I’ve been thinking about illness for the past few days while fighting the flu, noting that it acts upon us in two ways. First, of course, it drains us physically, dispersing pain in many forms. The flu, for example, makes us uncomfortable by not only giving us chills and hot flashes, it also makes every muscle, tendon and joint in the body ache.
Second, it drains us mentally. Emotionally. We devote so much effort to trying to get well that we struggle to focus on anything else. Every time we decide to get back to work – and I work out of my house, so I won’t be infecting anyone – we find ourselves distracted by a cough or sore throat or runny nose or general weakness.
We fall prey to many kinds of illnesses, and as broad as the spectrum of disease is, the flu, at first glance, seems a pretty good one to suffer from unless you’ve got a compromised immune system. But then I think back to the pandemic of 1918 when between 50 and 100 million people succumbed to it – possibly as much as five percent of the population.
One of the biggest surprises about that pandemic was that it killed previously healthy young adults in far greater numbers than would have been expected. There are many possible reasons for this, but we don’t need to detail them. Instead, we just have to note that those of us who see the flu as not bad may in fact be wrong.
Yes, cancer is horrible, as are ALS and Alzheimer’s and MS and coronary artery disease and any number of other ailments. But the thing is, those diseases affect only certain segments of the population – Alzheimer’s largely a disease of the elderly, for example. And as bad as they are to those who are afflicted, they don’t have the same potential to cause global chaos as a new variant of the flu.
Microbes can reproduce about every 20 minutes. That means, for every human generation, there are many, many microbial generations – many opportunities for evolution to a new and more dangerous flu virus. Add to that our increasingly global connectivity and you have a recipe for disaster.
What are we doing about it? Not much. We’re increasing our military spending and focusing on immigrants and tax reform and health care, but not the kind of health care that might save us from a pandemic.
When the next major flu outbreak hits (not if, but when), will we be ready for it? All signs point to no. We continue to consider the flu to be a nuisance rather than a deadly enemy so we don’t devote the kind of research to new vaccines that we should. We don’t prepare our emergency rooms and hospitals to deal with the massive influx of the sick that would flood them upon another pandemic.
We need to educate ourselves to the potential disaster that awaits. There’s a good book on this subject – Deadliest Enemy, by Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker. You should consider reading it and then trying to put pressure on our politicians to find ways to make it easier to protect ourselves long term.
If we don’t act, we may someday decide that the flu is not so great an illness to have after all.
We all get angry. It grows in all our gardens – a base human emotion, hard wired into us by millions of years of evolution, rooted to the depths of our emotional structure. We can no more eliminate anger than we can lust or fear or joy.
The other day, I was driving on the interstate when a moron in a minivan – a little ahead of me and to my left – decided to brake and cut across two lanes of traffic to get to the rapidly approaching exit ramp, all without signaling. I was forced to brake and swerve and hope no one was directly behind me. Fortunately, I managed to avert an accident.
But I immediately became angry at the chucklehead who decided to act stupidly, disregarding the rules of the road. And I became angry at myself for failing to sound my horn, to let this moron know she had just done something completely idiotic. However, I was so busy trying to avoid a collision I had no time to blare a warning in the moment.
It took me quite a while to calm down from that event, to restore a sense of inner calm. Even now, as I write this, a hint of anger tries to emerge at the utter incompetence or indifference of that driver.
My point is, anger sprouts like a weed if we don’t manage it effectively. A little can be good. It can serve as a spice. But too much can choke off whatever else you’re trying to grow. It must be weeded occasionally, cultivated properly.
We need to choose only the best varieties of anger, those that will help foment change, either to the world or ourselves. Lashing out at imbeciles for their bizarre behavior feels good in the short term, but isn’t very helpful in the long term. We need to channel that anger, focus it on specific goals, make it work for us as a motivator.
By selecting only the very best angers to nurture – the unfairness of slavery (yes, still a problem in the twenty-first century, particularly sexual slavery) or the politicians who don’t see their own blinding hypocrisy – we can keep our emotional gardens healthy.
Work your anger every day, weed out the slights and miscarriages that choke off the righteous rage of true injustice.
So next time you get angry, stop. Fall to your metaphorical knees and examine the stalks and shoots before you. Why are you angry? Is it worth it? What sort of action ought you to take as a result? Is it some large issue that demands a response? Is it a minor peccadillo that can be shrugged off?
