December Songs

"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Psychological Toll of The Climate Crisis

It’s easy enough to see the damaging physical effects of climate change on communities and ecosystems directly impacted by fires, floods, droughts, and super storms. Less visible is the psychological toll of experiencing a slow-motion train wreck—a toll especially felt by young people, who are aware their futures are at stake. What is the toll? How might we understand it? And what can we do about it? I offer some tentative answers.1

Our understanding is in an embryonic stage. Considerable attention has been devoted to the topic recently, with articles appearing in various outlets of the popular press, in discussions and suggestions within professional mental health organizations, and insights and advice offered by therapists and others who have some experience with the issue in various ways. The psychological toll also cuts across many mental health issues making it difficult to encapsulate.

Demographics of the Climate Crisis

Young people. A remarkable survey of over 10,000 young people between the ages of 16 to 25, from 10 countries, across 6 continents, documents the anxiety, distress, and anguish felt across the entire globe: 75% feel the future is frightening; 56% believe humanity is doomed; that their government is failing young people (65%), lies to them about the impact of what they are doing (64%), and is betraying them and future generations (58%). These reactions are more intense in developing countries, where the Climate Crisis is more acutely experienced. Needless to say, young people are angry about their lack of power and disillusioned with authority.

Childbearing age. Those with children or contemplating having children must face a climate-impacted future, which even in the best of estimates looks harrowing, and decide if they want to bring a child into the world that awaits them. Among those who already have children, 1/3 report that the climate crisis is the reason for choosing to have fewer children. Birthstrike and #NoFutureChildren are two social media movements by those who do not have children, and pledging not to—with considerable anger, sorrow, sadness and despair.

Parents and grandparents. The research is sparse for these cohorts, but informal conversations and reports indicate that when the Climate Crisis is appreciated, the consequences for their children and grandchildren are a source of deep concern. Of course, the caveat that “the crisis need be appreciated” is the critical fact determining whether anyone has any concern at all. Survey results over the past 6 years suggest that a significant and growing number of Americans are aware and concerned about the Climate Crisis.

Factors Influencing Mental Health

Several factors influence the mental health impact of the Climate Crisis:

  • Whether the climate events are acute (e.g., flooding, fires, and super storms ) or chronic (e.g., drought, rising sea levels, and significant changes in normal climate patterns).
  • If exposure is direct (e.g., loss of food water, shelter, loved ones), indirect (e.g., displacement, disruption of food, electric, and water systems, loss of employment), or vicarious (e.g., observing others, media reports).
  • Vulnerability risk factors including previous trauma and mental health issues, socioeconomic inequities, age (older adults and young children are more vulnerable), and gender (girls and women are more at risk).

Much more research exists for acute events with both direct and indirect exposure. As you might imagine, the impact is profound. Basic survival needs demand immediate attention: food, water, shelter, health care, safety. The mental health consequences span the entire range of human misery and suffering—trauma, grief, depression, impulsive and self-destructive behavior, suicide, substance abuse, etc., etc.—and are often long-lasting.

Evidence for chronic climate events with direct and indirect exposure also suggests a similarly wide range of mental health reverberations, but the incidence may likely be considerably less than acute events. Less systematic research exists for vicariously experienced climate events, but a considerable and growing number of clinical reports, observations, and discussions point to similar mental health outcomes.

What’s in a Name?

What we call something, the name we use, allows us to grasp and understand it, and potentiates possible responses. Is something dirt? Or soil? Is something garbage? Or compost? The first term in each pair suggests filth; something revolting demanding disposal. The second term signifies regeneration; something to be prized and used. Important climate consequences result from which of the pair we choose to use. Same, too, for how we choose to talk about climate-crisis mental health outcomes.

Eco-anxiety and climate anxiety are oft used names, especially within American Psychiatric and American Psychological Associations. Anxiety is the key word as it positions the experience within the possible domain of anxiety disorders. Indeed, there are some who suggest that it might, at some point, be considered for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association; the Manual that defines what is to be considered a legitimate mental disorder.

The paradigm of disorders inadequately addresses the mental health consequences of the Climate Crisis because the problem is of a different kind, requiring a new framework for understanding and responding. The disorders approach presumes the difficulties reside within the individual, that a disorder is an abnormality or pathology likely of biological origin, and that treatment involves eliminating the pathology within the individual, often though medication. In addition, its use sometimes implies that eco-anxiety encompasses the entire psychological toll of the Climate Crisis.

The Climate Crisis is a global, communal experience caused by very real biosphere realities that pose a mortal danger to human life as well as many of our fellow terrestrial mates. Distress is an understandable response to this global existential threat. Resiliency, not cure, is required in the face of existing realities. The psychological toll also encompasses much more than anxiety. Finally, the pathogenetic model misleads about how we are to understand and respond to this toll: “What we are witnessing isn’t a tsunami of mental illness but a long overdue outbreak of  sanity”.2

Existential Threats, Debilitating Responses

The Climate Crisis poses existential challenges that haunt us:  
-“The Climate Crisis is so huge, and scope of individual responses so infinitesimally small, what can I possibly do that will make a difference”?  
“What if…??” “The future is so uncertain, so foreboding, I can’t plan, dream, hope.”

These challenges evoke a range of intense reactions: despair, depression, grief, anxiety, panic, suicide and so much more. A host of names have been coined to capture the many emotional responses provoked by the Climate Crisis, including terrafurie, eco-depression, climate trauma, environmental melancholia, solastalgia (nostalgia + desolation + longing for solace), and climate stress. Eco-anxiety also can be properly placed in this family of names that situate the causal locus outside the individual, in the Climate Crisis.

Some psychological difficulties, when they become debilitating, require comprehensive evaluation for proper care. The Climate Crisis may be one thread in a weave of factors that give rise to impairment, which also might include prior mental health issues, trauma history, interpersonal conflict, social injustices, medications, physical illness, etc. Professional help is required in these cases, but it is also important that the evaluation include assessment of the role the Climate Crisis might play in the difficulties.

Resiliency

Resiliency is the ability to adapt to challenging life circumstances—and even grow from them. The Climate Crisis threat is ongoing, requiring us to develop and maintain habits of mind, body, and behavior that foster wellbeing in the face of adversity.

The biggest obstacle to addressing the Climate Crisis is individual and collective denial. The sources of denial are many and the motivation for it is high. Some of the more common and alluring forms of denial include: reality is too disturbing and disruptive (oh boy, is this true!); minimizing the problem and misattributing the magnitude of our response (e.g., “I recycle, that should be enough”); resisting significant changes in values and behavior; prioritizing immediate over long term concerns; dismissing the problem because there is no direct experience of the consequences; ignoring data because it is too abstract and sources are questionable; and social norming (“My friends do/say this, so it must be true”).

“Action is the Antidote to Despair”3

Activism includes both external activism and internal activism for fostering resiliency. External activism is important because it empowers; we are making concrete contribution to addressing the Crisis, and it connects our actions with core values. However, if we become too obsessively focused on our goals, without attending to our internal needs and self-care, this can lead to depletion of our energies and burnout.

Internal Activism

Internal activism involves attention to our mind, body, and behavior. What follows are ways to foster resiliency. Each looks simple, but they are hard, often demanding new habits and routines of mind, body, and behavior. I have provided a Resiliency Resource Outline with further explanation, discussion, references and resources for the suggestions that that you can explore in more depth in this footnote.4 5

For the Mind
Validate experience. Not something wrong with us; not impaired, stupid. Acknowledge that the problem is a global one that everyone must face.
Identify what we can control and what we cannot. Focus on what we can control.
Attend to and counter negative “mind habits”.
Accept change.
Mindfulness. Shift from the mundane ways we engage the world to becoming aware of being alive, experiencing the presence of the world. Gratitude for this moment.
For the Body
Physical wellness. Eat healthy, sleep, exercise.
For Behavior
Connecting with others. The Climate Crisis is a communal, societal, and global experience, so it is important that we connect with social networks for support, understanding, validation, solidarity, inspiration. This can take many forms, from a small group of friends who share concerns, to online climate support cafes, to social involvement with community and environmental groups that foster personal connections and friendships.
Online resources can be very helpful.
Limit social media, with its sometimes negative influences on our state of mind.
Connect with nature, as a source of solace and rejuvenation.
Live in accordance with our values. Find ways to live meaningfully with full appreciation of the threat.
Individual Differences
Individuals differ in response to crisis and what may be most helpful. Self-awareness is important for effective internal activism. Developing habits, routines, and deliberate attention to mind, body, and behavior is HARD. It is an ongoing challenge, a marathon, not a single trial. We will fail. And fail again. Practice. Practice. Practice. Requires as much effort, diligence, and is as important as external action. Imperfectly, together, we unite, we change.

