Throughout our history, we humans have been problem solvers. Of course, many of the problems we’ve had to solve have been problems of our own making, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that we have mostly found solutions to them.
But what’s interesting to me is how often we, knowing the solutions to problems, nevertheless decide to do nothing to change the situation for the better. For example, we know that getting regular exercise will make us healthier – increase our metabolism, decrease our blood pressure, improve our blood sugar levels – and yet many of us don’t exercise regularly.
The same applies to what we put in our mouths: we know eating lots of fruits and vegetables is healthier than a diet with lots of meat and processed food. Cooking at home is better than eating out. Kale and eggplant and broccoli are good; French fries and burgers and milkshakes are bad. Yet…
Why do we choose to ignore these problems? Largely because we don’t perceive these problems as problems. If I like hamburgers and playing video games rather than sipping water and munching on a carrot while I take a long walk, what’s the problem? If I have a heart attack and my doctor tells me I have to give up smoking or eat better or get some exercise, then I’ll do it – or at least I’ll consider it seriously. Until then, don’t bother me. Go preach to the rest of the world and leave me alone.
The planet is warming? I don’t really see a problem. I don’t notice any major difference in my life as a result. Sure, it doesn’t get as cold as it used to in the winter, and it seems like we’re having more flooding events, but other than that, no big deal.
Those nerdy scientists will figure something out if it becomes a big enough problem. They always find a solution eventually. So why should I have to pay an extra dollar a gallon for gasoline? Why should I have to pay an energy surcharge on my utility bill? That’s government overreach. Let’s wait till it becomes a problem and then we’ll fix it.
But of course, even though we’ve always come up with some sort of solution to our problems (or a solution has occurred regardless of our efforts – like with the 1918 flu, which just sort of faded away), that doesn’t mean a solution will always be possible. For millions of years the dinosaurs ruled the planet, escaping extinction many times.
Until the last time.
That same fate may befall us. Our executioner may be bacterial or viral. It may be a combination of causative events. It may be slow, a gradual diminishment of the population that tails off to nothing over hundreds of years.
But I suspect we are headed for an ending of sorts, a time when humans will no longer be the dominant species on the planet. It won’t happen next year. It probably won’t happen in the next century. But I believe it will happen eventually.
What can we do about it? Many things. We can devote more resources to fighting bacteria and viruses. We can try to combat climate change by modifying our behavior, our energy usage. We can have fewer children to decrease the stress we place on our world. All these things will help. And we mostly won’t do any of them until we have to, until it’s actually too late.
Then we’ll lament our leaders’ shortsightedness and curse our forebears for their selfishness and ignorance, but that won’t really be us. That will be our great-great-great-grandchildren, and we’ll be long buried, having passed our time in luxury relative to the pain they will know.
Words matter. We all know that. We even learn a nursery rhyme to try to convince ourselves that they don’t: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But of course that’s a lie. Words can hurt.
Words matter for lots of reasons. If we don’t define words the same way, it’s difficult to communicate with each other properly. For example, the word enlightened can mean that someone has achieved spiritual knowledge or insight – one has come to see the light. It can also mean that someone has achieved a well-informed outlook that is independent of spirituality.
Both definitions are correct. But if someone is discussing enlightenment in a spiritual sense while the listener is hearing about enlightenment in a secular way, the two people aren’t really communicating as well as they might assume.
People often get annoyed with me when I want to define terms. They’ll say, “That’s just semantics” when I try to narrow a definition to something we can all agree on, but semantics (the meaning of a word, phrase or sentence) is important when trying to understand exactly what it is that the person communicating is actually trying to say.
On the other hand, sometimes it helps when we don’t know precisely what someone means by the words spoken. For example, two nations (like the United States and North Korea) might find themselves in disagreement over how they both ought to behave. One might accuse the other of violating international law by testing missiles while the other might accuse the first of improperly implementing sanctions in an attempt to suppress its ability to reach its full potential.
The President threatens North Korea. The Dictator threatens the United States. No one knows exactly how far each leader will go. Both sides say they won’t back down, yet both sides, for now, avoid a military confrontation.
Depending on which side you’re on, you’re likely to see your leaders’ words as correct. North Koreans believe that they must negotiate from a position of strength while Americans think that if North Koreans ever get the ability to strike the US mainland with a missile, that would be a disaster.
Perhaps it would. We don’t know for certain that North Korea would attack us if it could, but we suspect that it might, so we do what we can to prevent that from being a possibility.
They fire off missiles. We send an armada to the Sea of Japan. Our actions bring us closer to the brink of war while our words leave a great deal of room for interpretation, which forces everyone to slow down and try to ascertain the meaning behind the threats. If either side knew exactly what the other meant, that side would have an enormous advantage.
So words matter. Sometimes it’s important that we understand what our neighbor is saying, and sometimes it’s important that we don’t.
I’ve been thinking about exercise a lot lately. How valuable is it? How much is too much? What’s the minimum I should be doing? Can I get it in a pill?
Well, the last question is easy to answer. No. There’s no substitute for getting off your duff and moving your body – whether that be swimming or running or playing some sort of sport or even just walking. Actually, they’re now saying there are tremendous benefits to be had from crawling.