If it’s a big deal, water it with a reasoned response that’s well thought out and appropriate to the offense. If it’s a smaller issue, yank it from the soil, thin the growth a little and let the dying stems fertilize the more hopeful emotions in your garden.
We began around 3 million years ago (give or take a couple hundred thousand years). We evolved over time, becoming smarter in some ways, less intelligent in others as we have focused our efforts on increasingly narrow fields of study.
For example, we know a lot more about computers than even our grandparents, but most of us lack the knowledge to efficiently grow our own crops or raise healthy sheep. With each generation, we become just that tiny amount more specialized.
Yet as a species, we move forward, creating monuments to our shared knowledge – beautiful buildings, massive dams and bridges, tunnels under the ocean and seed banks to preserve foods from potential future disasters.
We’ve gradually migrated into cities – fewer and fewer of us staying in rural areas – because it’s easier to make a decent living where we’re congregated together, where we can take advantage of efficiencies and economies of scale.
We’re close to having self-driving cars and robotic surgeons. We already have smart machines that can handle a multitude of transactions. Rarely do we reach a human being when we call a company seeking assistance with some problem. And for the most part, we can get the help we need without having to speak with one of our fellow creatures.
On average, we’re wealthier and healthier than we’ve ever been, historically speaking. We seem to have reached the pinnacle of success. And maybe we have. Maybe it’s downhill from here. I’m not saying that’s the case. I’m saying it’s worth considering.
We have altered our planet more than any other species that ever lived. We’ve blasted away mountaintops, dredged swamps, altered the course of rivers, denuded the forests that once spread from sea to sea. We’ve warmed the atmosphere and the oceans just by doing the ordinary things that keep us comfortable, by building the nests where we live and work and play.
We’ve set in motion numerous processes – some intended (some not) – that now may be unstoppable. We don’t know that, of course. But it’s possible. We’ve gotten so good at killing bacteria and viruses that they have to adapt at a much faster pace than ever before.
We’ve brought certain species to the point of extinction, meaning other species have been irrevocably altered as a result – not always for the worse, but not always for the better either.
We’ve stretched our ability to feed ourselves by the use of genetic modification and the application of chemicals such that there is little margin for error. If something catastrophic were to happen to the wheat crop or the rice crop or the corn crop, the challenges we face might be incredibly high.
We’ve strained the honeybee population almost to the breaking point. And we need those creatures to pollinate our fields and farms – at least to the same degree as we’re used to.
We’ve brought ourselves to the very top, getting more efficient, more specialized, more dependent on each other to keep our human machinery running at peak levels. We assume that we’ll be able to adapt to any changes that occur because we’ve always been able to in the past.
But what if we’re wrong? What if some catastrophe is lurking out there, as yet unknown? Greenland suddenly shedding its glaciers or the eruption of Yellowstone or a germ that mutates in just the wrong way. What then?
Some of us will survive. Probably many of us. But many of us will perish. Perhaps most of us. Perhaps we’ll be down to a precious one or two million, scrabbling to survive in a hostile world, trying to start over. And maybe the survivors will succeed. But maybe they won’t.
The point is – we may be at our peak. This may be our finest hour. We might be on the descent from here. We can’t know that. And I’m not trying to bring anybody down. But I think we need to consider the possibility that our actions are denigrating our environment to the point where it may not be habitable by this many of us for many years longer.
We can’t plan for everything, of course. Some things are beyond even our control – like a killer asteroid. But there are many things we can change. We’ve done it many times before. We just need to want to. So far, we haven’t wanted to.
Happily Ever After – This is how most children’s books end – and they lived happily ever after. What a cruel punishment!
To live happily ever after is to live in ignorance of the state of the world, to be unaware of the problems people have created for each other since the dawn of our existence. Yes, one should strive for happiness. I don’t dispute that. Happiness is a fine goal, but it ought to be tempered with knowledge.
To see species approaching extinction, to see wars fought over trivialities, to see drugs and gangs destroy lives, to see wealthy politicians work to increase the rewards given to their rich contributors at the expense of the bottom 90 percent: this is to see the inequities inherent in our society.