Hope

“Hope is a moral commitment.”6

Hope is essential for resiliency. We must have hope to carry on. Not the kind of hope prompted by a Pollyannaish belief that everything turns out for the best, which is a passive renunciation of reality and our role in influencing the future.

Hope, realistic hope, is forged in the face of adversity and challenges, sometimes in the face of overwhelming odds, to envision a better future; a future not brought about by ease and accident, but by sweat, toil, hardship, and sometimes blood, to “make it so” in the face of daunting obstacles. We must ask ourselves: “What gives us hope?” Sometimes it comes from others who inspire us. Martin Luther King offered hope, inspiration, and a motivating dream. The history of slavery, racial murder, violence, persecution, and soul-crushing humiliation can easily overwhelm and make such pronouncements of a dream seem misguided naïve shouts into the darkness. It is precisely why hope is a moral commitment. It is precisely what we need for The Climate Crisis.

What we are experiencing is a source of hope: “Climate anxiety may be the crucible through which humanity must pass to harness the energy and commitment that are needed for the lifesaving changes now required.” 7

Hidden Gems of New York City

The CITY

We begin with an admission of bias: We love New York City.1 Sharon was raised on Long Island, where most of her family still reside, and I was raised in upstate New York. Although upstate is closer, culturally, to Peoria IL than “The City,” I have been embraced by Sharon’s family and now am a naturalized citizen of the Big Apple.

This is brief overview of some of our favorite hidden gems of New York City; actually only Brooklyn, Manhattan and day trips. Obviously, this list is very limited, not only in its brevity, given the unlimited gems NYC has to offer, but by our interests, and also by our experience and exposure. For over 10 years, we spend a month in the summer and 2 weeks for Thanksgiving in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which gave us the opportunity to explore beyond the highlights mentioned in most tour guides.

We will start in Brooklyn, cross into Manhattan and board a ferry, then return to Manhattan and work our way up Manhattan Island. We will then leave Manhattan for day trips, which will be followed by “honorable mentions” that space constraints force to us to only briefly note.

Brooklyn

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery was established in 1836, at a time when it could only be reached by boat from Manhattan. It was a burial place for the well-to-do, and retreat from the smells, squalor, filth, and crowds of Manhattan. It inspired the subsequent development of Prospect Park, which is nearby, and Central Park in Manhattan. Its significance begins, however, in the Revolutionary War, where the largest battle of that war was fought—the Battle of Brooklyn. Washington’s army was surrounded by a much larger British force, but Washington escaped in the night, saving his army and the Revolution.

The torch of liberty on the Statue of Liberty points to this pivotal spot; the highest point in Brooklyn (Battle Hill). A stature of Minerva, the Roman god of crafts, arts, and also of war, was later erected facing Lady Liberty. The two women are waving to each other. Very moving.

Take a tour. There is much to learn and it can be fun, or at least ours was. We were regaled with stories and song by our tour guide, a Broadway singer, who honored Leonard Bernstein’s memory by standing on the bench at his grave and belting out a song from West Side Story.

There is much going on at this beloved and historic place—concerts, lectures, bird walks, guided nature walks, tours, art installations, and more. We attended a dance concert in the chapel commemorating Isadora Duncan that was a re-creation of a concert given by her.2

Brooklyn Heights/Brooklyn Bridge Park

Stroll along the promenade in Brooklyn Heights which connects with Brooklyn Bridge Park. The views of the Manhattan skyline are unparalleled. Relax on a bench, lay in the grass, there are things to do (i.e., roller skating, kayaking, pickle ball), food stands, picnic tables, and interesting people to watch.3

Leaving Brooklyn. . .

By Subway

We love the subway. It is an entire city, on the move, underground. It is the “Essence of New York”, the beating heart of the city, with its wild variety of people, languages, attire, behavior, entertainment, and filled with dizzying optical illusions in the train windows. We never have had any fear for our safety—indeed, have witnessed uplifting acts of kindness and generosity. Despite the reputation of New Yorkers as a rough and impatient breed, we are often reminded, above ground and below, of how quick they are to offer help.4

Governors Island

Governors Island, an idyll just off the coast of Manhattan, is a short ferry ride away. Catch the ferry from the Battery Maritime Building at the bottom of Manhattan, where you can also catch the (free) ferry to Staten Island (worth the trip for the views), and nearby you can catch the Statue of Liberty ferry. (Battery Park is itself a nice place to stroll and sometime has great street entertainment). We went to Governors Island just a few years after it opened (in 2001) on a summer afternoon and it was blessedly uncrowded.

Rent a bike, walk, picnic, loll about and enjoy great views of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and the New York harbor. Stay over night glamping, which means “glamorous camping.” There are slides, mini mountain hikes, and an array of events, including public art exhibitions, bird walks, music concerts, workshops, and poetry festivals. A restaurant has been added since we have been there where you can relax, have a drink and a bite to eat.5

Manhattan

Union Square

Every time we go to New York, we go to Union Square. It is the third largest transportation hub in the city where 8 subway lines converge. It is a hive of activity, an oasis amidst the bustle and buildings, and a gathering spot for New Yorkers of all stripes. Music buskers, often of great talent and diversity, from classical to jazz, folk to blues, Peruvian to brass bands, perform. We did see someone playing a baby grand and giving piano lessons—how did he get the piano there?? Subway??

Even if you don’t know anything about chess, the unusual pairing of players offers a poignant, intimate, snapshot of the types of encounters and couplings that occur in this vibrant, diverse city. African American men typically hold the board and take on all comers, for cash. Bobby Fischer came here in his youth to play, as did his coach in his later years, so the hustlers must be very good to survive. And they are. I had lunch with one who said he quit his job because he could make more money playing chess. He was a prodigy, and began winning games in the park when he was nine years old.

For a brief video of the Legendary Cyphers, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMQTUGFbgOY

Every Friday night the Legendary Cyphers perform freestyle hip-hop. It is thrilling—a cousin to jazz improvisation; angry, funny, dazzling street poetry; an expression of communal solidarity; and joyous entertainment. I never cared much for this kind of music–the rhythm too monotonous, the words too fast. Hearing it, here, in Union Square, was a revolution. So too, the musical, Hamilton, which does much the same thing.

Union Square is transformed into a thriving “Holiday Market” when the Thanksgiving-Hanukkah-Christmas-Kwanza holiday season approaches. Booths offering a cornucopia of goods by independent artisans and local growers, often accompanied by music, create a festive atmosphere. It is worth a visit, even if you don’t buy anything.6

NYC Public Library

This magnificent building opened in 1911, and at that time it was the largest marble structure in the United States. Its grandeur is a monument to the importance of learning, literacy, and commitment to providing free public access to books. Tours are offered—take one if you have the chance.7

Adjacent to the library is Bryant Park, which hosts concerts in the summer, a market in the holiday season, and a quiet, relaxing place to stretch, read, have a coffee, and people watch throughout the year.8

Q Train

This is our favorite train, and also for many New Yorkers as it is often voted the best train in yearly polls among riders. Here is one reason why we like it: When traveling from Brooklyn to Manhattan, sit on the right side of the train near a window. As you go through the tunnel, if you look close, you will see this artwork, called Masstransiscope. Click here to view it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IwVD5efXz0 . Once you emerge from the tunnel, stand and go to the left side of the train for a view of Manhattan, New York harbor, and the Brooklyn Bridge as you cross above ground on the Manhattan Bridge.

