Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Religion, Philosophy, Culture’ Category

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Posted by nliakos on August 30, 2020

by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper Collins 2016)

Although he insists that his vision of the future is only “possibilities”, rather than predictions, Yuval Noah Harari’s ideas of the future of the Earth and its species are pretty bleak, and I found this book really depressing and hard to get through. Harari is essentially saying that my humanist values will become extinct, along with my species, as the world becomes a giant data processor. While I am not likely to live to see this dystopian world, it is frightening to think of my daughter, my nieces and nephews, and their children having to live in it. And a mere four years after Harari published Homo Deus, some of those possibilities seem to be on the verge of becoming probabilities… or realities.

Chapter 1, “The New Human Agenda” serves as an introduction to the book. Briefly, the agenda is (1) immortality (overcoming aging, disease, death); (2) bliss (the pursuit of happiness); and (3) divinity (reimagining Homo Sapiens as godlike cyber-beings with special powers. (We already have powers that eclipse those of the gods of the ancient world: think of advancements in medicine, transportation, and communication for starters.)

Part One: Homo Sapiens Conquers the World

Chapter 2, “The Anthropocene” describes how our species has conquered all other species (BUT mosquitoes? rats? viruses? bacteria?) and changed the planet’s ecology. We are as gods relative to other species with whom we “share” the planet. First, there was animism, the idea that all things are imbued with a spirit of their own and are in that sense equal to each other. (I like to think I am an animist by nature.) The humans of that time, hunter-gatherers, were just another species among many, and all were holy and had value. Animism was succeeded by the theist religions which developed after the Agricultural Revolution; they taught that human beings are unique in the world and deserving of special treatment; the needs and feelings of other species were deemed unworthy of consideration. Only man was “sanctified”, and a farm was the model for new societies, complete with masters, inferior races to exploit, wild animals to exterminate, and God to sanction everything.

It is in this chapter that Harari defines an algorithm as “a methodical set of steps. . . used to make calculations, resolve problems, and reach decisions.” Examples are math problems, recipes, and beverage vending machines, and include sensations, emotions, and desires. He will later claim that we are in the process of reducing everything in the world to algorithms–including life and human experience; it is a critical concept.

Chapter 3, “The Human Spark” asks whether Homo Sapiens is unique or not. Are we superior to other life forms? Monotheistic religions all claim that human beings have an immortal soul in addition to our temporary physical form, yet science cannot show the existence of the soul. Even the mind (“a flow of subjective experiences. . . made of interlinked sensations, emotions, and thoughts, which flash for a brief moment, and immediately disappear”) cannot to proven to exist in a physical sense. Consciousness arises from the mind; they are distinct from the physical brain and neural network. Is the mind created by electrochemical reactions in the brain? (If so, we don’t know how.) We cannot deny our subjective experiences, e.g., pain, yet sciences has been unable to show that human consciousness rises above that of other animals. We are able to control other species because we have the ability to collaborate flexibly in large communities, using shared stories (e.g., holy scriptures) to create a community of strangers. Intersubjective entities are human constructs such as money, nations, gods, and laws, in which people believe. . . until they don’t. “Sapiens rule the world because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning: a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination.”

Part Two: Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World

Chapter 4, “The Story Tellers” focuses on the Cognitive Revolution, when humans developed language to give voice to their thoughts, which strengthened the intersubjective networks of the human brain, enabling such activities as collecting taxes and organizing complex bureaucracies. The powerful forced their fictions such as money and holy writings on others. These stories are tools in the quest for power over reality.

Chapter 5, “The Odd Couple” refers to science, which seeks power, and religion, which seeks order. Science can change reality, and religion can confer legitimacy on human laws, norms, values, and social structures. All human societies believe in some system of moral law not invented by people, and followers of each religion believe theirs to be the only true religion. Religion is different from spirituality, and the quest for truth is a spiritual journey. Science needs religion to create institutions. (“God hides in the fine print of factual statements.”) Humanism is also a religion in which humans are the beings that are worshipped.

Chapter 6, “The Modern Covenant” turns its attention to modern societies, which have relinquished the meaning conferred on the world by theism in order to acquire power. Here society is fueled by scientific progress and economic growth, which is seen as the answer to everything. We believe that when we produce more, we can consume more, and consumption leads to happiness. Also, when populations increase, we must produce more just to stay the same. Lack of growth leads to redistribution of wealth (terrible!), so everything else can be sacrificed for growth. But infinite growth requires infinite resources, leading to an impossible situation: ecological collapse. For example, the only way to stop climate change is to cease growth, but this is not in human nature, which is greedy, always wanting more stuff. Free market capitalism has brought us many positive outcomes (it has to a large extent overcome famine, plague, and war), but we have paid for these gains with a loss of meaning.

