May 4, 2014
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I must confess that I am always slightly baffled about how the majority of people that I meet in life don’t quite get why either conventional or unconventional methods of fossil fuel extraction are really not such great ideas for us evolved primates to be considering continuing with… It doesn’t matter if it’s done here in the UK with our amazingly tight regulations and/or our absolute best practices, or whether it’s done anywhere else in the world with little or no regard for the environment… The fact remains that it’s just simply not a path that any “together” life-form would rationally want to be advancing down, all things considered.
No doubt the “considering” is a hugely BIG and EXPANSIVE effort… One that requires us all to get a grip on and piece together many seemingly unrelated subjects so as to bring into focus the BIGGER picture of where we – as evolved life-forms who are highly dependent on a planetary ecosystem – are ALL presently at.
However, even after this BIGGER picture is sometimes accurately sketched out with as much clarity as anyone could hope to muster, given constraints of time and circumstance, it commonly seems that quite a few of my fellow primates are always left scratching their heads. In these particular instances I try to help by asking whether they might (at present) be feeling a bit like a puddle would do in the hot morning sun. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always have the desired effect that I intend it to, and commonly results in them gawping all the more.
When noticing that clarity might quickly be replaced with concerns about our ramblings being a type of contagious madness, which should swiftly be contained at all cost (either by alerting the local psychiatric hospital or even punching me in the face), I quickly refer to the eloquent lecture that the late Douglas Adams gave on the parallel subject about “Parrots the Universe and Everything”. I then hurriedly make my excuses about the time (or some other such contrivance that might need to be addressed) and leave, hoping that they will, in future, look it up on the Informational Super-Highway.
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Parrots the Universe and Everything
Douglas Adams was the best-selling British author and satirist who created The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this talk at UCSB recorded shortly before his death, Adams shares hilarious accounts of some of the apparently absurd lifestyles of the world’s creatures, and gleans from them extraordinary perceptions about the future of humanity.
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To find out more about the late Douglas Adam, please click here.
To find out more about unconventional oil & gas extraction and how it might affect those living near it, please click here.
December 23, 2012
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In lieu of the recent winter Solstice celebration, I’d like to offer everyone who passes by this website a short film that holds a special message for us all. It was made by a couple of friends of a friend, and has been leading up to their first general release, entitled “Continuum“, which is a feature length film looking at the root of the environmental crisis we are now all facing here on planet Earth. Perhaps, what with the recent end of the Mayan Long Count calendar (which some said was meant to spell the end of the world), we would all be advised to usher in a new way of perceiving the world on which we live, listening to those fortunate and wise enough to have seen something different to daily life that resides on the planet’s surface. Why? Because, bearing in mind all the recent indisputable evidence for man’s part in climate change, we might do well to begin to cultivate and cherish this finite planetary perspective that Guy and Steve have re-considered here, so as to avoid more sentient being casualties further down the line.
Fear not… It will not even take 20 minutes of your time… And will hopefully leave you with a thought that will change the way you understand our world and our roll in it.
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If you’d like to learn more about Guy and Steve, the creators of this amazing film, please check out their website by clicking here.
Or if you’d like to see more of their work, please check out their Vimeo channel, entitled the Planetary Collective, by clicking here.
August 25, 2012
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Just over a month ago, around my birthday, I saw this rather interesting film that was airing on the BBC’s iPlayer… The main reason it caught my eye was because I was looking to buy a DVD copy an old blues documentary that Martin Scorsese had directed that traced the origins of blues music from the birth of the Delta-blues to the slave-experience and finally to Africa, which was entitled “The Blues“. However, as so often seems to be the case when on-line recently, I got slightly side tracked when I noticed a somewhat odd search result place near the top of the Google list… It read something like, “Scorsese – Executive Producer – Surviving Progress”.
Obviously I’m quite a big fan of Scorsese’s past works, especially his recent foray into the world of 3D animation that was highlighted with his loveable film “Hugo”, a heart felt story of a young orphaned lad who looks after the Gare Montparnasse’s clocks in Paris, ensuring they’re all well maintained and running on time. Anything that he decides/chooses to get involved in, for me, is a curiosity I rarely fail to miss… Mainly because they’re usually so well crafted and brilliantly realised. However, this one particular listing about “Survivng Progess” I had not heard anything about: neither in the tabloids nor on-line. Why that should be, I have no idea, especially as it is something I’ve broached the subject of here within this website before. So, as it was airing on the BBC’s iPlayer, I just couldn’t turn down a ‘free’ viewing of something Scorsese had chosen to get involved in when the chance arose.
To be fair, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Partly because I didn’t read the introduction to it on the BBC’s website… But predominantly because I had clocked the 1 hour and 22 minute run time and, so, automatically expected it to be a feature length fictional movie/film of some kind or another (oh, damnable presumptions)… However, from the very outset, I have to say, with it’s dulcet musical score and languid, ponderous content, it left me feeling somewhat engrossed and uneasy all at the same time, almost as though I was witnessing my own death and, yet, was still fully aware of all that going on around me.
During the course of the film, it touchingly brought an obvious – and yet, of late, once again much overlooked question – to the forefront of my thoughts… As a race of living beings, would WE actually make it through the coming hard times, most of which are predominantly and presently of our own making… ? Could we make sufficient changes right now to allow a decent bit of progress to be made on the path to cultivating a more balanced way of life within nature’s cradle of a planetary ecosystem… ?
Alfred Montapert, the Amercian author who wrote the “The Supreme Philosophy of Man: The Laws of Life”, is quoted as once saying “Don’t confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but doesn’t make any progress.” Certainly I see a lot of motion going on all around me in daily life… And whenever I’ve asked whether it’s really a holistic, healthy type of progress, most people I meet say that it will do for the time being… But, my instinct keeps nudging me, and I can’t help asking “Really? Is it really good enough for the time being?” Certainly I’m still not convinced by most people’s appraisal of the situation… And it seems, as this film suggests, the answer is a lot more astounding that most could (or would) dare to imagine…
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Documentary telling the double-edged story of the grave risks we pose to our own survival in the name of progress. With rich imagery the film connects financial collapse, growing inequality and global oligarchy with the sustainability of mankind itself. The film explores how we are repeatedly destroyed by ‘progress traps’ – alluring technologies which serve immediate need but rob us of our long term future. Featuring contributions from those at the forefront of evolutionary thinking such as Stephen Hawking and economic historian Michael Hudson. With Martin Scorsese as executive producer, the film leaves us with a challenge – to prove that civilisation and survival is not the biggest progress trap of them all.
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To find out where I originally saw this movie, please visit the BBC’s website by clicking here.
OR to visit the official website for the film, which should be released on DVD sometime this October, please click here.
April 22, 2012
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All this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,
‘You owe me.’
With a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.”
by Hafiz Shirazi
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To find out more about the Iranian mystic and poet, Hafiz Shirazi, please click here.
February 23, 2012
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One morning earlier this week I awoke with a bit of a start. I’d been having strange dreams again, ones that had left me with a slight sense of sadness – not too distant from how I felt when I was but a seven year old child watching the grown-ups shooting pheasant in late autumn and mid winter morns. “BANG!” “CRACK!” “POOMB!” their guns would sound loudly in the stark and barren light. Under a steady stream of grey clouds, one’s which were being thrust mercilessly across a broken bleak horizon by savage winter winds, there would be sudden loud gaps of quiet… Quiet that allowed windows of peace so as to hear the gentle, soft rustle of the brown crumpled leaves shivering the cold wooded camp of trees. All the time I would look up at these snaking, gnarled limbs around me, twisted as though they were raised to the heavens in complaint over the clamor and din of the relentless gun fire, wondering if they mourning the loss of their colorful feathered friends who kept their council during these unbearing winter days.
That’s what woke me that morning. Noise. In fact is was a very loud noise… Noise in the form of a heavy knock at the front door. You see… When I fell asleep the previous night, I did so in the recording studio. Being a fully sound proofed room there was usually little or no noise to be heard from anywhere at the best of times, save for the smattering of instrumental play that filled the space when it was being used for recording. Thus, other than the general rustling of clothes (or bedclothes in this instance) and/or the low, almost inaudible, rumble of the occasional car passing by outside, it was a very peaceful chamber in which to sleep. Saying that, I had left the door slightly open that night, and when the knock was procured on the glass door below, the acoustics of the house beautifully funneled the sound in through the open door so that it cut through the soft almost empty bliss of my dreams. Up I sat, instantly aware and somewhat shocked at the volume of the herald. While pulling on my jeans, I hopped over the cables and made my way down the stairs, half expecting to see a giant flicking the glass doors gently with his little finger so as to leave the doors intact.
As I got the door, to my surprise there was no giant… Rather there was a bearded fellow dress in blue trousers and a red jacket, beaming furiously back at me while I starred disappointedly at him. As I unlocked the door, he held out a brown cardboard box, proclaiming, “Got another for ya, mate. Someone’s birthday is it, eh?” as he thrust the box through the half opened door into my fumbling sleepy arms. On he beamed, smiling at the fact that he’d caught someone wiping the sleep from their eyes so late in his morning’s schedule. I huffed a bit, mentioning that it wasn’t even… As I looked down I noticed that I didn’t even have my watch on my wrist. Smiling all the more (even if it was a physical impossibility), the delivery chap happily glanced at his own watch and mentioned that it was nearly 7.45 am. “Yes… You see it’s not even 7.45 am!” I complained half mockingly. Nonetheless he decided to take it upon himself to chirp about what a glorious morning it was, with bright blue skies overhead with a warming sun over the roof. Obviously, he pointed out, this signified the coming of an early, warm spring.
Just then two red breasted robins fluttered past us, so close as to barely miss our faces by a few inches. After the moment’s dazzle, we both erupted into a hearty laugh, after which the delivery chap went on to add something about how territorial robins were, and that these two were probably were having a scrap over who should have exclusive rights to the bird table down the way in front of my neighbor’s window. As I stood listening in agreement, I couldn’t help notice how he was tapping fervently away on a well worn machine that he desperately clutched with his hands. Looking at what he was writing, his gaze darted every now and then back to the box I was holding. Realizing he was trying to read the address at which I resided, I obliged him and quoted it from memory for his ease. After a few further moments of tapping the touch screen, he looked back towards the box trying to locate something that wasn’t as obvious.
“What you lost,” I said. “Need the barcode,” he replied. “Gotta scan the package to make sure it’s registered as delivered.” Firmly gripping the box, I revolved it around in my hands, all the while looking for any white zebra striped labels to reveal themselves. Just as I was glancing at one side, the delivery man told me to hold still. Seemed he had found what he was after. Pointing one side of the little box that he held at the target that I couldn’t quite see, he pressed a button as a red flicker of a laser’s beam shone out from a black reclined orifice. Expectantly he waited… But nothing. Looking quizzically at the screen he retouched a few keys and tried again. Red laser flashed and went off… Nothing. “Bloody thing,” he announced, “it’s been playing up on me all morning!”