This mural on the wall of the Q train station at 72nd Street, in New York, shows Thor Stockman, left, and his husband, Patrick Kellogg.

Continue on the Q train to the last 3 Manhattan stops, which are the most recent additions to the subway system: 72nd, 86th and 96th street stations. Each station is filled with mosaics and worthy of a prolonged visit.9

Bird Murals

The Audubon Bird Mural Project is dedicated to publicly, graphically bringing attention to climate change and its effects on birds. The Audubon Society has identified 314 birds who are at risk from the changing climate and is sponsoring murals depicting all 314. So far, 100 murals of 138 species have been completed. The mural “street art” is on storefront grates, sides of buildings, and other, sometimes partly hidden spots.

They are whimsical, visually stunning, playful, and an uplifting contrast to their urban surroundings—like the birds themselves.

Most of the murals are on Broadway between 137th and 177th street. Go on Sunday mornings when the businesses are closed and the storefront gratings are lowered.10

Day Trips

Kykuit

Kykuit is the John D. Rockefeller Sr. estate located in Pocantico Hills north of New York City. You must take a tour to visit and probably should make reservations ahead. It is an American Versailles, with a commanding view of the Hudson River, beautiful terraces and gardens, fountains with whimsical brass ornamental frogs and other creatures, and an array of stunning sculptures situated to highlight both the sculptures and the landscape.

Above are only a few of the many.

The interior of the house is an decorated with fine furnishings, Chinese and European ceramics, a vintage car museum/garage, a tack room with beautiful saddles and other horse equipment, and the lower floor is adorned with the only Picasso tapestries ever made, as well as work by a host of other famous modern artists.11

Union Church

Union Church, located close to Kykuik, was built by the Rockefellers in 1921, which they regularly attended. When John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s wife, Abby, died he commissioned Matisse to design a stained glass window to commemorate her life. It was the last commissioned work by Matisse. The rest of the church windows, commission later by the family, are by Chagall. We have been to many of the great stained glass churches of France; this small, intimate house of worship illuminated by masters of stained glass, is the equal to the best of them. When we went, we were alone. This is truly a hidden gem. If you go to Kykuit, don’t miss it.12

West Point Academy

West Point is aptly named, situated in a strategic location on a point jutting into the Hudson River from the western shore. It was here that during the Revolutionary War the Colonists installed a Great Chain across the river to block the movement of British ships.

The Academy was established in 1802 and its long and heavy history of service, heroism, sacrifice, and loss is everywhere felt. We were surprised at how much we were moved by the tour, which inspired reverence and gratitude. Interesting statues commemorating famous soldiers, wars, and battles are scattered throughout the Academy grounds. What was most moving was the cemetery. The history of war and sacrifice etched in the stones, including those recently killed; men and women, with brief bios of their brief lives. Heartbreaking.

Honorable (Briefly) Mentioned

Manhattan

Museums:
Tenement Museum consists of a restored tenement dwelling with the story of family that lived there. Also guided tours of the neighborhood are very informative.13

Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum is a WWII aircraft carrier turned into a museum depicting the ship’s role in WWI. Also includes a guided missile submarine, a Concord jet, and a NASA Space Shuttle.14

Morgan Library and Museum is a book lovers destination, with rare books, engrossing exhibitions, and chamber music concerts.15

Cloisters is a satellite of the Met dedicated to medieval art and architecture, including a chapel and cloister.16

Trail, Tour, Tomb, and Church
The High Line Trail is a park built on an abandoned elevated freight line where you can stroll above the streets, look into windows of adjacent apartments, and enjoy the gardens, green spaces, and art works that adorn the trail.17

Circle Line Cruise Tours circle Manhattan Island offering unique views of New York.18

Grant’s Tomb is a magnificent and fitting monument and resting place for one of the most important people in American history.19 20

Riverside Church has a long history of social activism and is listed on the National register of Historic Places. The stained glass is magnificent, and a New World cousin in color, luminescence, and beauty to those in Chartres Cathedral in France. 21

The Oculus, in The One World Trade Center Plaza, is a magnificent architectural masterpiece. It is a major transportation hub, located in the One World Trade Center near 9/11 Ground Zero. It is meant to inspire. And it does.22

Brooklyn

Japanese Garden

The Brooklyn Japanese Garden is one of the oldest and most visited Japanese gardens outside Japan. It is located in Prospect Park, itself a worthy destination, and adjacent to the Brooklyn Museum, which is the second largest museum in New York City.23

Coney Island still carries a tawdry edge of its “Nickel Empire” heyday in the early 20th century, which drew throngs to its carnival midway, freak shows, beach peddlers, and thrill rides. The flagship for Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs is here, where the annual hotdog eating contest is held, as well as the home for the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team.24 Great fun.25

Brooklyn Academy of Music, BAM, is a performing arts venue for dance, theatre, music, and film that feature edgy, experimental works. We have seen some memorable performances here.26

Day Trips

Storm King Art Center

Storm King Arts Center is an outdoor 500 acre sculpture park with the largest collection of outdoor sculptures in North America. Located in the Hudson River valley, the large-scale sculptures, many by famous artists, are carefully situated in pristine hills, fields, and woodlands.27

FDR Home in New Hyde Park is the birthplace, home, and burial place of FDR, and the place where many monumental decisions were made during WWII. Looking in on his and Eleanor’s living quarters is an intimate experience, and the tour gives appreciation of the weight and scope of decisions made in these rooms that changed the world. 28

Train along the Hudson River offers a leisurely way to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the river (including West Point) as it winds its way through the Catskill mountains. There are quaint towns along the way and stops where hikers exit to begin treks into the mountains.29

Kiss of Death

“Kiss of death.” What a jarring juxtaposition of two words. Kiss: a tender, personal expression of affection, love, and life. Death: a cold, disemboweled, shutter of the grave. The union of these words yields startling reverberations of meaning. The kiss of Judas, for instance; a deadly betrayal masquerading as an act of love. Or the kiss of a mob boss given to one of his assassins to seal the contract on a targeted enemy.

Or a description of our lives. From the moment of our birth, we are kissed by death; the sweet, miraculous experience of life shot through with the looming shadow of our ending.1 The juxtaposition expresses the painful ache of love, informed, at some deep level, by our impermanence. The kiss fades. Life fades. Love intimates death within its embrace.

Still Life
Maria van Oosterwijck

Death’s kiss is at the center of much philosophical and religious practice. Memento Mori, “remember that you must die,” has a long and distinguished history. Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and Montaigne (Greek, Roman, Christian) all argue that “To philosophize is to learn to die.” Judaism and Christianity direct us to “number our days”; Buddhist practice embraces suffering and impermanence as noble truths; and Islam counsels a “remembrance of death.” Much of Western art from medieval times to the 19th century contained symbolic reminders of mortality, often coded in small details like an hourglass or wilting flowers.2

Why? Why urge that we meditate on such a disturbing topic? And it is disturbing. The looming presence of death is an acid that strips away the easy familiarly, the ready-made obviousness of everyday life. It frightens, disorients, and destabilizes. Troubling questions, and reactions, are prompted by intently staring into the blinding glare of our mortality.3 But we must do so precisely because death’s kiss provokes troubling questions: How shall I live? Toward what purpose? Why? Although each tradition prescribes different answers,4 the purpose is the same: Awaken us to our fleeting presence on this earth, overcome our preoccupation with trivial matters, and live with vital, purposeful, urgency.