As for the first question, exercise is far more valuable than we thought it was even 20 years ago. From reducing heart disease (which we knew about) to diminishing the chances of acquiring Alzheimer’s and improving mental acuity (which we may have suspected but didn’t know), it gives us benefits to both body and mind.
As for the minimum amount we should do, current guidelines suggest we get 150 minutes of moderate activity a week – or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. When you think about it, 150 minutes isn’t very much out of 6,720 minutes (which is how many hours we’re awake per week if we get 8 hours of sleep a night. It’s a little over 20 minutes a day.
Why is that so hard for so many?
I suspect that some people have taken a break from exercise for several years, if not longer, and that any exercise beyond minimal walking results in soreness and nausea, among other discomforts. It’s painful to exercise when doing so makes you feel bad, especially if you’re not training for some goal (like the Olympics or even a “fun run”).
But if you keep putting it off, you’re only going to make it harder on yourself as your muscles grow weaker.
On the other hand, waiting to exercise until you’re older seems to have some benefits. For example, our bodies seem to have a limited number of movements available before they begin to break down. You cannot run marathons every year for 30 or 40 years unless you’ve been genetically blessed.
You cannot put strain on your joints every year for 40 or 50 years unless God has somehow given you perfect fluidity or recoverability or some sort of enviable ability to heal yourself. That’s why people who were very athletic when younger often have difficulty moving around when older. Their bodies did what they could for as long as they could and now they can’t perform at even an average level.
So how much is too much? Studies have shown that marathoners and people who engage in strenuous exercise often suffer kidney damage from dehydration. They also can have more heart problems than sedentary folks. They can even suffer from depression, exhaustion and serious injuries.
What we know is that doing nothing is bad. Exercising to excess is also bad. The answer, as usual, lies in moderation. Taking the Goldilocks approach. Do something every day unless you’re sick or injured, but don’t go overboard. Work different muscle groups. Combine aerobic and anaerobic (weightlifting, e.g.) workouts. Eventually you’ll find you feel better and you will (probably) live longer.
The two main drivers of war are philosophy and land. Under the broader category of philosophy, we can identify two subsets – religion and nationality – while battles over land often boil down to economic security.
Why does this matter? Because if we can figure out the causes, we can perhaps identify solutions that can minimize the occurrence of such tragedies. And although war between nation states is on the decline, war at the smaller level, at the regional level, continues at a pretty good clip.
For example, we in the US don’t consider ourselves to be at war except in the broadest terms. We’re assisting in Iraq (about 5,000 troops) and Afghanistan (about 8,000 troops). We’re trying to wipe out ISIS and Al-Qaeda. We’re threatening Syria and North Korea and possibly Russia, but we’re not sending thousands of troops to do battle anywhere in the world.
On the other hand, ISIS and Al-Qaeda are at war with us, while Syria, North Korea, Iran and Russia are committing hostile acts against us or wish they could commit hostile acts against us, so even though we don’t consider ourselves at war against them, they might not look at it the same way.
So if we define war more broadly than nation states engaging in combat operations against other nation states, we discover that there are many conflicts ongoing throughout the world, and we figure into a good percentage of them.
How do we diminish these conflicts? By either aligning our philosophy to better match the philosophies of the groups that wish us ill, by forcing those groups to change their philosophies to become more like us, or by somehow bestowing on them greater economic security so that they’re less inclined to want to attack us, or anyone else.
Examining the philosophy angle, we can immediately see the difficulties presented. We are unwilling to change how we view the world or God or our place on this earth for the sake of a bunch of radicals.
And the other side likewise refuses to alter their views of the world or God or their place in it. We think we’re right. They think they’re right. Never the twain shall meet.
No, philosophy is not the answer.
Which leaves us with economic security. If we want to stop the resentment and rage directed against us, we need to be willing to provide financial aid or at least revise our policies to assist those in dire straits so they can find a way out of their economic troubles.
Building manufacturing facilities in Syria and Venezuela. Educating students in South Sudan and Nigeria, and providing jobs when they complete their schooling. Assisting farmers in Afghanistan and the West Bank so they can grow the crops they need to provide for their populations. These are the kinds of things that can improve the world order and lessen the impact of conflict around the world.
Granted, these aren’t simple things. No one wants to risk lives and millions of dollars on building infrastructure that rebels and radicals are likely to bomb into oblivion. But here’s the thing. If we start, if we offer hope, the citizens in these areas will help us police them. If they have the potential for good jobs, they’ll help keep the terrorists at bay.
Obviously there will be setbacks, facilities bombed and employees murdered. Any progress forward will come with the occasional step back.
But the problems the Third World faces aren’t going away. They’re here for the long run. And if we keep ignoring these areas, their increasingly desperate denizens are going to engage in increasingly desperate actions.
Even a small portion of what we spend on military might can go a long way toward solving some less developed country’s economic issues. We can start small, work our way up, showing how it can be done in those areas that aren’t quite so problematic, gradually easing the more troublesome spots into economic success.
But I suspect our leaders, our large businesses, will reject what I propose out of hand. ‘Why should we sacrifice for these hoodlums?’ they’ll say. ‘We worked hard to get here. Why do we have to help them? Let them do it themselves.’
And yet … if we don’t help them, we condemn ourselves to an almost endless cycle of hatred and conflict. We’ll need to beef up our military spending because as the situations in an increasingly hostile environment worsen, the pressures on us will be exacerbated too.
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.