Chapter 7, “The Humanist Revolution” discusses this new religion which attempts to create meaning in a world devoid of meaning. The highest authority is no longer God, but our free will. That which causes suffering is bad. Life is seen as a gradual process of inner change; life experiences lead us from ignorance to enlightenment. Science’s yang (power, reason, laboratories, factories) contrasts with humanism’s yin (ethics, emotion, museums and supermarkets), and we believe that we should follow our feelings and do what feels good. Orthodox humanism (liberalism) is contrasted with socialist humanism (communism) and evolutionary humanism (fascism, Nazism).

Part Three: Homo Sapiens Loses Control

Chapter 8, “The Time Bomb in the Laboratory” concerns scientific advancements which establish the lack of an immortal soul or even a stable self. We are just a collection of electrical impulses, with no power over our own thoughts.

Chapter 9, “The Great Decoupling” of intelligence from consciousness will (or might) bring about the end of the liberal philosophy. Humans will no longer be relevant or required to make the economy run or win wars; value will be in the collective but not in individuals; valued individuals will belong to a new class of superhumans. Non-conscious intelligence (i.e., AI) uses algorithms to recognize patterns in everything, enabling it to outperform humans in many areas, leading to a loss of jobs for working people. Jobs already in danger include stockbrokers, truck drivers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and pharmacists. People will become unemployable and irrelevant. (The Republican lack of concern for working people’s access to healthcare, adequate housing, and a living wage perhaps stems from their view of people as dispensable and disposable.) Favorite quote: “In the Twenty-first Century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos.”

Chapter 10, “The Ocean of Consciousness” considers “techno-humanism”, a new religion that sees humans as the apex of everything (Homo Deus). Humanism commands us to know ourselves and to follow our dreams, and techno-humanism provides the chemical (pharmaceutical) tools to do that.

Chapter 11, “The Data Religion” is probably the scariest chapter. Dataism is the name Harari gives to the belief that the universe consists of data flows. The life sciences’ biochemical algorithms and computer science’s electronic algorithms combine to turn everything into data, and all systems into data processing systems. These can be distributed (capitalism) or centralized (communism). This Technical Revolution moves faster than political processes. Favorite quote: “The government tortoise cannot keep up with the technological hare. It is overwhelmed by data.” Everyone is overwhelmed by data, and power belongs to anyone or anything that can handle it. Governments become mere managers of nations. No one knows where the power has gone. The rich can make more profits for themselves, but they can’t stop climate change or eliminate inequality. In the short run, dataism can help (some?) people acquire health, happiness, and power, but in the long run it can make us obsolete.

Three key questions:

(1) Are organism really just algorithms? Is life really just data processing?

(2) Which is more valuable: intelligence or consciousness?

(3) What will happen when nonconscious algorithms know us better than we know ourselves (which is sort of true already)?

It all reminds me of the possibly apocryphal Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

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White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Posted by nliakos on August 1, 2020

by Robin DiAngelo (Beacon Press 2018)

Robin DiAngelo works to help white Americans understand their inevitable racism. Racism is inevitable because we have been raised in a racist society, but we are taught not to talk about it, and we learn to ignore it. Black people can’t ignore racism; their very survival depends on their ability to read us. But we have decided that being racist makes us bad people, and since we don’t see ourselves as bad, we must not be racists. DiAngelo says it is normal for humans to have prejudice. Despite our best intentions, there will be times when we discriminate against or stereotype people. She urges us to struggle against this learned racism, to seek out and not be offended by honest feedback. We can use our white privilege to fight institutional racism in ways that people of color cannot. But we should not expect them to do our work for us. It is up to us to educate ourselves about the problem. Once we have a better understanding of how racism weighs unfairly on people of color in our society, it is our responsibility to change it. We need to be willing to feel uncomfortable. It’s hard to accept some things, but our inability to see ourselves clearly is what makes us “fragile” and causes us to avoid discussions about race and to deny that we have benefited from racism.

An example of how our world view is fundamentally racist is the popular film The Blind Side. This film plays constantly on one of our local channels; I have seen it, or parts of it, numerous times. It tells the story of professional football player Michael Oher, who was taken in and eventually adopted by a wealthy white family in Tennessee. It’s a “feel-good” movie (for me). The characters are likable, and there’s a happy ending. I did realize that the movie seems to be more about Leigh Anne Tuohy, played by Sandra Bullock, than it is about Michael Oher, played by Quinton Aron; Leigh Anne is Michael’s rescuer in many ways. But DiAngelo made me see how the movie feeds into many white stereotypes about black people: that they are either childlike and not very smart, or dangerous criminals. Michael succeeds only because he is rescued from poverty and homelessness by the Tuohys. Even the youngest Tuohy, little SJ, understands football better than Michael does. Thanks to this book, I will never see The Blind Side in quite the same way again.

