (You certainly don’t “tell your nerves to fire in so and so way, so as to contract your muscles and…”).
    The butterfly I’m trying to catch in the net of all these words, is simply to offer a way out of the paradox of trying to ‘place yourself’ in this crazy, ‘indifferent’, ‘chaotic’ world: while you can conjure a sense of the universe as a whole, at odds with your little perspective within it, and you have a sense for things being ‘begun’ and ‘designed with purpose’, those are just short-sighted, human ideas; you are a continual process of being, existing, discovering, suffering, pleasuring, placing, losing… 
    When I stop my thoughts, when I stop talking in my head and listen (when I “speak the language of the universe”), an answer falls firmly into place. I am not ‘at odds’ with anything, I am simply ‘going with the flow’– whether I try to or not, whether I believe I am in control, or not. So, before looking at any deeper implications of how we might act, or what it’s all really about, my answer is simple: it is not you versus nature, humans against the universe–it’s you as part of the cosmos, as it seeks to explore itself and find stability between the Now and the Unknown.
 
    But that is just my answer, and there is thread that runs beneath this however, a current under all of this and all the questions our place in the world brings– a choice. While we may not be able to stop global warming, prevent a nuclear launch, outsmart AI…we may not even be able to control our most basic impulses, or walk left foot in front of right. But we always have one fundamental choice: to learn. To inform our decisions. Whether you’re the person in charge of the nukes, or just some everyday Jane, you are always free to reflect upon your situation, and to try and build an awareness to guide your actions.
Not doing so, is tantamount to trying to close your eyes and deny reality is happening– which is what a great many people seem to be doing these days, particularly with climate change. That makes it all the more important for the rest of us to do the learning.
 
Let’s do that learning together! Share your thoughts below, any articles or big ideas you’ve come across– or if you’ve got something you want to post on the blog, literary or artistic, let me know via the Contribute page!

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Miyeon Schmidt
Miyeon Schmidt
20 days ago

Great amazing article! Bravo!

Jack
Jack
10 days ago

I would love to say I read this in a book but I was actually listening to an audiobook… anyways, it’s an introductory book called ‘Buddhism Plain and Simple’, by Steve Hagen. I enjoyed his example of how “self” can be perceived. He introduces the the idea that we as humans have the tendency to try to focus on seeing the ourselves as a something fixed, a static being, or just someTHING in general. He gives an analogy that we prefer to see ourselves as corks, bobbing along in a stream, “persisting things moving along in the stream of time”. That is to say that everything in this stream changes except the cork. Though in reality, everything around us is in constant flux and change, why should we consider ourselves to be exempt from this transient nature of everything else. Instead we might contemplate the idea that there is no cork, there is only stream, a state of constant flux just as the rest of the world we are living in. “We see ourselves as solid cork, not as the actual stream we are”.
Because of this confusion, we tend to suffer. We experience the sense of longing of something solid and unchanging that we want to cling to.
“What we love, we want to last, what we hate we want to get rid of forever. Because of change however, what we hate will return and what we love will eventually fade away. If we’d only relax we’d notice that because of change, what we love continues to appear, and what we hate never lasts forever”.
During the lasts paragraphs of your article just reminded me of this section of the book, and thought to share it because I liked the analogy (This is one of the first books I’ve read/listenend to about Buddhism, so apologies if this is a really obvious one). Anyways, it helped me a bit to get a grasp those things you brought up like understanding this paradox of ‘placing yourself’, those short sighted human ideas/aims, and also to understand your answer, that it’s not us vs the universe, rather than us being part of the cosmos, or this river, or this flow, or this flux.