How would you feel if you lived in a castle while all around you peasants toiled and starved? Well, if you were ignorant, you’d be perfectly happy. But if you walked around and talked to the people who kept you in your finery, I suspect you’d be pretty darn upset.
Why should some who toil benefit while others don’t?
One common answer is that the rich earned their money through hard work, or at least through the hard work of their parents. Another is that they took the risks no one else was willing to take. Fair enough. For those people, good on them. But some of those folks had special opportunities few others received.
Donald Trump, for example, was given millions of dollars by his father – much more than the $1 million loan he claimed he received. But even if he wasn’t lying and it was just $1 million, that’s still a lot of money.
Beyond that, if we assume a great many people worked hard or took risks to become rich, what we find when we dig a little deeper is that as they accumulated wealth, they began to seek out special favors that were granted by politicians in exchange for favorable treatment down the road.
One hand washing the other.
So even if the wealth was accumulated legitimately at the beginning, what happens over time is that the system becomes corrupted. Money begets money.
Even Warren Buffett is not blameless. He asks his managers to make certain profit numbers with respect to Return On Investment. He doesn’t need or want details – he just wants his people to make their numbers.
And if someone outside (or even inside) the company has to suffer, well – so be it. It’s not his fault. Like Sergeant Schultz, he knows nothing.
The point is, happily ever after means stupid ever after. Would you wish that on anyone? I certainly wouldn’t.
What is the soul? This is a question science can’t answer – at least, not satisfactorily. Merriam-Webster offers this definition: “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.” And various religions offer various definitions – some equating the soul with the spirit, some differentiating the two terms.
In an earlier post – http://www.mcellistrem.com/2017/02/13/do-we-have-souls-free-will/ – I examined whether humans have souls or free will and I explained my position mostly in terms of free will because that’s where the science led me. Psychologists have studied the issue of free will much more than the issue of souls because the former is much easier to quantify and measure.
But the soul (or spirit), if it exists, generally amounts to a God-given essence that lies behind or beneath the individual – an inanimate something that provides a connection to the divine, lifting us above the animals and plants that surround us.
Possibly this is nothing more than human consciousness, the ability of a collection of cells to exponentially increase the body’s understanding beyond what one might expect from a group of chemically driven biological entities that have coalesced into a larger whole.
And possibly it is a holy noumenon handed down from on high and judged according to how well it handles the human machine it drives. If so, we have a slight problem because our understanding of what God wants (assuming God exists) relies on texts that are often obscure.
One holy book may tell us to do X while another instructs us to do Y. Even the same book can offer contradictory notions of what kinds of behavior are pleasing to the Lord. The sacrifices of the Old Testament give way to the forgiveness of the New. Yet even the New Testament contemplates slavery as an ordinary human practice.
Putting that aside, another question occurs: what happens to the soul when we die? Does it go to heaven or hell, purgatory or limbo? And when does it depart the body? Upon brain death? The heart stopping? Somewhere in between? We know that electrical activity in the brain continues for a short time after death. Is that the soul getting ready to depart or something like the run-on of a car engine after the ignition is turned off?
If we could transfer our consciousness into a computer or robot, would the soul follow? Or would the soul stay behind in the slab of meat that no longer holds the mind? If the transporters of Star Trek existed and we could beam ourselves (recreate ourselves, actually) to another location, would the soul come along?
Although the question of whether we have souls is for philosophers, not scientists, the bottom line is that we likely will never know the answer while we occupy the green side of the grass. If one particular philosopher makes sense to you, then you should feel free to follow the teachings espoused by that person.
But to assume that this one philosopher speaks the universal truth of all mankind is to lock yourself in a cage, allowing yourself to be fed by only one jailer (even if a benevolent one).
What do I believe? I don’t know whether we have souls. I suspect we don’t. I think the most likely explanation is that we – being desirous of anything that helps us understand the world – created the notion of the soul as a way of accentuating our belonging in a community separate from the rest of the world – a special community that makes us feel better about ourselves.
Either way, isn’t it nice to be able to contemplate the mysteries of our existence in this grand universe?
For more on this topic, packed into an acclaimed thriller, you can get The Devereaux Decision by clicking on the image below.