DiAngelo writes, We can interrupt our white fragility and build our capacity to sustain cross-racial honesty. . . . We can challenge our own racial reality. . . . We can attempt to understand the racial realities of people of color through authentic interaction . . . . We can take action to address . . . racism. . . .We can educate ourselves about the history of race relations in our country. We can follow the leadership on antiracism from people of color. . . . We can get involved in organizations working for racial justice. And most important, we must break the silence about race and racism with other white people. It’s a lot to ask. But how can we refuse? We have benefited from racism for too long.

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2019

by Yuval Noah Harari (Spiegel & Grau, 2018) (I read the electronic version)

As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his Introduction to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “In this book I want to zoom in on the here and now. My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies. What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and most important choices? What should we teach our kids?”

Although I was spellbound by Harari’s Coursera MOOC “A Brief History of Humankind” in 2013, this is the first of his books I have actually read (though Sapiens has been on my to-read list since I took the MOOC, and Homo Deus is already in my Nook library). I remember Dr. Harari’s video presentations. He always sat in the same armchair with a floor lamp beside it. There was a video screen next to him, but he rarely used it. Instead, he kept us enthralled with his words, sitting there with no notes, just talking into the camera. It was amazing. 21 Lessons reminds me of that, a little. While I was not enthralled (more like depressed) as I read it, he constantly got me to look at things in a fresh new way, just as he did in the course.

I was expecting something more along the lines of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, but 21 Lessons is more like the reworking of previously published articles, supplemented by responses to reader questions. That said, there is plenty here to learn and think about, written succinctly and clearly, with relevant examples taken from numerous countries around the globe as well as from Harari’s personal experiences (something he did not talk about at all in the MOOC).

Order of chapter topics:

Part I: The Technological Challenge (Ch. 1: Disillusionment; Ch. 2: Work; Ch. 3: Liberty; Ch. 4: Equality)

Part II: The Political Challenge (Ch. 5: Community; Ch. 6: Civilization; Ch. 7: Nationalism; Ch. 8: Religion; Ch. 9: Immigration)

Part III: Despair and Hope (Ch. 10: Terrorism; Ch. 11: War; Ch. 12: Humility; Ch. 13: God; Ch. 14: Secularism)

Part IV: Truth (Ch. 15: Ignorance; Ch. 16: Justice; Ch. 17: Post-Truth; Ch. 18: Science Fiction)

Part VI: Resilience (Ch. 19: Education; Ch. 20: Meaning; Ch. 21: Meditation)

Some of the main take-aways:

  • People think in stories. Most of them are fictional. The one my friends and I prefer is “the liberal story”. But it’s not the only one out there. (A related thought: “from a political perspective, a good science fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature.)
  • In the future, most people could become irrelevant (“a massive new ‘useless class'”) as powerful elites use bio-technology to turn themselves into a kind of super-human. “It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.” We might even split into two separate species. The crucial difference is “who owns the data”. But how do we regulate data?
  • The Artificial Intelligence Revolution will transform the future job market.  “No job will remain absolutely safe from automation.”
  • Humans make most of their decisions based on emotion, not rational thought. Emotions are “biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to quickly calculate probabilities of survival and reproduction”. In other words, “feelings. . . embody evolutionary rationality.”
  • Human communities have always been characterized by inequality. Equality gained ground in the 20th century, but inequality is now growing again.
  • All humans today share a global civilization which recognizes nation states, money, and shared scientific, medical, and technological knowledge.
  • The success of Homo Sapiens is due in large part to our propensity to think in groups and to cooperate.
  • People don’t like too many facts. “The world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains.”
  • The three main challenges facing humankind are the nuclear challenge, the ecological challenge, and the technological challenge, which together “add up to an unprecedented existential crisis.” Four questions for any candidate for office:
    • If elected, how will you reduce the risk of nuclear war?
    • How will you fight climate change?
    • How would you regulate technologies such as AI and bioengineering?
    • How do you see the world of 2040?
  • There are three kinds of problems: technical problems, policy problems, and identity problems. Religion is relevant only to identity problems.
  • Immigration is a deal with three basic conditions.
    • Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in.
    • Term 2: The immigrants embrace at least the core norms and values of the host country.
    • Term 3: If the immigrants assimilate enough, over time they become equal and full members of the host country.
    • We need to have a consensus on the meaning of the three terms before we can have a debate on immigration.
  • Terrorism is a military strategy used by groups that are too weak to really damage their enemy materially. Don’t panic over terrorist actions because in the end their effect is usually very small. “There is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.”
  • Jews are less important in world history than either they or their detractors think.
  • Monotheism made people less tolerant of others.
  • A moral person is one who reduces the suffering of others.
  • Two rules of thumb:
    • If you want reliable information, you should be prepared to pay for it.
    • If an issue is really important to you, read the relevant scientific literature about it.
  • Students don’t need more information (facts). They need to know how to make sense of the information they have.

