497. Afterword

April 30, 2015

Cultural ideas (memes), once they become widely accepted or have even gone “viral,” develop a strong resistance to change. The idea of “artificial intelligence,” from a fanciful oxymoron (contradiction in terms because no one knows what authentic intelligence might be), has become the watchword of a burgeoning industry and is here to stay until it is replaced by the Next Big Thing that becomes culturally contagious.

I have used the word “inertia” to describe a cultural idea’s resistance to change. Once popularly accepted, it leads a life of its own. That is, once its collective memory achieves a critical mass within the human population, it becomes a contributor to our everyday system of belief.

Even after gravitational force, evolution, genetics, DNA, and both galactic and stellar evolution became fixtures of our cultural view of the universe (thanks to Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Tycho, Newton, Darwin, Franklin-Watson-Crick, and tens-of-thousands of others), the anthropocentric notion that humankind is the central focus of a god-driven universe persists, as if the sun and stars were still believed to revolve about us—we who give meaning to godly creation simply because we are born to that tenacious meme from our mistaken point of view.

Cultural inertia is a disease more deadening than ebola or dengue fever. It kills off tender minds of both children and adults well before their time. That is because the basis of perception is recognition enabled by memory, not any sensory impressions formed in the instant. We see largely what we have seen before and are familiar with. We grow uncomfortable when beyond the range of our past experience. Novelty in our eyes may capture our attention, but that doesn’t mean we accept, like, or understand it.

Ideas that become part of our general culture are usually put forward by groups that stand to profit from their acceptance. Economic theory flows from those who stand to make money, not from the host of disadvantaged others. Military theory flows from those who fight wars at a distance. Theology flows from those dependent on entire flocks of believers. Penal theory is proposed by those outside prison walls. Art theory blows on the winds of change, novelty, and aesthetic outrage.

Why am I reminding you of this? Because we are all heavily invested in our personal experience, existing as we do at the leading edge of our beliefs. And that edge is always pro or con, positive or negative, for or against—in a word, polarized. There it is, a double-edged sword at the heart of our beliefs. And that makes the world we live in polarized as a result of our thrusting our particular edge outward in our actions, frowns, smiles, and gestures of rejection or acceptance.

There are two sides to every truth, meme, and conviction. We’re either for-or-against it because that is how our minds work, balancing pros and cons, activations and inhibitions, two sides of every question. Yes or no. Yea or nay. Go or stop. Stay or leave. Fast or slow. Cold or hot. Sweet or sour. Brave or chicken. Rich or poor. Smart or dumb. Guilty or innocent. All or nothing.

We frame our options for doing anything at all in two columns, pro and con. Then we list the reasons for taking a particular action against the reasons for not taking it. We add up the two columns. The one with the most checkmarks wins. Yes, we are that simple minded.

Our muscles either flex or relax. What signal should we send? Uncertainty or hesitation leads to disaster. Timing is of the essence; the enemy is fast approaching. Now is our chance to decide. What should we do? How do we vote? Count us in or out? Subtlety is for wimps. Real men and women know right from wrong in any situation, and always do the right thing. Or, that is the popular myth.

Choices, nothing but choices. That is precisely why we have minds that engage with events and make decisions what to do. No matter how we decide, once we go one way or the other, we face another decision, which invariably leads to a train of others after that.

What if you had turned left and not right that day you met the girl who became your girlfriend who became your wife who bore your children who now have children of their own? What if, what if, what if. But you didn’t turn left, you turned right, and that has made all the difference throughout your life.

Speaking of what ifs, picture your genealogical tree for the past five generations, from your parents to their parents to their parents to their parents to their parents. Your parents to your great-great-great-grandparents. That’s a century’s worth of your family and recent genetic heritage, 126 people, all making countless decisions every day of their lives, all those decisions contributing to you and your specific genome. Not just contributing to, but focusing on you. If any one of them had lived differently, had gotten sick at the wrong time, had gone off to war, had fallen off a horse, had run a red light, had served chicken (with hidden bones) and not roast beef for dinner—where and who would you be today?