As if all of a sudden, his jovial light hearted touch dimmed into a concentrated expression of focused intent as he repeated the process again. Still nothing. Besmirching the machine for not scanning the barcode as it was meant to, he began to hit its side as if to rectify whatever it was that might be wrong with it. “It’s probably still not awake what with it being so early in the morning,” I offered jokingly. “Yeah… Well they should have updated this scanning system a while back now, if you ask me. This was one of the first mobile systems that ever came on the market back in the late nineties… Uses mobile communication. Bit out of date this one now, ya know. And it ain’t like they can’t afford a new one either. In fact they spend more on the general upkeep of this system every year, what with software configuration problems they have, than a new system would cost! We checked.” Sounded like a case of bureaucracy I mentioned. “You can say that again,” he added, while repeating the scanning process again. “Seems they’re more than happy for us to look unprofessional in front of our customers, all for the sake of saving some pennies. Don’t suppose they think about it not sending out a good message… Bad advertising, if you ask me.” Again nothing.
By this time I couldn’t help but notice a slight strain that had appeared on the man’s face, almost as though all of his carefully laid plans for the morning were beginning to slide irrevocably closer into the domain of rush hour traffic. So I asked him if he had many deliveries to do, to which he replied that he had a full days work ahead of him, most of which he might not be able to do now if this machine kept playing up.
At this point, the slightly disgruntled demeanor that had over taken his mind suddenly just dissipated… As it did, he said, “It’s all about being aware. About being aware of the mind and how it controls how we perceive the world around us.” He stopped, took a deep breath, released his hunched shoulders and closed his eyes. Then opening them again he entered back into the original jovial flow of light hearted musings that I’d originally opened my door to only a few minutes ago. “Did you read the Guardian online yesterday?” he chuckled, continuing to scan the barcode once again… To which I replied that I hadn’t. “One of their reporters interviewed this Buddhist monk who lives out in France most of the time… He was talking about how we all need to be more mindful of our environment in which we live, as well as how our mind perceives it… Doing so in order to rekindle a lot of love and goodwill for this lovely world in which we all live in and share with one another… He also mentioned how we should change our living habits, getting rid of the ones that don’t work too well with mother nature, so that we can create a better, happier and easier way of life for us all living on Earth… Where we can do everything we need to do, as well as live comfortably and be able to help other people out who need help, including all the animals, plants, fish, insects and everything else.”
Somewhat amazed at how he had regained his composure over the misfortune of the malfunctioning machine… And pretty taken by what he’d just said, all I could think was… “WOW! That sounds like an interview I’d like to read.” And off I went on one, rambling on about parallels to modernizing simple systems, from scanners that delivery people needed to use, through to environmental changes in the way we generate electricity and grow our food, so as to make everyone’s world a little bit more efficient and better equipped to do the jobs we need to do without causing to much agro for ourselves… He then joined in, mentioning that it would be a good idea to change most of our antiquated, out-dated human habits that didn’t take into concern the delicate nature of how our ecosystem was balanced by indulging in more harmonious interests i.e. growing our own food, etc… “Kewl!” I though. “Here’s a guy who knows where it’s at. And I’m grooving with him.”
Smiling we bantered on for a few further minutes as he tried the machine again. Analogies between faulty computer systems and the way mankind lived in general, along with how we were all slowly causing ourselves more problems than we really needed to be doing, all to save a bit more money than we really needed, so as to spend it on more things that we didn’t necessarily need or even like (like the box I was clutching that, which for the life of me, I couldn’t even think of what was inside it)… Laughing at this, we went on to discussing how smart phones didn’t necessarily make us smarter at all; rather they just threw good healthy social interaction out the window as people became more engrossed in conversations/exchanges with people 20 miles away (or more) and, thus, paid less attention to the people in their local and immediate environment… Or even paid less attention to the environment itself… As well as becoming more stressed out in general!
Despite all this, there was still no joy with his scanning machine… So he threatened to use the old pen and paper that was waiting the van for eventualities like these. As he said this, he tried the machine one last time… “Bleep!” it went, signifying a successful entry. “Yay!” I jostled in, as he joked that it was the threat of pen and paper that must have scared the machine into working. As I wished him well with the rest of his rounds for the day he looked befuddled at the thought of the box not working for the rest of his deliveries. “Gotta stay positive,” I said, to which he replied, “That’s what the monk said in that interview. Seriously, you’d really like it.”
After jotting down an almost unrecognizable, heavily pixilated signature as proof that I’d received my parcel, I pointed out that it would probably have taken him less time to register the parcel by good old-fashioned pen and paper… To which he retorted that the paper work would have to filed when he got back, making it that little bit more work. “The bosses wouldn’t be able to keep track of me either,” he replied. “Not that it even works half the time, mind you.”
I smiled and thanked him for the heads-up about the Guardian article and said that I would look it up when I got back inside over a cup of tea. He laughed through the open window as he climbed back in the van shaking his head… “Alright for some, in’it…” Then he mentioning that the monk’s name was something like “Which Not Hand.” Finding it amusing, I repeated it a few times to myself as he drove off down the drive. As soon as he went out of sight, I looked up at the big blue sky above me and hoped he’d have more success with the antiquated system he was using. Then looking back to the birds fluttering from bush to tree I remembered the way he had regained his composure during our chat. Good to see people were able to use the power of their mind to change their circumstantial outcome.
Back I turned into the house, all the while thinking about the article that the chap had mentioned. After making a cup of tea, I decided that I should probably sit down and read it before I forgot about it, otherwise it would get swept away with the days proceedings. No doubt I had one hell of a hard time finding it, mainly because of the name. But eventually I tracked it down on an online Tweet. As it so happened the monk’s name was Thich Nhat Hanh, who was the author of a book that I had begun reading only a few weeks earlier.
I like it when magic moments like these resonate through me and change the way my day flows. It all adds to this sense of evolving wonder that leads towards better practices, into better ways of living… Urges us to embrace more aware and mindful ways of being. Bearing all this in mind, I feel that I should post the article here, as it beautifully flows into the spaces in between what I’ve already been writing here…
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Beyond Environment: Falling Back In Love With Mother Earth
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains why mindfulness and a spiritual revolution rather than economics is needed to protect nature and limit climate change…
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has been practising meditation and mindfulness for 70 years and radiates an extraordinary sense of calm and peace. This is a man who on a fundamental level walks his talk, and whom Buddhists revere as a Bodhisattva; seeking the highest level of being in order to help others.
Ever since being caught up in the horrors of the Vietnam war, the 86-year-old monk has committed his life to reconciling conflict and in 1967 Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying “his ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
So it seems only natural that in recent years he has turned his attention towards not only addressing peoples’ disharmonious relationships with each other, but also with the planet on which all our lives depend.
Thay, as he is known to his many thousands of followers, sees the lack of meaning and connection in peoples’ lives as being the cause of our addiction to consumerism and that it is vital we recognise and respond to the stress we are putting on Earth if civilisation is to survive.
What Buddhism offers, he says, is the recognition that we all suffer and the way to overcome that pain is to directly confront it, rather than seeking to hide or bypass it through our obsession with shopping, entertainment, work or the beautification of our bodies. The craving for fame, wealth, power and sex serves to create only the illusion of happiness and ends up exacerbating feelings of disconnection and emptiness.
Thay refers to a billionaire chief executive of one of America’s largest companies, who came to one of his meditation courses and talked of his suffering, worries and doubts, of thinking everyone was coming to take advantage of him and that he had no friends.
In an interview at his home and retreat centre in Plum Village, near Bordeaux, Thay outlines how a spiritual revolution is needed if we are going to confront the multitude of environmental challenges.
While many experts point to the enormous complexity and difficulty in addressing issues ranging from the destruction of ecosystems to the loss of millions of species, Thay sees a Gordian Knot that needs slicing through with a single strike of a sharp blade.
Move Beyond Concept Of The “Environment”
He believes we need to move beyond talking about the environment, as this leads people to experience themselves and Earth as two separate entities and to see the planet in terms only of what it can do for them.
Change is possible only if there is a recognition that people and planet are ultimately one and the same.
“You carry Mother Earth within you,” says Thay. “She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment.
“In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer. In that kind of relationship you have enough love, strength and awakening in order to change your life.
“Changing is not just changing the things outside of us. First of all we need the right view that transcends all notions including of being and non-being, creator and creature, mind and spirit. That kind of insight is crucial for transformation and healing.
“Fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the earth are two separate entities, the Earth is only the environment. You are in the centre and you want to do something for the Earth in order for you to survive. That is a dualistic way of seeing.
“So to breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realise you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the earth. Not to cut the tree not to pollute the water, that is not enough.”
Putting An Economic Value On Nature Is Not Enough
Thay, who will this spring be in the UK to lead a five-day retreat as well as a mindfulness in education conference, says the current vogue in economic and business circles that the best way to protect the planet is by putting an economic value on nature is akin to putting a plaster on a gaping wound.
“I don’t think it will work,” he says. “We need a real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things.”
Rather than placing a price tag of our forests and coral reefs, Thay says change will happen on a fundamental level only if we fall back in love with the planet: “The Earth cannot be described either by the notion of matter or mind, which are just ideas, two faces of the same reality. That pine tree is not just matter as it possesses a sense of knowing. A dust particle is not just matter since each of its atoms has intelligence and is a living reality.
“When we recognise the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born.
“We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one. When you love someone you want to say I need you, I take refuge in you. You do anything for the benefit of the Earth and the Earth will do anything for your wellbeing.”
In the world of business, Thay gives the example of Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of outdoor clothing company Patagonia, who combined developing a successful business with the practice of mindfulness and compassion: “It’s possible to make money in a way that is not destructive, that promotes more social justice and more understanding and lessens the suffering that exists all around us,” says Thay.
“Looking deeply, we see that it’s possible to work in the corporate world in a way that brings a lot of happiness both to other people and to us … our work has meaning.”
Thay, who has written more than 100 books, suggests that the lost connection with Earth’s natural rhythm is behind many modern sicknesses and that, in a similar way to our psychological pattern of blaming our mother and father for our unhappiness, there is an even more hidden unconscious dynamic of blaming Mother Earth.
In a new essay, Intimate Conversation with Mother Earth, he writes: “Some of us resent you for giving birth to them, causing them to endure suffering, because they are not yet able to understand and appreciate you.”