Favorite quotes:

  • Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form or humans will come to live in “digital dictatorships.”
  • Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love, and anger.
  • The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentive to expand and diversify my compassion.
  • If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.
  • We are all members of a single rowdy global civilization.
  • Xenophobia is in our DNA.
  • Identities are a crucial historical force. . . . All mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities.
  • Terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. 
  • Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
  • Home sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.
  • When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion. . . .
  • Humans have a remarkable ability to know and not know at the same time. Or, more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know it.
  • Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.
  • As a species, humans prefer power to truth.
  • A ritual is a magical acts that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real.
  • If by “free will” you mean the freedom to do what you desire, then yes, humans have free will. But if by “free will” you mean the freedom to choose what to desire, then no, humans have no free will.

One thing I really enjoyed in particular was how Harari explains his points with reference to art (Hamlet, Inside Out, Brave New World, The Lion King…).


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Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Posted by nliakos on April 15, 2019

by Sebastian Junger (Twelve/Hachette Book Group 2016)

This little (136 pages not counting the notes) book examines the proposition that modern “Western” society runs counter to how human beings have evolved to live and is detrimental to mental health.

In the first chapter, “The Men and the Dogs”, Junger compares Native American tribal society with European “white” society. He notes that thousands of white people joined Indian tribes (some as captives who opted to stay, some voluntarily), whereas there is not one documented instance of a Native American voluntarily wishing to join white society, and he asks what might make Indian society so appealing to us. Speaking of the period of Western expansion, he notes that both societies were characterized by (to us) abhorrent cruelty, but that Indian religion was less harsh, and the Indian lifestyle was more interesting (hunting vs. agriculture) and included more leisure time and more control over one’s own life. He quotes a white woman who lived among Indians for many years: “No people can live more happy than the Indians did in times of peace. . . Their lives were a continual round of pleasures.”

Junger alludes to the theory of self-determination, which holds that people’s three most essential needs are autonomy (or being authentic in one’s life, whatever that means), competence, and community, or connectedness. Indian tribal life tended to fulfill these needs much better than white society did, and white societies were (and are) characterized by higher rates of suicide, depression, and other mental illnesses. He postulates that our wealthy modern life style deprives us of what we need to be happy. Our children are forced to sleep alone, we are subject to more authority and have a lesser sense of well-being, there is more dishonesty and fraud (and the perpetrators often get away with egregious dishonesty that would be unthinkable in a Native American tribe–e.g., the bankers and traders that caused the Great Recession, who were never held accountable for the vast damage they inflicted on the country and people).

The second chapter, “War Makes You an Animal”, considers the dual nature of war (and other calamities as well)–for participants, it is both the best of times (increased sense of community and opportunities to prove oneself) and the worst of times (physical and mental trauma, witnessing and causing death). Junger notes that both combat veterans and residents of cities under siege miss something about their wartime experience when it is over. He writes, “Large-scale disasters produce. . . mentally healthy conditions,” and provides numerous examples (the London Blitz, the Allied bombing of Dresden, the Springhill Mine Disaster, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 1970 Chilean earthquake) to prove his point.

In European societies, people rarely have the opportunity to exhibit courage because only certain segments of society (police, firemen. . .) are involved in rescue work and the protection of civilians. But that deprives us of something we have evolved to do and even to need. Junger writes, The beauty and tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger–or even give up his dinner. Likewise, a woman in a society that has codified its moral behavior into a set of laws and penalties might never have to make a choice that puts her very life at risk. What would you risk dying for–and for whom–is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people. And it is a blessing because life has gotten far less difficult and traumatic than it was for most people even a century ago.

The third chapter, “In Bitter Safety I Awake”, continues to examine the conundrum of why people who have survived catastrophe miss something about that catastrophic experience afterwards. Junger also considers the different leadership qualities that are needed in times of peace and war (and how the Iroquois Nations had two kinds of leaders to respond to these different requirements), and he focuses on post-traumatic stress syndrome (the kind that resolves and the kind that persists) and points out that what most veterans really need is jobs (= a sense of self-worth because they are contributing to society)–not lifetime disabilities payments. Part of the problem, Junger suggests, is that civilians are typically far removed from the war experience, so they cannot understand what the returning veterans have gone through. Returning to Indian tribes of the 19th century, the entire tribe underwent the trauma of war together, so returning warriors had no sense of alienation.

