Tuesday, November 17, 2015



This book is my attempt to explain, in as straightforward and comprehensive a way as I can, my ideas about how humans acquired the ability to make and record history, the multitudinous and interconnected variables that have shaped history, why that history has taken such a convoluted and unpredictable course, and why attempts to draw meaning from history and make inferences about its future course are basically acts of futility. In a larger sense, I attempted what surely must have been a Fool’s Errand: I tried to figure out  the place of our species in the vast context of reality itself. I tried to bring together as many salient facts and observations about that reality as I could, always bearing in mind an essential truth: I am inescapably trapped in the prison of human perception and the human frame of reference—and so are you. The challenge I faced was even more overwhelming than I had expected. It was perhaps even essentially paradoxical: I tried to analyze a reality that I can only experience indirectly. Naturally, I approached this task with trepidation and a deep sense of humility. Of course, this whole exercise has, inevitably, fallen short. It did not do all that I wanted it to do. But for my own very personal reasons, I had to attempt it anyway.

This project is, ultimately, an act of synthesis, a synthesis of the largest kind, one in which I attempt to combine, in  a new way, every aspect of the human experience and the factors that affect it. There are many more qualified than I to attempt such a thing, but I wanted to see what I would discover by doing it myself. In writing this book, I was guided by the idea that if I piled up simple things, stated obvious facts, brought together data from people more educated and specialized than I, asked the right questions, and admitted what I did not know as honestly as I could, then I would end up with a picture of reality that at least seemed to be right, even though I knew it would not be complete and would only seem right to me. To put it in another way: I hoped that after I put all the pixels where it seemed like they should go—and by pixels I mean all the individual facts, questions, and observations I brought together in this work—that when I stood back from them, something that made sense would  appear to me. It did, but it was not what I had anticipated or imagined.

In order to create such a picture, I stated much that is absolutely obvious, and in reading this, it will often seem to you that I am wasting your time telling you what you already know. Much of what I said will strike you as common knowledge, and ordinary in the extreme. But there is a reason for this: only by building up layer after layer of simple phenomena could I hope to gain some understanding, however limited, of a larger, more complicated reality. In fact, the entire scheme of this book’s organization has been built around this concept, as I have tried to go from examining that which is most basic to that which is most elaborated. 

Sometimes I investigated ordinary events that are usually hidden from plain view. Sometimes I pointed out phenomena that are not noticed because we tend to screen out from our attention that which seems commonplace or routine. Further, I am of the conviction that even obvious and readily apparent objects or processes, if systematically stripped down to their essentials, can be seen in a new light. In effect, by starting with the most basic and seemingly mundane facts, it may be possible for us to work our way up through the levels of emergent reality. My thinking was that if I said enough ordinary and obvious things in the right way and in the right order, then what would emerge would be extraordinary and surprising, even though our over-all understanding will remain severely limited. Whether I succeeded is, of course, for you to judge. I believe, by the way, that once we have examined reality in this way, we can never go back to our previous way of thinking about it.

Similarly, in trying to trace the origins of our myriad problems as a species, I tried to explain how enormous, incredibly complicated problems emerge from masses of simple ones, like a series of small fires combining to make a conflagration. I also tried to demonstrate that the more variables a problem has, and the more sources of origin from which it springs, the more difficult its solution. Further, I realized the “solution” to a problem may simply tend to engender further problems, some of which may be genuinely intractable. It is as if humans are trapped by their own cognitive limitations in a never-ending game that, as a species, they cannot leave. None of their solutions to the challenges they face is permanent, all of them entail unknown risks and hidden costs,  and all of them generate unforeseen consequences that will compel other sets of humans to attempt their own stop-gap measures, ad infinitum.

In the physical world, a mass of simple things, interacting and interconnected with each other, can cause new kinds of physical reality to emerge. The ultimate physical basis of reality as humans perceive it is a collection of utterly simple units of energy-matter, totally basic in both their nature and their operation. They follow unbelievably simple rules, and do unbelievably simple things in a completely unremarkable way. But allow enough of these operations to go forward in space-time, and the seemingly chaotic nature of their interactions resolves itself into a new level of organization.

In the human world, the basic features of the human psyche and its interactions with external reality can be very simple in nature. But a mass of simplicities interacting and interconnecting can cause a complex psychology to emerge. When a large number of these complex psychologies interact with each other, a phenomenon called social life emerges. And as patterns of social life grow and merge with patterns from other regions of the planet’s surface, a new kind of world emerges.

And I followed this approach of piling up simplicities for another reason: as far as I can tell, this is how the Universe itself, and all the amazing phenomena within it, came to be.

It’s simply how reality works.


In the writing of this work, I made myself follow some rules.

For one thing, I tried to get my facts straight. I’m sure I did not always succeed, but I tried. I do not like getting things wrong, but I have to admit that a lot of times I do. I did the best I could.

I tried to be honest with both you and myself. I admitted when I did not understand something. I admitted when I could not find all the facts. I admitted when my own feelings were getting in the way of telling you something. I admitted when people smarter than I am and more educated than I am disagreed on some issue that seems to be pretty important. I did not try to hide anything from you. I did not deliberately try to mislead you. (I might have done that accidentally, though; given my absurdly ambitious goals, it could not be helped.) I did not stop myself from saying something I thought needed to be said, even if I did not like it and if you do not like it or anyone else does not like it. I said it anyway.