I have long been preoccupied with the kiss of death and can attest that it is an unwelcome, almost taboo topic for discussion; indeed, sometimes presumed to be a sign of psychological disturbance. One reason is because death has become remote. Life expectancy has more than doubled in the last century-and-a-half, so death is less likely to be encountered in the daily round of life, especially in developed countries. The United States has been further graced by good fortune, as we have not been devastated by war, famine or disease during this time.5

In our most fortunate society, in our most fortunate time, it is generally expected that most of us will live a long life. Early death is a shock, an upending of the natural order. Death, when it occurs, is personal and prompts very private grief for the loss. Denial of death is a very comfortable and comforting strategy to protect us from the angst and anguish of the kiss of death.

Triumph of Death
Pieter Brueghel The Elder

It has not always been so. Sometimes death cannot be tamed, felling cities, countries, even continents with a scythe of mortal ruin that leaves streets and country sides littered with corpses. Perhaps the most devastating of these types of events was Black Death in the 14th century where 30% to 60% of Europe died, and major cities, like Florence and Paris, became ghost towns and charnel houses. The entire medieval order was torn asunder. Serfdom ended, the economic structure based on land ownership undermined, religious authority challenged, medical practice disparaged, licentiousness and riots in the streets pervasive, and the persecution of Jews, lepers, and “Others” widespread. The shadow of death haunted everything. Death was a communal, public experience. Grief and anguish were not only for the loss of an individual, but for the loss of everything and everybody. The painting “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel evokes what it must have felt like to live in this apocalyptic time.

Black Death is an event that we might want to dismiss as a historical anomaly, a curiosity from the distant past of little consequence to our present circumstances. The human toll of today’s pandemic is microscopic compared to devastation of this plague, so trying to connect the two could be considered simply scare mongering. But the Black Death threat of today is not COVID. It is global warming. We know it is coming, and are beginning to feel the heat of it, not only in rising temperatures and widespread environmental disruptions, but in the straining of social, cultural, economic, and political ties that bind. We are past the tipping point; no longer can we halt it, and our continued collective inaction ensures speedier and more devastating consequences. Black Death gives us a peek at the kind of devastation that possibly awaits.

The world is, literally, on fire. Brueghel’s painting of the past also envisions our possible future—death communally experienced, and grief and anguish for the loss of everything and everybody. The discomfort and avoidance of discussing our individual death is magnified when it is not only our own personal ending, but the death of the world as we know it. Sleepwalking, however, is not the answer—it is the problem. We must awake, take urgent action NOW if we are to have a world where life will be worth living. We must embrace the kiss of death! 6

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Homo Economicus

We are no longer Homo sapiens—wise humans, which is what sapiens means. We have evolved into Homo economicus. These creatures are motivated by rational self-interest who seek to maximize their wealth and the “utility,” or satisfaction, derived from consumption of purchased goods. Homo economicus arose in the 17th-18th centuries in response to a dramatically altered environment where capital replaced land as the basis for wealth, and large scale production of goods in an industrialized landscape changed the living conditions of Homo sapiens.

The Wealth of Nations, published by Adam Smith in 1776 when market economies were emerging, is considered by many to be the progenitor of Homo economicus. This revolutionary work, offered at a tumultuous time when capital markets and democratic uprisings where transforming human life, offered a radically new way to understand wealth and government. Although he did not use the term, Homo economicus, Smith’s analysis hinges on the revolutionary assumptions that characterize Homo economicus: individuals, motivated by rational self-interest, seek to maximize their profit.1 

The Wealth of Nations has become a sacred text, often quoted chapter and verse by contemporary economists whose dizzyingly complex, mathematically based analyses typically begin with the assumptions of Homo economicus. The reach of these assumptions is not confined to economic concerns, but are presumed to motivate all human actions, behaviors, and habits. Here is what Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker has to say: “All human behavior can be regarded as participants who maximize their utility from a stable set of preferences and accumulate an optimal amount of information and other inputs in a variety of markets.”

Becker articulates, in the jargon of his profession, what is often presumed by many Homo economicus supporters, and these assumptions have guided analysis of almost all areas of human life, from the most intimate matters of love and family to government policies and practices. His analysis of the family, for example, addresses “marital-specific capital” (i.e., children) and argues that child services are “the commodity that provides the utility a couple receives” from this “marital-specific capital”. And here is an example of an analysis at the institutional level: A World Health Organization initiative to end river blindness in Africa prevented hundreds of thousands of people from going blind. The World Bank’s cost analysis of the program, however, concluded that these benefits were not measurable; the benefits were conferred to people so poor that there was no measurable profit from the treatment.2

“Marital-Specific Capital”

These analytic, quantitative appraisals and balance-sheet conclusions of human endeavors clearly and unambiguously state the value, or profit, to be derived from them. Debate, then, centers on whether the profit justifies the cost. But is this a success, or a reason for concern? When children become “marital-specific capital,” and a wildly successful intervention that prevent blindness in hundreds of thousands of people is questioned because the recipients are poor, then maybe this is evidence that something is amiss. Perhaps Homo economicus is a mutation that needs to be modified or eliminated.

The central value of Homo economicus is profit. The balance-sheet determines worth. But why, for example, was a major initiative, at considerable cost, undertaken to prevent river blindness in impoverished areas of Africa? Certainty not to gain a profit on investments. And children are more than capital goods for most parents. Other values are at play.

Adam Smith would certainly agree. He considered himself a moral philosopher, and in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he argues that we are inherently social and moral beings. We care about others and this social-moral sense is essential if we are to live together without destroying each other. Adam Smith’s self-interest is not greed. It is in everyone’s self-interest to conduct commerce and exchange within a moral framework of trust and honesty, which are essential for a successful society. Theory of Moral Sentiments, established the foundation for The Wealth of Nations; wealth is built within a social-moral framework.3

Economic, social, and moral values differ starkly in the kind of exchanges and relationships presumed, and the expected benefits.4 Economic values are individual and impersonal, and economic analysis treats families, communities, and societies as a collection of individuals. Exchange is contractual and who the other person is in the transaction does not matter. Economic values are instrumental; you expect to get something of equal or greater value in return. If it has no profit, it has no value.

Social values are personal and depend on the relationships involved. Our relationship with our children, spouse, or friends may be the most important thing in our life. They have no economic value, as we cannot buy, sell, or trade it. And social relationships are reciprocal, not instrumental. Each participant gains from it, but there is nothing definite about what we will gain, when we will gain it, or even if we will get anything tangible from it.

Moral values are altruistic; things are done for their intrinsic worth with no expectation of getting anything in return. They are neither individual or relational. They are universal. We do things for others because it is morally the right thing to do. These values are not proved or supported by evidence or analysis—they are axiomatic.

The lack of proof or evidential support for moral values does not diminish their importance. Quite the contrary. Their universality can give them the animating power of ideals. People commit their lives to fulfilling these values; care for others at great personal cost, risk their safety and well-being, even give their lives for a just cause and, too, commit unspeakable atrocities in the name of the good.

The Declaration of Independence embodies foundational moral values upon which our nation stands. Axioms:
1. “All (men) people are created equal.”
2. “They are endowed with unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”5
No justifications or proofs are provided, as “these truths are self-evident.” Moral and social values provide the grounding assumptions for how we govern ourselves; they embody our values of who we are, who we want to be, and how we define our relationships with each other. Commerce, economic transactions, and trade are conducted within the framework provided by the moral and social values that are the basis of our governance.

It is an inherently destructive act to treat all human life as some sort of financial transaction. Preventing river blindness is a moral and social value, not an economic one. Children, family, and friends are not commodities of exchange. Economic analysis should be used in the service of our social and moral values, not the determiner of them. Homo economicus hollows us out. If we do not harken the call of our foundational social and moral values, if we allow Homo economicus to become who are, we surrender our wisdom. And our humanity.

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Free Will?

Do we have free will? This question has bedeviled Western thought for millennia, spanning the centuries from Aristotle and the Greeks, to Thomas Aquinas and medieval Christian theology, to Einstein and modern science. The power of the question derives from a primal concern about the source of our sense of agency and responsibility for our decisions and actions.