How Mindfulness Can Reconnect People To Mother Earth
He points to increasing evidence that mindfulness can help people to reconnect by slowing down and appreciating all the gifts that the earth can offer.
“Many people suffer deeply and they do not know they suffer,” he says. “They try to cover up the suffering by being busy. Many people get sick today because they get alienated from Mother Earth.
“The practice of mindfulness helps us to touch Mother Earth inside of the body and this practice can help heal people. So the healing of the people should go together with the healing of the Earth and this is the insight and it is possible for anyone to practice.
“This kind of enlightenment is very crucial to a collective awakening. In Buddhism we talk of meditation as an act of awakening, to be awake to the fact that the earth is in danger and living species are in danger.”
Thay gives the example of something as simple and ordinary as drinking a cup of tea. This can help transform a person’s life if he or she were truly to devote their attention to it.
“When I am mindful, I enjoy more my tea,” says Thay as he pours himself a cup and slowly savours the first sip. “I am fully present in the here and now, not carried away by my sorrow, my fear, my projects, the past and the future. I am here available to life.
“When I drink tea this is a wonderful moment. You do not need a lot of power or fame or money to be happy. Mindfulness can help you to be happy in the here and now. Every moment can be a happy moment. Set an example and help people to do the same. Take a few minutes in order to experiment to see the truth.”
Need To Deal With Ones Own Anger To Be An Effective Social Activist
Thay has over many years developed the notion of applied Buddhism underpinned by a set of ethical practices known as the five mindfulness trainings, which are very clear on the importance of tackling social injustice.
However, if social and environmental activists are to be effective, Thay says they must first deal with their own anger. Only if people discover compassion for themselves will they be able to confront those they hold accountable for polluting our seas and cutting down our forests.
“In Buddhism we speak of collective action,” he says. “Sometimes something wrong is going on in the world and we think it is the other people who are doing it and we are not doing it.
“But you are part of the wrongdoing by the way you live your life. If you are able to understand that, not only you suffer but the other person suffers, that is also an insight.
“When you see the other person suffer you will not want to punish or blame but help that person to suffer less. If you are burdened with anger, fear, ignorance and you suffer too much, you cannot help another person. If you suffer less you are lighter more smiling, pleasant to be with, and in a position to help the person.
“Activists have to have a spiritual practice in order to help them to suffer less, to nourish the happiness and to handle the suffering so they will be effective in helping the world. With anger and frustration you cannot do much.”
Touching The “Ultimate Dimension”
Key to Thay’s teaching is the importance of understanding that while we need to live and operate in a dualistic world, it is also vital to understand that our peace and happiness lie in the recognition of the ultimate dimension: “If we are able to touch deeply the historical dimension – through a leaf, a flower, a pebble, a beam of light, a mountain, a river, a bird, or our own body – we touch at the same time the ultimate dimension. The ultimate dimension cannot be described as personal or impersonal, material or spiritual, object or subject of cognition – we say only that it is always shining, and shining on itself.
“Touching the ultimate dimension, we feel happy and comfortable, like the birds enjoying the blue sky, or the deer enjoying the green fields. We know that we do not have to look for the ultimate outside of ourselves – it is available within us, in this very moment.”
While Thay believes there is a way of creating a more harmonious relationship between humanity and the planet, he also recognises that there is a very real risk that we will continue on our destructive path and that civilisation may collapse.
He says all we need to do is see how nature has responded to other species that have got out of control: “When the need to survive is replaced with greed and pride, there is violence, which always brings about unnecessary devastation.
“We have learned the lesson that when we perpetrate violence towards our own and other species, we are violent towards ourselves; and when we know how to protect all beings, we are protecting ourselves.”
Remaining Optimistic Despite Risk Of Impending Catastrophe
In Greek mythology, when Pandora opened the gift of a box, all the evils were released into the world. The one remaining item was “hope”.
Thay is clear that maintaining optimism is essential if we are to find a way of avoiding devastating climate change and the enormous social upheavals that will result.
However, he is not naïve and recognises that powerful forces are steadily pushing us further towards the edge of the precipice.
In his best-selling book on the environment, The World we Have, he writes: “We have constructed a system we can’t control. It imposes itself on us, and we become its slaves and victims.
“We have created a society in which the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, and in which we are so caught up in our own immediate problems that we cannot afford to be aware of what is going on with the rest of the human family or our planet Earth.
“In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed.”
by Jo Confino
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An edited video of Jo Confino’s interview with Thich Nhat Hahn can be seen here.
For information on Thay’s visit to the UK this spring, which includes a meditation in Trafalgar Square, a talk at the Royal Festival Hall, a five-day retreat and a three-day mindfulness in education conference, go to the Cooling the Flames website.
To find out where I soruced this article from, please click here.
And to find out a bit more about Thich Naht Hanh, please click here.
OR, if you would like to see Thich Naht Hanh give a talk here in the UK, please visit the London Southbank Centre’s wesbite by clicking here. Ticket’s are almost sold out!
I like articles like these… Ones that subtly push clues about just how rare a chance we’ve all been given i.e. to be standing here on Earth, experiencing what we do, today… And every day, for that matter… In this perfectly present moment. In someways, the more I look around me, the more obvious it all becomes… About how we all got here… Chaos is a wonderful thing. In fact, chaos played more of a hand in our fate than many might care to admit. And, in many ways, chaos has now become a friend… An all pervading ally that allows all of us to operate uniquely and interdependently to one another… To function… To live… And to evolve.
But despite its nurturing hand in all events, chaos is a very unstable and unpredictable tangle of cause and effect… One where even if you were to nudge the slightest of atomic arrangements off-course by a couple of nanometers or so, and then separate and let the two ‘slightly’ different systems run onwards for hundreds of thousands of millions of years… And compare the end results… They ‘might’ be so different from one another… Or from what one might expect… That many just wouldn’t believe such a small difference could produced such a pronounced discongruity…
Bearing this in mind… I get a rough feeling of how fortunate we all are to be standing here, with the solid earth underfoot, in some sembling stability of a planetary ecosystem, all residing within our solar system presently. I know… I find myself taking it all for granted frequently… But, would you believe, the stability of the Solar System is a subject of much inquiry in astronomy? Though the planets have been stable historically, and will be in the ‘short-term,’ their weak gravitational effects on one another can add up in unpredictable ways. For this reason (among others) the Solar System is chaotic, and even the most precise long-term models for the orbital motion of the Solar System are not valid over more than a few tens of millions of years.
But then again… This complexity is something that I’ve mentioned several times before here in this blog… Science cannot foretell the future. Rather it can only offer sketches of what could probably happen… Providing, at best, several different arrays of what might possibly come about within a dynamical system, gauged against what is known presently about/within the system.
Still, I feel this article gives one a good feel for the unexpected… And allows one to grasp – if they can imagine the fragility of their world without too much discomfort – just how improbable it is that the Earth resides here, where it does today, in a chaotic solar system (or universe) of chance, that is interconnected to all things through a myriad of strange attractions.
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What Would Happen If Earth and Mars Switched Places?
Last Saturday, at a workshop organized by theFoundation Questions Institute, Nobel laureate physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft gave a few informal remarks on the deep nature of reality. Searching for an analogy to the symmetries of basic physics, he asked the attendees to imagine what would happen to our solar system if you suddenly swapped Earth and Mars. He went on to discuss his ideas for explaining quantum mechanics, but I couldn’t get my mind off his question. What would happen?
Obviously, Martians would be delighted with the new arrangement. A fairly modest increase in Mars’s temperature would melt the polar caps and liberate gases from the soil, flipping the Martian climate into a new, cozier state nearly as warm as Earth. In an article for us in 1999, planetary scientist Chris McKay envisioned terraforming Mars by building factories to pump out greenhouse gases—proving that one man’s poison is another’s elixir—but moving the planet closer to the sun would certainly do the trick, too. Earthlings would get the short end of the deal. Sunlight would be half as intense and the planet would freeze over. On the plus side, we’d instantly be half as many years old.
In grand scheme of things, though, you might think that nothing would change. According to Kepler’s laws, the mass of a planet has almost no effect on its orbit; the mass of the sun is what controls things. Even though Earth is 10 times heavier than Mars, it would still trundle along Mars’s old path. Both Mars and Earth are perpetually falling toward the sun, and all falling bodies fall at the same rate.
But Kepler’s laws don’t account for the subtle gravitational perturbations that planets exert on one another. By rearranging the planets, you perturb these perturbations, and it’s not obvious what would happen. So I posed the question to planetary physicist Renu Malhotra of the University of Arizona, who was one of the first scientists to recognize that the planets migrated around early in the history of the solar system. Her initial guess was that Earth’s proximity would thin out the asteroid belt, but that the planets’ orbits would not be destabilized, at least not right away. She offered to run a computer simulation to check.
The results are a bit surprising. The planetary switch-a-roo makes the inner solar system strongly chaotic. Although none of the inner planets gets flung out of the solar system within the first 10 million years, all undergo large variations in their orbital distances. On occasion, Mars dips inward to become the second rock from the sun. To capture these variations, Malhotra found that she had to use a smaller time increment in the simulations than she had predicted, and consequently each computer run took nearly a day to complete.
To speed things up, she tried ignoring the planet Mercury—standard practice in perturbative calculations, on the assumption that Mercury is so piddling that its gravity is immaterial. Not in this case, though. Without Mercury, the other three inner planets went haywire in a few million years. Mars shot off into deep space. The sensitivity to Mercury’s absence is further proof that the altered system would be strongly chaotic.
These results support the emerging view, discussed in our pages by Doug Lin several years ago, that the solar system lives on the edge of chaos. It was probably unstable in its formative years. Planets got reshuffled or ejected until the survivors’ orbits were sufficiently well spaced. Any major change would push the system over the edge again. It’s analogous to a coffee cup. If you see a cup that is filled exactly to the rim, you can reasonably conclude that some coffee got spilled over the side, and anything you do to the cup would probably spill some more.
Malhotra has supported this viewpoint in the past, but cautions that the solar system is more stable than its age might imply, so the whole question remains unresolved. “Isn’t it interesting?” she wrote me. “This kind of thing is what attracted me to planetary dynamics.”
by George Musser
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I will be using this example later, among others, to demonstrate that what the Buddhist’s refer to as the “Four Limitless Contemplations” is actually a very obvious and balanced way of viewing our existence… But more on that later.
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To find out where I sourced this article from, please visit the Scientific American wesbite by clicking here.
And to find out more about the author of this article, please visit his website by clicking here.
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February 20, 2011
What can I say… I’ve been away for a while… A wee while… Four months to be exact… And it’s the first blog of the new year… So a big happy new year to anyone reading this.