In using words, I tried to avoid doing the following things:

I tried very hard to not use words that deliberately conceal meaning rather than reveal it. I did not say someone “expired” or “passed away” when I was trying to say they are dead now or they’ve died. In other words, I dislike euphemisms, and I did not use them, even if they would have made what I am saying less hurtful or not so blunt. I also tried to avoid using “colorful” language, expressions that might mean something to people who speak my language but would mean nothing to people who do not. You might call these figures of speech or idioms or figurative language. I did my best to not let such expressions get in the way of what I was trying to say. I tried to avoid using too many metaphors and similes, which can often be ambiguous, but I used some.

There are some other rules I tried to make myself follow. I tried really hard to never use the same term to describe every person in a given situation or place or time. I also tried  to avoid using some big, sweeping term to try to describe everything that happened in a given era, or some term I thought applied to every situation that seemed to be similar to others. In other words, I tried to avoid generalization. I tried not to judge people who have gone through experiences I have not had, although I am sure my judgments were pretty obvious sometimes, anyway. And I tried to never speak as if I have all the answers, have everything figured out, and am always right. I am too old to lie to myself in those ways.

There are other rules I followed, but I can’t think of them now.

Because I consider most of what we believe we know to be tentative, after you have read this book you may conclude that I never took a direct stand about anything, that I used language that was not definite, was not confident in its tone, or which did not seem to assert that a thing is absolutely true. This may be your thinking because I tried to avoid the error of speaking with too much certainty. By speaking with certainty I mean making a statement that something is absolutely true beyond any doubt, and which no being, however intelligent and all-knowing, could say was wrong. Because I used this definition, I was pretty strict about what I would admit is certain.

It  may seem to you, therefore, that I could not decide anything once and for all. I can only say that no question ever seems to be fully explained, and that we must always—always—leave room for the possibility that we are wrong, and that things aren’t what they seem to be.

You may sense that I have repeated myself in places. This cannot be helped. In my opinion, everything tells us something about everything else. And certain things that seem to be true in one subject seem to be true in others, so they bear mentioning in all of them. I hope you will be patient with me in this respect.

I think that the way we divide the study of reality into different parts is necessary, in one way, because reality is such a big subject, and our senses and our deductive reasoning have acquired an enormous amount of information that relates to it. But in another way, the divisions between subjects can lead us to focus too narrowly and ignore subjects we either aren’t interested in or aren’t very knowledgeable about. If we really want to form in our heads some kind of coherent idea of reality, we have to try to touch on every area that humans have learned something about. I really do not see how it could be otherwise. Although I spent most of my professional life teaching history and the social sciences, I am a generalist. I certainly do not claim to have anything like comprehensive knowledge in all areas (I am not delusional!) but I tried to incorporate everything I could that seems to tell us something important about the situation we seem to find ourselves in. I made a lot of mistakes, and I left a lot of important things out, without doubt. Any errors in the book are my responsibility alone.

And I realize something both obvious and easy to overlook: there is nothing I could write that would in any way replicate the actual experience of being alive in the totality of life. After all, reading about the world and moving through it are two somewhat dissimilar activities, even allowing for the fact that reading is a way of moving through the world. Further, any systematic analysis of the world seems, to many people at least, somewhat bloodless, devoid of the feeling with which life is suffused, a dry exercise lacking in the sensory realness of waking existence. For this, I apologize in advance, as I acknowledge another deep challenge I faced: all attempts to analyze and classify the characteristics of messy, complicated, warm-blooded life must inevitably be misleading, or at best, incomplete.


This book is not about me, but I have to tell you about why I needed (yes, needed) to write it.

I suppose that I became interested in history because I found it easy, at least at first. I’ve always been drawn to stories, and the deeper I went into it, the more awe-inspiring the story of the humans seemed to me. In fact, I came to see it as simply The Story, the biggest one of them all, the biggest one there could be. Naturally, like so many boys, I was drawn to depictions of war because they seemed so exciting and dramatic to me, removed as I was from any actual experience with their subject matter. I would grow to know better later on, even though I was spared from the terrors and drudgery of combat. I matured; my perspective changed.

Later, in college, history was one of my academic specialties, and I was immersed in its disciplines in a serious way for the first time. I found its sheer complexity, the intricacy of the human relationships it described, and the story of the sweep of human events over space and time deeply compelling, even though the often mind-numbing details of human life sometimes overwhelmed me.  I began to wonder why the story of our species was so strange, why it took so many unexpected turns, and why human affairs so often came to disastrous ends.

I became a high school teacher, and plunged into the challenges of trying to educate often distracted and disinterested teenagers. Somewhat to my own surprise, one of the subjects I became interested in early in my career was physical anthropology. Although I had been trained as a history and political science teacher, I found that my research had left me without answers to some of my most pressing questions. Since I passionately wanted to know why human history had turned out as it did, it occurred to me that I needed to know what kind of animal had made and been affected by this history, suspecting that the two questions were deeply interconnected. From that time onward my anthropological studies affected my interpretation of human history. I studied the basics of human evolution, taught both physical and cultural anthropology for a while (although I did not acquire a formal degree in those subjects) and went on to complete a master’s degree in history. I also taught sociology, government and politics, early American history, and various aspects of European and general world history. And as I grew and matured in my academic work, I became more and more convinced that I could not know where we were and how we had gotten there without knowing what we were.  Little did I know the many avenues down which the pursuit of answers to these questions would lead me