The question has practical implications that reach well beyond a debate among philosophers and scholars. So, for example, should those who are severely mentally ill or cognitively impaired be held responsible for their criminal actions? What about children? Or someone who is drugged? Or forced at gunpoint to comply with a command?

No surprise—I do not have the answer. But I offer thoughts that help me to make sense of this question and enable me to reach an understanding that has some practical value. I will confine my comments to the psychological domain (although I think they can be applied to the physical sciences as well).

Psychological Science

Provocative findings from two areas of contemporary psychological research challenge the belief in free will. One research thread suggests that automatic cognitive processes occurring out of awareness control our actions. Our sense of agency occurs after our choices have been made; choice is an illusion. The second thread offers evidence that the neural impetus to act is already under way before the conscious intention to act occurs. Again, choice is an illusion. These data and conclusions, not surprisingly, have generated pointed challenges and heated disputes among scientists.

This debate is not new to psychology, as behaviorist researchers of previous generations also argued against free will. The most notable was B. F. Skinner, who in his book, “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” argued that we are the product of our reinforcement history and, consequently, freedom, dignity, as well as all other terms describing human traits and ideals are empty fictions. Needless to say, a great uproar ensued.

I would like to focus on four conceptual issues that are often overlooked in these disputes about the methods and meaning of these research findings: science and truth; the nature of will; yin-yang; and the pragmatics of “I can”.

Science and Truth

M. C. Escher: Drawing Hand

Scientist are independent thinkers who consider a question, pose a hypothesis to answer the question, devise experiments to test the hypothesis, and use the evidence derived from the experiments to determine if the hypothesis is true. If the evidence supports the hypothesis, the scientists have empirical justification for drawing valid, if provisional, conclusions about the question.

Now, if we accept the scientific evidence from the recent psychological research suggesting we lack free will, surely this conclusion applies to the scientists as well; that their hypotheses, decisions, tests, and conclusions are all determined.1 Validity and truth are, thus, comforting fictions, and the entire scientific enterprise of discovering an objective truth untainted by our personal opinions, subjective biases, and blinkered perspectives is a pointless exercise. What legitimate claim can scientists make that their findings should receive any more credibility than, say, astrology, reading palms, or divining from bird entrails? Paradoxically, if we accept the validity of the findings we must conclude that the findings cannot be objectively true. Furthermore, if we accept the soundness of this paradoxical conclusion, we also must, then, accept that this conclusion is not really the result of our judiciously considering the logic and meaning of the argument. Rather, it is just another round of self-delusion. And round and round it goes. Hmm…

What is Will?

Heave of Effort

It is typically assumed, both in common understanding and in the methods and interpretation of the research, that will is a single, conscious, heave of effort that leads to action. An alternative, more comprehensive understanding is that will is a “mental agency that transforms awareness into action, it is the bridge between desire and action.”2

Consider St. Paul’s definition of sin: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”3 I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. This is a situation that we all understand and often is a major focus of psychotherapy. A simple exhortation to engage will, to “get up off your butt and do it,” in these circumstances often fails. A conscious heave of effort fails because we harbor contradictory intentions and desires, some of which may be out of awareness. Will, the bridge between desire and action, is conflicted.

Psychotherapy is often focused on bringing hidden desires and conflicts into awareness, thus disencumbering will, enabling deeper conscious understanding of the conflicts, allowing deliberative consideration of the choices, and embracing responsibility for action. Cognitive science provides evidence for the power of unconscious factors, and neuroscience documents the neurological run-up to a conscious “heave of effort.” Will includes both these and much more.

Either-Or or Yin-Yang?

An assumption often made is that the question of free will is a dichotomous choice: Yes or no. It might be more fruitful to assume it to be a yin-yang relationship; freedom and determinism are interdependent, two sides of the same coin. So, for example, a piano has 88 keys. It is a deterministic structure that limits the possible notes that can be played. This relatively small set of keys, however, allows for the composition of an infinite number of songs. The 88 keys constrain or determine the possibilities, but within these constraints resides freedom.

Now consider the psychological and neuropsychological evidence of unconscious influences and neurological readiness potential that precedes conscious intention. We are a biological piano. We are able to make music, but are constrained in many, multiple ways by our anatomy. We do not have complete freedom and much happens out of awareness (and be thankful that it does, for we would be overcome to the point of paralysis by the Niagara of sensations, perceptions, ideas, and choices flooding our every waking moment). We are bound by the constraints of our being, which provide us with the means to create our music, sing our (December) songs.

I Can

One of the most important steps in psychotherapy is believing “I can.” It is understandable why many who are in dire straits, who have endured harrowing trauma, personal loss and anguish, or whose lives have been blighted by misfortune, feel doomed, condemned, and believe “I can’t”. The often difficult first step of seeking therapy carries the tentative hope that, “Maybe I can”. It is the beginning of the journey from “I can,” to “I will,” to “I did.”

William James, who is (in my view) the greatest American psychologist and philosopher, experienced a bout of severe depression, unable to rise from his bed, convinced that he had no free will to alter his situation. He overcame his depression by deciding that regardless of the evidence and compelling arguments for determinism, he would act as if he had free will; believe “I can.” His “will to believe”4 created the reality of free will.

James was a leader of the philosophical school called Pragmatism and he coined the term “Cash Value” to describe criteria to assess the merit and truth of an assertion or belief. Cash Value is used metaphorically, meaning “does the assertion have practical utility; does it have real-world consequences or is it merely empty words”. Cash Value can be applied to the question of free will.

Therapy is an act of courage, requiring effort, commitment, humility, resiliency, and honesty. All of these attributes, along with truth, justice, guilt, responsibility, dignity, etc., etc., etc., are self-delusional fictions if we seriously believe we are puppets of deterministic forces. The question of free will is a captivating puzzle and an impetus to interesting research and lively dispute. But, ultimately, only a conclusion of free will has any cash value. “I can” gives us our world. The choice between “I can” or “I can’t” is a hard-fought, life or death decision for many in anguish and distress, and scientific evidence and philosophical arguments are irrelevant. I take a stand for free will. I have no choice. . .5

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What is Intelligence?

What is intelligence?

This has been among the most longstanding, fiercely debated questions across a wide range of disciplines, from philosophy and psychology, to sociology and education, to anthropology and comparative biology. The practical consequences of this debate touch every one of us. Intelligence tests mark us, route us, and shape the expectations of our teachers, parents, peers and ourselves, which have a profound effect on who we are, who we think we are, and who we become. IQ score: A single figure, so much power.

Intelligence Tests

The choice of how we measure intelligence reveals what we think intelligence is, and the history of this testing exposes assumptions that underlie the testing. Knowing these assumptions allows us to critically examine what is typically understood to be intelligence.

The first tests of mental abilities were initiated at the end of the 19th century in the newly established scientific field of psychology. Unlike the philosophical speculation about the nature of mind that dominated Western thought for millennia, scientific psychology is rooted in laboratory experimentation. Psychophysics, the measurement of the physical properties of mental activity, was the predominant approach to the measurement of mind, which assessed reaction time, memory, and various measures of sensory acuity and discrimination (e.g. visual, auditory, touch).

A revolutionary study by Wissler in 1901 overturned this entire approach to measuring intelligence. He used the newly developed statistical measure, the correlation coefficient, to demonstrate that these tests were not correlated with school performance. This is very telling. The skills necessary for success in school are presumed to be essential to intelligence. This seems so transparently obvious that we fail to see the far reaching implications.

This is understandable, as success in school is critically important in today’s modern world. Intelligence tests arose hand-in-glove with the emergence of industrialization, which required mandatory schooling to provide workers with the skills necessary for this new form of society.