The final chapter, “Calling Home from Mars”, considers what we who live in modern societies have given up in exchange for modern conveniences and comforts, and how making real sacrifices for our community could gives us a greater sense of safety, self-worth, and yes, happiness. Junger writes, There are many costs to modern society, starting with its toll on the global ecosystem and working one’s way down to its toll on the human psyche, but the most dangerous loss may be to community. If the human race is under threat in some way that we don’t yet understand, it will probably be at a community level that we either solve the problem or fail to. If the future of the planet depends on, say, rationing water, communities of neighbors will be able to enforce the new rules far more effectively than even local government. It’s how we evolved to exist, and it obviously works. But this made me think of something Yuval Noah Harari said in the MOOC we did with him a few years ago: human beings evolved to trust the individuals in the small community they lived in, up to maybe fifty people (“us), and to distrust everyone else (“them”). When the “us” consists of people of different races, religions, political and sexual preferences, native languages/cultures, and levels of education, it is not a given that they can actually build that sense of community that Junger is talking about. I would like to believe that they could, but this adds a major complication that was not there when the race was evolving.

Anyway, Junger’s book gave me a lot of food for thought, and I do agree that when we traded communal responsibility for hierarchies where only some individuals are responsible for the safety of the group, we gained something but lost something also, something important for us as human beings.

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Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape

Posted by nliakos on January 14, 2019

by Emma Gingerich (Progressive Rising Phoenix Press, 2015)

I was watching random online videos the day before yesterday, and I came upon this Megyn Kelly interview of Emma Gingerich, who was raised in an ultra-conservative Swartzentruber Amish community in Ohio and Missouri but left the community at the age of eighteen. Gingerich had written a book about her experiences, and the e-book cost only $4.49! So I bought it and started reading immediately (what I love about e-books–the ultimate impulse buy!). It’s very short, only 132 pages, and not particularly well-written; but one can make allowances for this courageous young woman who never felt like she belonged in her family or her community, and who risked everything for the freedom to drive, to go to college, to listen to music, to think for herself and to make her own decisions about dating and marriage. After all, she never had to speak or write much English until she left her Amish life behind. She had to enroll in English classes like any international student. Of course, she had to get her GED before she could fulfill her college dream; Amish schools go only until the eighth grade. She had to get a job to support herself. She had to learn how to do everything, from shaving her legs to driving a car to being a student to applying for financial aid to saying no to people who asked her for money, and much much more.

She was raped but overcame her trauma and shame to go to the police and pressed charges against her rapist, which resulted in his incarceration and later deportation, though when it happened, she writes, “I did not even know what it was called. I did not know anything about sex, which made the horrific experience even more difficult to explain to anyone, even if I had wanted to.”

In the first part of the book, Gingerich describes her life in the Amish community, where “dating” consists of chastely sharing one’s bed with a young man; this is tolerated by the parents, although they do not tolerate their unmarried daughters engaging in conversation with young men. She describes the chores she had to do, the clothing she had to wear, the pranks she pulled, the trouble she was always getting into because she would not follow the strict rules of the community, and her large family, who never really communicated with one another, let alone showed one another love.

The last few chapters focus on Gingerich’s escape, aided by acquaintances who took her in and helped her with the immediate transition (a roof over her head, getting new clothes, learning about deodorant, etc.). Soon she relocated to southern Texas, where she focused on learning English and getting an education: first the GED, then a community college degree, then a Bachelor’s (followed by a Master’s, which was in progress when the book came out). In these chapters, Gingerich also tells about her relationship with her family after she left, which surprisingly (to me) was never cut off entirely. She visited them in Missouri several times, including attending her brother’s wedding. I would have thought visiting would be discouraged, and indeed it wasn’t easy, but it did happen, and her parents seem never to have given up hope that she would return to the fold–something Gingerich never wanted to do for a minute, despite all the challenges of life “outside”.


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The Te of Piglet

Posted by nliakos on February 5, 2017

by Benjamin Hoff (Dutton 1992)

This is the sequel to and companion of The Tao of Pooh, which I re-read and blogged about recently. Pooh’s friend Piglet (“a very small animal”) exemplifies virtue in action: “a quality of special character, spiritual strength, or hidden potential. . . that comes from the Inner Nature of things. . .”