When you teach history for enough years, it begins to dawn on you that human life has developed in ways that seem to defy any logical analysis. It also occurs to you that humanity’s life on this planet today is so complex and filled with interrelated variables that no one can really foresee in any detail what might happen in the future, despite the tiresome cliché that humans “learn” from history. (From where I stand, it seems that they have learned very, very little from it.)  Anyone who sees a plan of some sort in all of this is more perceptive than I, because I cannot, for the life of me, discern one. If we were to take the most intellectually gifted human being in the world of 10,000 years ago and show him or her something of the nature of human life today, I am pretty sure that person would have virtually no comprehension of it, and would be completely at a loss to explain how it got that way. If that strikes you as too extreme of a case, let us take a person from the year 1000 CE and carry out the same exercise. Looking at the aftermath of ten centuries of relentless change would leave that person bewildered and shaken. There would be, of course, some institutions he or she, if a European, might recognize—the Roman Catholic Church, for example—but even that would be fantastically different from what it was a thousand years ago. The majority of the Church’s adherents now live in places the person from 1000 CE, if he or she were a European, did not even know existed. And this medieval-era genius would, I am pretty sure, be utterly at a loss to explain what had happened to produce the world of the 21st century. If the most intelligent person in the world of 1000 CE were African, he or she would be shocked at the vast upheavals that ten centuries of change inflicted on Africa (as well as the true immensity of the continent’s landmass).  If he or she were Chinese or Indian, all of the empires and dynasties that comprised the political reality of their worlds would be gone. If the person were a pre-Columbian Native American, the virtual eradication of the multitudinous native cultures of the Americas would probably seem nothing less than an utter catastrophe, the coming of which would have been completely unexpected.

Even  the most brilliant individual from the world of 1900 would have difficulty giving a coherent explanation of how the world of today came to be the way that it is. If he or she had not seen it or studied it themselves, it is unlikely that they would grasp the enormity of the political, scientific, technological, and social changes that have swept across this planet since the last year of the nineteenth century. But we shouldn’t feel a sense of superiority over our hypothetical observers from 10,000, 1,000, or a little over 100 years ago—we’re in exactly the same situation in regard to the future as they are in relation to us. Despite our confident assertions and computer-based prediction models, we have not any more of a clue about what the world will really be like in 100 years than our observer from 1900. And any attempt to predict the nature of the world 1,000 or 10,000 years hence would be laughable, or simply an example of science fiction.

Moreover—and in a more humbling way—we still aren’t sure ourselves of how the past produced the world we have now. In fact, it is my opinion that the world is now so vastly complex that no person, however well educated, keenly informed, and gifted with fluid intelligence, really understands more than a small part of it in detail. The dilemma, as I see it is that humans, possessing a consciousness that only permits them to understand their own situation partially, are forced to act on incomplete information, whether they realize it or not. There are so many variables acting on any one of these situations, so many chains of consequence intersecting each other at each moment, so many synergies at work, and so many unanticipated outcomes being set into motion by them, that no human or even set of humans can predict the ultimate effect of any given action. Obviously, very simple actions (such as the act of picking up a pencil off the floor) are less consequential and less affected by variables, but the more our actions involve other people and the larger physical world around us, the more unpredictable their outcomes will be. Huge events, such as wars, for example, generate incomprehensibly huge and complex consequences, ones far beyond our collective ability to understand.

Given the complexity of their interaction, it was my objective, therefore, to consider as many of the variables that affect human history as I possibly could, examining each in isolation and then attempting to explain its relationships to the others. Individually, these variables are usually explicable. But the combinations in which they act are absolutely bewildering, as I believe you will see.

Humans are, I believe, pretty good at creating realities too complicated for humans to comprehend. I further contend that the innumerable and multivariate interactions of humans (as an entire species) with each other and with the rest of the physical reality around them, over space and time, have created problems that may be too complicated for humans to extricate themselves from. (I emphasize the word may--I am not wholly devoid of hope.)


And then, there is the tragic side of our experience.

All things end; all civilizations crumble or change beyond recognition; there is nothing permanent, it would seem, to which to cling with certitude. Death will come for all of us. Nothing built by humans will ultimately last. These are the inescapable tragedies of our existence, and they are likely always to be. But there are tragedies more intimate, more immediate, and more palpable, that have weighed on us since our genus’s emergence.

I do not want to exaggerate the difficulties humans have experienced in their centuries on this tiny speck of a planet. Most lives have their share of laughter, their times of celebration, their everyday joys and satisfactions. And the point must be made repeatedly: the vast majority of the human experience has been marked by the routine, the ordinary, the commonplace, and the unremarkable.

However, we need to ask ourselves, “has human life been a good experience for most people throughout our journey from 2.5 million years ago to the present?” As I see it, the answer must be this: most humans have survived on this planet only with tremendous difficulty. The lot of humanity has been hardship, to an appalling degree. Humans, as animals, are subject to physical suffering of all kinds, and our story has been filled with disease, hunger, frequent pain, disfigurement, and premature decline. The unluckiest among us are tormented by illnesses, physical or mental, every single hour of their lives. Most humans have worked or still work like pack animals every day. Most of their lives are or have been scarred, at least part of the time, by material deprivation, fear, and uncertainty. Natural disasters have drowned, sundered, crushed, buried, starved, or burned countless humans through the ages.

But the most tragic part of our story has been what we do to each other—and to ourselves. No part of our history is more difficult for me to deal with than the terrible story of what we are capable of doing when we deny or ignore the humanity of other people—and ignore our own humanity as well.