The first practical intelligence test, the Binet-Simon, was first published in 1905 and became the standard for assessing school children, and a revised form is still used today. Binet’s aim was to help teachers identify children who struggled in traditional school settings and could profit from alternative settings. Binet thought that intelligence is flexible, influenced by motivational issues and personal circumstances, and that the test failed to assess other important traits, such as creativity and emotional intelligence. The measurement of intelligence quickly became swept into the eugenics movement and engulfed in raging controversies about nature-nurture, race, cultural fairness, treatment of those who score low, and a host of other emotionally charged issues; contentious issues that remain with us.

Environmental Fit

We think that we are measuring and debating a universal capacity measured by these tests, but it is an intelligence that “fits” today’s techno-industrial world. Ours is a human-made environment; a very narrow, artificial environmental niche. Humans have adapted to the most diverse environments on the planet: deserts, jungles, Arctic regions, mountain tops, tropical islands, caves, savannas. Almost everywhere. Homo sapiens evolved approximately 300,000 years ago. Written language emerged about 5000 years ago and the first educational system was created about 4000 years ago. Schools have been absent for 99% of humans’ time on the planet.1

If we think of intelligence as the ability of a species to adapt to its environment, and failure on this test has mortal consequences, then there must be much more to intelligence that school-related abilities. Consider, for example, the skills required for early Pacific Islanders who, in small canoes, navigated the vast Pacific using stars, sun, moon, wind, clouds, ocean currents, fish, birds, waves, etc., etc., to reach a destination thousands of miles away (e.g., Hawaii). What kind of “intelligence test” would they develop?2 Certainly nothing like ours. And what would Eskimo, or Pigmy “intelligence tests” consist of? Very different again.

Much speculation has been given to the abilities that underly human capacity to survive across these varied environments, and include bipedalism, opposing thumbs, a complex brain, language, tool-use, genetic changes (e.g., genetic protection against malaria; capacity to digest a variety of foods) which take generations, and non-genetic capacities to flexibly adjust to environmental changes (e.g., culture practices, individual learning, transmission of skills across individuals). None of these require literacy or schooling.

Species’ Intelligence

Human intelligence has long been considered the pinnacle of a hierarchy of intelligence among species. More than a century of research has sought to examine the comparative intelligence of other species using, of course, human abilities as the yardstick. These abilities include tool use, language skills (those species able to learn analogues to human communication ranked as the smartest) and self-reflective consciousness, which encompasses the ability to consider the mental state of others and evidenced in deception, empathy, grief, envy and cooperative action with others.

The species that we have long considered to occupy the next rung below human intelligence are primates; species that look like us. More recently, this has changed, as many other species have been identified that possess these capacities, including dolphins, whales, elephants, birds and dogs. What has also changed, dramatically, is that species’ intelligence is no longer considered a totem pole but a bush. Each species possesses an intelligence, an ensemble of capacities that enable it to adapt and survive, often involving capacities humans do not possess, such as flight, echolocation, and the ability to perceive sensations invisible to humans (e.g., infra-red light; high and low sound frequencies, etc., etc.). If a fly were to construct an intelligence test, how well do you think we would do?

Our Species Intelligence Test

Ironically, the type of intelligence that “fits” our human-made techo-industrial niche supersizes our ability to survive and thrive almost anywhere on the planet. And also, to dramatically alter the entire biosphere—so much so that it threatens our very existence.3 Is this a measure of our superior intelligence or proof that it is very limited? Have we out-smarted ourselves?

The scope of the climate catastrophe will require more that individual intelligence. Our techno-industrial world is the product of a collective, collaborative intelligence that can solve problems beyond what individuals could not even dream possible on their own. We each may be very smart, but alone we are incapable of providing the many essentials required for living in the modern world, from producing a simple screw that holds things together, to electricity that makes everything run. We are part of a “Hive Mind”.4

The products of this Mind are the source of our imperiled biosphere, as well as the wellspring of the cornucopia of riches enjoyed in our modern society. And, perhaps, it may be our salvation. Each of us is but a single “neuron” in this vast Mind. But we are in networks with other “neurons”, and by influencing them, and they in turn influencing their connections, which then influence other networks, a cascade of changes can result that alters the workings of the Mind. Individually, we can recognize threats to our species survival and adaptively respond, but our actions must be a part of a larger systemic response of the Mind if we are to survive.

How intelligent are we? Individually? Collectively? We will soon find out. We cannot afford to fail this intelligence test.

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Atlantis

Remembrance of things past1 is the special province of the aged, for whom the long shadow of the past looms over the present and the ever-shortening future. Everything conspires to remind: face in the mirror, alien; daily routines, upended; places, bulldozed; useful things, obsolete; friends, family, and acquaintances who peopled our world, sick, dying, dead. Our attempts to freeze time—photographs, videos, recordings—fade, as do our memories. Despite our efforts to stop time, the loves and friendships, the hardships and tragedies, the triumphs and defeats, the jubilations and heartbreaks, the full pulsing, throbbing experiences of life—are gone.

We hold close our mementos and memories, trying to salvage fragments of a world being submerged by the in-rushing tide of time. We are denizens of Atlantis, that mythic lost world that sunk beneath the sea, leaving no trace. But not yet. This moment, right now, is our time. Hold it close.

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1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows

Of a thousand years of joys and sorrows
Not a trace can be found   

You who are living, live the best life you can
Don’t count on earth to preserve memory

Ai Qing2  

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Where am I?

Where am I? To be lost, disoriented, confused about where we are situated in the world can evoke a profound sense of unmooring. We rarely experience this in the extreme; usually we are lost in a building, a mall, on a highway or, perhaps, hiking. These situations are relatively inconsequential because we are oriented within a much larger matrix of place. We possess background knowledge that serves as a “North Star” to keep us oriented.  Although the surroundings may be unfamiliar and even, perhaps, alien and strange, we still are able to place ourselves, know where we are and not be completely lost.

Place Names

What are the coordinates of place that we typically rely on to anchor ourselves? Names. Place names. For example, I grew up on Amsterdam Road in the city of Rochester, in the state of New York, in the country of the United States of America. Place names, all imaginary constructions of collective agreement—a virtual reality—blanketing the entire landscape that provides a sense of stability and “home.” Failure to be reflexively situated within this “home” is to be disoriented and adrift.

Where do these signposts come from? History and power reside in the names. The names are tracings of the past, a residue given official designation by those with the authority to name. Look at a map—it is a crazy quilt of names. Each name possesses a history, not only of what is designated by the name, but, less visibly, who designated it. Let’s take a little road trip and pause to consider some of the road signs.

Countries and Continents

Most countries are named after one of four things:

Tribal names, which include Thailand (Thais), France (Franks), Russia (Russ), Italy (Vitali), Germany (Germanic tribes), England (Angles), Switzerland (Schwyz).

Land features, for countries like Iceland, Greenland, Haiti (“mountainous”), Costa Rica (“rich coast”), Honduras (“deep water”) and Peru (“land of the river”).

Directional placement, which include Australia (“unknown southern land”), Norway (“northern way”), Japan (“Nippon, land of the rising sun”, i.e., east of China), Ecuador (“equator”) and Chile (“where the land ends”).

Important figures (almost always men), which identifies America (Amerigo Vespucci), Colombia (Columbus), Bolivia (Simon Bolivar), Philippines (King Philip II), El Salvador (“The Savior”), Seychelles (Jean Moreau de Seychelles) among others. 

Who names  the names? World history is imprinted on the map. The “New World” was new to European explorers (but not to the indigenous peoples) who were the colonialist scouts for European conquest. The continents, North, South as well as Central America are named after an Italian adventurer who was the first to appreciate that these new lands are separate continents from Asia. The names of the countries, and the languages now spoken there, tell all: English speaking, in the North, with a French outpost in Quebec; Spanish speaking in the Central and South, with a Portuguese outpost in Brazil.

