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?

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414. Gravity

January 24, 2015

Our every thought and action takes place in a field of gravity. In the womb we may not have noticed it so much, but we are born to that field, and are comforted by being held, fed, and warmed at the breast to ease the shock of abruptly having to accommodate to that relentless force on our own.

In time, we learn to lift our heads, press down with our arms, crawl, sit up, toddle, walk, hop, skip, run, dance, and climb, always strengthening ourselves against the pull of gravity, learning to move despite that constant tug that draws us down. We learn to trade new skills for hard knocks, but the threat of falling never goes away.

In time we learn to play games against gravity, our constant opponent. We like being tossed into the air and lovingly caught. We like swinging back and forth, up and down. We learn to use gravity for fun and play, not merely tolerate or work against it. Chasing after balls, kicking, throwing, catching, running, always on the go, we prove our mastery of moving within a gravitational field. Many become famous for their skills at playing against gravity, the same force that weighs the rest of us down.

High-wire balancing, ballet dancing, window washing, pole vaulting, steeple chasing, hurdling, even cheating death by leaping from planes with a parachute or off a bridge on a bungee cord, the adventurous among us thrive by taunting gravity to deter them.

In the process, some achieve a certain lightness of being despite the Earthbound certainty of their lives. Many fly in airplanes high in the sky, another few become astronauts and dare to escape gravity altogether by being thrust into space aboard rockets at the cost of having to bear even sterner forces we call Gs.

With every thought, urge, and emotion existing in a gravitational field, we must account for that fact in advance to avoid falling on our faces when we act. Gravity is a fact of life, of planning and action in living in a gravitational field.

Yet we take that profound fact for granted, and seldom give it a thought. Yes, we smile when baby lifts her head the first time, then crawls, stands, and tries a few steps. But that is what she is supposed to do as a matter of course, so we don’t dwell on it overmuch. Another milestone passed on schedule, oh hum.

Gravity is a fact of nature. We wouldn’t be here if we couldn’t cope with it. In fact, evolution has equipped us with bones, muscles, and tendons that work around gravity’s constant pull, fitting us to defy gravity every second of our lives. Or even to gracefully succumb by sitting or lying down to get some temporary relief.

Gravity and levity, heaviness and lightness, are two of the most obvious poles of our being. Rising and falling, smiling and frowning, feeling good and feeling bad—these are a few of the polarities that generate our minds in the first place. I believe that without gravity, we wouldn’t have evolved as conscious beings. We may have gotten our start in the warm seas of early Earth, but when we clambered onto land we took on gravity full-force, and had to match that challenge rather than float on the surface of life as our watery environment once allowed.

Birds and butterflies go us one better by shedding every spare ounce and leaping off into the air. No wonder we admire monarchs and chickadees so much, and all the others who make defying gravity look so easy. I have spent many a dream laboriously flapping my arms, only to rise into a tangle of power lines without a landing field in sight. I can do it in my dreams, but there’s no joy in doing it, only worry about getting tangled.

Astronauts bounding about on the moon are as close as we can come to the ideal of a life free of gravity. Sailing and hang-gliding are runners-up. Golf offers us the surrogate of a dimpled white ball flying down the fairway, all credit to the driver standing staunchly in his cleated shoes. Basketball, too, offers the swish of a ball downward through the net. And baseball through the trajectory of a well-hit ball of leather.

Too, I would add consciousness itself, which is capable of light thoughts and flights of fantasy. Gravity and levity, I suggest, offer prototypes of the polarities such as heaviness and lightness, sadness and happiness, that kindle consciousness by offering the mind something to chew on, and the life force a challenge worthy of its seating in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies.

After all, it requires huge amounts of energy to work or play games in a stern gravitational field. Levity has been one of our goals from the start. Think of it: that is precisely what we have gained bit-by-bit over the three-and-a-half-billion-year course of evolution.

It was no accident we got where we are today, with gravity-defying minds such as we have. Drawing up our lips and cheeks into a smile, that is how we receive the news that gravity has made us the miracles we are.