Yes, I know… I’ve been slack on the blog front recently. No excuses for it really… Other than the endless days that I’ve been spending down at the farm… Ah… Yes… That’s the reason I haven’t been inside much recently. And that’s why I haven’t been in front of a computer screen as much as I usually like to… Not to mention it’s the reason why I find my comfort zone diminishing to an almost non existent pin prick of a bubble’s ‘pop’ reminder that change and uncertainty, no matter how big or small, is going on beyond all my deluded, insulated ideals of settled, homely stability… Yes… That’s right… I am presently engaged in setting up an organic farm somewhere in the South East of the UK. Not telling anyone quite yet where exactly… Not for the moment, at least… And I’m breaking those old chains of die hard habits i.e. soft living, staying in when it rains or snows, etc… By putting on my wellies and getting my hands, arms, face and clothes completely mud ridden and down right dirty… So, I’m now doing what I’ve been actually ‘preaching’ (although I don’t really like that word much, another doesn’t come to mind) about in this blog. And boy, let me tell you, it’s blooming hard work. Anyway… More on that to follow soon.
Basically, the reason why I find myself here in front of the computer once again… Is that I recently read this article, which was taken from a transcript of a speech by the late (or early, depending on which way you look at his input here on Earth) Douglas Adams, while he was talking at Digital Biota 2… And it resonated deeply in my being… Reminding me about why I was doing what I was doing… Not to mention how clunky my writing is in comparison to the sheer wall of towering genius that Adams was… I cower in shame! LOL!
Anyway… I’m tired. And so I’ll leave it here… For those of of you who have been following these blogs here at polynomial.me.uk, you will no doubt see the connection to all my previous musings…
So here’s the intro…
In honour of Douglas’ memory, Biota.org presents the transcript of his speech at Digital Biota 2, held at Magdelene College Cambridge, in September 1998. I would like to thank Steve Grand for providing this to us. Douglas presented this “off the cuff” which only magifies his true genius in our eyes.
by Bruce Damer
And here’s the transcript of Adams’ speech/debate…
Is There An Artificial God?
This was originally billed as a debate only because I was a bit anxious coming here. I didn’t think I was going to have time to prepare anything and also, in a room full of such luminaries, I thought ‘what could I, as an amateur, possibly have to say’? So I thought I would settle for a debate. But after having been here for a couple of days, I realised you’re just a bunch of guys! It’s been rife with ideas and I’ve had so many myself through talking with and listening to people that I’d thought what I’d do was stand up and have an argument and debate with myself. I’ll talk for a while and hope sufficiently to provoke and inflame opinion that there’ll be an outburst of chair- throwing at the end.
Before I embark on what I want to try and tackle, may I warn you that things may get a little bit lost from time to time, because there’s a lot of stuff that’s just come in from what we’ve been hearing today, so if I occasionally sort of go… I was telling somebody earlier today that I have a four-year-old daughter and was very, very interested watching her face when she was in her first 2 or 3 weeks of life and suddenly realising what nobody would have realised in previous ages—she was rebooting!
I just want to mention one thing, which is completely meaningless, but I am terribly proud of—I was born in Cambridge in 1952 and my initials are D N A!
The topic I want to introduce to you this evening, the subject of the debate that we are about to sort of not have, is a slightly facetious one (you’ll be surprised to hear, but we’ll see where we go with it)—“Is there an Artificial God?” I’m sure most of the people in this room will share the same view, but even as an out-and-out atheist one can’t help noticing that the rôle of a god has had an enormously profound impact on human history over many, many centuries. It’s very interesting to figure out where this came from and what, in the modern scientific world we sometimes hope against hope that we live in, it actually means.
I was thinking about this earlier today when Larry Yaeger was talking about ‘what is life?’ and mentioned at the end something I didn’t know, about a special field of handwriting recognition. The following strange thought went through my mind: that trying to figure out what is life and what isn’t and where the boundary is has an interesting relationship with how you recognise handwriting. We all know, when presented with any particular entity, whether it’s a bit of mould from the fridge or whatever; we instinctively know when something is an example of life and when it isn’t. But it turns out to be tremendously hard exactly to define it. I remember once, a long time ago, needing a definition of life for a speech I was giving. Assuming there was a simple one and looking around the Internet, I was astonished at how diverse the definitions were and how very, very detailed each one had to be in order to include ‘this’ but not include ‘that’. If you think about it, a collection that includes a fruit fly and Richard Dawkins and the Great Barrier Reef is an awkward set of objects to try and compare. When we try and figure out what the rules are that we are looking for, trying to find a rule that’s self-evidently true, that turns out to be very, very hard.
Compare this with the business of recognising whether something is an A or a B or a C. It’s a similar kind of process, but it’s also a very, very different process, because you may say of something that you’re ‘not quite certain whether it counts as life or not life, it’s kind of there on the edge isn’t it, it’s probably a very low example of what you might call life, it’s maybe just about alive or maybe it isn’t’. Or maybe you might say about something that’s an example of Digital life, ‘does that count as being alive?’ Is it something, to coin someone’s earlier phrase, that’ll go squish if you step on it? Think about the controversial Gaia hypothesis; people say ‘is the planet alive?’, ‘is the ecosphere alive or not?’ In the end it depends on how you define such things.
Compare that with handwriting recognition. In the end you are trying to say “is this an A or is it a B?” People write As and Bs in many different ways; floridly, sloppily or whatever. It’s no good saying ‘well, it’s sort of A-ish but there’s a bit of B in there’, because you can’t write the word ‘apple’ with such a thing. It is either an A or a B. How do you judge? If you’re doing handwriting recognition, what you are trying to do is not to assess the relative degrees of A-ness or B-ness of the letter, but trying to define the intention of the person who wrote it. It’s very clear in the end—is it an A or a B?—ah! it’s an A, because the person writing it was writing the word apple and that’s clearly what it means. So, in the end, in the absence of an intentional creator, you cannot say what life is, because it simply depends on what set of definitions you include in your overall definition. Without a god, life is only a matter of opinion.
I want to pick up on a few other things that came around today. I was fascinated by Larry (again), talking about tautology, because there’s an argument that I remember being stumped by once, to which I couldn’t come up with a reply, because I was so puzzled by the challenge and couldn’t quite figure it out. A guy said to me, ‘yes, but the whole theory of evolution is based on a tautology: that which survives, survives’ This is tautological, therefore it doesn’t mean anything. I thought about that for a while and it finally occurred to me that a tautology is something that if it means nothing, not only that no information has gone into it but that no consequence has come out of it. So, we may have accidentally stumbled upon the ultimate answer; it’s the only thing, the only force, arguably the most powerful of which we are aware, which requires no other input, no other support from any other place, is self evident, hence tautological, but nevertheless astonishingly powerful in its effects. It’s hard to find anything that corresponds to that and I therefore put it at the beginning of one of my books. I reduced it to what I thought were the bare essentials, which are very similar to the ones you came up with earlier, which were “anything that happens happens, anything that in happening causes something else to happen causes something else to happen and anything that in happening causes itself to happen again, happens again”. In fact you don’t even need the second two because they flow from the first one, which is self-evident and there’s nothing else you need to say; everything else flows from that. So, I think we have in our grasp here a fundamental, ultimate truth, against which there is no gain-saying. It was spotted by the guy who said this is a tautology. Yes, it is, but it’s a unique tautology in that it requires no information to go in but an infinite amount of information comes out of it. So I think that it is arguably therefore the prime cause of everything in the Universe. Big claim, but I feel I’m talking to a sympathetic audience.
Where does the idea of God come from? Well, I think we have a very skewed point of view on an awful lot of things, but let’s try and see where our point of view comes from. Imagine early man. Early man is, like everything else, an evolved creature and he finds himself in a world that he’s begun to take a little charge of; he’s begun to be a tool-maker, a changer of his environment with the tools that he’s made and he makes tools, when he does, in order to make changes in his environment. To give an example of the way man operates compared to other animals, consider speciation, which, as we know, tends to occur when a small group of animals gets separated from the rest of the herd by some geological upheaval, population pressure, food shortage or whatever and finds itself in a new environment with maybe something different going on. Take a very simple example; maybe a bunch of animals suddenly finds itself in a place where the weather is rather colder. We know that in a few generations those genes which favour a thicker coat will have come to the fore and we’ll come and we’ll find that the animals have now got thicker coats. Early man, who’s a tool maker, doesn’t have to do this: he can inhabit an extraordinarily wide range of habitats on earth, from tundra to the Gobi Desert—he even manages to live in New York for heaven’s sake—and the reason is that when he arrives in a new environment he doesn’t have to wait for several generations; if he arrives in a colder environment and sees an animal that has those genes which favour a thicker coat, he says “I’ll have it off him”. Tools have enabled us to think intentionally, to make things and to do things to create a world that fits us better. Now imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day’s tool making. He looks around and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: behind him are mountains with caves in—mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can’t get you; in front of him there’s the forest—it’s got nuts and berries and delicious food; there’s a stream going by, which is full of water—water’s delicious to drink, you can float your boats in it and do all sorts of stuff with it; here’s cousin Ug and he’s caught a mammoth—mammoth’s are great, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can use their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean this is a great world, it’s fantastic. But our early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, ‘well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in’ and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says ‘So who made this then?’ Who made this? — you can see why it’s a treacherous question. Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’. And so we have the idea of a god. Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’ Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say. Look at what’s supposed to be going to happen on the 1st of January 2000—let’s not pretend that we didn’t have a warning that the century was going to end! I think that we need to take a larger perspective on who we are and what we are doing here if we are going to survive in the long term.
There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions. Curiously enough, quite a lot of these have come from sand, so let’s talk about the four ages of sand.
From sand we make glass, from glass we make lenses and from lenses we make telescopes. When the great early astronomers, Copernicus, Gallileo and others turned their telescopes on the heavens and discovered that the Universe was an astonishingly different place than we expected and that, far from the world being most of the Universe, with just a few little bright lights going around it, it turned out—and this took a long, long, long time to sink in—that it is just one tiny little speck going round a little nuclear fireball, which is one of millions and millions and millions that make up this particular galaxy and our galaxy is one of millions or billions that make up the Universe and that then we are also faced with the possibility that there may be billions of universes, that applied a little bit of a corrective to the perspective that the Universe was ours.
I rather love that notion and, as I was discussing with someone earlier today, there’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed recently by David Deutsch, who is an advocate of the multiple universe view of the Universe, called ‘The Fabric of Reality’, in which he explores the notion of a quantum multiple universe view of the Universe. This came from the famous wave particle dichotomy about the behaviour of light—that you couldn’t measure it as a wave when it behaves as a wave, or as a particle when it behaves as a particle. How does this come to be? David Deutsch points out that if you imagine that our Universe is simply one layer and that there is an infinite multiplicity of universes spreading out on either side, not only does it solve the problem, but the problem simply goes away. This is exactly how you expect light to behave under those circumstances. Quantum mechanics has claims to be predicated on the notion that the Universe behaves as if there was a multiplicity of universes, but it rather strains our credulity to think that there actually would be.