War has been depressingly common in the history of Homo sapiens. Despite human attempts to glamorize it or glorify it, it has always been what it is today—gruesome, horrible, stupid, and destructive of both body and mind, however necessary it might sometimes be.  Over the last 5,000 years there has scarcely been a time when there was no major war raging somewhere on this planet, a damning indictment of human failure. These wars have frequently involved the mass killing of whole civilian populations, and our ability to slaughter non-combatants has risen to the point where we now, as a species, possess the means to exterminate ourselves completely. Mass killing, in fact, is arguably the greatest of all human skills. And the resources squandered in wars represent perhaps the greatest of all examples of human waste.

Uncounted humans have been swallowed up in the grim world of slavery, a world that still exists today, despite all international efforts to abolish it. Torture, the most terrible and depraved of all human actions, has a long and hideous history. Both physical and mental torture are still widely practiced, and governments are still good at rationalizing it. Prisoners are often kept in the most barbaric of conditions, and justice for the poorest among us is usually harsh. And ordinary people everywhere have groaned under the weight of political systems designed to serve a small handful of power-intoxicated tyrants while treating the lower orders as expendable sub-humans.

The way many of our species’ children have been treated is further cause for a sense of shame and outrage in any decent person. Infanticide has a long and terrible history. Small children have been used for brutally heavy labor throughout human existence. Children have been physically and mentally abused, sexually assaulted, neglected, and abandoned so frequently in the story of our species that most of us turn away from thinking about it, lest we fall into utter despair.

Just as sadly, abuse does not cease after childhood. Interpersonal violence of all kinds has marked human life, as individuals have shown themselves capable of the most terrible cruelty imaginable. Women have often been treated as property and subjected to the most degrading and humiliating treatment, kept ignorant, and generally denied the fullness of the human experience. People have cheated one another in every possible way, have stolen without conscience, have lied to, betrayed, and deceived each other, and ruined each other’s prospects with such regularity that we have come to see these actions as simply part of the fabric of life itself. People in desperate need, who could have easily been helped, have been allowed to starve, go without shelter, die of treatable illness, or wander the streets in madness and squalor, victims of malice and indifference.

Humans have participated in unspeakable horrors based solely on factors such as the victim’s appearance or religious affiliation. Persecutions, riots, pogroms, massacres, and lynchings directed against unpopular minorities among us have been so common that we grow numb reading about them. Even apart from these, there remain prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, and routine injustice of every kind, often backed by the power of law or religious custom.

Countless human tragedies have been brought about by bad judgment, faulty reasoning, incompetence, misinterpreted information, faulty communications, and plain old garden-variety stupidity. Humans have misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted, misremembered, and wrongly estimated virtually everything imaginable. They have sold themselves to every sort of swindle, grasping at wildly illogical hopes. They have fervently embraced ludicrous superstitions and held beliefs so absurd one would have thought no one capable of believing them. They have started terrible fights over simple misunderstandings, broken off personal relationships of great emotional value over trivialities, lost contact with loved ones over old grudges, and generally quite often acted to ruin every chance at personal happiness that came their way. Family members have tormented, abused, and emotionally destroyed each other so frequently that we have come to see these things as “normal” And there are the innumerable small, petty injuries and insults so many people heap upon non-family members in the course of daily life, embittering and eroding the lives of all who must endure them.

Humans have, with appalling frequency, destroyed their own homes, denuded landscapes, fouled bodies of water, made the air stink with choking pollutants, killed off animals on which they relied, and made their environments disaster areas. In some ways, it’s kind of surprising we’re still here, and if we had possessed more advanced weapons during some of the more savage eras of human history, I doubt that we would be.

No wonder the study of humanity has broken so many hearts and caused so many hopes to die. Finding out what our fellow humans are capable of is, in my view, the point at which any childhood innocence that might still remain in us vanishes forever.


At this juncture, you are probably tempted to interject that humans have frequently, very frequently, acted in ways the exact opposite of those I have just mentioned. You could argue—and you would be right—that humans have shown each other countless acts of love, kindness, mercy, considerateness, compassion, and empathy. You could point to innumerable examples of self-sacrifice, bravery in the face of terrible evil, and a thousand forms of everyday heroism. You could point to the good humor in the face of the world so many have shown. You could argue that the catalogue of human decency overflows with examples—and it does. You could hold up many, many happy families. And you could urge us to consider the glorious crown of human creativity in the arts, as well. All of this needs to be remembered. 

There are also the everyday miracles of forgiveness, reconciliation, repentance, and renewal that occur again and again and again in the course of human life. These small graces are just as real as any of our sins, and they do more to keep the human enterprise going than many of us suspect. In these acts, ties that were severed or damaged are healed, and new lives are made possible. We need to remember that, too.

Further, there has been some progress in the larger course of human life. Children, on the whole, are somewhat better off now than they have ever been, and they are certainly more widely educated than ever. Women have improved their status in many parts of the world and have now reached social equality in some areas. Slavery has been greatly reduced; the more gruesome forms of torture have been made less common; and human rights are more widely respected now than at any time in history. Health care has made huge strides, material wealth has spread very widely (albeit unevenly), political freedom has made genuine gains, scientific and technical knowledge have vastly expanded, and the majority of humanity is reasonably well fed, although many still die of malnutrition and diseases related to it. Humans in all parts of the world have been responsible for these victories, and countless people today experience a dignity they once could not have imagined.