Do humans have souls? This is a question that has plagued philosophers for centuries. Aristotle, for example, believed that plants have vegetative souls, animals have slightly more advanced souls and humans sit at the top because they have intellect and reason. But Aristotle believed the soul and body are one thing – not separate.
Descartes, on the other hand, believed that the body and soul are different – that the soul exists apart from the body. To Descartes, the mind must be different than the body because we can doubt that our bodies exist but we can’t doubt that our minds do.
Yet the mind (or soul or free will) and the body interact. We think of things and make them happen by telling our bodies to perform the necessary acts. I want that ice cream cone so my hand reaches out and grabs it. The mind (insubstantial) tells the body (substantial) to act and the body obeys.
Is that what really happens? How does a non-material entity cause a material entity to move? What is the mechanism at play?
When we measure physical movement, we see the causes at the microscopic level – how the electrons, protons and neutrons act in concert to lift the finger or pet the dog. It’s all quantifiable. But we can’t measure anything beyond the physical. We can’t determine whether an insubstantial entity (like God or the soul or free will) is directing objects in the material world to move.
Even stranger, many scientists now believe that when we act, we do so before we consciously decide to do so. In other words, when I decide to lift my right arm, the parts of my body that are needed to move my right arm begin to work toward lifting my right arm prior to my brain transmitting the signal to the body. In the 1980s, the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated that electrical activity builds up in the brain before the person consciously decides to move the arm.
Every action we take can be explained by observation of physical processes. So if that’s true, where does the soul come into it? Or free will?
Libet’s experiments seem to suggest that there’s no such thing as free will, because if we have free will, we must intend to act before we do, and our bodies, as shown by his research, instigate movement prior to our minds being aware of it. So how can we have free will if we act before we know we’re going to act?
What apparently happens is that our brains create a story to explain our actions after our bodies have already set the wheels in motion. Thus, the “free will” that we have is actually the sum of our genetic makeup and environmental experiences up until the point where our bodies decide to act, at which point our brains decide to explain to ourselves why we acted the way we did.
It’s important that we think of this as free will because studies have shown that when we believe we don’t have free will, we become less moral, less creative and less grateful.
So even if we don’t have free will, we should act as if we do. As for souls, the jury is still out on that one.
We all claim to be interested in truth and yet our actions often tell a different story. Why is that? Partly it’s because truth is often difficult to ascertain. Some folks, for example, believe that vaccines cause autism despite the fact that every legitimate scientific test to date disagrees.
Some people believe that fluoride in the water causes arthritis and cancer and brittle bones and brain problems and kidney problems and … well, you get the idea.
Some people believe that climate change is a hoax and that since the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is around .04% – 400 parts per million – it can’t possibly be warming our planet to the level most scientists claim.
Some people believe that banning immigrants from 7 countries that are largely Muslim will make us safer even though the 9/11 terrorists came mostly from Saudi Arabia and that country is not included in the ban – and even though some countries in the ban (like Iran) have not produced terrorists who have attacked Americans on our own soil.
The truth can hurt.
Part of the problem is that for many scenarios it is difficult to ascertain what truth is. For example, when a massive flood strikes a Midwest state, that event usually has multiple causes – like heavy rain and the inability of the soil to soak up water (often because too many trees have been cut down and trees capture a lot of groundwater). Climate change isn’t the sole cause of the flooding. Sure, it contributes to the flooding, but it isn’t the only cause.
This gives people wiggle room to continue believing what they want to believe, to cherry pick the facts that support their belief system. After all, it’s uncomfortable to admit we’re wrong. And the more deeply held the belief, the more difficult it is to admit our errors.
Look at slave owners in the pre-Civil War South. They were convinced that they were following the natural order, that African-Americans couldn’t take care of themselves. The slaves seemed unable to understand what was being demanded of them; they worked slowly and made lots of mistakes. “We’re taking care of them,” the slave owners said, “because they’re subhuman.”
Now imagine you’re a slave and forced to do your master’s bidding, the worst jobs, with no pay and poor food and subject to being killed or tortured if you disobey. Wouldn’t you pretend not to understand? Wouldn’t you work slowly? Wouldn’t you fight back in the only way possible? Of course you would.
So the slave owners had a distorted image of reality based on conditions they themselves created that sabotaged the opposing viewpoint. These are the kinds of contortions we put our minds through every day in order to reconcile what we see with what we believe.