This goes straight back to Gallileo and the Vatican. In fact, what the Vatican said to Gallileo was, “We don’t dispute your readings, we just dispute the explanation you put on them. It’s all very well for you to say that the planets sort of do that as they go round and it is as if we were a planet and those planets were all going round the sun; it’s alright to say it’s as if that were happening, but you’re not allowed to say that’s what is happening, because we have a total lockhold on universal truth and also it simply strains our personal credulity”. Just so, I think that the idea that there are multiple universes currently strains our credulity but it may well be that it’s simply one more strain that we have to learn to live with, just as we’ve had to learn to live with a whole bunch of them in the past.
The other thing that comes out of that vision of the Universe is that it turns out to be composed almost entirely and rather worryingly, of nothing. Wherever you look there is nothing, with occasional tiny, tiny little specks of rock or light. But nevertheless, by watching the way these tiny little specks behave in the vast nothingness, we begin to divine certain principles, certain laws, like gravity and so forth. So that was, if you like, the macroscopic view of the universe, which came from the first age of sand.
The next age of sand is the microscopic one. We put glass lenses into microscopes and started to look down at the microscopic view of the Universe. Then we began to understand that when we get down to the sub-atomic level, the solid world we live in also consists, again rather worryingly, of almost nothing and that wherever we do find something it turns out not to be actually something, but only the probability that there may be something there.
One way or another, this is a deeply misleading Universe. Wherever we look it’s beginning to be extremely alarming and extremely upsetting to our sense of who we are—great, strapping, physical people living in a Universe that exists almost entirely for us—that it just isn’t the case. At this point we are still divining from this all sorts of fundamental principles, recognising the way that gravity works, the way that strong and weak nuclear forces work, recognising the nature of matter, the nature of particles and so on, but having got those fundamentals, we’re still not very good at figuring out how it works, because the maths is really rather tricky. So, we tend to come up with almost a clockwork view of the way it all works, because that’s the best our maths can manage. I don’t mean in any way to disparage Newton, because I guess he was the first person who saw that there were principles at work that were different from anything we actually saw around us. His first law of motion—that something will remain in its position of either rest or motion until some other force works on it—is something that none of us, living in a gravity well, in a gas envelope, had ever seen, because everything we move comes to a halt. It was only through very, very careful watching and observing and measuring and divining the principles underlying what we could all see happening that he came up with the principles that we all know and recognise as being the laws of motion, but nevertheless it is by modern terms, still a somewhat clockwork view of the Universe. As I say, I don’t mean that to sound disparaging in any way at all, because his achievements, as we all know, were absolutely monumental, but it still kind of doesn’t make sense to us.
Now there are all sorts of entities we are also aware of, as well as particles, forces, tables, chairs, rocks and so on, that are almost invisible to science; almost invisible, because science has almost nothing to say about them whatsoever. I’m talking about dogs and cats and cows and each other. We living things are, so far, beyond the purview of anything science can actually say, almost beyond even recognising ourselves as things that science might be expected to have something to say about.
I can imagine Newton sitting down and working out his laws of motion and figuring out the way the Universe works and with him, a cat wandering around. The reason we had no idea how cats worked was because, since Newton, we had proceeded by the very simple principle that essentially, to see how things work, we took them apart. If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have in your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; ‘life’, something that had a mysterious essence about it, was god given—and that’s the only explanation we had. The bombshell comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes ‘On the Origin of Species’. It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it’s yet another shock to our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of the Universe and we’re not made of anything, but we started out as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey. It just doesn’t read well. But also, we have no opportunity to see this stuff at work. In a sense Darwin was like Newton, in that he was the first person to see underlying principles, that really were not at all obvious, from the everyday world in which he lived. We had to think very hard to understand the nature of what was happening around us and we had no clear, obvious everyday examples of evolution to point to. Even today that persists as a slightly tricky problem if you’re trying to persuade somebody who doesn’t believe in all this evolution stuff and wants you to show him an example—they are hard to find in terms of everyday observation.
So we come to the third age of sand. In the third age of sand we discover something else we can make out of sand—silicon. We make the silicon chip—and suddenly, what opens up to us is a Universe not of fundamental particles and fundamental forces, but of the things that were missing in that picture that told us how they work; what the silicon chip revealed to us was the process. The silicon chip enables us to do mathematics tremendously fast, to model the, as it turns out, very very simple processes that are analogous to life in terms of their simplicity; iteration, looping, branching, the feedback loop which lies at the heart of everything you do on a computer and at the heart of everything that happens in evolution—that is, the output stage of one generation becomes the input stage of the next. Suddenly we have a working model, not for a while because early machines are terribly slow and clunky, but gradually we accumulate a working model of this thing that previously we could only guess at or deduce—and you had to be a pretty sharp and a pretty clear thinker even to divine it happening when it was far from obvious and indeed counter-intuitive, particularly to as proud a species as we.
The computer forms a third age of perspective, because suddenly it enables us to see how life works. Now that is an extraordinarily important point because it becomes self-evident that life, that all forms of complexity, do not flow downwards, they flow upwards and there’s a whole grammar that anybody who is used to using computers is now familiar with, which means that evolution is no longer a particular thing, because anybody who’s ever looked at the way a computer program works, knows that very, very simple iterative pieces of code, each line of which is tremendously straightforward, give rise to enormously complex phenomena in a computer—and by enormously complex phenomena, I mean a word processing program just as much as I mean Tierra or Creatures.
I can remember the first time I ever read a programming manual, many many years ago. I’d first started to encounter computers about 1983 and I wanted to know a little bit more about them, so I decided to learn something about programming. I bought a C manual and I read through the first two or three chapters, which took me about a week. At the end it said ‘Congratulations, you have now written the letter A on the screen!’ I thought, ‘Well, I must have misunderstood something here, because it was a huge, huge amount of work to do that, so what if I now want to write a B?’ The process of programming, the speed and the means by which enormous simplicity gives rise to enormously complex results, was not part of my mental grammar at that point. It is now—and it is increasingly part of all our mental grammars, because we are used to the way computers work.
So, suddenly, evolution ceases to be such a real problem to get hold of. It’s rather like this: imagine, if you will, the following scenario. One Tuesday, a person is spotted in a street in London, doing something criminal. Two detectives are investigating, trying to work out what happened. One of them is a 20th Century detective and the other, by the marvels of science fiction, is a 19th Century detective. The problem is this: the person who was clearly seen and identified on the street in London on Tuesday was seen by someone else, an equally reliable witness, on the street in Santa Fe on the same Tuesday—how could that possibly be? The 19th Century detective could only think it was by some sort of magical intervention. Now the 20th Century detective may not be able to say, “He took BA flight this and then United flight that”—he may not be able to figure out exactly which way he did it, or by which route he travelled, but it’s not a problem. It doesn’t bother him; he just says, ‘He got there by plane. I don’t know which plane and it may be a little tricky to find out, but there’s no essential mystery.’ We’re used to the idea of jet travel. We don’t know whether the criminal flew BA 178, or UA270, or whatever, but we know roughly how it was done. I suspect that as we become more and more conversant with the role a computer plays and the way in which the computer models the process of enormously simple elements giving rise to enormously complex results, then the idea of life being an emergent phenomenon will become easier and easier to swallow. We may never know precisely what steps life took in the very early stages of this planet, but it’s not a mystery.
So what we have arrived at here—and although the first shock wave of this arrival was in 1859, it’s really the arrival of the computer that demonstrates it unarguably to us—is ‘Is there really a Universe that is not designed from the top downwards but from the bottom upwards? Can complexity emerge from lower levels of simplicity?’ It has always struck me as being bizarre that the idea of God as a creator was considered sufficient explanation for the complexity we see around us, because it simply doesn’t explain where he came from. If we imagine a designer, that implies a design and that therefore each thing he designs or causes to be designed is a level simpler than him or her, then you have to ask ‘What is the level above the designer?’ There is one peculiar model of the Universe that has turtles all the way down, but here we have gods all the way up. It really isn’t a very good answer, but a bottom-up solution, on the other hand, which rests on the incredibly powerful tautology of anything that happens, happens, clearly gives you a very simple and powerful answer that needs no other explanation whatsoever.
But here’s the interesting thing. I said I wanted to ask ‘Is there an artificial god?’ and this is where I want to address the question of why the idea of a god is so persuasive. I’ve already explained where I feel this kind of illusion comes from in the first place; it comes from a falseness in our perspective, because we are not taking into account that we are evolved beings, beings who have evolved into a particular landscape, into a particular environment with a particular set of skills and views of the world that have enabled us to survive and thrive rather successfully. But there seems to be an even more powerful idea than that, and this is the idea I want to propose, which is that the spot at the top of the pyramid that we previously said was whence everything flowed, may not actually be vacant just because we say the flow doesn’t go that way.
Let me explain what I mean by this. We have created in the world in which we live all kinds of things; we have changed our world in all kinds of ways. That’s very very clear. We have built the room we’re in and we’ve built all sorts of complex stuff, like computers and so on, but we’ve also constructed all kinds of fictitious entities that are enormously powerful. So do we say, ‘That’s a bad idea; it’s stupid—we should simply get rid of it?’ Well, here’s another fictitious entity—money. Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it’s very powerful in our world; we each have wallets, which have got notes in them, but what can those notes do? You can’t breed them, you can’t stir fry them, you can’t live in them, there’s absolutely nothing you can do with them that’s any use, other than exchange them with each other—and as soon as we exchange them with each other all sots of powerful things happen, because it’s a fiction that we’ve all subscribed to. We don’t think this is wrong or right, good or bad; but the thing is that if money vanished the entire co-operative structure that we have would implode, but if we were all to vanish, money would simply vanish too. Money has no meaning outside ourselves, it is something that we have created that has a powerful shaping effect on the world, because its something we all subscribe to.
I would like somebody to write an evolutionary history of religion, because the way in which it has developed seems to me to show all kinds of evolutionary strategies. Think of the arms races that go on between one or two animals living the same environment. For example the race between the Amazonian manatee and a particular type of reed that it eats. The more of the reed the manatee eats, the more the reed develops silica in its cells to attack the teeth of the manatee and the more silica in the reed, the more manatee’s teeth get bigger and stronger. One side does one thing and the other counters it. As we know, throughout evolution and history arms races are something that drive evolution in the most powerful ways and in the world of ideas you can see similar kinds of things happening.
Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking ‘Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?’ but I wouldn’t have thought ‘Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics’ when I was making the other points. I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions’. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it’.
It’s rather like, if you think back in terms of animal evolution, an animal that’s grown an incredible carapace around it, such as a tortoise—that’s a great survival strategy because nothing can get through it; or maybe like a poisonous fish that nothing will come close to, which therefore thrives by keeping away any challenges to what it is it is. In the case of an idea, if we think ‘Here is an idea that is protected by holiness or sanctity’, what does it mean? Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that’s holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we’ve just got used to doing so? There’s no other reason at all, it’s just one of those things that crept into being and once that loop gets going it’s very, very powerful. So, we are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.
There’s a very interesting book—I don’t know if anybody here’s read it—called ‘Man on Earth’ by an anthropologist who use to be at Cambridge, called John Reader, in which he describes the way that… I’m going to back up a little bit and tell you about the whole book. It’s a series of studies of different cultures in the world that have developed within somewhat isolated circumstances, either on islands or in a mountain valley or wherever, so it’s possible to treat them to a certain extent as a test-tube case. You see therefore exactly the degree to which their environment and their immediate circumstances has affected the way in which their culture has arisen. It’s a fascinating series of studies. The one I have in mind at the moment is one that describes the culture and economy of Bali, which is a small, very crowded island that subsists on rice. Now, rice is an incredibly efficient food and you can grow an awful lot in a relatively small space, but it’s hugely labour intensive and requires a lot of very, very precise co-operation amongst the people there, particularly when you have a large population on a small island needing to bring its harvest in. People now looking at the way in which rice agriculture works in Bali are rather puzzled by it because it is intensely religious. The society of Bali is such that religion permeates every single aspect of it and everybody in that culture is very, very carefully defined in terms of who they are, what their status is and what their role in life is. It’s all defined by the church; they have very peculiar calendars and a very peculiar set of customs and rituals, which are precisely defined and, oddly enough, they are fantastically good at being very, very productive with their rice harvest. In the 70s, people came in and noticed that the rice harvest was determined by the temple calendar. It seemed to be totally nonsensical, so they said, ‘Get rid of all this, we can help you make your rice harvest much, much more productive than even you’re, very successfully, doing at the moment. Use these pesticides, use this calendar, do this, that and the other’. So they started and for two or three years the rice production went up enormously, but the whole predator/prey/pest balance went completely out of kilter. Very shortly, the rice harvest plummeted again and the Balinese said, ‘Screw it, we’re going back to the temple calendar!’ and they reinstated what was there before and it all worked again absolutely perfectly. It’s all very well to say that basing the rice harvest on something as irrational and meaningless as a religion is stupid—they should be able to work it out more logically than that, but they might just as well say to us, ‘Your culture and society works on the basis of money and that’s a fiction, so why don’t you get rid of it and just co-operate with each other’—we know it’s not going to work!
So, there is a sense in which we build meta-systems above ourselves to fill in the space that we previously populated with an entity that was supposed to be the intentional designer, the creator (even though there isn’t one) and because we—I don’t necessarily mean we in this room, but we as a species—design and create one and then allow ourselves to behave as if there was one, all sorts of things begin to happen that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
Let me try and illustrate what I mean by something else. This is very speculative; I’m really going out on a limb here, because it’s something I know nothing about whatsoever, so think of this more as a thought experiment than a real explanation of something. I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about, but there’s been a lot of talk about it recently in terms of figuring out how a building should be designed, built, situated, decorated and so on. Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn’t be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because anything involving dragons must be nonsense—there aren’t any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense. What are these silly people doing, imagining that dragons can tell you how to build your house? Nevertheless, it occurs to me if you disregard for a moment the explanation that’s actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on that goes like this: we all know from buildings that we’ve lived in, worked in, been in or stayed in, that some are more comfortable, more pleasant and more agreeable to live in than others. We haven’t had a real way of quantifying this, but in this century we’ve had an awful lot of architects who think they know how to do it, so we’ve had the horrible idea of the house as a machine for living in, we’ve had Mies van der Roe and others putting up glass stumps and strangely shaped things that are supposed to form some theory or other. It’s all carefully engineered, but nonetheless, their buildings are not actually very nice to live in. An awful lot of theory has been poured into this, but if you sit and work with an architect (and I’ve been through that stressful time, as I’m sure a lot of people have) then when you are trying to figure out how a room should work you’re trying to integrate all kinds of things about lighting, about angles, about how people move and how people live—and an awful lot of other things you don’t know about that get left out. You don’t know what importance to attach to one thing or another; you’re trying to, very consciously, figure out something when you haven’t really got much of a clue, but there’s this theory and that theory, this bit of engineering practice and that bit of architectural practice; you don’t really know what to make of them. Compare that to somebody who tosses a cricket ball at you. You can sit and watch it and say, ‘It’s going at 17 degrees’; start to work it out on paper, do some calculus, etc. and about a week after the ball’s whizzed past you, you may have figured out where it’s going to be and how to catch it. On the other hand, you can simply put your hand out and let the ball drop into it, because we have all kinds of faculties built into us, just below the conscious level, able to do all kinds of complex integrations of all kinds of complex phenomena which therefore enables us to say, ‘Oh look, there’s a ball coming; catch it!’
What I’m suggesting is that Feng Shui and an awful lot of other things are precisely of that kind of problem. There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don’t necessarily know what we do, we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles you may want to take out of what may be a passing architectural fad, just ask yourself, ‘how would a dragon live here?’ We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We’ve never seen a dragon but we’ve all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, ‘Well if a dragon went through here, he’d get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn’t see that and he’d wave his tail and knock that vase over’. You figure out how the dragon’s going to be happy here and lo and behold! you’ve suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.
So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn’t an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!
Q – What is the fourth age of sand?
Let me back up for a minute and talk about the way we communicate. Traditionally, we have a bunch of different ways in which we communicate with each other. One way is one-to-one; we talk to each other, have a conversation. Another is one-to-many, which I’m doing at the moment, or someone could stand up and sing a song, or announce we’ve got to go to war. Then we have many-to-one communication; we have a pretty patchy, clunky, not-really-working version we call democracy, but in a more primitive state I would stand up and say, ‘OK, we’re going to go to war’ and some may shout back ‘No we’re not!’—and then we have many-to-many communication in the argument that breaks out afterwards!
In this century (and the previous century) we modelled one-to-one communications in the telephone, which I assume we are all familiar with. We have one-to-many communication—boy do we have an awful lot of that; broadcasting, publishing, journalism, etc.—we get information poured at us from all over the place and it’s completely indiscriminate as to where it might land. It’s curious, but we don’t have to go very far back in our history until we find that all the information that reached us was relevant to us and therefore anything that happened, any news, whether it was about something that’s actually happened to us, in the next house, or in the next village, within the boundary or within our horizon, it happened in our world and if we reacted to it the world reacted back. It was all relevant to us, so for example, if somebody had a terrible accident we could crowd round and really help. Nowadays, because of the plethora of one-to-many communication we have, if a plane crashes in India we may get terribly anxious about it but our anxiety doesn’t have any impact. We’re not very well able to distinguish between a terrible emergency that’s happened to somebody a world away and something that’s happened to someone round the corner. We can’t really distinguish between them any more, which is why we get terribly upset by something that has happened to somebody in a soap opera that comes out of Hollywood and maybe less concerned when it’s happened to our sister. We’ve all become twisted and disconnected and it’s not surprising that we feel very stressed and alienated in the world because the world impacts on us but we don’t impact the world. Then there’s many-to-one; we have that, but not very well yet and there’s not much of it about. Essentially, our democratic systems are a model of that and though they’re not very good, they will improve dramatically.
But the fourth, the many-to-many, we didn’t have at all before the coming of the Internet, which, of course, runs on fibre-optics. It’s communication between us that forms the fourth age of sand. Take what I said earlier about the world not reacting to us when we react to it; I remember the first moment, a few years ago, at which I began to take the Internet seriously. It was a very, very silly thing. There was a guy, a computer research student at Carnegie Mellon, who liked to drink Dr Pepper Light. There was a drinks machine a couple of storeys away from him, where he used to regularly go and get his Dr Pepper, but the machine was often out of stock, so he had quite a few wasted journeys. Eventually he figured out, ‘Hang on, there’s a chip in there and I’m on a computer and there’s a network running around the building, so why don’t I just put the drinks machine on the network, then I can poll it from my terminal whenever I want and tell if I’m going to have a wasted journey or not?’ So he connected the machine to the local network, but the local net was part of the Internet—so suddenly anyone in the world could see what was happening with this drinks machine. Now that may not be vital information but it turned out to be curiously fascinating; everyone started to know what was happening with the drinks machine. It began to develop, because in the chip in the machine didn’t just say, ‘The slot which has Dr Pepper Light is empty’ but had all sorts of information; it said, ‘There are 7 Cokes and 3 Diet Cokes, the temperature they are stored at is this and the last time they were loaded was that’. There was a lot of information in there, and there was one really fabulous piece of information: it turned out that if someone had put their 50 cents in and not pressed the button, i.e. if the machine was pregnant, then you could, from your computer terminal wherever you were in the world, log on to the drinks machine and drop that can! Somebody could be walking down the corridor when suddenly, ‘bang!’ — there was a Coca-Cola can! What caused that? — well obviously somebody 5,000 miles away! Now that was a very, very silly, but fascinating, story and what it said to me was that this was the first time that we could reach back into the world. It may not be terribly important that from 5,000 miles away you can reach into a University corridor and drop a Coca-Cola can but it’s the first shot in the war of bringing to us a whole new way of communicating. So that, I think, is the fourth age of sand.
by Douglas Adams
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
And to find out more about Biota.org, please click here.
September 21, 2010
All I can ask is… How would We i.e. human beings, like to be treated in this way?
These are sentient beings, just like ourselves. For those of you who might not understand what sentience is, please read the following (lifted from Wikipedia, due to time constraints today) to see how other groups of human beings, who reside here on Earth with us, presently view our neighbouring and fellow life forms…
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Sentience… What Is It?
Western Philosophy And Sentience
Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive. The term is used in science and philosophy, and in the study of artificial intelligence. Sentience is used in the study of consciousness to describe the ability to have sensations or experiences, known to Western philosophers as “qualia“. In the philosophy of consciousness, “sentience” can refer to the ability of any entity to have subjective perceptual experiences, or “qualia”. This is distinct from other aspects of the mind and consciousness, such as creativity, intelligence, sapience, self-awareness, and intentionality (the ability to have thoughts that mean something or are “about” something). Sentience is a minimalistic way of defining “consciousness”, which is otherwise commonly used to collectively describe sentience plus other characteristics of the mind.