Think about it. Without consciousness that can weigh options and make decisions, and act on those decisions by tensing one set of muscles while relaxing others—none of us would be who we are today.

Yes, consciousness makes all the difference between living as a person and living as a mushroom, or even another person in our own family-community-culture-precinct of nature. What if we’d been born on another planet circling another sun in another galaxy? Wherever we are, consciousness is our guide every millisecond of every day of our lives.

How ironic is it, then, that we barely understand our own conscious processes, our own intelligence, our own opinions, fashions, fads, annoyances, habits, routines, prejudices, and orthodox beliefs? Our schools are all aimed outward into the world of memes, ideas, and traditions, not at the minds we bring with our lunchboxes and faithfully present to our homeroom teacher when we answer “Here” when she calls out our name.

Instead of fighting wars or trying to make a killing on Wall Street, why aren’t we all doing everything we can to understand our own minds to avoid doing more harm than good in the world?

Why, in particular, do we cling to ways and beliefs we don’t understand, yet commit ourselves to out of personal and cultural inertia? As if we were automatons or robots or zombies or idiots?

I’ve said it before and will say it here one last time: Know Thyself! Why else are we here?

It was in the minds of forgotten, long-ago thinkers that the notion of divinity was coded into a language of symbols and rituals to bring about the obedience of humanity to the will of lustrous gods in their cosmic heaven through the agency of priests in their Earthly temples.

I don’t know who developed the ideas that bound the Sumerians to the orderly pageant of heaven as a kind of living mythology, but that idea was a potent one that caught priestly attention because none other than the local priest himself would play the mediating role between the so-called prime mover of the stars and those who read the radiant, angelic signs from below.

Earth and its cosmos would share in the same divine (shining, godly) order if the two could somehow be linked at the nexus between them, so unifying state, church, and people under the figure of a prime mover (creator and supreme being) in his heaven.

Sumerians set up the linkage, and have left shards of the cuneiform star chart or plan of heaven they worked out based on three celestial regions watched over by three separate gods. Anu as the highest god resided in the central, circumpolar region; Enlil, king of gods, resided in the zodiac made up of houses of twelve lesser gods marking out the paths of sun, moon and planets; and Enki, father of divine wisdom, resided in the fringe area closest to the pillars that held the heavens above the Earth.

A trinity of gods was in the heavens from humans’ formative conception. When that idea resurfaced during Rome’s transition from pagan empire to a Christian presence in the following millennium, it demonstrated the persistence of cultural ideas (memes) that survive via the medium of human memory and belief.

In the interim, the Greeks in the person of Plato and other thinkers subsequently supplied the philosophical rationale of the world soul, which spread through the colossus of religious belief via Aristotle, Abraham, Paul of Tarsus, the Neoplatonists, unto Constantine, the Prophet Mohammad and, in the thirteenth-century, Thomas Aquinas, among many others, thus staunchly assuring the personification of a prime mover and ruler of the one-turning universe.

Now in the Space Age, with photographs of stellar and planetary creation from the ashes of supernovas being readily available, that earlier meme has now outrun its currency. The idea of binding-back to the harmony of the formerly convenient fiction of cosmic unity is now over-stretched as a footnote to the meandering history of situated intelligence at the core of the human mind.

This long-standing abuse of the stars was upheld by all monotheistic religions, even after Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) made it clear that our planet is not now and never has been the center of the solar system. This revelation (long known by some) scuttled the idea of the universe and world soul as conceived up until then. As a truth claim, that former vision was proved to be false.

Long before then the meme of a divine prime mover at the center of the cosmos had become a cultural fixture. And that fixture was deeply embedded in the foundation of the three major monotheistic religions. Not only that, but in the institution of religion itself.

The tenacity of that meme in surviving against all odds hardened it from an ideal belief into a rigid universal constant unscathed by the mass of undeniable evidence that it was untrue. It was a truth of faith, not fact.