Many truths are not absolute. As a result, many of us have come to believe, wrongly, that there is no such thing as absolute truth. We sow distrust of those who preach opposing views and point to subjective truths as evidence that we’re right and they’re wrong. And we get to keep believing in the world we have invented for ourselves.
But in the meantime, we march inexorably toward certain realities, like the fact that if we continue on this course, much of Florida will be underwater in a hundred years. Tornadoes and floods and droughts will become much more common as weather patterns shift due to changes in the jet stream caused by a warmer Arctic and increased evaporation. Even though that will be long after I’m dead and I won’t be here to witness it, that doesn’t mean I don’t care if it happens.
So we need to stop babying ourselves, nurturing our narrow worldviews. We need to study what the experts in given fields say and discount the solitary voices of extreme dissent. We need to make sacrifices for our collective future or else that future is going to be awfully unpleasant.
Most of us have heard about people who have had near-death experiences – seeing a bright light or loved ones who have crossed over or floating above their bodies and looking down at themselves.
These experiences lead us to believe that we have a soul separate from our bodies and that when we die we will be transported off to heaven or some other afterlife. It’s a pretty thought. But is it accurate?
Obviously, we don’t know with metaphysical certainty.
However, we’re starting to understand these experiences much better. For example, a Dutch neurologist, Gert van Dijk, at Leiden University Medical Center, has been carrying out experiments involving making patients faint and seeing what sort of near-death experiences they have when that happens.
They commonly hear voices, sense pleasant things or feel like they’re in a different world. And this actually happens, according to his measurements, because of a temporary impairment of blood flow to the brain. If blood flow is stopped for too long a period, that oxygen deprivation will impair memory so much that you can’t remember the near-death experience.
This is why some people who have heart attacks (or nearly die for some other reason) recall these “afterlife” sensations while others do not. For those whose brains were deprived of oxygen for short periods of time, they can “remember” these experiences. If their brains were deprived of oxygen for a longer period, they recall nothing.
NASA uses centrifuges to create massive g-forces in a controlled environment as a way to teach pilots how to keep blood in their brains. During these training sessions, pilots eventually black out. As they go in and out of consciousness, they report visions and hallucinations much like what patients experience when they almost die. Tunnels, white lights, family coming to greet them: they experienced all these things.
Why does this happen?
One theory is that the brain needs to construct a narrative to explain the world and our place in it. So as the brain loses oxygen and can no longer function properly, it attempts to explain why that is happening by piecing together a story.
But why this particular story? Because when the body is shutting down, it releases opiates or stimulates the brain’s reward system in the temporal lobe. This warm sensation often coincides with strong spiritual or religious feelings. It happens commonly with people who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy.
A University of Michigan study showed that rats’ brains continue to function as if the rats were conscious for about 30 seconds after cardiac arrest. And some of the electrical activity was greater than what the rats would normally experience while awake. So we think rats have near-death experiences too, though it’s difficult to get them to open up about them.
At any rate, this isn’t proof that there’s no afterlife, but it does give one pause. There may be something beyond this world. But there may not. Believe what you wish, but remember that belief is all it is. It’s not certainty.
Many of us have heard of placebos – fake medical treatments that are used to analyze the efficacy of real treatments. But the interesting thing about placebos is that even though they aren’t real medical treatments, they have a real effect on patients who receive them.
Sometimes the effect is negative, but often it’s positive. For example, people taking a placebo might experience the side effects that generally come with a particular medication. On the other hand, they might begin to feel better and even become better as a result.
One of the odd things about placebos is that they can even be effective when people know they’re taking a placebo. Because of ethical concerns, the dispensation of placebos has gotten a bit complicated, but some studies have allowed for giving patients placebos in addition to their regular medication and telling patients that even though the placebos do not contain active ingredients, they might feel some relief from taking them.
And then, surprisingly, a number of people do feel better. One would think the mind would inform the body that the “treatment” these people are receiving is nothing – a sugar pill or colored water – but the mind doesn’t work that way.
Instead, the mind somehow decides to manipulate the body to achieve the result the mind wants. It’s sort of like the power of positive thinking. And it can be good or bad. If a person takes a placebo to cure cancer, more than likely, the person is going to die. If, however, the person takes a placebo to fight depression, there’s a good chance the person will be helped just as much by the placebo as by antidepressants.