Eastern Philosophy/Religion And Sentience
In Eastern philosophy, sentience is a metaphysical quality of all things that requires respect and care… While most of Eastern philosophy is strongly connected to religious aspects of understanding i.e. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, they nearly all recognize nonhumans as sentient beings. In Jainism and Hinduism, this is closely related to the concept of ahimsa, or nonviolence, toward other beings. In Jainism, all matter is endowed with sentience; there are five degrees of sentience, from one to five. Water, for example, is a sentient being of the first order, as it is considered to possess only one sense, that of touch. Man is considered to be a sentient being of the fifth order. According to Buddhism, sentient beings made of pure consciousness are also possible. In Mahayana Buddhism, which includes Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, the concept is related to the Bodhisattva, an enlightened being devoted to the liberation of others. The first vow of a Bodhisattva states: “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to free them.”
Sentience is, from a Buddhist perspective, the state of having senses (sat + ta in Pali, or sat + tva in Sanskrit). In Buddhism, the senses are six in number, the sixth being the subjective experience of the mind. Sentience is simply awareness prior to the arising of Skandha. Thus, an animal qualifies as a sentient being.
Animal Rights And Sentience
In the philosophy of animal rights, sentience implies the ability to experience pleasure and pain. Animal-rights advocates typically argue that any sentient being is entitled at a minimum to the right not to be subjected to unnecessary suffering, though they may differ on what other rights (e.g., the right to life) may be entailed by simple sentience.
In the 17th century Thomas Tryon, a self-proclaimed Pythagorean, raised the issue of non-human suffering. Soon thereafter, many philosophers used the anatomical discoveries of the Enlightenment as a reason to include animals in what philosophers call “sympatheia” – sympathy, affinity of parts to the organic whole, mutual interdependence (the organic whole is similar to what Spinoza referred to as the notion of “God, or Nature”) – the principle of who or what deserves sympathy. Benjamin Franklin‘s autobiography identifies Tryon’s writings as an influence in his decision to try vegetarianism; later in the book, he reverts to eating meat while still following Tryon’s basic philosophy. Joseph Ritson coupled Tryon’s work with Rousseau‘s for “Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food” as many Rousseauists became vegetarian. Voltaire compared the Hindu treatment of animals to how Europe’s emperors and popes treated even their fellow men, praising the former and heaping shame upon the latter; in the 17th century Pierre Gassendi, and Francis Bacon also advocated vegetarianism.
The 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham compiled Enlightenment beliefs in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (second edition, 1823, chapter 17, footnote), and he included his own reasoning in a comparison between slavery and sadism toward animals:
The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor [see Louis XIV's Code Noir]… What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
In the 20th century, Princeton University professor Peter Singer argued that Bentham’s conclusion is often dismissed by an appeal to a distinction that condemns human suffering but allows non-human suffering, typically “appeals” that are logical fallacies. Because many of the suggested distinguishing features of humanity — extreme intelligence, highly complex language, etc… — are not present in marginal cases such as young or mentally disabled humans, it appears that the only distinction is a prejudice based on species alone, which animal-rights supporters call speciesism — that is, differentiating humans from other animals purely on the grounds that they are human. In my eyes, this is akin to any type of bigoted racism.
Gary Francione also bases his abolitionist theory of animal rights, which differs significantly from Singer’s, on sentience. He asserts that “all sentient beings, humans or nonhuman, have one right: the basic right not to be treated as the property of others.”
Andrew Linzey, founder of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics in England, is known as a foremost international advocate for recognizing animals as sentient beings in Biblically-based faith traditions. The Interfaith Association of Animal Chaplains encourages animal ministry groups to adopt a policy of recognizing and valuing sentient beings.
In 1997 the concept of animal sentience was written into the basic law of the European Union. The legally-binding Protocol annexed to the Treaty of Amsterdam recognizes that animals are “sentient beings”, and requires the EU and its Member States to “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals”.
The laws of several global states include certain invertebrates such as cephalopods (octopuses, squids) and decapod crustaceans (lobsters, crabs) in the scope of animal protection laws, implying that these animals are also judged to be capable of experiencing pain and suffering.
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I hope this at least causes one to think about the big long line of cause and effect in their actions… Whether the innocuously packaged meat on the shelves of our supermarkets not only hides the blood and gore behind the murder of these animals, but whether it also blinds us to the honest truth that all animals are really sentient in the same way that we are… And thus, if we treat any one Being with the slightest amount of disrespect, similar to that which is being shown to those animals in the so-called Bangkok “zoo” above the department store, then we are condoning malicious behaviour to sentient Beings… And, as we i.e. human beings, ourselves are sentient Beings, we are also propagating seeds for violence that might be towards ourselves.
It’s time to wake up… And realise that we can be Shepherds of the Earth. We have an ability to care for and tend to all Life that resides here in this intricate web of wondrous unfolding… We can use this long chain of interdependent memetic origination to make people aware of another’s plight… And so help change the causes that creates suffering. Perhaps then… Maybe… We can ensure that ‘nearly’ every living creature i.e. every “sentient” being, can have the chance to enjoy this garden of Eden that hangs in the inky black deserts of space and time, to live and do as “God, or Nature” allowed for it… Life is precious. It’s rare. And we are standing on one dot that has afforded many a chance to experience this lottery of existence. Everyone – all sentient beings – have a right… Maybe then we might well have a chance at being something more than blatant advocators of exploitation and usurpation… And so learn that Nature, too, in all its wonder and majestic splendour, is just as delicate and sensitive as the lover who lies by our side.
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If you’re having a hard time understanding that animals, like humans, have feelings too, and thus might not dig the kind of treatment that they’re being subjected to in that Bangkok ‘zoo…’ Then please check out Dr Jonathan Balcombe’s important work regarding animal rights by visiting his website here.
PLUS… If you’d like to read about how science is “grading” the facial expressions of mice while they are experiencing pain, in order to see if there is a common/universal language for mammalian expression, then please click here.
To find out how you can help prevent animal cruelty here in the UK, please visit the “RSPCA” by clicking here.
OR to visit the “World Society For The Protection Of Animals” website, please click here.
September 2, 2010
Over the last two days I have been fortunate enough to bear witness to some pretty amazing news – well, for me at least – which came through the Twitter vine. The organisation 350.org posted a Tweet which read:
Buddhists rock climate – the @DalaiLama endorses the 350 target: http://u.nu/8uhwe
The reason behind this being somewhat special for me is that my colleague – who is a Buddhist nun, presently out of robes – asked me why I gave up my car. Her reason at the time for asking this was that this action provided the biggest obstacle to my connection with learning the Dharma and attending Buddhist social events in Haywards Heath. As I may have already mentioned in previous blogs, I live in Tunbridge Wells, which is about 26 miles away going by car. Petrol and time wise, it cost me about eight pounds in fuel to get there and back again, along with a total of one hour and fifteen minutes in travel time. However, since I gave up my car several months ago, I’m now at the mercy of train fairs and delays. Basically the journey is double the time… Mainly as I either have to go from Tunbridge Wells train station to London Bridge and then back out to Haywards Heath… Or I have to go via Redhill in Surry, which requires three changes (four trains) in total. Also, the train fair is nearly doubled i.e. each return journey costs £15.10. So my Buddhist friend Chudrun did actually have a point. However, I argued that you couldn’t put a price on the environment. If it took double the time, and cost twice as much, then I’d have to go with it out of principle.
To be fair though, at the time I really did see her point i.e. that until one is truly enlightened, all our actions are somewhat based on self centred tendencies that – while they might be considered to be for the benefit of all living and sentient beings here on Earth – are ‘actually’ rapped up in pride and self obsessive tendencies, like “aren’t I good for helping the environment out!” kinda thing. Even so, my heart and intuition was telling me that despite what other say about my actions, this is even more important. When I finally got home that evening and sat down with a cuppa in my hand after meditation practise, I realised if someone didn’t make the effort, then all sentient beings would suffer greatly at from the whiplash caused by the chaos naturally inherent in ‘our’ dynamical weather system here on Earth…
And indeed we are all presently beginning to suffer at the hands of this indiscriminate master of fortune (the bestower of Life as we presently know it) and destruction. We only have to look at the radical shifts in recent weather patterns to see that our manmade effect on climate and regional weather patterns are wrecking havoc with the natural (and chaotic) order of things. The balance of the Tao is shifting to compensate for our actions and pollution. Just the other day Nature magazine reported that a brief cold spell killed millions of aquatic animals in the Amazon river. Also, droughts in China this year seemed to spell an ever exacerbating pattern for future times. It certainly doesn’t end there… Russia too was faced with hardship when the fires recently raged outside of Moscow city in the exceptionally hot and dry summer. And scientists around the globe are staggered at the rate at which the Arctic is warming up.
So there really seems to be something going on… And bearing in mind there are now nearly seven billion of us here on the Earth, I can take a pretty good guess as to what is ‘fuelling’ this climatic change. So while I hear some of my colleagues saying that reaching enlightenment is more important than curbing my use of petrol and plastics… I am also aware that if we don’t change our habits, then we could also hinder all sentient beings from attaining happiness, simply because we couldn’t – though I fear it’s more a case of didn’t want to – understand the effect that our actions were having on the Earth around us.
“We can create a very bad, negative situation for ourselves… Or we can create a very pleasant situation for ourselves.”
Ringu Tulku Rinpoche
Thus, last night I sent the aforementioned tweet off to Chudrun… Mainly to make a point about why I was going to stick with my decision about giving up my car, regardless of the consequences to my ultimate and eventual enlightenment… And this morning I got a reply… One which drew my attention to an interview of a friend – and fellow monk – of hers, Ringu Tulku Rinpoche. Here Ringu Tulku Rinpoche talks candidly and pertinently about his ideas concerning climate change, why it came about and how we might help effect a change for the benefit of all sentient beings – perhaps even all Life and its future generations – here on Earth… By changing our perspective, ourselves and our present self centred habits, by realising some harsh truths about our own inner workings and embracing them honestly, rather than sweeping them under the carpet.
‘Greed is also ignorance…We lose the overall view.
We almost stop thinking we are part of anything at all’
JS: Rinpoche, you have studied the world ecological crisis and seen Al Gore’s film. How does it make you feel as a Buddhist and a human being? How do you react to it?
RT: From the Buddhist point of view—and not just Buddhist point of view—nature does not pollute itself. If it is polluted, it is because people are polluting it. Obviously, we have polluted the air and the global environment which is why we have created the problem. I feel if we human beings have done something wrong to make it so bad, it is up to human beings to correct it, since it affects all sentient beings. This is the karma of the situation from the Buddhist point of view. Whatever kind of action we take, we will have to experience a corresponding kind of result. The climate issue is a very clear case of this. We can create a very bad, negative situation for ourselves or we can create a very pleasant situation for ourselves. Whether it is the planet, society, the local environment or relationships between people – this is how actions and reactions affect each other. The phenomenon comes precisely from our incorrect way of doing things, which is to say, without considering the effect of our actions. If we want to enjoy the world around us, for our lifetime and for future generations, we must do something to improve it.