That faith had expanded from a regional Sumerian revelation in the Land between the Rivers, to a prescriptive belief that built monuments in other lands, to a global faith destined to implode from the weight of its inconsistencies as yet one more chapter in the history of intelligent minds in black boxes attempting to solve the world puzzle.

I take this chain of events as demonstrating the persistence of ideas that, once entertained in a given mind, become generally accepted by expanding numbers of people to, like a ripple made by a pebble thrown into the ocean, eventually engulfing the Earth.

Never underestimate the power of an idea in a single mind to which subsequent generations are born, all doubt having evaporated in the meantime, so the new generation takes guidance from the ritualized wisdom of the ancients. Think of spacetime as subject to gravitational influence. Turning trees into toilet paper. Eating with chopsticks. Eating with silver. The World Wide Web. Driverless cars. The birth of Venus. Pinocchio. The Tooth Fairy. Evil. The infallibility of the Pope. Justice. Truth. Peace. Freedom. Eternal love.

Cultures are built from two-way engagements between human minds. Individuals get what they want; groups of people get what they need to sustain their belief in the mystery, majesty, and convenience of an idea that floated to the surface of a mind and spread far and wide in general practice as if by law.

434. Cultural Inertia

February 16, 2015

We are born to cultures centered on worship and religion as fixtures of daily life. When I was growing up in Hamilton, New York, in the 1930s, buildings with spires were landmarks in my young eyes, conspicuous curiosities I passed in my roaming about town, but had little to do with. What is it about churches-mosques-synagogues-temples that they should occupy such prominent positions in our lives?

In one form or another, they’ve been around a long time. Recent excavations in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey have uncovered impressive sanctuaries 11,600 years old. On the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumerians built ziggurats in 3,200 BCE where priests worshipped gods in their starry heavens. A big part of Sumerian belief focused on the correspondence between the sun’s position in the zodiac and the seasonal labors of people on Earth.

During grape harvesting and pressing, for example, the same constellations of stars were visible overhead each year. That fact was summed in the religious teaching, “On Earth as it is in heaven.” The prime-mover God was sending us signs to make sure we coordinated our practices with his teachings. The priestly class emerged as mediators between the will of God above and dutiful humanity below.

About the same time, the first stage of what we call Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain. During their Babylonian captivity, ancient Hebrews came across what they called the Tower of Babel, a religious structure built by a culture whose speech they found incomprehensible.

In his dialogue the Timaeus, Plato mused about the origin of religion in the seemingly orderly, harmonious, and rational motions of the stars about the celestial pole. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, passed his mentor’s teachings on to the Middle Ages. Latin translation of part of the Timaeus reached Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria, who relayed a good part of Plato’s thinking into the new religion, Christianity, given the recognition and blessing of Constantine, last Roman Emperor.

From the beginning, Christianity’s central theme was the death and rebirth of Jesus, echoing the ancient belief in the miracle of planting a seed in the ground and its sprouting three days later. Jesus was one among a number of vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi, Osiris) who, as exemplary humans or demigods, personified the same cyclical fate that crops do in their annual plantings (death) and sproutings (rebirth).

Chartres Cathedral, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, emphasized not only the link between zodiacal constellations in the sky and the labors of humanity on Earth, but, too, the symbolic cycle of death and rebirth in its zodiacal stained-glass window and clock that still tracks the seasons as gauged by the stars overhead. The cathedral stands as a monument to those longstanding ancient traditions.

Ptolemy in the second century had pictured the motions of the stars as centered on the Earth, and that notion persisted for fourteen hundred years until Copernicus in the sixteenth century discovered Earth to be a planet orbiting around the sun. The stars, it seems, do not move; it is our home planet that is responsible for their orderly march day-by-day, year-after-year through the heavens. Tycho, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton refined the Copernican idea, fixing it in human understanding of the universe.

As late as the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas stated: Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God. That is a restatement of Plato’s belief as expressed in the Timaeus. But it is not the stars that move, it is Earth revolving about its axis that makes the stars only seem to move. As it is Earth’s orbiting about the sun that powers the progression of zodiacal constellations repeatedly through the seasons of the year.