And yet, this progress has been achieved only by the most excruciating and exhausting effort, often at the cost of innumerable lives along the way. We may well ask ourselves: Why has it taken so long to improve things? Why was it so hard for us to get to where we are? Why have the ancient sins persisted so stubbornly? And why have our worst instincts and tendencies so often triumphed over our best ones? Those are good questions to bear in mind, because there are no guarantees that any of our achievements will be lasting.

When I look over the broad course of human history, I see the human species lumbering on through the centuries, gathering new knowledge and acquiring new skills, and yet  still lurching from crisis to crisis, suffering catastrophic setbacks, and often losing ground that was bought at a fearful price. Quite frankly, I see no pattern at all in any of this. I have studied human history for more than 40 years, and I find no great sweeping cycles in it, I find no instance in which history has “repeated itself”, and I find no “scientific” principles that would allow us to make predictions about it. Above all, I see a species that evolved just enough intelligence to survive and flourish in every region of the planet, but not enough to deal with the consequences of its own ignorance, malice, and, in all honesty, delusional thinking. All of our progress is threatened at every moment by these persistent realities.

So what is the root cause of our extraordinary abilities, our conflicts, our achievements, our confusion, and our inability to understand ourselves and our own motives? The fundamental fact of human history (and prehistory, for that matter) as I see it is that some of the species within the primate order began to evolve consciousness, and in some of the hominids this proved so biologically useful as a survival mechanism that its development accelerated almost exponentially. Humans, therefore, had this amazing capability, one that set them above all other animals. But they didn't realize they had itand they didn’t know what it was. (And in truth, how could they have?) They didn't realize for countless millennia that what they automatically considered to be reality was actually a version of reality, that the information pouring into their senses was being filtered and organized by the most complex organic phenomenon in the known Universe, our brains. Only now are we beginning to grasp something of the almost frightening complexity of human consciousness. We still have difficulty even defining the term consciousness, much less understanding more than a fraction of its ramifications. 

Our consciousness's complexity and intricacy are the sources of much of our ideology, major components of our psychology, the origin of our faiths (perhaps), our philosophies, what we believe we understand about the world, and much (though not all) of our behavior. Since humans do not fully grasp their own minds, they are less in control of events than they believe they are. I contend that people do not completely understand their own motives. I further contend that this poorly understood and inadequately controlled mental reality accounts for the bizarre, tortuous ways in which human society has developed and in which human history has unfolded. The unbelievable complexity of the human world and the daunting problems we face are exactly what we might have expected from a species whose members are more at the mercy of randomness than they would like to admit, a species whose members are inherently incapable of grasping the wholeness of their own reality, and a species whose members are driven by internal thoughts and instincts that they cannot fully understand.

So as I see it, human social reality at any given moment is the sum total of all the consequences of all the incompletely understood actions of all the humans who have ever acted, combined with the effects, throughout our time on this planet, of the forces, influences, events, and unconscious actions of the natural world. This reality has been shaped in many ways by laws of probability and quantum indeterminacy that are as yet only partially grasped.

Therefore, I see history as the story of how the genus Homo has grappled with the nature of consciousness. We have tended (in general) to assume that we know what we're doing and where we're going. 

We don’t.


So I wonder if we can hold this moment, the eternal present, in our hands. And I want to know a great many other things as well.

Can we see at least the faint outlines of that which truly is, or can we see only its reflections?

Can we know our origins …

our place …

our future…


Can we understand that all that has been has made all that is now?

Can we hope to know, at least in part, how we have come to be where we are in the story of our time on this planet?

Can we accept cosmic anonymity, irrelevance, and insignificance?

Can we bear the possibility that we are orphans in the Universe?

Can we reconcile ourselves to the life we must live, a life where we cannot be certain, and yet must act?

Since I cannot be you, and you cannot be me, can we ever really know each other’s meaning? 

Even now, at this very instant, are you and I in contact?

Can we look into the infinity of mirrors that is the self contemplating the self, and not be overwhelmed by it?

Is there a self at all, or is there only a continuous stream of feeling and thought?

And finally, can we say that which cannot be said, see what is hidden from our sight, and capture that which recedes inexorably away from us?

We are locked in the cage of humanity until the end of our time. Reality is forever out of our grasp.

And yet, I stretch out my hands anyway. I can do nothing else.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Reality May Just Be Indifferent

Human: An animal which has evolved a nervous system with a brain sufficient for the emergence of consciousness, and thus a relatively high degree of intelligence compared to other animals. This trait, combined with the human’s habitual upright posture and flexible hands, has allowed this animal to control, to a small degree, the affairs of an extremely small planet orbiting a very average star in a galaxy of over one hundred billion stars, which is in turn one of over one hundred billion galaxies in a Universe of incomprehensible enormity.