There are predictions that the outcome will be or could be like this or like that, but there is nothing definite. There is just the indication, ‘if you act like this, then it could be like that. However, if you act like this, it can be better’. If people want to change their behaviour, the world can become better. Even in very negative dark ages, there could be periods of time that are positive and good. That has been predicted. Therefore, from the Buddhist point of view, how the world becomes depends on the people living there and how they act. If human society degenerates and the world becomes worse and worse, what is happening is that peoples’ negative emotions become very raw. They act, aggressively, greedily, negatively, violently. That is how the world becomes worse. War, famine, diseases, environmental catastrophe and diminishing lifespan develop from that. If our actions or reactions improve – we cease killing, lying, deceiving, and stealing from each other – from the Buddhist point of view, both the human and ecological situation will increasingly improve. The way we live our lives and the way we react to each other affects not just human beings, but our natural environment, the world we live in.
JS: So you are saying there is a psychic interdependence, on a collective level?
RT: Not only psychic, but behavioural. How we react psychologically is reflected in our behaviour. So what we do to each other affects the environment. For instance, if we are overly greedy, we take everything out of the earth, without any respect. We do not care for the land or the air. We ignore our pollution. If we react with hatred and just try to harm or destroy somebody or something, we devote great resources to manufacturing weaponry, and in the process we also destroy our own environment. Harming others is harming ourselves too.
JS: Or harming the future in this case.
RT: Yes, the future.
JS: The future others, and our future selves as well.
RT: That’s right. That is the Buddhist way of seeing.
JS: So you are saying it could go either way. It could reach some pitch, or some collective recognition, or not. And if not, it could come to a crisis point. Of course, we are already at a crisis point.
RT: That’s right. It can get worse if we do not put a stop to this way of acting and reacting. If we do change sufficiently, it could also reverse itself.
JS: It seems that greed is a key ‘poison’ being projected at this time. Powerful elites in society are not necessarily going to abandon greed. Change may now have to come ‘from the grassroots’.
RT: That is right. Greed is also based on ignorance. The assumption ‘if I have more, if I consume more, then it is better for me. It will bring happiness for me. Whoever has the most things is the better, happier person’ is based on fundamental misunderstanding.
JS: A misunderstanding assiduously cultivated by mass advertising.
RT: That is right.
JS: A system dedicated to generating greed contains the seeds of its own destruction, unless something really changes. On the scientific side, the de-glaciation of Greenland seems to be faster than they previously thought. It is potentially catastrophic for the world’s coastlines.
RT: I saw a BBC report that ships could now make the Northwest Passage, a short cut from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, north and west through the Canadian Arctic. The ice has melted so much that there is a waterway right through on the top of the world. Countries have already started to fight about who owns that ocean.
JS: Buddhism talks about ‘beginningless time’. If we look at the scientific history of the earth, it is 4½ billion years old. The biosphere, the living world is 3½ billion years old. The human species is less than a quarter of a million years old. So are we just referring to something ‘beginningless’ in terms of human consciousness?
RT: ‘Beginningless’ time is not based on one world system. It is based on countless universes throughout endless space. Space is limitless, so if there is this world system, there are also others. How many are there that our instruments can observe now? There could be different kinds of beings, worlds, limitless possibilities. It is not talking about this world. This world has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Indian Buddhist cosmology, one great kalpa is divided into 80 small kalpas. It takes 20 kalpas for one world system to form, from nothingness into existence. From the time of its existence until any kind of living being is able to survive takes another 20 kalpas. From the time living beings arrive, grow, flourish, and expand, until they become extinct takes another 20 kalpas. From the point that system starts to dissolve until it is completely destroyed and remains in dissolution is another 20 kalpas. That is a single cycle of one big kalpa. Furthermore, while one world is being created, another is living, another is dying, another is already extinct. There are countless worlds and universes like that.
JS: The Pope is issuing a ‘social encyclical’ on the issue of global warming and will make an appeal to the U.N. in person. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian Church has convened an interfaith conference on a boat near the North Pole—all faiths praying together. Do you think it is a good idea for Buddhist leaders to join forces in front of their students and raise this issue, at prayer festivals, conferences and teachings?
RT: I think it is very appropriate. More people are becoming aware of global warming, but only recently. Not long ago, people had little or no clarity on this subject.
JS: It has changed over the last year since the Fourth IPCC Report came out. Science progresses methodically and slowly. To reach consensus between 2500 world experts is not trivial. Finally they came up with 90% certainty that humans are causing it. After that there could not be any respectable opposition. The media woke up somewhat. However, even that has not stopped those opposing the truth.
RT: No, not at all.
JS: Even though the scientific conclusions are specific and water-tight, still the political arena does not change, because enormous profits being made through greed and waste. What about our own view and conduct in relation to the ecological crisis? Great spiritual masters like Guru Padmasambhava saw the world as dreamlike and illusionary, yet they went to enormous effort to benefit future generations. I wonder what this tells us about the view we should be cultivating.
RT: Emptiness, interdependence, impermanence, the nature of beings and things being dreamlike…these do not prevent us from doing things for other people. They do not prevent us doing positive things and reducing negativity. It may be like a dream, but it still affects people. The same question is raised in the Bodhicaryavatara. If everything is emptiness, why is there a need for compassion? There is a need because people suffer. They do not understand emptiness. Therefore it is important to work for their benefit, to reduce suffering. Its being like a dream does not change anything in that regard.
JS: I presume it would change the way in which we worked, and avoid anxiety, if we recognize the situation has twin aspects of being both dream-like and a crisis?
RT: Because things are impermanent, interdependent, emptiness, we should try to see them clearly, so that whatever the situation may be, we do not panic. We change our way of experiencing. That does not mean that we should not try to change the situation. Even if we have to live in that situation, we should do so in a peaceful and joyful manner. Within the situation, we should do whatever we can to make it better – without becoming negative, without becoming completely hopeless, or overwhelmed by tragedy. We should live in a way to make things better, both outside and inside.
JS: You must be familiar with this kind of situation. You were a refugee when Tibet was destroyed by external enemies. Do you see any relationship between these two crises?
RT: The situation for the Tibetans is very relevant. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said we should not become pessimistic; we should stay optimistic. That does not imply we should ignore the situation, be unaware of the problems and injustices, or blame ourselves. Rather we should clearly see the situation we are in. Recognizing it, understanding it, accepting it, then we do not need to become utterly disillusioned. We need to see clearly what we can do to make it better. If we can find even a little thing to make it better, we should concentrate on that, rather than just mourning the negative things that have happened for us. If we do that, we become more positive, more enthusiastic, more optimistic. That was the message we Tibetan refugees received. Instead of becoming angry and hateful, feeling sorry for ourselves and completely losing hope – look at the situation and ask ‘what can we do now?’ That is why the Tibetan refugees tried their best to preserve their culture and improve their situation a little bit. This, of course, is not an easy thing, either inside or outside Tibet. There are so many negative forces. Nonetheless, it is working.
JS: Often at great cost.
RT: Yes, the cost is there. All the negative things happened anyway, so within that context, whatever positive could be done, was done.
JS: In the present climate crisis, there is the possibility that the human race is going to fail to recognize its karmic responsibilities. The IPCC have said that unless human society stops pumping 70 million tons of carbon gas into the atmosphere annually, within 10 years we could irretrievably damage our climate and the whole biosphere.
RT: According to Buddhism and according to our experience as Tibetan refugees, we never know if we will succeed in changing or reversing the situation, or not. We can never say how much can be done, or how much cannot be done. Nobody can say that precisely, but that should not prevent us trying.
JS: There is a great urgency that the world should arrive at a genuine treaty and put it into practice. What advice would you give as a Buddhist monk and teacher?
RT: I think the understanding of this information is very important. People have a vague idea that global warming is dangerous, but I think most have not yet experienced the urgency at a personal level. Governments talk a lot, but I do not know how serious they really are. Their actions do not match their talk. Maybe some more or less understand it, but their actions are inadequate.
There is a Sanskrit verse:
For the sake of the world you should sacrifice your country.
For the sake of the country you should sacrifice your village.
For the sake of your village you should sacrifice your family.
For the sake of your family you should sacrifice yourself.
Well, it appears the opposite attitude is prevalent nowadays:
For the sake of your country you sacrifice the world.
For the sake of your village you sacrifice your country.
For the sake of your family you sacrifice your village.
For the sake of yourself you sacrifice your family.
When that kind of situation has come about, we think “If I feel it is somehow beneficial for me, or if I get more money for a certain time, I do not care if the planet is going to the dogs or not.” That is a root problem; basically it is ignorance. We think our own welfare is assured because we get money or power or whatever. Yet we live in this world and actually if the world is gone, where will we use our ‘profit’?
JS: In the context of Global Warming, we could even say, collectively, this is pathological ignorance, possibly even a kind of ‘death wish’.
RT: It is as if we do not actually know, we are a bit confused. The kind of education we receive over-emphasizes personal achievement and personal goals. ‘I have to be the top person. I have to win the most. My success is the only thing. What happens around me is not the most important thing.’ It is an attitude, a way of looking that is too ego-centred. We lose the overall view. We almost stop thinking that we are part of anything at all. That is why some people become depressed, lonely and so forth. It also comes from this.
Interview by John & Diane Stanley, Sikkim, October 2007
Ringu Tulku Rinpoche (b.1952) was recognised by Karmapa XVI as a reincarnate lama of Rigul monastery. He holds the Kagyu title of Khenpo and Nyingma title of Lopon Chenpo. A professor of Tibetology in Sikkim for 17 years, Rinpoche authored a noted work on the non-sectarian Rime movement. His fluent English and congenial teaching style is appreciated worldwide. He founded Bodhicharya, an international organization that coordinates the preservation & transmission of Buddhist teachings with intercultural dialogue, education & social projects.
To see where I sourced this article from, please click here.
And to learn more about Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, please click here.
OR to find out more about how Buddhism is beginning to face the challenges set forth by human over population and the resulting effects of climate change, please click here.
To learn more about 350.org, please click here.
September 1, 2010
I won’t say too much here… Other than I was somewhat surprised when a friend of mine sent me this interview with Aldous Huxley in. Parallels, anyone?
To find out more about Aldous Huxley, please click here.
Or to learn more about how Huxley’s imaginative and intuitive guess at a “Brave New World” might well be closer than one might really expect, please click here.