But despite the enlightened cosmology put forward during the European renaissance in a new understanding that put Earth as a minor planet orbiting a typical sun in the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy, western religious culture did not update its primitive belief in the orderly and rational motions of a universe for which only a God as prime mover was deemed responsible.

Religion, which means binding (Latin, re-ligare) humanity to the apparent motion of the stars at the will of a prime mover, was too invested in its traditional ideas to change, so kept on as before, exposing its asserted beliefs as a matter of unsupported faith, so reducing church doctrine to the level of mythology.

Then Charles Darwin came along and provided compendious evidence that humans are descended from an ancient lineage of animal life, making it impossible to believe that we were created by God in his image. Without ceremony, Adam and Eve in their happy garden became merely a myth. Yet when I was born, all those steeple houses stood on the main streets of Hamilton, pointing skyward, just as the columns at Göbekli Tepe did 11,600 years ago in the mountains that fed melting snow into the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Strange business. My culture today sends me mixed and incompatible messages about the universe. Science says one thing based on corroborated evidence; the church says something entirely other on the basis of its longstanding faith. A faith that still erects spires pointing to the heavens.

How am I to engage such a culture so divided between passionate faith and demonstrable evidence? That’s easy. Evidence trumps faith every time. I go with the facts supporting our modern cosmology (just think of the evidence provided by the Hubble Space Telescope alone) over Plato’s ideals of order, harmony, and reason—which gave us a picture of the universe as he wished it were, not as we now know it to be.

Much of the turmoil in the world today stems from armed conflicts between different systems of faith. We keep lugging past ideas around with us as if they were as relevant to our time on Earth as they were 1,800 years ago, 2,700 years ago, or even 11,600 years ago. Once cultural memes get planted, they go on forever and never die off. We won’t let them die off. Out of sentiment, we are dedicated to preserving every thought anybody ever had, no matter how feeble or erroneous.

Consciousness is the medium that preserves those outdated ideas. We resurrect them because we somehow find them comforting as reminders of childhood. So our intelligence is split between faith and fact, tradition and the latest breakthrough. And for some reason we cannot tell the difference. Between what is relevant to our lives and what is superfluous. We know better yet seem not to know better at the same time. This is the conundrum at the core of our everyday culture. Due to trusting memory more than perception, the familiar past more than the now.

That was the conundrum I experienced growing up as a kid, and still find within me even though I have gained so much vital experience between then and now. Humanity suffers from cultural inertia in not being able to let go of outdated ideas. That is, from couching those ancient ideas as honored faiths and mythologies which, in all innocence, keep us chained to our primal ignorance and mistaken beliefs.

Even the word “universe” itself is a misnomer because it means one-turning, as a hidden reference to the impossible-to-believe-in prime mover behind what we used to think of as the motion of the heavens, but now understand as a reflection of the motions of our home planet.

So much to wrap our minds around, so little time. How do we know what to take off the shelf of our culture, and what to shun like the plague?

Discrimination is the secret, not personal preference, not tradition, not habit. Exercising the gifts we are born with in reaching out to the universe around us, not accepting it on anyone’s terms but our own. Seeing with our own eyes. But that is hard work. Requiring us to be on the forefront of our own minds at all times, defining the leading edge of our human understanding as we go.

That, I think, is the responsibility we owe to our ancestors, to transcend their faulty cultural beliefs by advancing with the experiences available to us that they never knew. That is the essence of engagement. Keeping up with what’s happening around us in our own times. Not living in the past, but shifting with every new day into the now. Going beyond old notions and ideas. Faith is a lazy way of avoiding the hard work being asked of us as we evolve with the life around us. Keeping up with the times. Looking to the future, not the past.

The culture we are born to is the challenge we must accept in growing into our new selves every day. We must make our efforts part of that culture, and so move it ahead with us. The risk if we don’t is to become imprisoned by the past. Is that why we’re here, to be stuck in the mire of ancient ideas?

I will conclude this section on cultural engagements with twelve examples of my personal cultural engagements divided among my next four posts.