Two other continents, Australia and Africa, also bear the imprint of colonizing Europe. Australia, of course, named by the British, and speaking English. Many African countries names are the residue of colonization, and often the spoken languages are a mix of indigenous peoples and colonizers. Prior to colonization, the native peoples did not have maps and charts demarcating sharp (and sharp angled) tribal boundaries. These came later, organized in the Berlin Conference of 1884 that drew territorial boundaries that were distributed among seven European countries in their “Scramble for Africa”.

Asia, with its long history of high civilization and bustling, populous cities carries its own history in the country names and languages. The influence of European colonization, while late arriving, is folded within the history of many of these countries; witness, for example, the histories of India and Pakistan, where English is widely spoken and the borders defined by an unprecedented “redistricting”.

United States of America

Continuing our road trip closer to home, the map of the United States is a map of colonial exploration, claimed—and often fought over— ownership, and established settlements. New England is, of course, new England, and the thirteen Colonies are Britain transplanted: New York. New Jersey. New Hampshire. Delaware (after Lord De La Warr). Georgia (King George II). North and South Carolina (King Charles II) and so forth. Many cities and towns of this region also mirror the “Mother Country”. This includes my home town, Rochester, in the state of New York, and my home on Amsterdam Road echo’s the earlier Dutch colonists that preceded the English.

The French plied their trade along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and French names signpost this trail. Louisiana (King Louis XIV) and the French trading posts of New Orleans, St. Louis, St. Paul, and Sault Ste. Marie are among the more notable. The Southwest and Florida carry the imprint of the Spanish: California (named after a queen in a popular 16th century Spanish novel). New Mexico. Colorado (color red, for color of the Colorado River). Florida (“full of flowers”). Traveling through the Southwest, the names encountered at every turn could easily cause a naive traveler to think they were in Mexico…or Spain.

This naïve traveler touring the length and breadth of our country could also easily think they are visiting territory settled by tribal peoples. Half of the states names derived from Native American languages: Alabama. Alaska. Arizona. Arkansas. Hawaii. Illinois. Iowa. Kansas. Kentucky. Massachusetts. Michigan. Minnesota. Mississippi. Missouri. Nebraska. New Mexico. North and South Dakota. Ohio. Oklahoma. Tennessee. Texas. Utah. Wisconsin. Wyoming. Not to be left out are the names of the Great lakes: Ontario. Erie. Michigan. Huron. These names are gravestones; markers of peoples and cultures, mostly gone, except for a few small, flickering outposts in the most remote and forbidden corners of this land.

Crazy Places

All the states have towns with bizarre, humorous, crazy names that make you wonder, “Wherever did this name come from?!” We have spent some time in Arizona and visited several towns I find amusing: Why  (“Why?”, I ask). Tombstone (obvious). Show Low (a card game hand that won ownership of the town). Arizona towns we have missed include: Nothing (a good name for a ghost town), Three Way (use your imagination), and Skull Valley (yup, skulls found in a valley).  

Head-scratch-and-chuckle names abound across our country’s broad landscape. Here are a few of my favorites: Knockemstiff, OH; Hell for Certain, KY; Satan’s Kingdom, MA; Cut and Shoot, TX; North Carolina’s answer to Why AZ— Whynot. There are also several surprising “sister cities”: Cannon Beach, OR and Cannon Ball, ND; Gunbarrel, CO and Gun Barrel City, TX; Rifle ,CO and Point Blank, TX; Boogertown, NC and Booger Hole, WV; No Name, CO and Nameless, TX. Of course, I must also mention Truth or Consequences, NM, named after a radio game show. Only in America. Indeed, these and many other crazy, colorful, irreverent names reflect our crazy, colorful, irreverent history.

Where am I?

So, “Where am I?” Surprisingly, I find myself in the land of the dead. As I speak the language of the conquerors and am oriented by historical markers and gravestones, I am oblivious that the past is my North Star that fixes me in place as surely as geographic coordinates, themselves but imaginary lines etched by history. The past surrounds me, speaks through me as I navigate the present and motor into the future. My journey leaves its own faint trail on the human landscape that, I hope, may help orient a few travelers who pass by this way after me.    

Aliens Have Landed

The cosmos is a source of wonderment and deep mystery that rouses visions of possible celestial beings. Humans have gazed at the heavens and envisioned life beyond our earthly horizon since the first stirrings of civilization in Mesopotamia. The earliest form of this has been the worship of deities; sun gods, planet goddesses, heavenly personages, and divine beings. We are familiar with “the man in the moon”, green martins, and a host of space aliens portrayed in movies, books, comics, and television programs.

Alien Telescope Array

Space Aliens

Recently, in the last 100 years or so, we have become concerned about detecting, confirming, and contacting alien space life. UFO sightings, a subject of considerable controversy, might suggest they are already here, among us. Major efforts costing millions of dollars, including the Alien Telescope Array, search the cosmos for signals of extraterrestrial intelligence. Space probes have been sent to the moon, Mars, Venus, as well as Jupiter and Saturn’s moons, scouring for the slightest hints of life. We have even sent a space craft with images and presumed universal codes about our earthly existence into the deep unknown beyond our solar system; a message in a bottle tossed into the vast sea, announcing: “We are here!”

The chill of cosmic isolation, the yearning for companionship amidst the vast darkness of infinite space motivates the question that often accompanies these efforts: “Are we alone in the cosmos?” Our anxiety about being alone is accompanied by fear of what we might find, or what might find us. We have only developed the scientific capacities to seriously pursue these inquires in the last 50 years or so; a mere eye-blink in cosmological time. Any space alien capable of discovering us, communicating with us, or visiting us will likely be much more technologically advanced.

Will they be nice to us? Might we become their pet? Will we be exterminated as a troublesome varmint? Devoured for a snack? Hunted for sport? Killed for kicks? Our imaginings of space aliens are filled with these fears, with the amusing premise that our cosmic Stone Age weapons and technology can defend us against aliens who have  traversed unfathomable distances using unimaginably sophisticated means.

Obviously, we have no idea what space aliens might look like, should they exist, so they provide a blank screen where we project our primal anxieties. The images and stories we conjure bring us face to face, not with aliens, but with ourselves. We can learn much about ourselves through these projections. The most common images are mutant humanoids: ET and Yoda-like figures that can be wise and friendly, or more disturbingly formed humanoids that aim to destroy humanity. The default image is “something like us”, because, after all, this is what intelligent life must look like.

And then there are the horror films and stories seeking to evoke our deepest terror. These are not humanoids; they are creatures of our nightmares, often insectoids, with little outward resemblance to ourselves. Their mere form announces their malevolence, for anything this utterly foreign can only be a mortal threat.

Aliens Have Landed

We scour sky, expectant and fearful, searching for intelligent life to assuage our cosmic loneliness. Ironically, we fail to lower our gaze to our own planet. Intelligent life has landed. Millions of years ago. It swarms in our midst. Perhaps the most alien life forms among us are cephalopods; octopus, cuttlefish, and squid. No other animals have evolved as early from the all the rest of the Animal Kingdom as these creatures. Our common ancestor with cephalopods is the flatworm, from which we diverged over 600 million years ago. Unlike most other complex animals, octopuses do not have a central nervous system (CNS). Their information network is distributed along its 8 arms. Alien, indeed. And, by all evidence, very intelligent.

A crude way to assess how alien other earthlings are to us is by how distant our evolutionary ancestors are and by how they gather, organize, and use information critical to their survival. Insects also are very evolutionary distant from us; our last common ancestor is about 400 million years ago. Insects comprise the largest biomass of terrestrial animals consisting of over 30 million species. While they do have a CNS, it is quite primitive, giving rise to strange forms that can easily evoke horror.

A host of other dazzlingly bizarre creatures, also evolutionarily distant, throng our planet. The oceans, lakes, ponds, and waterways surge with over a 30,000 species of fish, many exotic and other-worldly. Birds, distant relatives to dinosaurs, fill the sky with their dazzling array of colors and songs.1 Fish, and especially birds, have  sophisticated central nervous systems and our shared ancestry with both is about 300 million year ago. While strange, they possess a vague resemblance to us that octopuses and insects do not.