And the placebo effect isn’t just a medical phenomenon. It works in other ways too. For example, many (if not most) office thermostats are fake. Yet people feel better when they can “adjust” the thermostat in their office. Also, the “Close” button on most elevators doesn’t actually speed up the process of closing the doors. Yet people feel better when they’re allowed to press the button. They feel like the doors close faster.
Prayer may be another placebo. We pray for someone who becomes ill and the person recovers, making us believe our prayers had something to do with it. And perhaps they did, even if the person didn’t know we were saying a prayer for his/her benefit.
More likely, however, is that the placebo effect was at work, either on the patient or on the person doing the praying. If the patient knows about the prayers, that can serve as a motivator to get well. Depending on the nature of the illness, a placebo might be enough to bring about real healing.
If the patient doesn’t know about the prayers, then the healing might just be coincidence. Certainly the person praying believes in the power of prayer and attributes the healing to the prayer while making excuses if the prayers don’t work. “I didn’t pray hard enough” or “God said: No” or “the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Many studies have been done on the power of prayer and almost all of them show that prayer is no more effective on healing than the rising of the moon. Yet people still believe. Why? Maybe because prayer is like meditation. It provokes a relaxation response in the body, whereby stress levels are reduced.
What does all this mean?
I think we should be happy our minds are strong enough to allow us to heal ourselves by many different methodologies. We can’t cure ourselves of everything, of course. And sometimes, prayers and placebos are downright harmful – such as when people rely on them too heavily, to the exclusion of more efficacious treatments.
But they have their place. So if you derive benefits from prayers or placebos, by all means: carry on.
We fight many battles in our lifetimes, some of them external, many more internal. We see perceived injustice – the world not operating the way we want it to – and we attack. Sometimes those battles are more easily understood than others: like WWI and WWII.
Sometimes the battles – particularly the internal ones – are harder to understand.
Why am I not full after eating half a pizza? Why do I yearn for yet another pair of shoes? Why do I feel unsatisfied with my life?
One battle (or perhaps, war) we can’t escape is over climate change. Why do some folks insist that the planet isn’t warming? Or insist that even if it is, human actions have nothing to do with it? I think it’s because people are comfortable within a certain range of ideas, and the notion that running one’s air conditioner at 68 degrees can somehow melt a glacier in Greenland seems ludicrous.
Plus, people have been screaming about the sky falling for years (decades, even) and nothing really bad has happened so far – at least nothing that scientists are willing to pin on global warming exclusively. Too many of us don’t see what the long-term problem is. “So what,” they say. “We’ll figure out a solution when we have to – and not before.”
This leads some of us to want to do battle. While the rest of us look around and say, “What the hell are you talking about? You’re an idiot. Things are fine.”
The Olmec said that. So did the Nabateans, the Aksumites and the Mycenaeans. And the Anasazi. Empires all, once upon a time. Now all gone.
Some of those people left their societies, recognizing the inevitability of collapse. Others stayed and fought until the end, hoping to save their culture, their fellow citizens. But at some point, the end became known to all but the deluded. Their world was dying and they could no longer save it, so those few who remained, those few still alive, were finally forced to move on.
I fear in many ways that we have reached that point. The end is known, at least by some of us. We have fought the battles and lost. We can continue the fight, hoping that this isn’t the end, but we know, deep down, that it is. We’re too late. We offer too little in the way of achievable solutions.
And this time there is nowhere to run. Our planet is full. We can’t just pack up and head to some undiscovered country where we can settle down and start anew. So do we keep fighting? And if so, how do we do it? Many of our fellow citizens don’t know what we’re upset about. They don’t see the decay. They think we’re like the old Greeks who lamented the youngsters disrupting their glorious empire.
Only those old Greeks were sort of right. That empire died out centuries ago. Yes, there’s still a country called Greece, but it’s no empire.
A call to violence seems too extreme. But civil discourse and peaceful protest seem to get us nowhere. Maybe the death of empires is inevitable. Maybe fighting against that kind of decline only results in frustration at our impotence. Maybe we should just accept that it’s too late to win the war.
But the smaller battles still rage around us. How do we continue the fight? One battle at a time, I suppose. One battle at a time.