From time immemorial humans have looked into the sky on cloudless nights, and more often than not, felt both awe at its magnificence  and a sense of kinship with it, a sense of being an integral part of the scene they were looking at. They were indeed a part of it, but as it turns out,  the stars had not come into existence for their benefit, nor was “the vault of heaven”—the belief that the sky was a roof that covered us alone—anything more than an illusion. The idea that the vast majority of these humans held, or still hold—that this vault had come into existence through the will of unseen actors with superhuman powers and knowledge—had insinuated itself into their brains through their dreams, their visions, their imaginations, and most of all through the projection of their own natures, hopes, fears, hatreds, and loves onto the reality they perceived. They had in a way, taken themselves and imagined those selves magnified and made immortal. The vast majority of humans throughout our time on this planet have possessed a sense that they were being watched and evaluated constantly, either by a being with an independent, immanent nature or a conscious and aware Universe itself that somehow “kept track” of their kindnesses and cruelties. They saw themselves, in short, as the actors in a mysterious and deeply significant cosmic drama, one being played out on the vast stage of human history, and one which occupied the time and “attention” of the unseen powers who lurked constantly in the background of life. It meant that all of their struggles, their sufferings, their aspirations, their terrors, their joys, and their faith were known. That was the important part, this belief that the unseen forces knew of their most intimate experiences and feelings. Whenever a sense of isolation or loneliness closed in on them, they had this one, final consolation: I am never alone because someone knows about my life. Is this the real reason for the continued belief in the divine—the hope that our experiences, and especially our sufferings matter to someone?

The ultimate way in which most of us hope to matter is through transcending our own physical death and becoming a part of eternity itself. In particular, the hope of an afterlife is our way of denying the power of death over us, reducing physical death to the status of a way station, not the end of the line. The fear that there is no afterlife, as I pointed out earlier in this work, represents, in one way, the fear that all of our existence was for nothing. At one time we were not; then we are, vividly, warm-bloodedly, kaleidoscopically, overwhelmingly; and then, we are not once more, this time perhaps forever. The simplicity of not being, being, and not being again is terrible, in one way. It implies that life exists for one reason, and one reason only: to simply, blindly, idiotically, perpetuate itself—and nothing more. It is true that most humans have attempted to transcend this reality. They have created for themselves, as we have seen, a tremendous variety of Ultimate Goals which they believe will expunge the absurdity, inherent in biological existence, from our story. But if there really is nothing beyond death, and if there really is no one who cares about us even when all humans have turned their backs on us, then this devastating absurdity will be all that we have left.

Now, take the individual’s desire to be known and the desire to be a real part of eternity, and apply it to the whole human species and all that we have done and experienced on this planet. If the Universe itself is indifferent to us, if there is either no God or a God who is oblivious to us, then the whole story of us will not have mattered to anyone or anything in the larger sense at all—and to most of us, this just cannot be. It violates our deepest sense of a Universe that makes sense. For most of us, the feeling can be summarized in this way: our existence cannot be meaningless.

So we imagine that our actions have impacts beyond our ludicrously tiny world. In maintaining these illusions, we magnify and inflate our own significance, making ourselves once again the center of universal attention, at least in our own minds. We often imbue our conflicts with a sense of eternal importance, believing that their outcome is being monitored by the whole of creation. Especially in our religious conflicts, we humans very often tend to see enormous issues of spiritual importance involved, ones which gain the attention of “God Himself”, and presumably cause “God Himself” to hang with rapt attention on the outcome of the dispute. The history of the struggle between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches in the British Isles is a perfect example of this particular brand of inflated human self-importance. Since the 1530s, when the English King Henry VIII split the English Church away from the Vatican’s control, there has been a conflict of varying emotional intensity between the two. In its early years it flared into violence, and contributed to many decades of political upheaval in England. Even today, almost 500 years later, there is still a gulf between Anglican and Catholic believers, and the adherents of the two faiths still argue about fine points of theology, believing these points to be of such significance that they require the most careful consideration, lest the divine, unseen Maker of the World take offense. So, on a small area of the Earth’s surface, a small number of humans are locked in a dispute which they believe to have “transcendent” significance. (And let's remember: this is taking place on a planet smaller in relation to the Universe than a single atom is to the entire Earth.) In other words, a very small part of the atom is involved in a battle which its participants believe to be engaging the attention of the Universe’s creator itself. Can human arrogance reach more malignant depths than that?

The same tiresome dynamic divides Sunni and Shi’a followers of Islam. Their doctrinal differences, often deeply connected to political conflict, are such that violent hatred frequently erupts between members of the opposing branches. People are actually willing to commit murder and all manner of other crimes because of a dispute that began more than 1,300 years ago. It is the belief that this dispute somehow matters to Allah, that its outcome engages his attention, that has driven the conflict (along with the meaner human tendencies toward score-settling, revenge, and the acquisition of power). If the damage it inflicts to human comity wasn’t so tragic, and if it had not left such a long history of hatreds, this dispute would be almost laughable in its absurdity.

And so it is with all human religious disputes. Human religious contests are never, of course, entirely about faith—our motivations are too confused, often too venal, and too mysterious to ourselves for that to be the case—but they have their roots in the idea that humans are on intimate terms with the cosmos and its purported Maker. In their inconceivable sense of self-importance, which they so often mistake for humility, countless humans have imagined that the essential Being of the Universe cares—yes, actually cares—about their words, their gestures, their incense burning, their prayers, their oils, their sacred waters, their dietary rules, their statues, their icons, their songs, their kneeling, their headwear, their symbols, and their buildings, and would be offended (!) if any of these expressions were not of the right kind. Humans, in my view, need to understand that all the religious devotions they have ever been involved in, in all likelihood, have been for the benefit of themselves—not for some incomprehensibly huge, eternal, inscrutable, all-encompassing intelligence that supposedly concerns itself with the tiniest details of their lives. Why would a god-like entity need the praise and attend to the entreaties of ones such as we? If such a being actually exists and resides in a world beyond time and space, how could it be impressed or unimpressed by any human expression of fealty and devotion to it? In a way, when we believe in a God that follows our disputes carefully and listens to our worship, we are reducing that God down to human-like dimensions, ones that we can understand. We make our God tiny, just like ourselves, so we can believe that it notices us.