Closer to home, closer to us, less evolutionarily alien, are mammals. While mammalian forms can be very different, from giraffes, to elephants, to tigers, we do share much in common with them; we are in the same biological family. We ride them for pleasure and transport, harness them to accomplish difficult tasks, hunt them for sport, food, and trophies attesting to our power, harvest them for food, wear their skins and furs for protection and fashion, train them to be our eyes and ears, even invite a select few into our homes for companionship, claiming some to be “our best friend.”  

Intelligent humanoid life forms also share our terrestrial home. We have biological brethren, primates, which consist  of around 200 species, including gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and gibbons. We share 98% of our DNA with our closest relative, chimpanzees. They look much more like us than most alien humanoid images we have contrived, act uncannily like us, and we have even been able to communicate with some—they learned forms of human communication (e.g., sign languages); we have not learned theirs (who is more intelligent here?). We have hunted and hounded almost all to near extinction. And, to save them from ourselves, we encaged them in in zoos; jail-mates with a host of others in the Animal Kingdom we have pushed to near extinction.

Frightful Alien

If space aliens were to visit our planet, there is no reason why they would be more interested in us than, say, elephants, horses, crabs, or octopuses. If they examined earth from a dispassionate perspective, why shouldn’t they view us as a pestilence; a plague that has visited death, torture, and destruction on all the other earthly inhabitants? We have, after all, caused the extinction of many hundreds of species. Currently one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one in three amphibians, and one in three conifers and similar plants are at risk for extinction because of our actions. Almost no forms of plants or animals have escaped our ruinous hand.2

We fear space aliens might try to exterminate us, hunt us, devour us, “domesticate” us, murder us for profit or thrill. These fears spring from the fear that they might be too much like us.  If aliens are “intelligent” in the same manner we credit ourselves, then they might well treat us precisely as we have treated our fellow beings with whom we share this planet. Blind, groping creatures, we experience existential angst about our presumed cosmic solitary existence, while annihilating untold billions of fellow earthlings. A mirror, not a telescope is needed discover alien visitors: We are the aliens on this planet. Frightful aliens. The monsters that haunt our worst nightmares are us.

Play with Your Digits

You are about to enter a Twilight Zone of contradiction and paradox, where the boundaries between “real” and “not real” are blurred. We will travel to strange, seemingly incomprehensible places, only to discover we have arrived home. I begin our journey with an invitation: “Let’s Play!”

Digital Logic

Let’s begin with the digits that compose our modern world.

Our virtual world, a dreamscape projected through a screen, is anchored in electrical processes and material hardware that follow the dictates of the physical world and logical laws. Microchips containing a staggering number of electrical “switches” that are knitted together in quick changing patterns of electrical circuits are the basis of cyberspace. Each of these switches, or bits, possess only two possibilities: either “on” or “off”, which typically are assigned a digital value of 1 or 0.

Pictures, music, images, broadcasts, streaming, data—just about all forms of information and electronic communication—are now digitalized. This process is accomplished by segmenting analog signals, such as sound or light waves, which are continuous, into the tiniest of discrete bits of information, and converting letters, numbers, and other forms of information into a bit string. The binary format, either 1 or 0, allows for easy transmission, manipulation, and storage of information. Our digitalized world is organized by machines that can, at lightning speed, conduct huge calculations with bits composed of the binary, either 1 or 0.

This binary, either-or structure presupposes an assumption that a bit cannot be “on” and “off”, “0” and “1”, simultaneously. This assumption is so obvious, so basic to our understanding of how things exist in the world that it constitutes a fundamental law of logic: the Law of Non-Contradiction. This Law states that it is impossible for something to be A (i.e., “on” or “1”) and not-A  (i.e., “off” or “0”) at the same time. This is considered a first principle of logic upon which all else rests.  

Cosmic Logic

The cosmos, surprisingly, defies our logical sensibilities. Quantum mechanics, which is the fundamental physical process that constitutes everything in the universe, is based on the seeming impossibility that something can simultaneously be A AND not-A. So, for example, in quantum mechanics, light can be both a wave AND a particle; we just don’t know which until we look.

Efforts are underway to construct a computer with exponentially greater power than current computers that exploits the logic-befuddling quantum properties that something can be simultaneously A and not-A. These properties include quantum entanglement and spooky action at a distance. When particles are quantum entangled, the effects on one particle will instantaneously affect the others—even if they are located at opposite ends of the cosmos. These instantaneous effects over such great distances cannot be explained by our current understanding of the physical universe; spooky action at a distance is the phrase used to describe this.1

Quantum mechanics not only is revolutionizing computing, it also has shattered our assumptions about reality. Obvious principles of logic—overturned. Entanglement of particles with mutual, instantaneous influence across unimaginable distances—inexplicable. The world hangs suspended, particle AND wave, “0” AND “1” awaiting interaction with a macroscopic system— such as us—to give it form. We cannot assume a “gods eye” position of observing, measuring, and understanding the workings of the universe independent of our own place, time, and actions in it. The ground beneath our feet is unstable.

Playful Logic

Another AND subverts the seemingly obvious Law of Non-Contradiction: play. Playing is no simple matter, as it requires sophisticated communication abilities. A dog that playfully nips another must communicate, “This nip is not really a nip”, otherwise the nip could precipitate a fight rather than a playful response. This is typically communicated by exaggerated movements of some kind, such as paws out, head lowered, tail wagging, and galumphing about. These are metacommunicative messages that signal: The nip (A) is not really a nip (not-A).2

These metacommunications entail distancing from the ongoing stream of messages; stepping outside the stream to signal how these messages should be interpreted. Play requires self-referential awareness of being “the one doing the signaling,” as well as awareness of the other as the “one to whom the signals are meant” (and who, also, is “one who signals”).The player acts “as if” the bite is real and must have “double knowledge”: being able to tell the difference between the actual and pretend bite at the same time. It is both “real” and “not real.”

Play engenders a deeper kind of knowing; both a cognitive double knowledge of “as if,” and a social entanglement with another, forged in mutually sharing that a “bite is not a bite.” For these reasons, play is often used as a marker for assessing the relative cognitive and social capacities among species. It is also considered a nascent form of a much more sophisticated mental ability: representation.

Re-Present

“This is not a pipe.”

Representation consists of an object or referent (A) that is re-presented by a sign or symbol (not-A). The re-presentation is both A, as it acts “as if” it were A, AND not-A, because it stands in place of A. Representations can take many forms, from images, to words, numbers, and sounds. Untethered from reality, existing in its own created reality, a representation affords leeway from the represented, allowing us to play with it in symbolic ways, exploring novel, strange, fantastic, comical possibilities.

We easily can, and do, become swept into the represented reality without realizing that it is an “as if” one. We lead a “double life.” Magritte, a 20th century French painter, humorously points this out in his painting, “This is not a pipe.” We initially are confused by the painting because we immediately assume, it is a pipe. But it is, AND is not, a pipe. The painting amuses because it playfully exposes our taken-for-granted double life. We dwell within a representational world as strange, peculiar, and bizarre as quantum mechanics.3

Paradoxical Power of AND

While representation is not the real thing itself, it does, paradoxically, enable us to grasp reality in a more fundamental way. Quantum mechanics, for example, affords an exceedingly precise understanding of the cosmos, which is understood through mathematics, perhaps the most abstract and detached of all forms of representation. Indeed, quantum mechanics is an abstract mathematical reality whose representational fidelity to reality is tested, empirically, in extraordinarily complex and abstract ways. We are a like blind man, probing the world with a mathematical stick. The same can be said for language, art, and music—all of which, in themselves, are not “real”— but it is specifically their “as if” quality that affords us the ability to “see” with greater depth and clarity.

Logical contradictions and paradox, ironically, empower us. Thus do we catch a glimmer of the dizzying hall of mirrors that comprise ourselves and the cosmos that we inhabit.

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