Say what? Hoff points out that Piglet “agonizes” over everything, unlike Pooh, who simply is.  He represents the underdog, the unfortunate, the outcast, the maligned in society, who traditionally have been appreciated and protected by the Taoists, who see “Heavenly Power at work in the world” as primarily feminine: gentle, humble, generous, subtle–kind of like Piglet, if you think about it. Humble Piglet longs to be important, and at the end of The House at Pooh Corner, he achieves this goal. Hoff points out that of all the characters in Winnie the Pooh, Piglet is the only one to develop into something more than he is at the beginning, which he manages to do by “applying” his smallness for the benefit of others.

Eeyore again personifies the pessimist who is never satisfied. Tigger is the overachiever, the seeker of instant gratification (the typical Westerner). Hoff reminds us that these kinds of personalities will never achieve either wisdom or happiness, because they are incapable of being satisfied with what they have.

Hoff also rants about the media, education, feminism, science and technology,  nuclear devices, Chinese inventions vs. Western ones (the same things, but centuries earlier)–which I could have done without. He mourns the destruction of the environment. He prefers the natural (“material”) world to the artificial (man-made) one. That sounds great, and I am all for living a natural life in theory, but I must confess I like living in a house and sleeping in a bed, and running water, and a lot of things that are completely unnatural, but to which I have become accustomed!

Hoff summarizes Taoist teachings thusly: Observe, Deduce, Apply. Look at things with a fresh eye. See the basic parts of things, connections between things, patterns. Use the natural laws that operate in these things. In this way, Hoff advises, “you will learn the morality of modesty, moderation, compassion, and consideration. . . , the wisdom of seeing things as they are (not of merely collecting ‘facts’ about them), and the happiness of being in harmony with the Way.” So we should see things as they are, without judging them. And like Piglet, we should cultivate in ourselves the power of the Sensitive, the Modest, and the Small.

Taoists take a negative and change it into a positive: “You work with whatever comes your way. If others throw bricks at you, build a house. If they throw tomatoes, start a vegetable stand. You can often change a situation simply by changing your attitude toward it.” Hoff gives Charles Dickens as an example of this. Having experienced poverty and brutality, he created stories which entertained people while gently exposing them to the concept of social injustice; in the end, his readers began to see the poor in a different light, and society began to change for the better.

In the end, as you know if you have read The House at Pooh Corner, Piglet summons the courage to save the day when Owl’s tree falls, trapping Owl, Pooh, and Piglet inside. Later, Pooh composes a Hum to commemorate Piglet’s heroism. Piglet has achieved his wish, but he remains modest and self-effacing.

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The Tao of Pooh

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2017

by Benjamin Hoff (Dutton 1982)

I read this little gem long before I began learning t’ai chi ch’uan back in 2010, but I remember loving it, so I recently purchased a used copy from ThriftBooks, my latest find on the web (cheap prices, great customer service), and reread it. Using Winnie the Pooh as a kind of model (and Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, and Rabbit as counter-models), Hoff explains the basic tenets of Taoism:

  • The principle of the Uncarved Block: things in their original simplicity are naturally powerful (Winnie the Pooh being “the very Epitome of the Uncarved Block”)
  • Knowledge and education cannot provide deep understanding or happiness.
  • Things are as they are. Don’t try to change them into something they aren’t. (“A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.”) Accept your limitations.
  • Wu Wei, “without doing, causing, or making”: working with natural laws and our own inner nature without stress or struggle. Acting according to circumstances and your own intuition. (This “can be seen in the practice of the Taoist martial art T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the basic idea of which is to wear the opponent out either by sending his energy back at him or by deflecting it away, in order to weaken his power, balance, and position-for-defense. Never is force opposed by force; instead, it is overcome with yielding.”)
  • People who are constantly busy are missing out on a lot. They are never at peace. (Rabbit is an example of this kind of person.)
  • We should believe in our own power and use it, rather than trying to be like others.
  • Caring/Compassion (Tz’u) give us courage and wisdom.
  • Appreciating ourselves for who and what we are brings us contentment; dissatisfaction brings only misery.
  • An empty mind is receptive to what is truly important. “While the Clear mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of-Knowledge-and-Cleverness mind wonders what kind of bird is singing.” (This one really made me sit up and pay attention, because that’s me: instead of just appreciating the beauty of the fallen leaves in the park, I try to identify the tree they fell from.) Nothing has value.

Throughout, Hoff quotes lengthy passages from Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, invents dialogues with Pooh and among Pooh and his fellow denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood, and intersperses it all with E. H. Shepard’s original illustrations from the Pooh books. So the reader of this book had better be familiar with those books.

Hoff followed the Tao of Pooh with The Te of Piglet, which I also own and have read, but it might be time to reread that too. I didn’t like it as much as The Tao of Pooh, though, when I read it before.