As we know, mass die-offs have occurred several times in the Earth’s history. Our intelligence and our capacity for invention have at least made us aware of the possibility of extinction, and have equipped us with the means—perhaps—to temporarily or even permanently forestall such an event. Yet, paradoxically, the two-edged sword of human intelligence and our limited consciousness, so filled with incomprehensible aspects and misperceptions and so vulnerable to our many emotional vagaries, has given us ways to annihilate ourselves that are unprecedented in the story of the biosphere.

We might believe that the self-destruction of the human species would be of importance to someone, somewhere beyond our world. The death of billions of sentient, conscious  humans would count for something in the larger Universe, most of us feel.  But would it? In all probability, no one beyond the Earth would notice. Think of what the Earth looks  like at the edge of our own solar system, a solar system in which we are the only “intelligent” life. Would we be any more than a pinprick of light? Even if the whole of the planet were to mysteriously explode, would such a scene of destruction be recorded by any alien civilization? Even if there were astronomers living on some planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the nearest star after our own Sun, they would still be almost 25 trillion miles, or over 40 trillion kilometers distant, 13,000 times farther from us than we are from the minor planet Pluto. They would be fortunate to detect us at all. And so far, we have found no habitable planets around Proxima Centauri, so the odds of our destruction being noticed grow increasingly poor as we move farther out into the Universe. (Sirius, another “close” star is 26,000 times more distant from us than is the orbit of Pluto.) If we destroy the only planet in the known Universe on which we can live, it will not affect the continuation of physical reality in the slightest. The Universe would move on as if we had never been here, and judging by our utter lack of impact on it, we might just as well never have been.

And if we look to some higher entity to rescue us from our own foolishness and recklessness, we might be looking in vain. The monotheistic faiths posit an endpoint when God will bring the world to a close and judge both the dead and the living (or, in a broader sense, bring ultimate justice to the world). But these conceptions, developed between the Eighth Century BCE and the Seventh Century CE, rested on conceptions of a God who was on intimate terms with a world that was the center of Creation itself, indeed, the whole point of Creation. Such a conception can no longer stand. The Christian, Muslim, and Jewish conceptions of God rested on the paternalistic cultural notions of those in the Middle East who founded the monotheistic faiths. The eschatologies of these faiths are rooted in the concept of the all-powerful male ruler, a father figure, bringing order and justice to a chaotic and sinful world. But what if these conceptions are wrong? Logically, since they are not identical, at least two of the three must be wrong. (And if we consider the views of all the world’s religions about the end of the world, all but one must be wrong, and it is possible that all of them are wrong.) It may yet be that God will manifest Himself/Itself on the physical plane of reality and bring the human race’s story to an end. It cannot be ruled out. There is nothing logically impossible in such a notion. But what if it never happens? Because it is also possible, as I said above, that there is no God, or else there is an indifferent God (or perhaps a God who is still becoming, or a God who will not choose to personally bring the world to an end).


Humans often feel a sense of injustice upon assessing their own lives. This isn’t (or wasn’t) the way it was supposed to be, they might think. But there is the distinct possibility that from the Universe’s standpoint life wasn’t “supposed” to be anything. Maybe anything that was suffered, enjoyed, or just merely experienced in a neutral way was just how it was, the products of human volition, human cultural and genetic inheritances, human mistakes, natural phenomena, and random chance—and that was all.

The individual human life—and I include in this assessment my own and those of everybody I love—just isn’t that significant a thing in the whole scheme of the Universe. The Universe was not set up for the personal benefit of any sentient being on any world anywhere in it, nor is the Universe out to “get” anyone. The success or failure of an individual life is, in all likelihood, a matter of supreme indifference to it. No one, anywhere, has any right to expect anything of it. No one, anywhere, needs to give it credit for the individual’s achievements. No one, anywhere, can blame it for any personal failures.

Humans often say, when confronted with the grim realities of this planet, “This isn’t the way the world is supposed to be”, as if the Universe had some pre-ordained plan in mind. And they sometimes speak about the Universe “being out of balance”, or needing to be “restored to its rightful state”. Yes, there have been countless tragedies. Yes, there has been a terrible amount of obscene suffering. Yes, injustice has been rife. But, as cruel as this will sound, the Universe couldn’t possibly care less about any of this, nor will it act to rectify any of it. It is incapable of doing either. Rectifying the evils of the world is solely the job of the human species. Our success or failure in doing this will not be noted. In trying to improve this world, we will have to contend with the caprices of nature, the capriciousness of luck, and our own human shortcomings. To the extent that we succeed, we will not be congratulated. To the extent that we fail, we will not be mourned. 


There are three major arguments that can be made for our significance in the vastness of the Universe:

We are the only species anywhere to have evolved consciousness. This is possible. But even if this were the case, would our tiny little island of intelligence have any impact whatsoever on an entity as vast as our home galaxy, let alone the Universe as a whole? We might be only a brief candle, the flickering out of which, as I have noted above, would be noticed by absolutely no one.

Naturally, you may tend to reject this argument out of hand, pointing to the extraordinary nature of the human brain and the products of the culture its features, and those of the rest of the human body, made possible. And we are unique, you may argue. We are, in all likelihood, absolutely unique in form and expression, the only beings of our kind in all of the Universe, even among the other advanced intelligences which may have evolved. There is nothing in any evolutionary system anywhere that is like us, you could contend (ignoring for the moment the multiple worlds hypothesis). You may indeed be right. In fact, nothing like us probably has evolved anywhere else. Our cultures are in all probability not like those of any other intelligent beings which may exist        elsewhere. And yet, I would ask, how likely is it that our uniqueness will ever be known to anyone outside of our world?

You might also argue that, discovered or not, known or not, our intelligence is still a wondrous phenomenon, a beacon however tiny its light might be, a possession both exalted and exalting. Here again I must object. It seems to me that  our intelligence is far more limited than we believe it to be. It is the product of a  body constructed out of the simplest and most convenient materials available. It has fooled us into thinking that it is equipped to probe the deepest mysteries of  existence, when in fact its principal reason for being was to facilitate reproductive success—nothing more.

Of course, we might someday reach out into small parts of the Universe and colonize them. But our “empire” would be tiny at best. There is also the possibility that humans will someday send self-replicating devices into space, but             the utility of doing so would be diminished by the fact that such devices would     face the insuperable barrier of distance as they tried to communicate with us.

The Universe is as it is for our benefit. This is the so-called anthropic argument. The “strong” version of it argues that the Universe was created specifically to bring about the existence of intelligent life forms—like us—and that such an evolution was inevitable. Taken to its logical extent, it means that the physical constants of nature were “designed” to bring about something like the human species. The absurdity of this belief echoes the absurdities of an earlier age’s geocentrism. To believe that a universe, as big in relation to us as the Earth is to a fraction of a single atom, exists chiefly to facilitate our existence borders on delusion. Would anyone argue that the Earth was created for the benefit of a single atom within it? Even if we were to apply this belief to all planets where intelligent life evolved, it would not change the argument in any material way.

The “weak” version of this argument claims that the physical principles that govern the Universe exist to facilitate at least some form of intelligent life somewhere, at some time, a life form that will come to realize this. But this argument transforms coincidence and randomness into necessity and design, and it still leaves a host of issues unaddressed, such as the possibility of multiple or parallel Universes  containing different physical forces and constants. Humans are a byproduct of fortuitous conditions in an extremely localized environment, and   little else can reasonably be said.

To be perfectly blunt, let us consider the total mass of the Universe. Now let us consider that part of the Universe’s mass composed of intelligent life forms. Even assuming that every star in the Universe has a community of intelligent beings orbiting it—an assumption that no one makes—the total mass of intelligent life forms would probably constitute less than one one-millionth of one per cent of the Universe’s mass. In my view, life is a byproduct of the Universe, and consciousness is a byproduct of life.

We are the favored offspring of God or a divine intelligence or universal spirit. You might, ultimately, rest your argument on the poetry of the Bible or some other revered text—“Not a sparrow falls” without His knowledge of it. But this seems to me to be a sentiment humans use to comfort themselves. As I have noted, most of us want to be important in some way in the scheme of things. But what is comforting and what is real are two different things. To believe now that a universal God sees us as the pinnacle of its creation is either an amazingly hopeful view of our place in reality, or an amazingly hubristic one. 

Therefore it is quite reasonable, I think, to argue that the human experience means nothing in the context of the Universe—nothing at all. We thought our earthly drama was of universal significance because we used to think we were the Universe and the  children of a father-like creator spirit (in societies that imagined godlike figures to exist) or else imbued with the spirit of the world itself. I have arrived at the point in my life where it is impossible for me to believe that if there were indeed a Universal Intelligence of some sort that existed, that it would even notice our presence. It would be exactly as if a being the size of the Universe were expected to notice a group of microbes clinging to a dust speck. The proposition collapses under the weight of its own absurdity, and can only be defended by postulating the existence of a being with such utterly amazing capabilities that it would be capable of attending to everything at all times, forever. There is, of course, the possibility that a godlike being is evolving, is coming into being gradually over the course of the Universe’s existence, and will some day possess the attributes humans have always given to it. But until such a being manifests itself unmistakably, it must remain only a hypothesis.

Because of our extremely limited understanding, it seems to me that we cannot lean on belief in this Universal Intelligence, or God, with true intellectual certainty (however deeply God’s presence might be felt emotionally). Some might find this conclusion to be cause for despair. They might say that without the certainty of God, how can life have any meaning? Implicit in such a question is another: if we cannot rely on God, does this mean that all we have—and all we are ever likely to have—is each other? Given the history of our species, many might see such as prospect as yet another cause for despair.

As we have noted elsewhere, the transition of the Sun into its red giant phase will make the Earth completely uninhabitable. If intelligent life descended from humans has survived and continued to evolve in the hundreds of millions of years before that happens, it will obviously have to emigrate from the Earth to survive. But nothing much would change if the human race or its successor species were to transport itself to, let us say, Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, which would have habitable temperatures during the Sun’s red giant period. The scene of our isolation would simply move a mere 400 million miles from its original point. The same would be true whether our species, or its evolutionary descendants, occupied a habitable planet orbiting another star. Our descendants could end up as simply the unknown wanderers, fleeing from world to world in a desperate attempt to perpetuate themselves for no other real reason than sheer survival. These wanderers may discover all knowledge and have all imaginable powers, but their magnificent achievements are unlikely to have any monument after the Universe begins its descent into total entropy.

Is that all that will stand at the end of the human experience? The never-to-be-known story of an orphan species, one that once ridiculously shouted its importance to a stone-deaf Universe, and never realized that, in all probability,  no one was listening?