Posted in Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image

Posted by nliakos on November 21, 2016

by Leonard Shlain (Penguin/Arkana 1998; ISBN 0-670-87883-9)

From time to time, I read a book that really upends my worldview. This is such a book. Leonard Shlain tells the story of human history through a neurologic lens; that is, how the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere over the right over the past five thousand years has predisposed the human race to aggression, mistrust of the female and of images. And the cause of this left hemispheric hijacking is literacy–in particular, alphabetic literacy. Over and over, throughout Western history as well as in Eastern cultures (e.g., India, China, Southeast Asian countries), he shows that once a culture adopts an alphabet and literacy spreads among its population, goddess worship declines (or is done away with completely), art comes under attack, and women’s rights are abrogated.

To the right hemisphere of the brain, Shlain attributes mysticism, emotion, appreciation of music, art, and dance, being, irrationality, intuition, love, faith, gestalts, concreteness, all-at-once perception (like facial recognition), metaphor, and non-verbal aspects of communication. The right hemisphere is most often dominant in women, who are the healers/nurturers of the human race.

To the left hemisphere, he attributes linearity, abstract thought, language, numbers, analysis, action (doing), reason, sequence, science, and  a sense of time. It is most often the province of men, the hunters/killers of the human race.

The really original part of Shlain’s hypothesis is to attribute the rise of the left brain to the detriment of the right to the invention of writing, especially alphabetic writing, which is not only abstract but forcibly linear and sequential. The process of learning to read (not the content of what is read), he argues, actually changes the human brain over time, rendering it more prone to abstract, linear thought and eventually to bellicosity, aggression, and suppression of images and women’s rights. Again and again across human history, he shows how war, persecutions and massacres (think the Spanish Inquisition, the slaughter of first peoples in the Americas, the 15th-17th century witch-hunts in Europe and America, the Holocaust) follow increases in literacy.

In the Epilogue, Shlain confesses, “As a writer, as an avid reader, and as a scientist, I had the uneasy feeling that I was turning on one of my best friends” as he “expended considerable ink bashing the left brain”. Reading his book, I often felt longstanding assumptions being turned on their heads–for instance, the assumption that monotheism represented some sort of progress (but Shlain points out that the first alphabetic people, the Jews, in recognizing one all-powerful male God, were rejecting the divine feminine principle that had checked the hunter/killer in us for millennia).

Each chapter in the book focuses on a left/right dichotomy:

  • Image/Word (an introduction to the book’s thesis)
  • Hunters/Gatherers (male and female roles in ancient prehistoric societies; the beginnings of language)
  • Right Brain/Left Brain (what each hemisphere is good at)
  • Males: Death/Females: Life (prehistoric human societies; the agricultural revolution)
  • Nonverbal/Verbal (how the left-right balance shifted to left dominance; how speech differs from written language)
  • Cuneiform/Marduk (early Mesopotamian peoples, who created the first written language we know of, and their creation myth–the horrific slaying of the goddess Tiamat by the god Marduk)
  • Hieroglyphs/Isis (ancient Egypt, where writing was pictorial and women enjoyed high status)
  • Aleph/Bet (ancient Hebrews and their alphabet, which Shlain speculates was the first in the world)
  • Hebrews/Israelites (musings on the Exodus and how Hebrew society was transformed by the Old Testament: “The miracle, I believe, was  the reduction of graphic symbols from  thousands to two dozen.” The Israelites’ hostility toward images)
  • Abraham/Moses (more Jewish history: Abram/Abraham, Yahweh, Jacob, Joseph in Egypt, Moses and the Exodus, the writing down of Yahweh’s commandments)
  • Thera/Matzah (the Exodus again; how the eruption of Thera’s volcano could have been the cause of some of the miracles described therein)
  • Adam/Eve (musings on who wrote the Old Testament; different versions of Biblical stories; early gods and goddesses)
  • Cadmus/Alpha (Prince Cadmus introduced alphabetic writing to the Greeks; misogyny among the ancient Greeks; the Old testament and the Iliad)
  • Sappho/Ganymede (sexual excess, homosexuality, and bisexuality in ancient Greek culture; as opposed to the rather straitlaced Israelite culture)
  • Dionysus/Apollo (the right-brained/left-brained dichotomy in classical Greek mythology)
  • Athens/Sparta (Greek myths that illustrate women’s loss of power and prestige; the increasing sexism of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle)
  • Lingam/Yoni (ancient Indians’ views of books, images and the divine feminine)
  • Birth/Death (the Buddha and the religion he founded; Buddhist views on images and women; comparison with Hinduism)
  • Yin/Yang (how to reconcile Chinese patriarchy with the equality of the female principle as evidenced by the yin/yang circle; musings on the Chinese writing system and how it differs from an alphabetic system)
  • Taoism/Confucianism  (how Lao-tzu resisted writing while Confucius embraced it, eventually winning out–as a religion with a sacred book always wins out over one with only an oral tradition; how the writing down of Lao-tzu’s aphorisms transformed his belief system into something much different)
  • B.C./A.D. (Alexander the Great, the early Roman Empire; Judaism in the Roman Empire)
  • Jesus/Christ (how the right-brained ideas of Jesus turned into the left-brained, anti-woman ideas of Paul
  • Death/Rebirth (how Paul conceived of the new religion that would become Christianity)
  • Patriarchs/Heretics (early Christian history: misogynistic Orthodox vs.  more egalitarian Gnostics [Shlain: “The Orthodox/Gnostic struggle was at its core a conflict between words and images”]; Montanus, Valentinus, Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine, and how they corrupted Jesus’ original message)
  • Reason/Madness (the Jewish revolt against the Romans; why the early Christians accepted and even sought martyrdom; how alphabet literacy was instrumental to the spread of Christianity)
  • Illiteracy/Celibacy, 500-1000 (after the fall of the Roman Empire, literacy waned and female rights resurged; the pro-feminine Age of Chivalry; the rise of the cult of Mary; the demonization of the feminine in the devil [a concept original to Christians]; Christian ascetism; Benedict and the invention of all-male monastic communities, which “did more to undermine the position of medieval women than any other social institution”)
  • Muslin Veils/Muslim Words (the predictable loss of freedom for Arab women once the Arabs got their own sacred book, the Quran; how the illiterate Prophet’s views of and behavior with women were corrupted by later literate Muslims who wrote the Hadith; how face veiling undermines the right hemisphere; the history and geography of female genital mutilation and how it is tied to literacy rates)
  • Mystic/Scholastic, 1000-1300 (the Crusades and the resulting rediscovery of Classical learning; women’s prestige and rights at a high point in Europe; how Pope Gregory VII began to replace medieval feminine values with masculine ones; enforced celibacy and misogyny [along with promoting literacy]; Abelard and Heloise; the mass murder of the Cathars and Albigensians, Christians with a more feminine, tolerant orientation; the beginnings of the Inquisition; Scholasticism [a balanced right/left philosophy]; Hildegard von Bingen vs. Thomas Aquinas)
  • Humanist/Egoist, 1300-1500 (how Gutenberg’s printing press set the stage for exploding literacy; the Renaissance and its anti-female bias; the difference between male and female advice, and what happens when men lack female advisers; six Popes whose reigns “constitute one of the most dramatic examples of sustained folly in recorded history”; the corruption of the Church which led to the Protestant Reformation)
  • Protestant/Catholic (Martin Luther’s revolution; imageless, drab Protestantism versus Catholic images and colors; Protestant views of the female; John Calvin, who was even more misogynistic than Luther)
  • Faith/Hate (reigns of terror, religious persecution, the Anabaptists, how reading the Bible for themselves transformed European peasantry, religious wars, the Spanish Inquisition, the collision between literate Europeans and native Americans after Columbus’ “discovery”; Henry VIII and the Church of England; the repression of the Huguenots in France; the Italian Inquisition; Protestants vs. Catholics in the Netherlands; Africans and slavery. “Taken as a whole, the religious wars that wracked Europe in the 150 years after the printing press had transformed European culture can be viewed as a sort of mass madness.”
  • Sorcery/Science (the witch hunts of the 15th-17th centuries)
  • Positive/Negative, 1648-1899 (Darwin, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of electromagnetism, the invention of photography, which “did for images what the printing press had done for written words”)
  • Id/Superego, 1900-1945 (Freud, Charlie Chaplin and the rise of images; relativity and quantum mechanics; the resurgence of the right hemisphere; surrealism in art and literature; nationalism and feminism; communism (another religion with a sacred book), Nazism and the holocaust; the power of the spoken word on the radio
  • Page/Screen, 1945-2000 (television and the Internet, which are responsible for a return to prestige of images [and not coincidentally, a resurgence of women’s rights])

In this month following the shocking election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, I wonder if Trump’s boast that he has never read a whole book, coupled with many of his supporters’ disregard of facts and reason, is a new phase of anti-literate right-brain resurgence (Shlain points out that each time a culture’s means of communication changes, a kind of madness takes over). It’s difficult to see anything positive in this particular change, but as Shlain says, when we are in the washing machine being tossed around, it’s hard to observe that the clothes are getting clean!

I really liked this book for the way it forced me to look at things in a completely new way, but I should mention that Shlain sometimes attributes cause and effect to two events without showing how he arrived at that conclusion.

Other resources:

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »