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Sunday, August 17th, 2014

As the 2014 summer of chaos and disorder draws towards an end. It appears time for we humans to change our ways. … The motto of this website is: “Always tell only the truth, and all the truth, and do so promptly – right now.” This statement by Buckminster Fuller cannot be emphasized too much. I will attempt to live up to that motto in today’s essay.

The following article is from the 2002 SynEARTH Archives. It was the first in a series on synergic containment and synergic disarmament. Synergic containment and synergic disarmament are powerful mechanisms for containing adversary behavior. They will be developed as the series is presented. We start off by making the case for a paradigm shift that can move us Beyond Crime and Punishment. Only then will we find the mechanisms to end the insanity of war.

Beyond Crime and Punishment

Timothy Wilken, MD

In our present world, it is widely believed that mistakes are the result of badness. So when mistakes occur, we investigate, blame and punish. This belief has resulted in a world where violence, hate and judgment are common.

Synergic science reveals that mistakes are in fact the result of ignorance. If we understand this, then when a mistake occurs, we would analyze, determine responsibility, and educate. This could soon lead to a world where public safety, love and compassion are common.

The Uncertainty of Human Knowing

We can never know all there is to know about anything — this is a fundamental ‘law’ of Nature. This is in fact is the only cause of mistakes.

Ignorance is the word that best describes the human condition. Alfred Korzybskiexplained this condition scientifically as the Principle of Non-Allness. By this he meant that we humans make all of our decisions with incomplete and imperfect knowing. We make every choice without all the information. All humans live and act in state of ignorance. Korzybski felt that developing an awareness of this ‘law’ of Nature was so fundamentally important to all humans, that he developed a lesson especially for children. Korzybski would explain:

“Children, today we want to learn ALL about the apple.”

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He would place an apple in view of the children, “Do you children know about the apple?”

“I do!”, “I do!”, “Yes, I know about apples!”

“Good” Korzybski moved to the blackboard. , “Come, tell me about the apple?”

“The Apple is a fruit.”, “The apple is red.”, “The apple grows on a tree.”

Korzybski would begin to list the characteristics described by the children on the blackboard.

The children continued, “An apple a day keeps the Doctor away.”

Korzybski continued listing the children’s answers until they run out of ideas, then he would ask, “Is that all we can say about the apple?

When the children answered in the affirmative, Korzybski would remove his pocket-knife and cut the apple in half, passing the parts among the children.

“Now, children can we say more about the apple?

“The apple smells good.” “The juices are sweet.” “The apple has seeds.” “Its pulp is white.” “Mother makes apple pie.

Finally when the children had again run out of answers, Korzybski would ask, “Now, is that all-we can say about the apple?” When the children agreed that it was all that could be said, he would again go into his pocket only this time he removed a ten power magnifying lens and passed it to the children. The children would examine the apple, and again respond:

“The apple pulp has a pattern and a structure.” “The skin of the apple has pores.” “The leaves have fuzz on them.” “The seeds have coats.”

Thus Korzybski would teach the children the lesson of Non-ALLness.

Now we could continue to examine the apple—with a light microscope, x-ray crystallography, and eventually the electron microscope. We would continue to discover more to say about the apple. However, we can never know ALL there is to know about anything in Nature. We humans have the power to know about Nature, but not to know ALL.

Knowing is without limit, but knowing is not total. Universe is our human model of Nature. Our ‘knowing’ can grow evermore complete. It can grow closer and closer to the ‘Truth’, but it cannot equal the ‘Truth’. It must always be incomplete. We are not ‘GOD’. We cannot see and know ALL.

Jacob Bronowski speaking in 1976 his famous public television series the Ascent of Man said:

“One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an exact picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the Twentieth Century has been to prove that that aim is unattainable. There is no absolute knowledge and those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility. This is the human condition; and that is what Quantum Physics says. I mean that literally.

“Let us examine an object with the best tool we have today, the electron microscope, where the rays are so concentrated that we no longer know whether to call them waves or particles. Electrons are fired at an object, and they trace its outline like a knife-thrower at a fair. The smallest object that has ever been seen is a single atom of thorium. It is spectacular.

And yet the soft image confirms that, like the knives that graze the girl at the fair, even the hardest electrons do not give a hard outline. The perfect image is still as remote as the distant stars.

“We are here face to face with the crucial paradox of knowledge. Year by year we devise more precise instruments with which to observe nature with more fineness and when we look at the observations, we are discomfited to see that they are still fuzzy, and we feel that we are as uncertain as ever.

“We seem to be running after a goal which lurches away from us to infinity every time we come within sight of it.

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“The paradox of knowledge is not confined to the small, atomic scale; on the contrary, it is as cogent on the scale of man, and even of the stars.

“Let me put it in the context of an astronomical observatory. Karl Freidrich Gauss’ observatory at Gˆttingen was built about 1807. Throughout his life and ever since (the best part of 200 years) astronomical instruments have been improved.

“We look at the position of a star as it was determined then and now, and it seems to us that we are closer and closer to finding it precisely. But when we actually compare our individual observations today, we are astonished and chagrined to find them as scattered within themselves as ever.

“We had hoped that the human errors would disappear, and that we would ourselves have God’s view. But it turns out that the errors cannot be taken out of the observations. And that is true of stars, or atoms, or just looking at somebody’s picture, or hearing the report of somebody’s speech.”

Incomplete and imperfect knowing means that every human belief is an assumption. We can never know for sure. We can never know ALL.

As you sit in your chair reading these words, you assumed the chair would hold you. You did not check under the chair to see if it had broken since its last use. When you ate lunch at your favorite restaurant last week, you assumed the waitress had washed her hands. You assumed the cook did not have hepatitis. If you had assumed otherwise, you would not have walked into that restaurant. You would not have eaten your lunch. We humans assume. Herein lies our uncertainty — that’s all we humans can do. There is nothing wrong in our assuming, we are simply obeying a fundamental ‘law’ of Nature.

We humans have always believed that mistakes are bad. We have always believed that those who make mistakes are bad. They are stupid or careless — lazy or incompetent — just no damn good. If they were good, they wouldn’t make mistakes. Everyone knows that. Decent people don’t make mistakes. This is nearly a universal belief.

Mistakes = Badness

Korzybski coined the word space-binding to describe the world of the animal. In the world of the animal, cause and effect can not be distinguished from each other. They are the same — they equal each other — they are identical. If the effect of a mistake is bad, then the cause of a mistake is also bad. Human intelligence is build on animal intelligence. All humans have a space-mind. It is a powerful and often dominant part of our human intelligence. As children the space-mind is primary. The uniquely human mind creates what Korzybski called the world of Time-binding. The time-mind doesn’t even begin to become operational in children until they reach the age of four.

So our human belief that mistakes are ‘bad’ is legitimate. Most of us learn about mistakes as small children. If I stumble while running, I get hurt and that is bad. If an animal is running for its life and stumbles, it dies and that is bad. For space-binders, mistakes are a part of bad space.

In the world of space-binding, a mistake can cost not only the life of the individual space-binder, but also the lives of others in the group — pack, pride, herd, or troop. Therefore the result of a mistake was often bad, and not just for the individual, but for others in the group as well. Since 99.9% of all human history has been adversary — 99.9% of our history dominated by space-binding, it is no wonder that we humans have believed for countless centuries that mistakes are bad.

The belief in the badness of mistakes was further reinforced and given Divine sanction by our human religions. God is good. God is omniscience — ALL knowing. God makes no mistakes. He is perfect. We humans are admonished to be as God-like as possible. If making no mistakes is ‘good’, then obviously making mistakes is ‘bad’. Our religions institutionalized the adversary processing of mistakes — Sin, Hellfire, and Damnation.

Science has also added credence to the ‘badness’ of mistakes. The world view created by the ‘objective science’ of Galileo, Kepler, Hooke, and Newton was a ‘perfect’ Universe. Newton’s System of the Worlds described a precision clockwork perfection that controlled all in Universe. If the Universe is perfect, then humans too must evolve towards perfection.

Dealing with Badness

Since mistakes are bad, when one occurs, we investigate to determine who is at fault. Who made the mistake? Once that is determined, we blame those responsible. Following blame, we are ready to punish. More pain and suffering has been inflicted on humankind for making mistakes than for any other cause. This should not surprise us.

Punishment is the proper way to deal with ‘badness’. And,if we are anything, we are fair. So when we are the one who made the mistake, we self-punish. Self-punishment is called “guilt”. Humans are the only class of living systems that feels guilty. The only class of living systems that teaches their pets to feel guilty.

MISTAKES = Badness
PUNISH —> self punish

Korzybski’s Error of Identity

When humans rely only on their spacial intelligence, they see cause as being identical to effect. They are in essence time-blind, and so they confuse cause with effect.

Korzybski explained that when humans see things as being identical that are not identical, they are making an identification that is false to facts. Korzybski called this the Error of Identity.

When we confuse cause with effect, we are making the error of identity. Today most humans make this error. We assume without analysis that cause and effect are the same — that they are equal — that they are identical. If the effect of a mistake is bad then the cause of that mistake must also be bad.

We don’t analyze the event for sequence. We don’t use our time-binding power to understand. And so,we act without hesitation, without doubt on our belief. We act in certainty. And, certainty as explained earlier by Korzybski, Heisenberg, Eddington and Bronowski is not possible, because knowing is uncertain.


We humans always act without all the information. We humans are always assuming. If we are unaware that we are assuming, then we are ignorant of our ignorance. Certainty means that we don’t know that we don’t know. We cannot seek knowing when we believe our ignorance is knowing. Ignorance of ignorance is leveraged ignorance — ignorance masquerading as knowledge. Ignorance of ignorance is certainty.

When we are certain, we are surprised and disheartened by our mistakes. This attitude toward human error is the most damaging of human ignorances. We humans make mistakes because, we make all our decisions without ALL the information. This is a major point that all humans must understand. The only cause of mistakes is ignorance.

We humans must become aware of our ignorance. When we humans have knowledge of our ignorance, we can learn from our mistakes and protect ourselves in the future. When an individual knows he doesn’t know, he is wise. Wisdom is the opposite of certainty. The knowledge of our ignorance is wisdom.

To error is the human condition

This truth, whether we call it the Principle of Non-Allness, the Principle of Uncertainty, the Principle of Indeterminacy, or the Principle of Tolerance, leads us to the conclusion that to error is human, and there is no need too ask forgiveness. All mistakes are innocent.

Universe is not certain — it is not structured as we humans have believed for countless centuries. Religion and the objective scientists were wrong. The physics of relativity and quantum mechanics describe a Universe in which things are not and cannot be perfect. A Universe in which, we humans are constrained to make all our choices without ALL the information. Mistakes are simply holes or gaps in our knowing — lapses in our understanding.

I am often asked, “But, what if I knew better?” If I knew better and then make a mistake. Isn’t that the result of stupidity. If I knew better, but still made an error, then surely that is my fault and not the result of ignorance.

What if I knew better?

I recall a young women I once treated. She had opened her hotel room door to a man claiming to be a maintenance worker, who then attacked and raped her. The attacker has stolen a hotel uniform from a laundry hamper and so seemed legitimate. However, something about his appearance disturbed her, but on second thought, she assumed she was just being silly and so unlocked her door. When I saw her several months later she was still struggling with guilt.

“Doctor, it was my own fault. I was so stupid. I shouldn’t have opened the door. I knew something was wrong. I was so stupid. I knew better, but I opened the door anyway.”

I responded, “You weren’t stupid. You were only ignorant.”

She replied, “No, Dr. Wilken, I knew better, I should never have opened the door, I was just so stupid.”

“NO!”, I told her, “You weren’t stupid, you were only ignorant and I can prove it with one simple question. She looked deep into my eyes desperate to know what I meant.

I asked: “If you had known that the man behind the door intended to rape you, would you have opened it?”

“No, of course not.”

No of course not. None of us would make a mistake if we knew we were about to make a mistake. Even when we humans repeat our mistakes, it is because we assume the mistake will not happen this time. We are ignorant of what will happen this time. As I have stated, the only cause of human error — the only cause of human mistakes is ignorance.

Scientists as well as non-scientists who seek to know must therefore embrace humility when we stand before the totality of Nature.

The Principle of Non-Allness is a fundamental law of Nature. And the first corollary to the Principle of Non-Allness is what I call the Principle of Innocence.

Principle of Innocence

All actions occur in ignorance. All human actions and all human choices are made without all the information. We are always acting and choosing without ALL the information. What we don’t know we must ignore and what we ignore may hurt us. Therefore all errors and and all mistakes are made in innocence.

Good news

I don’t mean that mistakes are good things or that getting hurt is a good thing. I mean that since the cause of mistakes is ignorance and the proper response to ignorance is education, then we can learn from our mistakes.

We can acknowledge the mistakes of history and those that are occurring in our present world and work to correct them. This is good news. It will make it infinitely easier to build a better world.

When we understand the truth of “to error is human”, we can then begin to process our mistakes in a synergic manner. The human who understands that mistakes are a natural part of life does not investigate the mistakes like a detective, he analyzes the mistake as a scientist. He does not blame when a mistake occurs, he seeks to learn from the mistake and to learn he must accept responsibility and seek responsibility in others for their mistakes. Once he knows who is responsible for the mistake he educates.

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Education is the proper response to ignorance. Education and learning is the synergic alternative to adversary punishment and guilt. However there is something in guilt worth keeping. It is certainly not the badness, it is certainly not the blame, and of course it is not the punishment.

Guilt also contains regret and this is worth keeping. When a mistake happens there is always regret. In the adversary world where there is blame and punishment of course I might regret being blamed and punished. I also might regret being considered bad by those who are blaming and punishing me. But there is almost always another component of regret. When I make a mistake that hurts someone else, I regret that as well. This is the regret worth keeping.

And, this is often why we humans tend to hang onto our guilt feelings when we make a mistake. We regret injuring others. We can solve this dilemma by moving regret over into the synergic processing of mistakes, where it is called restitution. Restitution means to restore, to repair the damage caused by the ignorance of our behavior.

The synergist does not feel guilty when he makes a mistake, but he is sorry if his ignorance injured other. As a synergist, he will freely try to repair things. He will freely offer restitution.




MISTAKES = Badness MISTAKES = Ignorance

—> self-punish


—> self-educate






We humans have a choice as to how to deal with mistakes. If we process our mistakes adversarily we get pain and no learning. If we process our mistakes synergically, we get learning and no pain.
In fact, you cannot learn when you adversarily process mistakes. We humans cannot tolerate the pain of blame, punishment, and guilt. We will deny that we make a mistake. We will project the blame for the mistake onto others. “I didn’t do it.” — “It wasn’t my fault.” — “And, if it isn’t my fault, why should I have to learn anything.”

In fact, if I am to learn from a mistake, I must first admit it was my fault. This is the real force behind what I call the “anti-learning barrier”. If I am to learn from my mistake I am trapped into accepting responsibility for my error. If I am adversarily processing the mistake, I cannot accept responsibility without feeling guilty. To avoid guilt I must deny responsibility. And if I wasn’t responsible then I have nothing to learn.

The “anti-learning barrier”

This barrier became evident to me by another one of my patients. I once had the occasion to treat a young woman in the early stages of her fifth pregnancy. She informed me she had had four abortions previously and was pregnant and planning to abort this pregnancy as well. I thought to myself, why can’t she learn to use birth control?

If we examine her situation in light of our new understanding, we see that for her to use birth control, she would have to admit that it is her responsibility to prevent unwanted pregnancies. That admission would lead her to the further conclusion that she was then also responsible for her previous unwanted pregnancies and their abortions.

This young woman was a Catholic and to admit responsibility for unwanted pregnancies and abortions were far too painful for her. She opted to deny any responsibility. “My boy friend got me drunk, and made me pregnant. It wasn’t my fault, so I don’t need to take birth control. Besides using birth control is a sin, I would never do that.”

The human brain is the most powerfully precise computer in the Universe. If we program it to believe mistakes are bad, it will function to prove it does not make mistakes. The human brain rebels at the idea that mistakes are bad. It will defend itself in any way possible, it will defend itself by lying. When I am accused of badness, I must lie to protect myself — to protect myself from blame and punishment — to protect myself from guilt. Confronted with an adversary reality that we live with today, it is rational to lie. Lying leads to distrust — “I assume you are my enemy”. Thus, the processing of mistakes as bad always leads to conflict and adversary behavior.

If on the other hand, I process my mistakes in a more scientific manner — as simply ignorant — choices made without all the information, then I must tell the truth to protect myself — to protect myself from repeating the mistake — to protect myself and others from further injury — to protect myself from paying unnecessary restitution.

Telling the truth leads to trust — “I assume you are my friend”. Processing mistakes as ignorance leads to co-Operation and synergic behavior.




MISTAKES = Badness MISTAKES = Ignorance

—> self-punish


—> self-educate





I must lie to protect myself.

I must tell the truth to protect myself.

I assume you are my enemy.

I assume you are my friend.






Scientists and all humans who seek to know must embrace humility when they stand before the totality of Nature. The principle of Non-Allness is a fundamental law of nature.

The fact that all actions occur in ignorance is a fundamental ‘knowing’ derived from the Principle of Non-Allness.

And the first corollary of that principle — the Principle of Innocence is an even more important extension of our human ‘knowing’. If we understand that all errors are committed in innocence, then how we treat those who err will change forever.

What about Bin Laden ?

How could the attack on the World Trade Towers have resulted from ignorance. How could those behind the murder of 3000+ thousand innocents themselves be innocent?

What don’t they know?

They don’t know that “As you sow, so shall you reap”. They don’t know that:

Adversary action usually provokes adversary reaction ending in an adversary resultant or loss.

They don’t know how powerful the United States really is. They have forgotten the lessons learned by Japan and Germany by the end of World War II. They to have wakened the sleeping Giant. Their acts will not make the world better and safer for themselves or for those they claim to represent. They don’t know that the end never justifies the means. In fact, the means always end up becoming the ends.

They don’t know that there is no heaven for murderers. They don’t know that an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, ends up with no winners only losers in a modern world with high technology and knowledge.

They don’t know that:

Progress + Warfare = Human Extinction

We humans are Time-binders, we have the power to create knowledge without limit. When knowledge is incorporated into matter-energy, it becomes a tool. As Andrew J. Galambos explained:

“Humans develop evermore powerful knowledge and therefore evermore powerful tools. When tools are used to harm other humans they are called weapons. Since human knowledge can grow without limit then tools themselves can be made without limit. And limitless tools can will produce limitless weapons.”

And, limitless weapons (progress) combined with leveraged adversity (warfare) must by all definitions and understanding of science produce human extinction.

All of today’s law enforcement agencies use adversary processing in an attempt to protect the public safety. Unfortunately, adversary processing results only in pain and no learning. The war on crime has been lost and always will be lost. Adversary behavior cannot be stopped with adversary behavior. The means always become the ends. The abolition of crime will require the abolition of punishment.

Only then can we move towards a world where, love, wisdom and compassion will replace hate, ignorance and judgment. Only then can we move beyond crime and punishment.

Read Timothy Wilken’s A Limit to Knowing. Read Timothy Wilken’s Protecting Humanity.

Front Page

Monday, April 28th, 2014

I first read this essay in the November/December 2012 issue of Orion Magazine. This essay was a finalist for a 2013 National Magazine Award in the Essay category. I reposted it on CommUnity of Minds in November 2012, and was reminded of it again today. It was and is well worth revisiting.

State of the Species

Charles C. Mann

THE PROBLEM WITH environmentalists, Lynn Margulis used to say, is that they think conservation has something to do with biological reality. A researcher who specialized in cells and microorganisms, Margulis was one of the most important biologists in the last half century—she literally helped to reorder the tree of life, convincing her colleagues that it did not consist of two kingdoms (plants and animals), but five or even six (plants, animals, fungi, protists, and two types of bacteria).

Until Margulis’s death last year, she lived in my town, and I would bump into her on the street from time to time. She knew I was interested in ecology, and she liked to needle me. Hey, Charles, she would call out, are you still all worked up about protecting endangered species?

Margulis was no apologist for unthinking destruction. Still, she couldn’t help regarding conservationists’ preoccupation with the fate of birds, mammals, and plants as evidence of their ignorance about the greatest source of evolutionary creativity: the microworld of bacteria, fungi, and protists. More than 90 percent of the living matter on earth consists of microorganisms and viruses, she liked to point out. Heck, the number of bacterial cells in our body is ten times more than the number of human cells!

Bacteria and protists can do things undreamed of by clumsy mammals like us: form giant supercolonies, reproduce either asexually or by swapping genes with others, routinely incorporate DNA from entirely unrelated species, merge into symbiotic beings—the list is as endless as it is amazing. Microorganisms have changed the face of the earth, crumbling stone and even giving rise to the oxygen we breathe. Compared to this power and diversity, Margulis liked to tell me, pandas and polar bears were biological epiphenomena—interesting and fun, perhaps, but not actually significant.

Does that apply to human beings, too? I once asked her, feeling like someone whining to Copernicus about why he couldn’t move the earth a little closer to the center of the universe. Aren’t we special at all?

This was just chitchat on the street, so I didn’t write anything down. But as I recall it, she answered that Homo sapiens actually might be interesting—for a mammal, anyway. For one thing, she said, we’re unusually successful.

Seeing my face brighten, she added: Of course, the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.


Why and how did humankind become “unusually successful”? And what, to an evolutionary biologist, does “success” mean, if self-destruction is part of the definition? Does that self-destruction include the rest of the biosphere? What are human beings in the grand scheme of things anyway, and where are we headed? What is human nature, if there is such a thing, and how did we acquire it? What does that nature portend for our interactions with the environment? With 7 billion of us crowding the planet, it’s hard to imagine more vital questions.

One way to begin answering them came to Mark Stoneking in 1999, when he received a notice from his son’s school warning of a potential lice outbreak in the classroom. Stoneking is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Leipzig, Germany. He didn’t know much about lice. As a biologist, it was natural for him to noodle around for information about them. The most common louse found on human bodies, he discovered, is Pediculus humanus. P. humanus has two subspecies: P. humanus capitis—head lice, which feed and live on the scalp—and P. humanus corporis—body lice, which feed on skin but live in clothing. In fact, Stoneking learned, body lice are so dependent on the protection of clothing that they cannot survive more than a few hours away from it.

It occurred to him that the two louse subspecies could be used as an evolutionary probe. P. humanus capitis, the head louse, could be an ancient annoyance, because human beings have always had hair for it to infest. But P. humanus corporis, the body louse, must not be especially old, because its need for clothing meant that it could not have existed while humans went naked. Humankind’s great coverup had created a new ecological niche, and some head lice had rushed to fill it. Evolution then worked its magic; a new subspecies, P. humanus corporis, arose. Stoneking couldn’t be sure that this scenario had taken place, though it seemed likely. But if his idea were correct, discovering when the body louse diverged from the head louse would provide a rough date for when people first invented and wore clothing.

The subject was anything but frivolous: donning a garment is a complicated act. Clothing has practical uses—warming the body in cold places, shielding it from the sun in hot places—but it also transforms the appearance of the wearer, something that has proven to be of inescapable interest to Homo sapiens. Clothing is ornament and emblem; it separates human beings from their earlier, un-self-conscious state. (Animals run, swim, and fly without clothing, but only people can be naked.) The invention of clothing was a sign that a mental shift had occurred. The human world had become a realm of complex, symbolic artifacts.

With two colleagues, Stoneking measured the difference between snippets of DNA in the two louse subspecies. Because DNA is thought to pick up small, random mutations at a roughly constant rate, scientists use the number of differences between two populations to tell how long ago they diverged from a common ancestor—the greater the number of differences, the longer the separation. In this case, the body louse had separated from the head louse about 70,000 years ago. Which meant, Stoneking hypothesized, that clothing also dated from about 70,000 years ago.

And not just clothing. As scientists have established, a host of remarkable things occurred to our species at about that time. It marked a dividing line in our history, one that made us who we are, and pointed us, for better and worse, toward the world we now have created for ourselves.

Homo sapiens emerged on the planet about 200,000 years ago, researchers believe. From the beginning, our species looked much as it does today. If some of those long-ago people walked by us on the street now, we would think they looked and acted somewhat oddly, but not that they weren’t people. But those anatomically modern humans were not, as anthropologists say, behaviorally modern. Those first people had no language, no clothing, no art, no religion, nothing but the simplest, unspecialized tools. They were little more advanced, technologically speaking, than their predecessors—or, for that matter, modern chimpanzees. (The big exception was fire, but that was first controlled by Homo erectus, one of our ancestors, a million years ago or more.) Our species had so little capacity for innovation that archaeologists have found almost no evidence of cultural or social change during our first 100,000 years of existence. Equally important, for almost all that time these early humans were confined to a single, small area in the hot, dry savanna of East Africa (and possibly a second, still smaller area in southern Africa).

But now jump forward 50,000 years. East Africa looks much the same. So do the humans in it—but suddenly they are drawing and carving images, weaving ropes and baskets, shaping and wielding specialized tools, burying the dead in formal ceremonies, and perhaps worshipping supernatural beings. They are wearing clothes—lice-filled clothes, to be sure, but clothes nonetheless. Momentously, they are using language. And they are dramatically increasing their range. Homo sapiens is exploding across the planet.

What caused this remarkable change? By geologists’ standards, 50,000 years is an instant, a finger snap, a rounding error. Nonetheless, most researchers believe that in that flicker of time, favorable mutations swept through our species, transforming anatomically modern humans into behaviorally modern humans. The idea is not absurd: in the last 400 years, dog breeders converted village dogs into creatures that act as differently as foxhounds, border collies, and Labrador retrievers. Fifty millennia, researchers say, is more than enough to make over a species.

Homo sapiens lacks claws, fangs, or exoskeletal plates. Rather, our unique survival skill is our ability to innovate, which originates with our species’ singular brain—a three-pound universe of hyperconnected neural tissue, constantly aswirl with schemes and notions. Hence every hypothesized cause for the transformation of humankind from anatomically modern to behaviorally modern involves a physical alteration of the wet gray matter within our skulls. One candidate explanation is that in this period people developed hybrid mental abilities by interbreeding with Neanderthals. (Some Neanderthal genes indeed appear to be in our genome, though nobody is yet certain of their function.) Another putative cause is symbolic language—an invention that may have tapped latent creativity and aggressiveness in our species. A third is that a mutation might have enabled our brains to alternate between spacing out on imaginative chains of association and focusing our attention narrowly on the physical world around us. The former, in this view, allows us to come up with creative new strategies to achieve a goal, whereas the latter enables us to execute the concrete tactics required by those strategies.

Each of these ideas is fervently advocated by some researchers and fervently attacked by others. What is clear is that something made over our species between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago—and right in the middle of that period was Toba.


About 75,000 years ago, a huge volcano exploded on the island of Sumatra. The biggest blast for several million years, the eruption created Lake Toba, the world’s biggest crater lake, and ejected the equivalent of as much as 3,000 cubic kilometers of rock, enough to cover the District of Columbia in a layer of magma and ash that would reach to the stratosphere. A gigantic plume spread west, enveloping southern Asia in tephra (rock, ash, and dust). Drifts in Pakistan and India reached as high as six meters. Smaller tephra beds blanketed the Middle East and East Africa. Great rafts of pumice filled the sea and drifted almost to Antarctica.

In the long run, the eruption raised Asian soil fertility. In the short term, it was catastrophic. Dust hid the sun for as much as a decade, plunging the earth into a years-long winter accompanied by widespread drought. A vegetation collapse was followed by a collapse in the species that depended on vegetation, followed by a collapse in the species that depended on the species that depended on vegetation. Temperatures may have remained colder than normal for a thousand years. Orangutans, tigers, chimpanzees, cheetahs—all were pushed to the verge of extinction.

At about this time, many geneticists believe, Homo sapiens’ numbers shrank dramatically, perhaps to a few thousand people—the size of a big urban high school. The clearest evidence of this bottleneck is also its main legacy: humankind’s remarkable genetic uniformity. Countless people have viewed the differences between races as worth killing for, but compared to other primates—even compared to most other mammals—human beings are almost indistinguishable, genetically speaking. DNA is made from exceedingly long chains of “bases.” Typically, about one out of every 2,000 of these “bases” differs between one person and the next. The equivalent figure from two E. coli (human gut bacteria) might be about one out of twenty. The bacteria in our intestines, that is, have a hundredfold more innate variability than their hosts—evidence, researchers say, that our species is descended from a small group of founders.

Uniformity is hardly the only effect of a bottleneck. When a species shrinks in number, mutations can spread through the entire population with astonishing rapidity. Or genetic variants that may have already been in existence—arrays of genes that confer better planning skills, for example—can suddenly become more common, effectively reshaping the species within a few generations as once-unusual traits become widespread.

Did Toba, as theorists like Richard Dawkins have argued, cause an evolutionary bottleneck that set off the creation of behaviorally modern people, perhaps by helping previously rare genes—Neanderthal DNA or an opportune mutation—spread through our species? Or did the volcanic blast simply clear away other human species that had previously blocked H. sapiens’ expansion? Or was the volcano irrelevant to the deeper story of human change?

For now, the answers are the subject of careful back-and-forth in refereed journals and heated argument in faculty lounges. All that is clear is that about the time of Toba, new, behaviorally modern people charged so fast into the tephra that human footprints appeared in Australia within as few as 10,000 years, perhaps within 4,000 or 5,000. Stay-at-home Homo sapiens 1.0, a wallflower that would never have interested Lynn Margulis, had been replaced by aggressively expansive Homo sapiens 2.0. Something happened, for better and worse, and we were born.

One way to illustrate what this upgrade looked like is to consider Solenopsis invicta, the red imported fire ant. Geneticists believe that S. invicta originated in northern Argentina, an area with many rivers and frequent floods. The floods wipe out ant nests. Over the millennia, these small, furiously active creatures have acquired the ability to respond to rising water by coalescing into huge, floating, pullulating balls—workers on the outside, queen in the center—that drift to the edge of the flood. Once the waters recede, colonies swarm back into previously flooded land so rapidly that S. invicta actually can use the devastation to increase its range.

In the 1930s, Solenopsis invicta was transported to the United States, probably in ship ballast, which often consists of haphazardly loaded soil and gravel. As a teenaged bug enthusiast, Edward O. Wilson, the famed biologist, spotted the first colonies in the port of Mobile, Alabama. He saw some very happy fire ants. From the ant’s point of view, it had been dumped into an empty, recently flooded expanse. S. invicta took off, never looking back.

The initial incursion watched by Wilson was likely just a few thousand individuals—a number small enough to suggest that random, bottleneck-style genetic change played a role in the species’ subsequent history in this country. In their Argentine birthplace, fire-ant colonies constantly fight each other, reducing their numbers and creating space for other types of ant. In the United States, by contrast, the species forms cooperative supercolonies, linked clusters of nests that can spread for hundreds of miles. Systematically exploiting the landscape, these supercolonies monopolize every useful resource, wiping out other ant species along the way—models of zeal and rapacity. Transformed by chance and opportunity, new-model S. invictus needed just a few decades to conquer most of the southern United States.

Homo sapiens did something similar in the wake of Toba. For hundreds of thousands of years, our species had been restricted to East Africa (and, possibly, a similar area in the south). Now, abruptly, new-model Homo sapiens were racing across the continents like so many imported fire ants. The difference between humans and fire ants is that fire ants specialize in disturbed habitats. Humans, too, specialize in disturbed habitats—but we do the disturbing.


As a student at the University of Moscow in the 1920s, Georgii Gause spent years trying—and failing—to drum up support from the Rockefeller Foundation, then the most prominent funding source for non-American scientists who wished to work in the United States. Hoping to dazzle the foundation, Gause decided to perform some nifty experiments and describe the results in his grant application.

By today’s standards, his methodology was simplicity itself. Gause placed half a gram of oatmeal in one hundred cubic centimeters of water, boiled the results for ten minutes to create a broth, strained the liquid portion of the broth into a container, diluted the mixture by adding water, and then decanted the contents into small, flat-bottomed test tubes. Into each he dripped five Paramecium caudatum or Stylonychia mytilus, both single-celled protozoans, one species per tube. Each of Gause’s test tubes was a pocket ecosystem, a food web with a single node. He stored the tubes in warm places for a week and observed the results. He set down his conclusions in a 163-page book, The Struggle for Existence, published in 1934.

Today The Struggle for Existence is recognized as a scientific landmark, one of the first successful marriages of theory and experiment in ecology. But the book was not enough to get Gause a fellowship; the Rockefeller Foundation turned down the twenty-four-year-old Soviet student as insufficiently eminent. Gause could not visit the United States for another twenty years, by which time he had indeed become eminent, but as an antibiotics researcher.

What Gause saw in his test tubes is often depicted in a graph, time on the horizontal axis, the number of protozoa on the vertical. The line on the graph is a distorted bell curve, with its left side twisted and stretched into a kind of flattened S. At first the number of protozoans grows slowly, and the graph line slowly ascends to the right. But then the line hits an inflection point, and suddenly rockets upward—a frenzy of exponential growth. The mad rise continues until the organism begins to run out of food, at which point there is a second inflection point, and the growth curve levels off again as bacteria begin to die. Eventually the line descends, and the population falls toward zero.

Years ago I watched Lynn Margulis, one of Gause’s successors, demonstrate these conclusions to a class at the University of Massachusetts with a time-lapse video of Proteus vulgaris, a bacterium that lives in the gastrointestinal tract. To humans, she said, P. vulgaris is mainly notable as a cause of urinary-tract infections. Left alone, it divides about every fifteen minutes. Margulis switched on the projector. Onscreen was a small, wobbly bubble—P. vulgaris—in a shallow, circular glass container: a petri dish. The class gasped. The cells in the time-lapse video seemed to shiver and boil, doubling in number every few seconds, colonies exploding out until the mass of bacteria filled the screen. In just thirty-six hours, she said, this single bacterium could cover the entire planet in a foot-deep layer of single-celled ooze. Twelve hours after that, it would create a living ball of bacteria the size of the earth.

Such a calamity never happens, because competing organisms and lack of resources prevent the overwhelming majority of P. vulgaris from reproducing. This, Margulis said, is natural selection, Darwin’s great insight. All living creatures have the same purpose: to make more of themselves, ensuring their biological future by the only means available. Natural selection stands in the way of this goal. It prunes back almost all species, restricting their numbers and confining their range. In the human body, P. vulgaris is checked by the size of its habitat (portions of the human gut), the limits to its supply of nourishment (food proteins), and other, competing organisms. Thus constrained, its population remains roughly steady.

In the petri dish, by contrast, competition is absent; nutrients and habitat seem limitless, at least at first. The bacterium hits the first inflection point and rockets up the left side of the curve, swamping the petri dish in a reproductive frenzy. But then its colonies slam into the second inflection point: the edge of the dish. When the dish’s nutrient supply is exhausted, P. vulgaris experiences a miniapocalypse.

By luck or superior adaptation, a few species manage to escape their limits, at least for a while. Nature’s success stories, they are like Gause’s protozoans; the world is their petri dish. Their populations grow exponentially; they take over large areas, overwhelming their environment as if no force opposed them. Then they annihilate themselves, drowning in their own wastes or starving from lack of food.

To someone like Margulis, Homo sapiens looks like one of these briefly fortunate species.


No more than a few hundred people initially migrated from Africa, if geneticists are correct. But they emerged into landscapes that by today’s standards were as rich as Eden. Cool mountains, tropical wetlands, lush forests—all were teeming with food. Fish in the sea, birds in the air, fruit on the trees: breakfast was everywhere. People moved in.

Despite our territorial expansion, though, humans were still only in the initial stages of Gause’s oddly shaped curve. Ten thousand years ago, most demographers believe, we numbered barely 5 million, about one human being for every hundred square kilometers of the earth’s land surface. Homo sapiens was a scarcely noticeable dusting on the surface of a planet dominated by microbes. Nevertheless, at about this time—10,000 years ago, give or take a millennium—humankind finally began to approach the first inflection point. Our species was inventing agriculture.

The wild ancestors of cereal crops like wheat, barley, rice, and sorghum have been part of the human diet for almost as long as there have been humans to eat them. (The earliest evidence comes from Mozambique, where researchers found tiny bits of 105,000-year-old sorghum on ancient scrapers and grinders.) In some cases people may have watched over patches of wild grain, returning to them year after year. Yet despite the effort and care the plants were not domesticated. As botanists say, wild cereals “shatter”—individual grain kernels fall off as they ripen, scattering grain haphazardly, making it impossible to harvest the plants systematically. Only when unknown geniuses discovered naturally mutated grain plants that did not shatter—and purposefully selected, protected, and cultivated them—did true agriculture begin. Planting great expanses of those mutated crops, first in southern Turkey, later in half a dozen other places, early farmers created landscapes that, so to speak, waited for hands to harvest them.

Farming converted most of the habitable world into a petri dish. Foragers manipulated their environment with fire, burning areas to kill insects and encourage the growth of useful species—plants we liked to eat, plants that attracted the other creatures we liked to eat. Nonetheless, their diets were largely restricted to what nature happened to provide in any given time and season. Agriculture gave humanity the whip hand. Instead of natural ecosystems with their haphazard mix of species (so many useless organisms guzzling up resources!), farms are taut, disciplined communities conceived and dedicated to the maintenance of a single species: us.

Before agriculture, the Ukraine, American Midwest, and lower Yangzi were barely hospitable food deserts, sparsely inhabited landscapes of insects and grass; they became breadbaskets as people scythed away suites of species that used soil and water we wanted to dominate and replaced them with wheat, rice, and maize (corn). To one of Margulis’s beloved bacteria, a petri dish is a uniform expanse of nutrients, all of which it can seize and consume. For Homo sapiens, agriculture transformed the planet into something similar.

As in a time-lapse movie, we divided and multiplied across the newly opened land. It had taken Homo sapiens 2.0, behaviorally modern humans, not even 50,000 years to reach the farthest corners of the globe. Homo sapiens 2.0.A—A for agriculture—took a tenth of that time to conquer the planet.

As any biologist would predict, success led to an increase in human numbers. Homo sapiens rocketed around the elbow of the first inflection point in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when American crops like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and maize were introduced to the rest of the world. Traditional Eurasian and African cereals—wheat, rice, millet, and sorghum, for example—produce their grain atop thin stalks. Basic physics suggests that plants with this design will fatally topple if the grain gets too heavy, which means that farmers can actually be punished if they have an extra-bounteous harvest. By contrast, potatoes and sweet potatoes grow underground, which means that yields are not limited by the plant’s architecture. Wheat farmers in Edinburgh and rice farmers in Edo alike discovered they could harvest four times as much dry food matter from an acre of tubers than they could from an acre of cereals. Maize, too, was a winner. Compared to other cereals, it has an extra-thick stalk and a different, more productive type of photosynthesis. Taken together, these immigrant crops vastly increased the food supply in Europe, Asia, and Africa, which in turn helped increase the supply of Europeans, Asians, and Africans. The population boom had begun.

Numbers kept rising in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after a German chemist, Justus von Liebig, discovered that plant growth was limited by the supply of nitrogen. Without nitrogen, neither plants nor the mammals that eat plants can create proteins, or for that matter the DNA and RNA that direct their production. Pure nitrogen gas (N2) is plentiful in the air but plants are unable to absorb it, because the two nitrogen atoms in N2 are welded so tightly together that plants cannot split them apart for use. Instead, plants take in nitrogen only when it is combined with hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements. To restore exhausted soil, traditional farmers grew peas, beans, lentils, and other pulses. (They never knew why these “green manures” replenished the land. Today we know that their roots contain special bacteria that convert useless N2 into “bio-available” nitrogen compounds.) After Liebig, European and American growers replaced those crops with high-intensity fertilizer—nitrogen-rich guano from Peru at first, then nitrates from mines in Chile. Yields soared. But supplies were much more limited than farmers liked. So intense was the competition for fertilizer that a guano war erupted in 1879, engulfing much of western South America. Almost 3,000 people died.

Two more German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, came to the rescue, discovering the key steps to making synthetic fertilizer from fossil fuels. (The process involves combining nitrogen gas and hydrogen from natural gas into ammonia, which is then used to create nitrogenous compounds usable by plants.) Haber and Bosch are not nearly as well known as they should be; their discovery, the Haber-Bosch process, has literally changed the chemical composition of the earth, a feat previously reserved for microorganisms. Farmers have injected so much synthetic fertilizer into the soil that soil and groundwater nitrogen levels have risen worldwide. Today, roughly a third of all the protein (animal and vegetable) consumed by humankind is derived from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Another way of putting this is to say that Haber and Bosch enabled Homo sapiens to extract about 2 billion people’s worth of food from the same amount of available land.

The improved wheat, rice, and (to a lesser extent) maize varieties developed by plant breeders in the 1950s and 1960s are often said to have prevented another billion deaths. Antibiotics, vaccines, and water-treatment plants also saved lives by pushing back humankind’s bacterial, viral, and fungal enemies. With almost no surviving biological competition, humankind had ever more unhindered access to the planetary petri dish: in the past two hundred years, the number of humans walking the planet ballooned from 1 to 7 billion, with a few billion more expected in coming decades.

Rocketing up the growth curve, human beings “now appropriate nearly 40% . . . of potential terrestrial productivity.” This figure dates from 1986—a famous estimate by a team of Stanford biologists. Ten years later, a second Stanford team calculated that the “fraction of the land’s biological production that is used or dominated” by our species had risen to as much as 50 percent. In 2000, the chemist Paul Crutzen gave a name to our time: the “Anthropocene,” the era in which Homo sapiens became a force operating on a planetary scale. That year, half of the world’s accessible fresh water was consumed by human beings.

Lynn Margulis, it seems safe to say, would have scoffed at these assessments of human domination over the natural world, which, in every case I know of, do not take into account the enormous impact of the microworld. But she would not have disputed the central idea: Homo sapiens has become a successful species, and is growing accordingly.

If we follow Gause’s pattern, growth will continue at a delirious speed until we hit the second inflection point. At that time we will have exhausted the resources of the global petri dish, or effectively made the atmosphere toxic with our carbon-dioxide waste, or both. After that, human life will be, briefly, a Hobbesian nightmare, the living overwhelmed by the dead. When the king falls, so do his minions; it is possible that our fall might also take down most mammals and many plants. Possibly sooner, quite likely later, in this scenario, the earth will again be a choir of bacteria, fungi, and insects, as it has been through most of its history.

It would be foolish to expect anything else, Margulis thought. More than that, it would be unnatural.


In The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster’s classic, pun-filled adventure tale, the young Milo and his faithful companions unexpectedly find themselves transported to a bleak, mysterious island. Encountering a man in a tweed jacket and beanie, Milo asks him where they are. The man replies by asking if they know who he is—the man is, apparently, confused on the subject. Milo and his friends confer, then ask if he can describe himself.

“Yes, indeed,” the man replied happily. “I’m as tall as can be”—and he grew straight up until all that could be seen of him were his shoes and stockings—“and I’m as short as can be”—and he shrank down to the size of a pebble. “I’m as generous as can be,” he said, handing each of them a large red apple, “and I’m as selfish as can be,” he snarled, grabbing them back again.

In short order, the companions learn that the man is as strong as can be, weak as can be, smart as can be, stupid as can be, graceful as can be, clumsy as—you get the picture. “Is that any help to you?” he asks. Again, Milo and his friends confer, and realize that the answer is actually quite simple:

“Without a doubt,” Milo concluded brightly, “you must be Canby.”

“Of course, yes, of course,” the man shouted. “Why didn’t I think of that? I’m as happy as can be.”

With Canby, Juster presumably meant to mock a certain kind of babyish, uncommitted man-child. But I can’t help thinking of poor old Canby as exemplifying one of humankind’s greatest attributes: behavioral plasticity. The term was coined in 1890 by the pioneering psychologist William James, who defined it as “the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” Behavioral plasticity, a defining feature of Homo sapiens’ big brain, means that humans can change their habits; almost as a matter of course, people change careers, quit smoking or take up vegetarianism, convert to new religions, and migrate to distant lands where they must learn strange languages. This plasticity, this Canby-hood, is the hallmark of our transformation from anatomically modern Homo sapiens to behaviorally modern Homo sapiens—and the reason, perhaps, we were able to survive when Toba reconfigured the landscape.

Other creatures are much less flexible. Like apartment-dwelling cats that compulsively hide in the closet when visitors arrive, they have limited capacity to welcome new phenomena and change in response. Human beings, by contrast, are so exceptionally plastic that vast swaths of neuroscience are devoted to trying to explain how this could come about. (Nobody knows for certain, but some researchers now think that particular genes give their possessors a heightened, inborn awareness of their environment, which can lead both to useless, neurotic sensitivity and greater ability to detect and adapt to new situations.)

Plasticity in individuals is mirrored by plasticity on a societal level. The caste system in social species like honeybees is elaborate and finely tuned but fixed, as if in amber, in the loops of their DNA. Some leafcutter ants are said to have, next to human beings, the biggest and most complex societies on earth, with elaborately coded behavior that reaches from disposal of the dead to complex agricultural systems. Housing millions of individuals in inconceivably ramose subterranean networks, leafcutter colonies are “Earth’s ultimate superorganisms,” Edward O. Wilson has written. But they are incapable of fundamental change. The centrality and authority of the queen cannot be challenged; the tiny minority of males, used only to inseminate queens, will never acquire new responsibilities.

Human societies are far more varied than their insect cousins, of course. But the true difference is their plasticity. It is why humankind, a species of Canbys, has been able to move into every corner of the earth, and to control what we find there. Our ability to change ourselves to extract resources from our surroundings with ever-increasing efficiency is what has made Homo sapiens a successful species. It is our greatest blessing.

Or was our greatest blessing, anyway.


By 2050, demographers predict, as many as 10 billion human beings will walk the earth, 3 billion more than today. Not only will more people exist than ever before, they will be richer than ever before. In the last three decades hundreds of millions in China, India, and other formerly poor places have lifted themselves from destitution—arguably the most important, and certainly the most heartening, accomplishment of our time. Yet, like all human enterprises, this great success will pose great difficulties.

In the past, rising incomes have invariably prompted rising demand for goods and services. Billions more jobs, homes, cars, fancy electronics—these are things the newly prosperous will want. (Why shouldn’t they?) But the greatest challenge may be the most basic of all: feeding these extra mouths. To agronomists, the prospect is sobering. The newly affluent will not want their ancestors’ gruel. Instead they will ask for pork and beef and lamb. Salmon will sizzle on their outdoor grills. In winter, they will want strawberries, like people in New York and London, and clean bibb lettuce from hydroponic gardens.

All of these, each and every one, require vastly more resources to produce than simple peasant agriculture. Already 35 percent of the world’s grain harvest is used to feed livestock. The process is terribly inefficient: between seven and ten kilograms of grain are required to produce one kilogram of beef. Not only will the world’s farmers have to produce enough wheat and maize to feed 3 billion more people, they will have to produce enough to give them all hamburgers and steaks. Given present patterns of food consumption, economists believe, we will need to produce about 40 percent more grain in 2050 than we do today.

How can we provide these things for all these new people? That is only part of the question. The full question is: How can we provide them without wrecking the natural systems on which all depend?

Scientists, activists, and politicians have proposed many solutions, each from a different ideological and moral perspective. Some argue that we must drastically throttle industrial civilization. (Stop energy-intensive, chemical-based farming today! Eliminate fossil fuels to halt climate change!) Others claim that only intense exploitation of scientific knowledge can save us. (Plant super-productive, genetically modified crops now! Switch to nuclear power to halt climate change!) No matter which course is chosen, though, it will require radical, large-scale transformations in the human enterprise—a daunting, hideously expensive task.

Worse, the ship is too large to turn quickly. The world’s food supply cannot be decoupled rapidly from industrial agriculture, if that is seen as the answer. Aquifers cannot be recharged with a snap of the fingers. If the high-tech route is chosen, genetically modified crops cannot be bred and tested overnight. Similarly, carbon-sequestration techniques and nuclear power plants cannot be deployed instantly. Changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, but that’s like asking healthy, happy sixteen-year-olds to write living wills.

Not only is the task daunting, it’s strange. In the name of nature, we are asking human beings to do something deeply unnatural, something no other species has ever done or could ever do: constrain its own growth (at least in some ways). Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, brown tree snakes in Guam, water hyacinth in African rivers, gypsy moths in the northeastern U.S., rabbits in Australia, Burmese pythons in Florida—all these successful species have overrun their environments, heedlessly wiping out other creatures. Like Gause’s protozoans, they are racing to find the edges of their petri dish. Not one has voluntarily turned back. Now we are asking Homo sapiens to fence itself in.

What a peculiar thing to ask! Economists like to talk about the “discount rate,” which is their term for preferring a bird in hand today over two in the bush tomorrow. The term sums up part of our human nature as well. Evolving in small, constantly moving bands, we are as hard-wired to focus on the immediate and local over the long-term and faraway as we are to prefer parklike savannas to deep dark forests. Thus, we care more about the broken stoplight up the street today than conditions next year in Croatia, Cambodia, or the Congo. Rightly so, evolutionists point out: Americans are far more likely to be killed at that stoplight today than in the Congo next year. Yet here we are asking governments to focus on potential planetary boundaries that may not be reached for decades. Given the discount rate, nothing could be more understandable than the U.S. Congress’s failure to grapple with, say, climate change. From this perspective, is there any reason to imagine that Homo sapiens, unlike mussels, snakes, and moths, can exempt itself from the natural fate of all successful species?

To biologists like Margulis, who spend their careers arguing that humans are simply part of the natural order, the answer should be clear. All life is similar at base. All species seek without pause to make more of themselves—that is their goal. By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny.

From this vantage, the answer to the question whether we are doomed to destroy ourselves is yes. It should be obvious.

Should be—but perhaps is not.


When I imagine the profound social transformation necessary to avoid calamity, I think about Robinson Crusoe, hero of Daniel Defoe’s famous novel. Defoe clearly intended his hero to be an exemplary man. Shipwrecked on an uninhabited island off Venezuela in 1659, Crusoe is an impressive example of behavioral plasticity. During his twenty-seven-year exile he learns to catch fish, hunt rabbits and turtles, tame and pasture island goats, prune and support local citrus trees, and create “plantations” of barley and rice from seeds that he salvaged from the wreck. (Defoe apparently didn’t know that citrus and goats were not native to the Americas and thus Crusoe probably wouldn’t have found them there.) Rescue comes at last in the form of a shipful of ragged mutineers, who plan to maroon their captain on the supposedly empty island. Crusoe helps the captain recapture his ship and offers the defeated mutineers a choice: trial in England or permanent banishment to the island. All choose the latter. Crusoe has harnessed so much of the island’s productive power to human use that even a gaggle of inept seamen can survive there in comfort.

To get Crusoe on his unlucky voyage, Defoe made him an officer on a slave ship, transporting captured Africans to South America. Today, no writer would make a slave seller the admirable hero of a novel. But in 1720, when Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, no readers said boo about Crusoe’s occupation, because slavery was the norm from one end of the world to another. Rules and names differed from place to place, but coerced labor was everywhere, building roads, serving aristocrats, and fighting wars. Slaves teemed in the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, and Ming China. Unfree hands were less common in continental Europe, but Portugal, Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands happily exploited slaves by the million in their American colonies. Few protests were heard; slavery had been part of the fabric of life since the code of Hammurabi.

Then, in the space of a few decades in the nineteenth century, slavery, one of humankind’s most enduring institutions, almost vanished.

The sheer implausibility of this change is staggering. In 1860, slaves were, collectively, the single most valuable economic asset in the United States, worth an estimated $3 billion, a vast sum in those days (and about $10 trillion in today’s money). Rather than investing in factories like northern entrepreneurs, southern businessmen had sunk their capital into slaves. And from their perspective, correctly so—masses of enchained men and women had made the region politically powerful, and gave social status to an entire class of poor whites. Slavery was the foundation of the social order. It was, thundered John C. Calhoun, a former senator, secretary of state, and vice president, “instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.” Yet just a few years after Calhoun spoke, part of the United States set out to destroy this institution, wrecking much of the national economy and killing half a million citizens along the way.

Incredibly, the turn against slavery was as universal as slavery itself. Great Britain, the world’s biggest human trafficker, closed down its slave operations in 1808, though they were among the nation’s most profitable industries. The Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal soon followed. Like stars winking out at the approach of dawn, cultures across the globe removed themselves from the previously universal exchange of human cargo. Slavery still exists here and there, but in no society anywhere is it formally accepted as part of the social fabric.

Historians have provided many reasons for this extraordinary transition. But one of the most important is that abolitionists had convinced huge numbers of ordinary people around the world that slavery was a moral disaster. An institution fundamental to human society for millennia was swiftly dismantled by ideas and a call to action, loudly repeated.

In the last few centuries, such profound changes have occurred repeatedly. Since the beginning of our species, for instance, every known society has been based on the domination of women by men. (Rumors of past matriarchal societies abound, but few archaeologists believe them.) In the long view, women’s lack of liberty has been as central to the human enterprise as gravitation is to the celestial order. The degree of suppression varied from time to time and place to place, but women never had an equal voice; indeed, some evidence exists that the penalty for possession of two X chromosomes increased with technological progress. Even as the industrial North and agricultural South warred over the treatment of Africans, they regarded women identically: in neither half of the nation could they attend college, have a bank account, or own property. Equally confining were women’s lives in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Nowadays women are the majority of U.S. college students, the majority of the workforce, and the majority of voters. Again, historians assign multiple causes to this shift in the human condition, rapid in time, staggering in scope. But one of the most important was the power of ideas—the voices, actions, and examples of suffragists, who through decades of ridicule and harassment pressed their case. In recent years something similar seems to have occurred with gay rights: first a few lonely advocates, censured and mocked; then victories in the social and legal sphere; finally, perhaps, a slow movement to equality.

Less well known, but equally profound: the decline in violence. Foraging societies waged war less brutally than industrial societies, but more frequently. Typically, archaeologists believe, about a quarter of all hunters and gatherers were killed by their fellows. Violence declined somewhat as humans gathered themselves into states and empires, but was still a constant presence. When Athens was at its height in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, it was ever at war: against Sparta (First and Second Peloponnesian Wars, Corinthian War); against Persia (Greco-Persian Wars, Wars of the Delian League); against Aegina (Aeginetan War); against Macedon (Olynthian War); against Samos (Samian War); against Chios, Rhodes, and Cos (Social War).

In this respect, classical Greece was nothing special—look at the ghastly histories of China, sub-Saharan Africa, or Mesoamerica. Similarly, early modern Europe’s wars were so fast and furious that historians simply gather them into catchall titles like the Hundred Years’ War, followed by the shorter but even more destructive Thirty Years’ War. And even as Europeans and their descendants paved the way toward today’s concept of universal human rights by creating documents like the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Europe remained so mired in combat that it fought two conflicts of such massive scale and reach they became known as “world” wars.

Since the Second World War, however, rates of violent death have fallen to the lowest levels in known history. Today, the average person is far less likely to be slain by another member of the species than ever before—an extraordinary transformation that has occurred, almost unheralded, in the lifetime of many of the people reading this article. As the political scientist Joshua Goldstein has written, “we are winning the war on war.” Again, there are multiple causes. But Goldstein, probably the leading scholar in this field, argues that the most important is the emergence of the United Nations and other transnational bodies, an expression of the ideas of peace activists earlier in the last century.

As a relatively young species, we have an adolescent propensity to make a mess: we pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink, and appear stalled in an age of carbon dumping and nuclear experimentation that is putting countless species at risk including our own. But we are making undeniable progress nonetheless. No European in 1800 could have imagined that in 2000 Europe would have no legal slavery, women would be able to vote, and gay people would be able to marry. No one could have guessed a continent that had been tearing itself apart for centuries would be free of armed conflict, even amid terrible economic times. Given this record, even Lynn Margulis might pause (maybe).

Preventing Homo sapiens from destroying itself à la Gause would require a still greater transformation—behavioral plasticity of the highest order—because we would be pushing against biological nature itself. The Japanese have an expression, hara hachi bu, which means, roughly speaking, “belly 80 percent full.” Hara hachi bu is shorthand for an ancient injunction to stop eating before feeling full. Nutritionally, the command makes a great deal of sense. When people eat, their stomachs produce peptides that signal fullness to the nervous system. Unfortunately, the mechanism is so slow that eaters frequently perceive satiety only after they have consumed too much—hence the all-too-common condition of feeling bloated or sick from overeating. Japan—actually, the Japanese island of Okinawa—is the only place on earth where large numbers of people are known to restrict their own calorie intake systematically and routinely. Some researchers claim that hara hachi bu is responsible for Okinawans’ notoriously long life spans. But I think of it as a metaphor for stopping before the second inflection point, voluntarily forswearing short-term consumption to obtain a long-term benefit.

Evolutionarily speaking, a species-wide adoption of hara hachi bu would be unprecedented. Thinking about it, I can picture Lynn Margulis rolling her eyes. But is it so unlikely that our species, Canbys one and all, would be able to do exactly that before we round that fateful curve of the second inflection point and nature does it for us?

I can imagine Margulis’s response: You’re imagining our species as some sort of big-brained, hyperrational, benefit-cost-calculating computer! A better analogy is the bacteria at our feet! Still, Margulis would be the first to agree that removing the shackles from women and slaves has begun to unleash the suppressed talents of two-thirds of the human race. Drastically reducing violence has prevented the waste of countless lives and staggering amounts of resources. Is it really impossible to believe that we wouldn’t use those talents and those resources to draw back before the abyss?

Our record of success is not that long. In any case, past successes are no guarantee of the future. But it is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong. To have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it. To send humankind to the moon but fail to pay attention to the earth. To have the potential but to be unable to use it—to be, in the end, no different from the protozoa in the petri dish. It would be evidence that Lynn Margulis’s most dismissive beliefs had been right after all. For all our speed and voraciousness, our changeable sparkle and flash, we would be, at last count, not an especially interesting species.

CHARLES C. MANN’s most recent book, 1491, won the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Keck award for the best book of the year. A Correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, Science, and Wired, he has covered the intersection of science, technology, and commerce for many newspapers and magazines here and abroad, including BioScience, The Boston Globe, Fortune, Geo (Germany), The New York Times (magazine, op-ed, book review), Panorama (Italy), Paris-Match (France), Quark (Japan), Smithsonian, Der Stern (Germany), Technology Review, Vanity Fair and The Washington Post (magazine, op-ed, book review). 

Interview with Charles C. Mann — More about Charles C. Mann — More at Orion Magazine.

Front Page

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

Wisdom is where you find it. …  This morning’s article was originally published in the magazine Common Ground in 2004.

Is the Universe friendly?

Geoff Olson

Albert Einstein once said the most important question a human being can ask is “Is the universe friendly?”

Think of that for a moment. How would you answer? If you think the universe is truly friendly and supportive of you, this obviously has a huge effect on your perceptions and behaviour. The same applies if you think cosmos is hostile – or just indifferent to your fate.

On a first reading, Einstein’s question is trivially true. If you’ve decided, consciously or unconsciously, that the universe is friendly, your positive outlook is likely to be mirrored by positive responses from others, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about your world being fundamentally good. You are likely to have more friends, job offers, etc. Conversely, if you are suspicious by nature, or walk around with a cloud over your head, you’re not likely to be much fun at parties, although you may win nodding approval from fellow grumps. At the very least your life is likely to seem a series of disappointments. This is pretty self-evident stuff. From Ralph Waldo Emerson to Dale Carnegie to Wayne Dyer, most of us have heard the drill: life is what you make it.

But if it’s Einstein talking, there’s a good chance there’s more to it than this. Spend a bit of time on it, and you realize the question’s depth. This goes far beyond the soothing homilies about high self-esteem, or the pieties of religious dogmatism. This is about whether universe is friendly (unifiable, consoling) or unfriendly (neutral, fragmented, hostile, “other”). From the choice you make, you can extrapolate the direction of subsequent life decisions. Your state of being could evolve from the answer to that one all-important question. But bear with me; because it’s a big topic and this essay is all over the map, from childhood psychology to the pest problems of a Hollywood star author, to the paradoxes of cosmology and quantum physics, to the “angel” in the library.

The choice to believe in a friendly or unfriendly universe undoubtedly begins in our early years. It may well be that people who are preternaturally content, seemingly at peace with themselves and the world, were introduced to “a friendly universe” through proper nurturing as infants. Their early experiences became the foundation for their psychic life. The results of less desirable childhood beginnings are also obvious. If a child suffers a traumatic birth, and/or their parents abuse their natural trust, that individual may grow up extrapolating their experience to the whole of existence, always suspecting the worst and failing to trust in others.

Rev. Gerard Pantin is the founder of Service Volunteered for All (SERVOL) in Trinidad and Tobago. In a speech he gave in 2000, he noted how the Yequana Indians of Brazil make sure that their babies are in physical contact with the skin of another human being 24 hours a day for the first two years. “These children grow up without that emptiness that we modern people spend our lives trying to heal or cope with. A lot of our modern preoccupation with ‘feeling good’ through sex and drugs dates back to the fact that the way in which we were brought up didn’t give us the opportunity of feeling good about our infant bodies.”

Citing Einstein’s famous line, Pantin adds that “Yequana children, because of close bodily contact, not only see the universe as friendly but feel it to be loving.” Beginning with a bodily, visceral sense of an all-embracing love, the Yequena don’t intellectualize over whether the universe is friendly or not; they carry within themselves the felt conviction that they are loved beings.

That’s all well and good, a skeptic may say, but we live in a modern, fast-paced world where such bonding is difficult with our busy schedules. We have to “compete in the market,” after all. Besides, what real difference does how we feel about the universe actually make to how it really is?

Well, as they like to say in political circles, perception is reality. Sometimes we need reminding how much our expectations drive what we experience. Sci-fi author Michael Crichton supplies an amusing example in his 1988 memoir Travels. In the early seventies, flush with success from spinning his novel The Andromeda Strain into a critically and commercially acclaimed film, he bought a home in the hills of Los Angeles. A friend asked him if he was afraid of the snakes. “What snakes?” the author asked. The rattlesnakes, of course, which his friend told him, come out in force during the dry season.

Crichton returned to his magnificent new home in a complete funk and didn’t have any fun at all. He just looked for snakes. “I worried that snakes were sneaking into my bedroom, so I locked all the doors every night to keep the snakes out. I thought snakes might come to the swimming pool to drink the water, so I avoided the swimming pool, particularly in the heat of the day, because the snakes were probably sunning on my deck. I never walked around my property, because I was sure there were snakes in the bushes. I walked only on the little path on the side of the house, and I peered around every corner before I turned it. But, increasingly, I didn’t like to go outside at all. I became a prisoner in my own house. I had altered my entire behaviour and my emotional state purely on the basis of something I had been told. I still hadn’t seen any snakes. But I was now afraid.”

One day he saw his gardener tramping fearlessly around the property. The author asked if there were any rattlers in the area. Sure, his gardener replied, especially in the dry season. Wasn’t he worried? The gardener shrugged and said he’d only seen a rattler once in over six years. He simply went and got a shovel and killed it. Only one snake in six years? Crichton’s mood brightened. In rational terms, there was really nothing to be worried about. He sat by the pool for the rest of the day. As the gardener was leaving, he told the author he could be sure there were no snakes on the property, because Crichton had so many gophers.

Gophers! The very critters that the recent homeowner had spent weeks setting traps for, trying to poison, and taking potshots at with his air rifle. All to no effect whatever. “Each morning fresh gopher burrows crisscrossed my lawn. It was extremely frustrating. My house looked like National Gopher Park.” Crichton began to rethink how to deal with the tunneling terrors, and eventually the gophers’ mortal enemies came to mind. “Was there anything I could do to attract rattlesnakes to my house? Put out some favourite rattlesnake food, or some dishes of water?”

Thinking back on his conceptual gymnastics over pest problems, Crichton realized he went through a whole series of changes without ever actually seeing a snake. “I felt different only because I had shifted perspectives,” he noted, at one moment hating gophers, the next fearing snakes, the next hating gophers even more and wishing for more snakes. “Each shift in perspective was accompanied by a total change in my attitudes, the physiology, my behaviour, my emotions. I was immediately and wholly modified by each new perspective that I adopted.”

If a person can change their mind-body state that radically over something as mundane as snakes and gophers, imagine what choosing between a friendly or unfriendly universe might mean to their state of being.

Westerners aren’t like the Yequana; we demand empirical evidence for one point of view or the other. And there’s certainly no shortage of confirmation for an unfriendly universe – or unfriendly planet, at least. All you have to do is to pick up a daily paper. The universe doesn’t seem to have been too friendly recently to the women and children in Sudan, or the rest of Africa for that matter. And that’s just the cruelty humans regularly visit upon fellow humans; earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and other natural disasters dispatch thousands yearly. Randomness reigns. If there’s anything friendly here, it seems to have the same sense of humour as Mike Tyson.

And as far as mainstream science goes, some intellectuals insist it promote the idea of cosmic indifference, which is pretty much the same thing as unfriendliness from a human point of view. One of the central concepts of orthodox evolutionary theory is that humans are the products of blind chance and selection. Like all other creatures, we’re Darwin’s wind-up toys, entropically rolling around in a meaningless cosmos, duking it out for resources and mates. In this view, our purpose is no more than biological: eat, breed, and die. If you can call that purpose.

As cosmologist Steven Weinberg famously concluded in his book The First Three Minutes, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also
seems pointless.” Yet this scientific-materialist philosophy doesn’t have to necessarily result in despair over our apparent lack of purpose here. Some intellectuals exult in the freedom this philosophy offers from the strictures of organized religion and other apparent superstitions. But others aren’t so sanguine. As physicist Nick Herbert put it in a bit of doggerel:

Some suffer from a bone-deep fear
That matter’s all that matters here
That love and hate and pretty faces
Are naught but atoms changing places.

But is modern science really so unambiguous in its assessment of a lack of purpose for sentient beings? Astronomers now tell that the fundamental constants of the universe (for example, the electron’s charge or the rest mass of the proton) are precisely set at just the right values to allow the emergence of life. This so-called “anthropic principle” has been endlessly debated by academics. Some physicists see it as evidence that, as Princeton University’s Freeman Dyson has it, “the universe must know in some sense that we were coming.” Others say the anthropic principle is no more than a tautology – a universe hostile to observers wouldn’t have anyone sitting around wondering about such things. A trendy new theory in cosmology is that we live in a fathomless “multiverse,” with universes popping into being all the time, and we just happen to be – we can only be – in one of the lucky ones.

Try as you might, it seems damnably impossible to settle Einstein’s question about a friendly universe with absolute finality, at least in any intellectual sense. If you believe that this plane of existence is all there is, and that death rings down the curtain for your little playlet, you might have some difficulty believing this universe is anything other than indifferent. Philosopher Bertrand Russell once said our knowledge must “build upon the solid bedrock of uncompromising despair,” but does this represent the heroism of unflinching realism, or an existential seed program for psychic and cultural implosion?

Either way, the unfriendly proponents can trot out innumerable historical anecdotes to make their case, from the fall of Greece to the rise of Nazi Germany. When whole societies decline, faith doesn’t necessarily protect the faithful. In fact, it’s often the faithful who are the problem, with “God’s children” killing God’s children.

This is bigger than a simple question of religious belief (after all, there are plenty of fear-driven fundamentalists who believe in an unfriendly universe presided over by a smite-happy deity). Ultimately, it seems to come down to taking a leap of faith, and choosing to buy into one universe or the other. Einstein didn’t say the universe was or wasn’t friendly; he said it was the most important question a human being can ask. It is what you choose to believe that is critical. And here’s where things get really interesting, because choice has a very, very, interesting relationship to the quantum world.

A fundamental experiment in quantum physics involves shining a beam of light at a barrier with two open slits. Some of the light gets through the barrier, forming an interference pattern on a screen. This indicates light has the property of a wave. Yet if you close one slit, leaving the other open, the light appears as just a single shaft of light built up photon by photon on the screen, which indicates that light has a particle property.

Forget for a moment that no one has ever truly figured out how light can be both a particle and a wave at the same time, things which are as different as baseballs and Bach fugues. The critical part is that how it behaves depends upon the experimental setup. Ask nature a question a certain way, and you get a certain answer. (According to quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”) Recent variations on this experiment, where scientists try to “trick” light by changing the testing apparatus while the photons are in flight, have only led to the spooky conclusion that the light behaves as if it knows what the experimenters are up to. That seems like a pretty nutty interpretation. The one marginally less nutty alternative, favoured by most quantum physicists is that our intentions seem to drive, in large part, how certain physical phenomenon manifest to our consciousness.

In other words, the nature of the question determines the reality you perceive. Our choice plays a critical role in determining the outcome of a situation in our local space-time – at least for experiments with photons. If our choices have this kind of dynamic going with the quantum world, the question then becomes how deep does this craziness run? Scientists insist such paradoxical phenomena are limited to the nano-world of the quantum. At larger scales, they are smudged out by the cancellation of a huge number of differing quantum states. It’s called “decoherence,” and it prevents the Alice in Wonderland weirdness of quantum physics from erupting into the kitchen, boardroom, or lab. Yet with the discovery of “microtubules” in human neurons, there is some evidence that the human brain may actually process some information on a quantum level, which may or may not reopen this whole can of worms for the macro level of reality.

So what does this all mean? Is the universe the ultimate Rorschach blot, with the meaning only what we read into it? Or is there something even more interesting than this going on?

From “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics to the research into parapsychology at Princeton and other universities, it is apparent that the simple push-pull, subject-object model of reality is no longer tenable. What we are discovering is that sentient beings bring a profound level of participation to the construction of reality. Of course, the create-our-own-reality idea has been around for some time, but the situation may be more subtle, and even stranger, than we think.

How far does consciousness go in determining the reality we experience? Earlier, I remarked on some remarkable experiments in physics that demonstrate the bizarre role played by the observer/experimenter, and how the nature of their inquiry conditions the answer received. In a 1978 lecture, author John Michell took this idea one step further, describing what he saw as the universe’s habit “of reflecting back ideas projected onto it, of seeming to provide positive evidence for any theory that can possibly be formulated.” He claimed you could test it for yourself. “Take the wildest idea imaginable, commit yourself to believing it, become obsessed with it, and you’ll soon find all kinds of evidence turning up as confirmation of it.”

“This same risk is notoriously inherent in all occult studies. If one is studying a subject intensely, particularly if writing about it, ideas on that subject from unknown sources flood into the mind, and phenomena connected with it may even intrude into one’s life, as the raven of Edgar Allen Poe intruded upon the midnight scholar.”

According to Michell, this phenomenon infects scientific research. “The great Charles Fort gave several humorous instances of the same experiment yielding two different results, each one gratifying the experimenter.” Recently, the same problem has been noted in parapsychology investigations into the “sense of being stared at.” PhD psychologist Dean Radin notes the hair-raising possibility that the scientific world picture may be in large part an extremely robust consensual hallucination, cobbled together by the participatory nature of our collective consciousness with the physical world.

“The universe is so generous that it gives to anyone, crank, scientist or religious believer, the evidence which confirms his particular belief or theory,” wrote Michell.

If there is any merit to this meta-mad idea – and it may be worthwhile to entertain it for a while before you choose to discard it for its crazy consequences – it means we need to be very choosy about what we believe in. There is more at stake than just our choice of words; it means we can power our delusions and fantasies far more than we previously thought. That sounds like the royal road to the loony bin – the old line that “neurotics build castles in the sky, but psychotics live in them” – but according to Michell there is more to this than just the “delusory tendencies in the universal feedback effect.”

“I now come to the interesting part, the way in which the effect can be used creatively,” he said. “Study a subject, allow it to obsess you, ask questions of it, and next time you visit a library, a bookstore or a friend’ s house, you may pick up the one book in the world which gives the answer you were looking for. Coincidences can be invoked. I have asked many writers about this, and nearly all of them were able to give striking personal examples of being helped by this useful aspect of the feedback effect which Arthur Koestler attributes to library angels.”

After reading through a score of library cases, wrote the late Arthur Koestler, “one is tempted to think of library angels in charge of providing cross-references.” Koestler was the one who put the seraphic spin on this particular species of good fortune. His library angel will be no stranger to many writers, readers and researchers. Whether she’s sister to serendipity, or just cousin to dumb luck, she seems to make her appearance at the moment when your guard is down. You’re either idly seeking some piece of trivia, or giving up on some search through the stacks, when suddenly the right book or magazine falls at your feet open at the right passage. The sign of a friendly universe, or just a playful one? Or just a misinterpretation of chance events?

In Notes From a Small Island, travel writer Bill Bryson tells of his own encounter with the library angel, after pitching a story to a travel magazine on, of all things, extraordinary coincidences.

“When I came to write the article,” Bryson writes, “I realized that, although I had plenty of information about scientific studies into the probability of coincidence, I didn’t have nearly enough examples of remarkable coincidences themselves…” After writing a letter to the magazine saying he wouldn’t be able to deliver, Bryson “left the letter on top of his typewriter to post the next day,” and drove off to his job at The Times of London. Here he saw a notice on the door of an elevator, altering staff to the literary editor’s annual sale of review copies sent to The Times. “The place was full of mingling people. I stepped into the melee and what should be the very first book my eyes fell on but a paperback called Remarkable True Coincidences. How’s that for a remarkable true coincidence? But here’s the uncanny thing. I opened it up and found that the very first coincidence it discussed concerned a man named Bryson.”

Of course, given the millions, if not billions, of variables that interact throughout the course of the day, it’s impossible for there not to be the occasional coincidences, which are no more than that. But every once in a while some whopper drops on your head that gives you doubts. When a highly unlikely textual coincidence occurred to astrophysicist Jacques Vallee during a Los Angeles cab ride, he was inspired to consider the nature of chance. Pondering the equivalence of energy and information, Vallee decided “we live in the associative universe of the software scientist rather than the sequential universe of the space-time physicist.” Which means our focus on a given idea or emotion may be like performing a cosmic file request.

The library angel and related phenomenon suggest something like a Google-search aspect to existence, or, to use a different metaphor, that the universe occasionally behaves the way an author does with the characters in his or her novel. This brings us back to Michell, and what he concluded from all “the hermetic quality of the universe, the way it will respond to desires implanted in it and reflect back images projected onto it.” Michell said that “we are all, individually and collectively, responsible for the world as it really is, which is how we experience it.”

“In terms of objective fact there is little to choose between any cosmology, traditional or scientific,” he insisted, a claim that is even more radical than the postmodernist deconstruction of truth, and one that I have some problem with myself. But this doesn’t have to lead to a nightmare of relativism, because reality construction is a largely a collective act, according to the author. Since we get back what we project, why not believe in the best option? (Paranoia is the belief that the world is out to get you. Pronoia is the suspicion the universe is a conspiracy on your behalf. )

“Evidently therefore it is to our advantage to regard this best of all possible universes, this fascinating organism of which we are part, with the most high-minded expectations in the knowledge that as we imagine this world and our relationship to it, so it will become.”

A good argument for believing the universe is friendly rather than unfriendly? You may not be convinced, but then, neither am I (If the reader has doubts, that goes double for this writer). But considering the potential return, I’m willing to go with it, even if Michell’s idea seems somewhat Pollyanish – the “best of all possible worlds” lampooned by Voltaire in his novel Candide. It’s also an idea fundamentally alien to the materialism of Western thought. In any case, the straightforward idea that our thoughts have consequences in the world we live in is beyond argument. Whether it’s a cantata or a cruise missile, every cultural artifact we humans have conjured into physical existence began as a dream in someone’s head.

But how do we jibe Michell’s sentiments with declining living standards, species decline, resource wars, and environmental breakdown? It appears Homo sap is in for a serious ass kicking from an episode of When Good Biospheres Go Bad. If conscious intent plays this much a role in the universe we live in, we’ve apparently been thinking some very bad thoughts for quite some time.

This brings us to the nature of the world we’ve created, which some would cite as evidence for an unfriendly universe. But who imagined it into being? From the feudal-era heathen-beating by the Holy Roman Empire to the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund, westerners have built their lifestyles to an great degree on the suffering of others. The Christian God, the first deity we conquered under, was imagined by believers as alternately beneficent and wrathful. The second god, capital, has its own bipolar disorder.

In the 1920s, German sociologist Walter Benjamin recognized the religious dimensions to the worship of money. “It (capitalism) is a religion because it is based on faith – untested and unproven by the individual acolyte – in materialism and rationalism. It is a passive worldview, a negative theology,” he wrote. (We can replace the neoMarxist scholar’s “capitalism” with “crony corporatism” if we like.)

Although he wasn’t directly addressing the topic of belief in a friendly/unfriendly universe, it lies at the heart of his thesis. “Disbelief in any spiritual reality is also a belief system,” he noted. “The capitalist mind perceives the world purely in terms of material resources to be used for its benefit, to increase productivity and profit without thought of long-term consequence. If there is still a vague and oppressive sense of guilt, of wrongness and imbalance, this gnawing guilt spurs capitalism on to greater acts of consumption, more violent attempts to subjugate nature, more totalizing efforts to create distractions. To the “rational materialist” mind, death is the end of everything, and this thought feeds its rage against nature, which has placed it in this position of despair. The destruction of the world is revenge against a vanished God, and a drastic attempt to invoke the spiritual powers.”

“Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement … The nature of the religious movement which is capitalism entails the endurance right to the end, to the point where God, too, finally takes on the entire burden of guilt, to the point where the universe has been taken over by that despair which is actually its secret hope. Capitalism is entirely without precedent, in that it is a religion, which offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction. It is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation.”

Decades before the resource wars of the present day, Benjamin insisted “the destruction of the world as the real goal of world capitalism – its systemic hope and transcendent ideal.”

That may seem more than a bit extreme, but these musings may have even greater resonance now than they did in Benjamin’s time. We seemed to have reached a spiritual brick wall in our secular ways of thinking and feeling. The ads don’t deliver, the politics don’t heal, and the science doesn’t connect. We know all too well the damage that organized religion can do, but we’re also beginning to understanding the destructiveness of our financial – corporate networks and the military-industrial complex that protect their interests. It’s not that there are no options – it’s that the marginalization of these options fuels a profound despair, along with a growing sense that we have passed beyond the point of no return. Ironically, this despair is likely to feed the addictions, violence, clinical depression, endless distraction, and retail therapy that is already ingrained in North American culture, encouraging further its monstrous
consumption of resources and human potential.

This is the true horror of the world we have imagined into being. If children are not nurtured properly in homes where true love prevails, and are raised in a culture endorsing deceit and a Darwinian competition for jobs and resources, a “friendly universe,” one they could have otherwise internalized as emotionally real for themselves, may elude them all their lives.

In the so-called First World, we seem to have dug ourselves into a God-sized hole. But the First Law of Holes is to stop digging. If there is some vast consciousness that dreamed this whole shebang into existence, one thing we embody from Him/Her/Whatever is a spark from the fire of creation: the power to choose, to imagine, and to dream new worlds into being.

But remember the quantum experiments I cited earlier, and the lesson from light: often, the way in which we ask a question is inextricably bound to the reality we will be answered with. At the end of her book on remote viewing experimentation, Multidimensional Mind, Dr. Jean Millay summed up how consciousness can become an active partner with the world we inhabit. The final sentence of the book is highlighted in script, so the reader recognizes its importance: “Real magic can be created by maintaining a steady focus of intention through an appropriate belief system.” Don’t believe it? Consider that a single shlumpy guy in a baseball cap may help swing the next US election, through a documentary that was released domestically against all odds. If Michael Moore’s not one person creating magic, I don’t know what is.

The universe manifests in many forms, from sunsets to soccer hooligans, seemingly supplying us with abundant reason to decide either which way. The answer we decide, ultimately, is intimately connected to our own deepest level of being. According to the scientific picture of the world, the very chemical elements of our bodies were cooked up in the hearts of supernovae; we have a certain identity with the universe itself. And throughout history, in certain “occult” branches of mainstream religions – Kabala, Sufism, and neoPlatonic traditions – there is the radical idea that our existence is neither accidental nor alienated from its source. In these traditions, the immense variety of creation is simply an itemized efflorescence of the divine. At bottom, there is no otherness to the foundation of being – although we have the free will to think or believe otherwise.

I suspect our answer to Einstein’s question involves nothing less than the universe answering itself, through the agency of the human heart and mind. Will our decision, yes or no, mean we will receive the kind of subtle verification Michell speaks of? This isn’t an experiment for the Royal Society or the National Research Council; it’s a subjective test each person must perform on their own.

But it’s a tricky question. There is a line from transcendentalists like Walt Whitman and Emerson to the practitioners of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People to the “looking out for number one” ethos of self-advancement, which has created a philosophy of winning at all costs. The results are obvious. The problem is that conflating the ego, rather than the self, with a rewarding god or universe has mostly been a recipe for disaster.

Albert Einstein is not on record as saying the universe is actually friendly or not; he concerned himself with the importance of asking the question. As in the theory of relativity, the position of the observer is fundamental.

Einstein was as much a philosopher as he was a scientist, and he was more interested in the meaningful answers than cold abstractions. His desire for an ultimate unification of knowledge included life, human nature, human intelligence and human personality. As author Charles Hansen pointed out in The Technology of Love, the question Einstein posed was deceptively simple, “but it becomes the most profound of questions, for it has no meaning outside of human observation, of all that humans are, and all that we might become.”

The storm that brews on the horizon, the flag that whips in the breeze, the hand outstretched by a stranger, the gaze of a lover; whether we’ve projected our self into the skies or onto our nation, or through the pupils of a fellow human being, the same question brews for all of us: are you friendly or not? Storms occasionally destroy property, friends sometimes betray us, and government doesn’t always have our best interests at heart. But what if you add it all together and ask the universe as a whole? Perhaps the answer depends on the way you put the question.

Geoff Olson is a Vancouver writer and political cartoonist, you can visit his website here.

Front Page

Monday, August 5th, 2013

This morning’s author is one of my favorite scientific philosophers. This article is re-posted from the Nov/Dec 2010 Issue of Tikkun.

Nature Has a Mind of Its Own

Christian de Quincey

The great American psychologist William James had just finished a lecture on the nature of reality when a little old lady approached him. “Excuse me, Professor,” she said, “but I’m afraid you’ve got it all wrong. The world is really supported on the back of a great big turtle.”

The venerable professor, being a gentleman, decided to humor the woman: “Tell me, then, what is holding the turtle up?”

Quick as a flash, the old lady snapped back: “Another turtle, of course.”

“And what’s supporting that turtle?” James asked, trying gently to get her to see her mistake. The conversation went on like this for another round or two until the little old lady interrupted with a noticeable tremor of exasperation:

“Save your breath, sonny. It’s turtles all the way down.”

Image "TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN" BY KENNETH ROUGEAU (KENNETHROUGEAU.COM).At least so the story goes (though some associate it with Bertrand Russell instead of William James). True or not, the “turtle” incident illustrates a fundamental intuition we all share about the nature of reality: Something can’t come from nothing. Something must “go all the way down” or all the way back. Even the Big Bang must have had some kind of “fuse.” (Religions, of course, say it was God.)

James was teaching around the turn of the last century, but the little old lady’s point still carries force. In the modern-day version, turtles are replaced by consciousness. The question now is not what is holding the world up, but where did mind or consciousness come from? In a purely physical universe, the existence of mind is a profound puzzle. And if we are to believe the standard scientific view on this, then mind emerged from wholly mindless matter. But just how this occurred remains a complete mystery. In fact, in Radical Nature, I make the case that it couldn’t happen without a miracle. And miracles have no place in science. Instead, our best option is to revive the old lady’s insight and proclaim that “consciousness goes all the way down.” Mind has always existed in the universe. Cosmos — the world of nature — has a mind of its own.

Searching for the “Soul Line”

What’s the greatest mystery facing every person on the planet? Ultimately, it’s some version of the age-old “Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?” And these questions, which lie at the heart of all philosophy and religion, can be summed up as: “How do I fit in?” How do we humans (with our rich interior lives of emotions, feelings, imaginations, and ideas) fit into the world around us? According to science, the world is made up of mindless, soulless, purely physical atoms and energy. So far, no one has a satisfactory explanation for the existence of nonphysical minds in this otherwise physical universe.

We lack an explanation because our questions already assume something quite disturbing. We assume we are split from nature. We assume that humans are somehow special, that we have minds or souls while the rest of nature doesn’t. Some of us draw the “soul line” at higher animals and some of us draw it at living organisms; few of us draw no line at all. Ask yourself: Are rocks conscious? Do animals or plants have souls? Have you ever wondered whether worms or insects might feel pain or pleasure? Can trees feel anything at all? Your answers will reveal where you are likely to draw the line.

In philosophy, this is called the “consciousness cut.” Where, in the great unfolding of evolution, did consciousness first appear? In contemporary philosophy and science, the cut-off is usually made at brains — if not human brains, then the brains of higher mammals. Only creatures with highly developed brains or nervous systems possess consciousness, so the scientific story goes.

Because of our assumed “specialness,” because of the deep fissure between humans and the rest of nature, and because of the mind-body split, we need a new understanding of how we — ensouled, embodied humans — fit into the world of nature. Our current worldview, based on the materialist philosophy of modern science, presents us with a stark and alienating vision of a world that is intrinsically devoid of meaning, of purpose, of value — a world without a mind of its own, a world without soul. And this worldview has had dramatic and catastrophic consequences for our environment, for countless species of animals and plants, and for the ecosystems that sustain us all. To be more specific, here’s an outline of just some of those consequences.

Ecological crisis: Our environment is being rapidly destroyed. We are right now experiencing a widespread, global crisis of unprecedented proportions involving climate disruption, global warming, and the destruction of rain forests, along with their precious biodiversity. We are now in the midst of the sixth major species extinction since life began on our planet. According to some experts, 50 percent of species currently alive will have disappeared by the end of this century.

Technologies of mass destruction: Through science and engineering, our civilization has developed awesome technologies of destruction (some intentional, some not). Potent nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons threaten the survival of our species, and much of the rest of nature, and many “benign” technologies produce unexpected side effects that pollute and degrade our atmosphere and environment.

Deep alienation: People are alienated from nature. To grasp just how divorced we are from the natural world, imagine trying to find your way home from another town, or even just across town, using only natural landmarks (without following maps or street signs). How sensitive and attuned are you to the natural landscape in which you live? How much has been blocked out, even obliterated, by the constructed environment of tarmac, concrete and steel?

Such alienation leads to all kinds of personal and social problems — for example, people feeling split from their own bodies and from other people, often unable to integrate their emotions and feelings with their rational minds, often becoming (or at least believing themselves to be) some kind of social misfit. How many people feel at home in their own bodies or feel comfortable at work, with their families, and with strangers? Millions struggle to search for meaning in a meaningless universe.

Where Do We Turn for Answers — Science or Religion?

Unfortunately, modern science and philosophy are a major source of the problem: their basic story or worldview is “materialism” and they understand the world as made up of “dead atoms.” According to science, human consciousness “emerged” from dead, insentient matter. Nature itself is without any intrinsic meaning, value, or purpose because it has no consciousness. For science, there is no spirit in nature. Humans are at odds with the rest of the world — we are intelligent; nature is dumb. By an accident of nature, we are special.

However, science may be seriously mistaken when it asserts that consciousness is a product of complex brains, and that the rest of vital nature is a product of mindless, purposeless, unfeeling evolution. We may not be so special.

And, as for religion, conventional doctrines promise a reward in some afterlife. They do not teach us to look for meaning in nature. God is supernatural, transcendent, above and beyond the world. Yet we are all conscious beings, aching for meaning. We want meaning in this life.

In times of crisis, such as the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe or the Gulf of Mexico fiasco, people are much more likely to wonder about God’s relevance and participation in natural events. The idea that nature has a mind of its own means that the natural intelligence of the world — unlike a remote God of the skies — is not preoccupied with exclusively human concerns. Larger forces are at work in the world, and it serves us to pay attention and recognize that we are integral parts of nature, that the divine is all around us, and that humans do not get any special treatment.

According to many forms of religion, we are special by divine fiat. God gave us souls, so that we may survive and transcend the inevitable corruption of the flesh. Human consciousness, spirit, or soul is separate from the physical body, and the path to meaning and salvation is through prayer to a remote, transcendent God. Attention is focused elsewhere, either toward the heavens or toward priests, rabbis, or mullahs.

But the path to the sacred may not be through clergy or churches. In my experience, the sacred is all around us in nature — I experience it while watching a sunset, playing with animals, walking through a forest or on a beach, swimming in the ocean, climbing a mountain, planting flowers or vegetables, filling my lungs with fresh air, smelling the mulch of rich nourishing soil, dancing through crackling autumn leaves, comforting an injured pet, embracing a loved one, or holding the hand of a dying parent.

The most direct way to God, I believe, is through touching and feeling the Earth and its inhabitants — being open to the expression of spirit in the most ordinary, as well as in the most awesome, events of daily life. The way to meaning in our lives is by reconnecting with the world of nature — through exuberant participation or through the stillness of meditation, just being present and listening. And when we do so, we hear, we feel, and we learn: we are not alone — we are not uniquely special.

For the most part, neither mainstream science nor conventional religion recognizes that humans are not essentially different from the rest of nature. Both regard matter and the world as “dumb.” Both assert that human beings are somehow special and stand apart because, they say, only human beings — or at least creatures with brains and nervous systems — have consciousness or souls. On the contrary, I say, consciousness goes all the way down.

Mind: The Big Mystery in Evolution

I first became fascinated with consciousness as a seven- or eight-year-old kid in Ireland. The trigger event was discovering an entry on “evolution” in my father’s tattered encyclopedia. An old line drawing of a dinosaur caught my attention: not only was I descended from my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, but the entire human race evolved from some ape-like ancestors, who came from even more primitive mammals, who came from reptiles, who came from amphibians, who came from fishes, who came from jellyfishes, who came from clumps of cells, all the way down to bacteria-like single-celled “infusoria,” as they were called in the encyclopedia (which tells you how old it was). I was astounded to learn that my earliest relatives were bacteria!

I spoke the word aloud, enjoying the onomatopoeia — “e-v-o-l-u-t-i-o-n.” It sounded like a great unfolding, a rolling out of hidden forms, now mimicked in the way my tongue uncurled from the roof of my mouth.

Then something astounding grabbed me: not only was I mesmerized by images of descending species culminating in this young fella sitting there at that moment reading a big, dusty old book, but somehow that stupendous unfolding also managed to produce the ability to look back and contemplate the process of evolution itself. Somehow, somewhere along the line, evolution had become aware of itself.

At what stage did evolution produce consciousness? I had no answers. The encyclopedia gave no clues, and my parents and teachers, it seemed, could hardly understand my questions. They spoke to me of “souls” and “God’s mysterious ways,” and I was left wondering and unsatisfied because, as far as I could make out, they were telling me only humans had souls. But such religious “explanations” did not fit what I had learned from the encyclopedia, nor what I experienced for myself. No, whatever “consciousness” or “soul” was, it was not unique to humans — but how far back did it go?

I grew up puzzled. Not that such questions burned in my thoughts every day; but from time to time I would think back on those dinosaurs and infusoria and wonder about evolution, wonder about the feelings and thoughts pulsing through me and other creatures.

Radical Nature

In this article, and in my book Radical Nature, I call for a radically new understanding of nature. By “radical,” I mean a view of matter radically different from what we learn through science and philosophy. I mean intrinsically sentient matter. “Radical” comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root,” the foundation or source of something. Etymologically, “radical” is related to “radial,” which means branching out in all directions from a common center or root, and to “radiant,” which means, variously, filled with light, shining, sending out rays of light, emanating from a source, manifesting well-being, wholeness, pleasure, or love. “Radical Nature,” therefore, implies nature that is sentient to its roots, composed of matter that feels something of the nature of wholeness and love all the way down, and that radiates, or moves itself, from the depths of its own being.

French Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin suggested something similar in his concept of “radial energy,” which he proposed was the interior source of universal attraction and love between all elements of the cosmos, pulling them toward increased complexity (contrasted with “tangential energy,” the energy physicists work with, pulling in the direction of chaos and entropy).

The standard scientific view, by contrast, is that nature is composed of “dead matter” — so that even living systems consist, ultimately, of unfeeling, purposeless, meaningless atoms or quarks embedded in equally unfeeling, purposeless, and meaningless fields of force. I challenge this materialist view, and claim that not only is it incoherent but that it is also very dangerous.

The notion of human specialness lies at the core of our civilization’s dominant stories. In the grand narratives we tell ourselves — in our cosmologies, and scientific and religious worldviews that try to make sense of the fact that we are here at all — humans are typically the central characters.

But, as I argue in Radical Nature, humans (or even animals) are not the only creatures with minds. The entire world of nature tingles with consciousness. Nature literally has a mind of its own. It feels and responds to our presence.

Consciousness All the Way Down

Contrary to what is taught in science today, consciousness is not produced by brains. In fact you don’t even need a brain to have a mind. All animals, all plants, even bacteria have something we would call “mind.” I’m saying that all bodies of any kind — all matter — has consciousness “all the way down” to atoms and beyond to quarks, or quanta or whatever lies at the root of physical reality. In this view, all of nature, all bodies — from atoms to humans — tingle with the spark of spirit.

This is an uncommon view, called “panpsychism,” and it presents a radical and controversial account of the relationship between bodies and minds, between matter and soul. To be sure, the nature of mind remains a deep mystery for science and philosophy. But success at healing the mind-body split so characteristic of our age depends, I believe, more on a revised understanding of the nature of matter.

In the view I’m proposing, all matter feels, is sentient, and has experience. Matter is adventurous — as it probes and directs its way through the long, winding path of evolution. From its first appearance after the Big Bang — from the first atom, molecule, and cell — to the magnificence and glory of the human brain, the great unfolding of evolution is literally the story the universe is telling to itself. The cosmos is enacting the greatest epic drama imaginable. Truly, it is the greatest story ever told. And we are just one of the storytellers. In the evolution of the cosmos, matter itself is the prime storyteller.

A “New” and Ancient Philosophy

Panpsychism (or what I call “radical naturalism”) tells us that matter itself, from the very start (the Big Bang, perhaps) arrived on the scene already tingling with consciousness. Consciousness is not something separate from matter (as dualism tells us), nor is it produced by matter in the form of brains or nervous systems (as materialism insists). Instead, panpsychism tells us that matter — all matter — has its own interiority, an ability to feel, to have a point of view, and the ability to move itself from within. In everyday street-speak, we might say, “matter has a mind of its own.” In its most primitive form matter is (and always was) sentient, “alive.”

This, then, is the “new” story of the universe and the stuff it is made of. If we are to feel at home in the cosmos, if we are to be open to the full inflowing and outpouring of its profound creativity, and if we are not to feel isolated and alienated from the full symphony of cosmic matter — both as distant as the far horizon of time, and as near as the flesh of our own bodies — we need a new cosmology story. We need a new way to envision our relationship to the full panorama of the crawling, burrowing, swimming, gliding, flying, circulating, flowing, rooted, and embedded Earth. We need to be and to feel, as well as to think and believe, differently about nature.

Actually this is a very ancient idea — one of the oldest worldviews, predating Plato and the ancient Greeks. In my book, I trace the lineage of panpsychism back to before the birth of philosophy — to the ancient tradition of shamanism, in fact. And then I show how, throughout history to the present day, some great philosophers have also shared this view. The philosophy of materialism that dominates our world today is, by comparison, a late arrival — a kind of detour that has run its course.

Minds from Brains?

Modern science and philosophy are in the dark about consciousness. They cannot even begin to explain how consciousness could emerge from the brain. Materialists such as Berkeley philosopher John Searle simply claim it as a given, obvious “fact.” But it is not at all obvious. As it turns out, science is utterly at a loss to explain how this could happen. Indeed, getting spirit-like consciousness from the stuff of the physical brain would require a miracle. But miracles are exactly what scientific materialism denies are possible. In short, for materialism to be true, it would have to be false! Now that’s a real dilemma. As soon as science begins to pay attention to consciousness it runs into a dead end. It draws a blank.

When pressed, neuroscientists typically say: “We don’t have all the facts just yet. One day we will, and when that day arrives, then we can give you the full explanation.” In the meantime it’s “just obvious” that mind or consciousness arises from the immense complexity of the brain, or as Searle puts it, the brain squirts out consciousness like the liver secretes bile. But that’s not science, it’s “promissory materialism.” Materialists would like us to believe their promise that one day they will have “all the facts” to explain the mystery. But asking us to believe without any evidence is “faith,” not science.

And then they point out that science is always progressing, always gaining more knowledge. Isn’t it possible, then, that one day they will have “all the facts”? I don’t think so. And here’s why (I’ll try not to get too technical): According to scientific materialism all of reality is ultimately physical. Reality is objective — wholly and thoroughly. If so, the challenge facing science is to explain how it could be possible — even in principle — for one kind of reality (completely physical and objective) to suddenly (or even gradually) jump to an entirely different kind of reality (one that is subjective and nonphysical): consciousness. That’s where the miracle is required — an ontological jump from an utterly cold, lifeless, unfeeling, and unknown universe to one that now possesses creatures sparkling with life, with feeling, with consciousness. What could possibly account for that “reality jump”?

In philosophy, we call it the “ontological gap” between two radically different kinds of reality. No amount of complex feedback loops in the brain or nervous system can make that jump because all those loops in the brain are themselves still objective — they can be observed, they can be measured, they are physical. Consciousness is notoriously non-physical (you cannot observe or measure it). In short, you cannot get subjectivity (a state of reality with feeling and sentience) from a state of reality that didn’t have the slightest trace of consciousness to begin with. You can’t get something from nothing, as James’s little old lady was at pains to point out. If you begin with “dead” matter, it stays dead — no matter how complex and twisted it becomes.

Philosopher Colin McGinn put it this way: “Somehow, we feel, the water of the physical brain is turned into the wine of consciousness, but we draw a total blank on the nature of this conversion…. The mind-body problem is the problem of understanding how the miracle is wrought.”

The Most Terrifying Story Ever Told

So what? Why should anyone, other than philosophers, care about the mind-body problem? What difference does it make in real life? I think it makes a big difference. As novelist Daniel Quinn noted in Ishmael, we don’t just tell our stories, we enact them. In other words, we live our stories, and we change the world accordingly. In my book, I make the point that all our worldviews, philosophies, cosmologies, mythologies, and so on are ultimately nothing but stories (despite their fancy names). They are ways we have of telling ourselves who we are, how we came to be, and where we’re going. We tell ourselves these grand stories to make some sense of the fact that we are here at all. But we don’t just tell these stories. We live them, we enact them.

Today, we live in a world dominated by the story called scientific materialism, where nature is believed to be made up of “dead” stuff, of lifeless atoms and molecules. Nature has no consciousness, no feelings, no intrinsic value, meaning, or purpose. And so we relate to nature without sufficient respect for its inherent sacredness. We plunder and rape and exploit it, and the consequences are not at all pretty. We face looming crises in ecology, in social systems, and in our personal lives as we struggle to make sense and meaning out of a world made up of cold, mindless, meaningless stuff. In such a world, all life — including human life and consciousness — is just a fluke, an accident. This is an alarming story, and it has drastic consequences.

Bertrand Russell, one of the most respected and influential philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

This may be the most terrifying story ever told — nevertheless, it is the one we are born into. It expresses the terrible poetry of a meaningless universe, rolling along chaotic channels of chance, blind and without purpose, sometimes accidentally throwing up the magnificence and beauty of natural and human creations, but inevitably destined to pull all our glories asunder and leave no trace, no indication that we ever lived, that our lonely planet once bristled and buzzed with colorful life and reached out to the stars. It is all for nothing.

Such is the plot and substance of modern science boiled down to its bare essentials, a legacy from the founders of the modern worldview, such as Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Newton, and Darwin.

Even if we have faith in a deeper spiritual dimension, somewhere in our nested system of beliefs that story lurks, ready to rob our visions, dreams, loves, and passions of any meaning, of any validity beyond the scripted directions of a blind, unconscious, purposeless plot maker. If something in our experience stirs and reacts to this with disbelief, even with a question, it is surely worth paying attention to because the possibility that that story is wrong or incomplete makes a real difference.

What if that sweeping materialist vision leaves something out? What if there is something other than an “accidental collocation of atoms” at work in the universe? What if, for instance, the experience or consciousness that contemplated the world and discovered the atoms was itself real? What if the ability of “collocated atoms” to purposefully turn around and direct their gaze to reflect on themselves was more than “accidental”? What if consciousness participates in the way the world works? What if consciousness can dance with the atoms and give them form and direction? What if the atoms themselves choreograph their own dance? What then?

In Radical Nature, I explore an alternative story — one where the atoms do choreograph their own dance — a worldview that tells us consciousness matters and that matter is conscious.

Nature Is Sacred

The ancient Greek philosopher Thales said, “Nature is full of gods.” Today, we might say it is full of spirit, full of consciousness. Nature literally carries the wisdom of the world, a symphony of relationships among all its forms. Nature constantly “speaks” to us, and feels and responds to our stories. Simply breathing in rhythm with the world around us can be a potent form of prayer. We can open our hearts and pray to the “god of small things,” for God lives in pebbles and stones, in plants and insects, in the cells of our bodies, in molecules and in atoms. And by connecting with the God of small things, we can discover this is the same as “the god of all things,” great or small. Yes, God is in the heavens, but God is also in the finest grain of sand.

I don’t believe we need priests or churches, rabbis or synagogues, mullahs or mosques, to connect us with some transcendent, supernatural God. In the religion of nature — of a natural God — clergy become shamans, the whole Earth, and the vast cosmos itself, becomes our temple of worship. In nature spirituality, “priests” do not act as intermediaries between Heaven and Earth. Rather, like shamans, our leaders and elders become guides teaching us to listen to the sacred language of nature — helping us open our minds and bodies to the messages rippling through the world of plants and animals, rocks and wind, oceans and forests, mountains and deserts, backyards and front porches.

We need to develop a deep respect for nature because it is the source of everything we are. Like us, all of nature has a mind of its own. And this is because matter is not at all what we normally think it to be. Matter is not dead stuff. Matter feels. The very stuff of our bodies, the very stuff of the Earth tingles with its own sentience. It is time for us as a worldwide community to rediscover the soul of matter, to honor and respect the flesh of the Earth, to pay attention to the meaning, purpose, and value embedded in the world beneath our feet and above our heads. Maybe then, we will save ourselves from the otherwise inevitable ecological and civilizational collapse that faces us within our lifetime. I think we can do it, but first we have to learn to listen.

Christian de Quincey, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy and consciousness studies at John F. Kennedy University. He is the author of Consciousness from Zombies to Angels, Radical Nature, and many other books. He can be contacted via

Front Page

Saturday, June 1st, 2013

This interview of educator John Hunter is re-posted from: the School Library Journal.

World Peace and Other Infinite Possibilities

Karyn M. Peterson

If (and when) future generations succeed in saving the world, we may all have John Hunter to thank. The veteran teacher, educational consultant, and author has been inspiring creative and critical thinking, compassion, confidence, and pragmatic problem solving in kids for 35 years through his innovative World Peace Game, his unyielding positivity and optimism, and his intuitive understanding of what kids’ need to succeed.



At the start of a national tour to promote his new book about his experiences teaching the game, World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements (Houghton Harcourt, 2013), Hunter addressed the crowd at SLJ’s recent Public Library Leadership Think Tank, then sat down to speak to us about unlocking kids’ infinite potential, his faith in kids to improve our world, and how he daily inspires (and is inspired by) his students.

At our Think Tank, you spoke about the lasting impact of even the smallest gestures. Can you tell us more about this concept?

We are completely interdependent; this is what I’ve come to understand and see. Everything I do is important to someone in that room or someone connected to them. So I’m obligated to do the best that I possibly can every moment. I constantly have to work at that every day so that I can be less of a barrier or an obstacle to their learning. My students have come back over decades now to let me know the range and effect of gestures I’ve made, of words I’ve said, of things we’ve done. And I’m sure every teacher has instances like this. So this circle of influence that you might have can be so broad.

What is it like for you to teach at Agnor-Hurt Elementary, and in the Albemarle County (VA) school district? Can you tell us more about your experiences there?

[It’s] one of the best I’ve ever taught in. Pam Moran is the superintendent, and my immediate principal is Michele Del Gallo Castner. They are visionaries, and this is what makes [it] a cutting-edge district. It’s 650 children from all different socioeconomic levels. We’ve got 23 different ethnic groups and languages in that school. And it’s like walking into a river of love every day. You plug into this current of energy that’s so positive, and it’s primarily due to visionary, trusting leadership.

At Agnor-Hurt, we start on the relationship when they come into preschool. So there’s a culture of acceptance, of caring, of compassion, and kindness. When you have that kind of culture, you have kids coming in and, wherever they turn, they’re going to have this kind of support. No matter what situation they get into or what teacher they go to, there’s a unity in the response. Michele is a fierce protector of children. That combination of kindness with that huge protective power and fire for taking care of kids is just what makes the situation just fly. There’s nothing you can’t do as a teacher in that school.

Pam Moran herself walks around taking pictures of all kinds of teachers’ projects and she shares them with all the other teachers in the district…for a superintendent to be doing that [is] rare and unusual. Pam always talks about what she calls ‘caves, watering holes, and campfires’—the places we gather to exchange ideas, and she’s a living example of that herself. She is a great supporter and inspiration.

The center of our school is [the library and librarian] Jamie Chapman and, like you would imagine, everybody passes through [the library], everybody uses it, everybody’s connected to it. That’s a beautiful understanding about schools and the central position libraries hold in them still.

How did your relationship with libraries begin?

Right at the time of integration in our regional area of Chesterfield County (VA), I discovered the public library. The summer before I was to attend my first integrated school—at the age of 12—I had a real hunger for things beyond the norm, I guess in some ways, for a kid from my situation. And I devoured the library; I tried to read every book about Native Americans and science fiction and Eastern philosophy. The library became kind of a refuge, a resourcing place for this great unknown…. It made me feel more a part of what I was going to go into. [It was] a public library and that meant white and black signs were not in the way. I could simply go in and use [it].

Did you always want to be a teacher?

Really, in some ways I’m an introvert who just happens to appear to be an extrovert. There was a moment in Japan—I’m sitting in this 500-year-old cypress wood meditation hall on a bamboo-covered mountainside near the Sea of Japan—and I thought, ‘You know, this is where I should be. I really don’t need to go anywhere else.’ But I had obligations; I had things to do in the world. Had I not been a teacher, I was very inclined to find a place like that and simply go into meditation.

So how do you summon your inner extrovert? Or embrace it?

The foundation was of course, I had a very happy life. My parents were both very sweet and loving, so it was a very quiet family life. And that calm safety that we had in the home made a comfort in the world. And so going out into it, I didn’t feel defensive or afraid.

How that transformed to be more of a performance art, like teaching? Well, it was called for. In a classroom…[you] really bring every tool that you have to the situation. You adapt and become whatever creature you must. You’re an academic and social amphibian; you grow gills when you have to and you drop fins when you have to, to help children be what they need to be.  And playing in a band doesn’t hurt either! I had a studio practice for about 20 years, sound design, ambient music, Waveform Records. It’s still something I do in what little spare time I have.

Do you bring music into the classroom as well?

Absolutely! Some children like it to be quiet, so we’re quiet sometimes, but there may be some Miles Davis in the background, “Sketches of Spain,” something very open and spacious.

I take the children through different modalities of thinking using Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, [with] eight different pieces of music, all within the space of an hour. It’s astounding what they do in that time [and] music is the springboard for that. I want them to have an expanded world, so I’m playing Indonesian gamelan or opera arias or glitchcore from Vladislav Delay, this Finnish DJ—something they’re not going to run into on the radio or around the house.

And the library was fundamental in that, too! In the Richmond Public Library when I was a young man, I would go and check out  records. I listened to Turkish music, to music from the bauls of India. That library was instrumental in my becoming who I was musically.

How has your teaching shaped your vision of the future?

I’m completely optimistic. There is no doubt in my mind that high school students can save this planet completely, in every way. No doubt. They’re relentlessly compassionate. The more we empower those young people to be in charge…the better off we’ll be.

Is compassion the most important legacy of your World Peace game?

How else can we be if we’re going to survive? It’s our fundamental as human beings…preemptively going at things with kindness gives a little bit of ease to every difficult situation we face.

What’s your philosophy of teaching, your approach?

I’ve learned from my teachers, my mentors, that example is better than precept. If I want them to do, believe, think, or be anything at all, I’ve got to do that myself first. They hear a lot of words from adults, but who lives that way? Who can they see that walks the walk, and not just talks?

The second step is [from] my mentor, Ethel J. Banks: think about the line of least resistance. Find out what they love, spend some time finding out who they really are, what they really care about, and then respect it, and build curriculum to and around it. Once the children believe that you believe in them and that you respect what they actually like and are interested in, that’s a huge step. And from that point on, you’re friends for life. They’ll go anywhere with you.

In my classroom…before we even touch [a] subject, they’re so heavily involved and invested thinking that it’s their unit, that they’re in power to control it, their learning…that they feel they can do anything and, with your help, they can do even more than that.

In such a rich learning environment, how do you deal with standardized testing?

Our school has strategies to work with that. I’ve heard [my principal] make a speech to an entire room crammed full of teachers, looking at scores on a big PowerPoint: ‘I picked each one of you. I know you. I trust you. You are professionals, you know what to do. Let’s do it.’  And every year, the scores go way up through the roof. It’s amazing. It’s not a direct correlation; you can’t quantify love and affection and caring. But [the] power of that, for me, is what the transformative effect is at our school.

What inspires you in your life, and in your teaching?

I read ancient texts, all kinds of esoteric stuff that helps me think of things more deeply. And of course, music has always been helpful in doing that. And there’s my teenage daughter, who is better than I will ever be at everything; she’s a huge inspiration.

[Teaching is] a profession and a calling, really. But I think, walking into the building…there’s a shift in consciousness, there is a breaking of state with the outside world. We are in this place of infinite possibility and potential, and infinite possibility for happiness. And so that’s inspirational.

John Hunter’s World Peace Game website.

Front Page

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Happy Leonardo Day, April 15, 2013. GIFTing has been activated at The Gifting Earth. It is now fully operational. Members can now begin helping each other with gifting and sharing.

The Gifting Earth — Why-How-What



We humans are really one people—the human people. We share one earth—we breathe one air—we drink one water.

We humans need each other—sometimes I will need your help, and sometimes you will need mine.

The truth of our human oneness means that we are an interdependent species—we are at our best when we work together and trust each other.


The Gifting Earth is based on only one rule: Be Love.

If you choose to Be Love then you can only Do Good, and if you only Do Good, you will discover that your community will so value you that it will insure that you Have Everything you need and want.


The Gifting Earth is a free community website that enables its users to easily help and be helped through the gifting and sharing of: Goods, Services, Knowledge, and Compassion.

Goods are THINGS: Any material object that has value. Services are ACTIONS: Projects, Labor (skilled and unskilled), Jobs and Tasks. Knowledge is KNOWING: Expertise, Consultations, Counseling, and Advise. And, Compassion is KINDNESS: Empathy, Sympathy, Love, and Support.

So it’s easy really, just Be Love, Do Good, and Have Everything.


Getting Started

Imagine a world where Co-Operation has replaced Market — a world where GIFTors and GIFTees have replaced sellers and buyers.

When you become a member of The Gifting Earth (TGE), you will always have a dual role. You will be both a GIFTor and a GIFTee. In your role as a GIFTor, you will register your offer of GIFTS to others within the community. In your role as a GIFTee, you will also register your NEEDS for what you would like to receive as gifts from other members within the community. Gifts can be Goods, Services, Knowledge, or Compassion.

The GIFTor is always the ACTive partner in a gifting encounter. GIVING is a verb. The role of GIFTee is always the passive partner in a gifting encounter. Receiving is passive. A GIFT is a noun.

As a GIFTee, your list of NEEDS is available to all GIFTors. Those GIFTors who have GIFTs that match your NEEDS can make you an OFFER of Help.

Also as a GIFTee, the list of all GIFTS being offered is available to you. You can request a particular GIFT that you think might meet your needs. The GIFTor offering that GIFT will be notified that you are interested in receiving their GIFT. They will then have the opportunity to look at your membership history, profile, and comments made about your previous gifting exchanges. They are free to offer or decline to offer their GIFT to you.

As a GIFTor, you decide when, where, and to whom you will offer your GIFT. All GIFTing is voluntary. As a GIFTee, you will be notified when an offer of a GIFT has been made to you, then you will have the opportunity to take a more careful look at a description of the offered GIFT, and the history, profile, comments about the GIFTor offering the GIFT. You may accept or decline the offered GIFT. All receiving of GIFTs is voluntary. Once a GIFTor and GIFTee agree to a gifting encounter, they are provided with each others contact information so they can connect and make the exchange in the real world.

The only information that is public in the system is your name, home town and state. You have complete control over who sees your email address, your street address, and your telephone number. This private information will be given by you to those whose help you decide to accept. And, you will need similar information from those who desire your help. We are moving from Market to Co-Operation. We understand that we are INTERdependent. Sometimes I will need your help, and sometimes you will need my help. Our relationships with each other will be personal and caring. Personal and caring relationships are not anonymous.

Once the gifting is concluded, both GIFTor and GIFTee rate the gifting experience from one to five stars, and may add a paragraph of text in a comment field. This becomes a part of a both members’ exchange histories.

While GIFTing can be global, regional, or local, many GIFTs are only available locally. Since this is the initial launch of TGE, you may be the first in your community to join. And, so to increase the opportunity for helping others, and for getting help from others, you will want to invite others in your local community to join us here at TGE.

To learn more go here.

Front Page

Monday, December 17th, 2012

This essay was published in Spring 2010 issue of  Inquiring Mind. The focus of that Spring 2010 issue was addiction, but the article speaks to a much deeper human need. 

It was originally titled: The Suffering of Separation.

The Need for Community

Janet Surrey

As a psychotherapist I am continually moved by the anguish of isolation so many experience. Like fish with water, we hardly see the pervasiveness of this condition for our being in the world. Whatever we try to do to relieve this suffering—through denial of our deepest needs for connection, to materialistic pursuits, or to compulsive social or work activities—we are haunted by the “dis-ease” of separation and cannot rest and take refuge in our families or communities. The breakdown in community in the U.S. has been documented by many scholars, and the resultant loneliness and alienation are revealed in the high rates of depression, addiction, anxiety and violence. People in our society feel fundamentally separate, cut off from each other and disconnected from the natural world. We can see our isolation through the lens of the First Noble Truth, which points to the suffering of the separate self. The greater the fundamental attachment to self, the more we suffer.

Particularly in the United States, our cultural ideals support individualism, competition, denial of vulnerability and independence. Relationships are valued as supports or buttresses to the self. But like hungry ghosts we still yearn for the stability and continuity of deep community. When offered the opportunity, however, we often cannot drink fully; our thirst becomes painful and leads us to develop strategies to deny or to avoid feeling our yearnings. The problem is both external—lack of available communities—and internal—the ways we hold ourselves back from surrendering to relationships. Our default position of alienation or non-belonging is often a consequence of painful experiences that lead us to mistrust and run when the going gets rough. We run for protection toward isolation or search for new and improved relationships or communities. Yet we also seek spiritual practices and communities to restore or realign ourselves to our most fundamental condition of interconnectedness or “interbeing.”

In the early years of my own Theravadan practice, the emphasis on individual, solitary practice often seemed to me to be supporting the Western value of self-sufficiency as well as celebrating the heroic, solitary journey. We practiced together in groups for weeks but never even learned each other’s names. We sensed the underlying power of community in practice but didn’t realize this in real relationship. The practice of taking refuge in sangha seemed to be the stepchild or foundational support to practice, rather than practice itself. The solitary Buddha was the icon, even though in truth the Buddha spent very few days alone, living most of his eighty years in community.

I was later drawn to practice with Thich Nhat Hahn, who seems to intuitively understand the overwhelming suffering of isolation in the West. He emphasizes building local and worldwide communities and teaches the practice of “learning to see with Sangha eyes.” To build “good enough” communities that are not there solely to serve or support us, we need to do the work of inventing or embracing practices that support and nurture sangha, that help us to become “good enough” members of a community. Perhaps we need to add a teaching on “right relationship” to the Eightfold Path.

Two years ago at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, I heard teacher Eugene Cash offer a reordering of the Three Jewels from the usual “Buddha, Dharma, Sangha” to the new “Sangha, Dharma, Buddha.” Even though the Buddha was clear that these refuges are interdependent and co-arising, in our own rank-ordering culture, first is best, most valuable, on top. It is in this reordering that I believe the Twelve Step programs offer a profound vision and practical experience of taking refuge in the sangha.

I have a twenty-five-year-long intimate connection with living at the intersection of the Eightfold Path and the Twelve Step program. I have also worked as a professional in the addiction/recovery community and have coauthored the play “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” the story of the relationship between the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous. The ground-breaking discovery of these two men was that “true meeting”—one drunk coming clean to another through telling their authentic life stories to each other—could accomplish something neither drunk could do alone. It could lift them from the destructive and fatal cycle of alcoholism into sobriety and a new dimension of living.

Sobriety describes a state of being, a willingness to face reality—“life on life’s terms”—with equanimity and open-mindedness, becoming “as willing to listen as only the dying can be.” Liberation from the suffering of alcoholism through the Twelve Steps becomes possible through surrendering the separate self, that is, in taking refuge in the fellowship of other sufferers, the healing sangha. In the beginning is the “We.” Step 1 says, “We admitted that by ourselves we were powerless over alcohol.” Relinquishing the ego is essential for achieving and maintaining sobriety. The principles and practices of this surrender, including prayer and meditation, are the most powerful vehicles for taking refuge in sangha that I have experienced.

Addiction is often called a disease of isolation. You are as “sick as you are secret.” Moving out of shame and self-delusion into the light of awareness and nonseparation is essential not only for survival but for spiritual health. Sobriety depends on the learned capacity to ask for help, to admit vulnerability, and to “call before you take the first drink.” There is great and transformative power in learning to reach out to another human being when the momentum of the past and the voracious craving of addiction are calling the addict to take refuge in the substance or addictive behavior. This step, of taking refuge in fellowship and relationship, is a moment of liberation. One of the promises of the Twelve Step program is that “self-seeking will slip away.” The suggestion to reach out beyond self, to “put your ego in your back pocket,” and in the face of craving to do service and share the gift of sobriety with others, leads to the experience of release from suffering.

The fellowship of the Twelve Steps is a worldwide network of meetings and relationships. It is alive, accessible and available 24/7 through face-to-face meetings; telephones or Blackberries or Internet; and through literature, prayer and meditation. In a concrete way the fellowship can be tapped into anytime or anywhere. Isolation thus becomes a chosen state, not a pre-existing condition, not something temporarily ameliorated though a weekly sangha meeting or potluck. Our Buddhist communities could benefit from such a realized, concrete expression of community that can never be lost unless one actively or purposefully “closes the door.”

These Twelve Step relational practices represent the journey from solipsistic, delusional “relief” through addictive behavior to the light and release from suffering in the realization of nonseparation, or anatta. This relational realization is practical, teachable, simple and profound, and ultimately life-changing.

The dialectic between the Buddha’s teaching of “see for yourself” and the practice of surrendering self to refuge in sangha points ultimately to the Middle Way for us humans. On the Buddhist path this living intersection of alone and together is taught beautifully by Gregory Kramer in his “Insight Dialogue” retreats, where the seamless movement between internal practice and relational practice is investigated and realized. Any living sangha can become a doorway to the great web, which Joanna Macy describes as “the Maha Sangha of All Beings,” seen and unseen, past, present and future.

This glimpse of true interbeing can occur when the personal and collective work of confronting obstacles and practicing nonseparation is a central practice of the meditation community. This includes finding creative ways to directly address the suffering and structural divisions of race, gender, class, sexualities, etc. Many Buddhist centers are beginning to take on these issues more directly and to reflect a new level of awareness of this necessary aspect of building sangha. The new multicultural Dharma, the pioneering East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, and the people of color retreats are leading the way in this important work.

The current work of many vipassana teachers in particular is a fruit of Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s authentic commitment to community building and to reaching out to more marginalized or underserved communities. Participating in the Community Dharma Leader (CDL) program, about to begin its fourth cohort of participants, has offered the most profound vision and experience of true sangha that I have known. Resting in Buddhadharma and supported by the commitment of the leaders to practice “dissolving self and other,” my own group of ninety participants found the way to the “We.” Active engagement with diversity, practicing non-violent communication, and relational practice of the Brahmaviharas—all held in the silence and a deep commitment to living and sharing the Dharma—opened the sangha doorway.

When we first began to meet and practice together over two and a half years ago, none of us was exactly sure what “community Dharma leader” actually meant. For some it was a recognition or evolution of their leadership roles in their communities of practice; to others it was a chance to learn and commit to reaching out to new populations. For me it came to represent a new priority and practice of community Dharma. I now feel a passionate commitment to realizing and teaching this community Dharma and drawing on the practices of sangha that the Twelve Step community offers. I see this creative, unfolding refuge practice as aligned with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s call for building sangha as “communities of resistance” to the powerful forces of materialism, alienation and violence in Western culture. I feel its importance for nurturing true healing and liberation in Western psychotherapy. And I hear the voice of Thich Nhat Hanh in his evocative teaching that “the next Buddha, the Buddha of the West, will come as the sangha.”

Copyright © 2010 Inquiring Mind

Janet Surrey, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and lecturer at the Harvard Medical School, she is a founding scholar and board member at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, in Massachusetts. Dr. Surrey is a co-author of Women’s Growth in Connection and the Psychology of Peacemaking. She is co-editor of Mothering Against the Odds: Diverse Voices of Contemporary Mothers. Along with her husband, Stephen Bergman and Samuel Shem, she has co-authored the book “We Have to Talk: Healing Dialogues between Men and Women”. Dr. Surrey is the author of numerous articles and papers. She has written and spoken widely on many topics, including gender issues, mother-daughter relationships, addictions, couples therapy, empathy, adoption, and peacemaking.

Front Page

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Your Unique Self and The Only Thing That Matters

Timothy Wilken, MD

I am currently reading two new books
that may be among the most important books ever written to address our changing times. Even though I haven’t yet finished either book, I am so excited that I had to tell you a little bit about them.

The first is the latest book from a teacher of mine, Marc Gafni. It is called Your Unique Self. I am about half way through and am finding it to be of great value. Marc believes that enlightenment is a human behavior that is available to any human who takes the time to understand and work the process. This makes it one of the most optimistic books every written. Here is a few paragraphs from Marc‘s new book:

We live in the time of the annunciation of a new myth, the Great Story of Evolution. This Myth of Evolution is both a passion play, a morality tale, and a three-way romantic drama between the human being, kosmos, and God.

In the language of Unique Self mystic Abraham Kook, this myth raises “the public center of gravity to moral heights and ecstatic joy” in a way that was virtually unattainable in previous eras. Kook and de Chardin, inspired by evolutionary philosophers like Sri Aurobindo and Luria, embrace evolution as the highest and most noble expression of the ethical meaning of our lives on Earth.

Kook writes, “The deep understanding of the evolutionary context in forming our vision of the future exalts man to a moral pinnacle of spirit, radically raising the bar of his ethical responsibility.”

Aligning with the evolutionary impulse and taking responsibility for the entire process was, for the last several hundred years, limited to a very small circle of elite mystics. …

We are now entering the time of the Shift. The Shift is from private to public, from the realm of the elite to the democratization of the New Enlightenment.

You are the true Light,
which enlightens every man
that cometh into the
”John 1:9, King James Bible

You means You.

Rabbi Abraham Kook says it well:

Every person needs to know
that he is called to serve
based on the model of perception and feeling
which is absolutely unique to him,
based on the core root of his soul. . . .
A person needs to say:
Bi-shvili nivrah ha-olam
(Through my Unique path the world is created.”)

The core ecstatic ethical meditation of the New Enlightenment is, “The world is created for and by my Unique Path.” This is not a declaration of hubris but a statement of responsibility. To be connected to your Unique Self means to know that your story is sufficiently important, significant, and wonderful, and that the entire world was created for its sake. The dignity of your story demands no less than that you get up every morning and know that your very next action has the power to shape the destiny of our collective future.

Thirteenth-century master Maimonides writes that the superior man experiences the whole world as precisely balanced on a scale, with his next action tipping the scale for good or for bad.

Fourteen billion years of evolution are flowing through you, awaiting your choice. Living this consciousness in joy, your choice becomes filled not only with your goodness but with a radical evolutionary integrity that—in the language of Kook—“enlightens and frees all worlds.”

I have also started reading a new book by Neal Donald Walsch called The Only Thing That Matters. Here are a few paragraphs from Neale‘s new book:


It is wonderful that you have come here. There is something you wish to know and something you wish to do, and Life understands this. That is why you are reading this.

Here is what you wish to know … 98% of the world’s people are spending 98% of their time on things that don’t matter.

You have been part of that 98%. Now you are no longer. From this day forward you choose to spend your time on The Only Thing That Matters. The question is, what is that?

Here is what you wish to do … Find your answer to that question. This requires a deep exploration of the Self. You are in the right place for such an important and remarkable undertaking. Trust that. If you weren’t in the right place to find your answer, you would not be here. Do not think you have come to this book by chance. Do not think that.

Think this: My Soul knows exactly what it is doing. Also, think this: My Soul already knows what really matters. So it is not a question of “finding” that answer, it is a question of remembering. It is not a process of discovery, it is a process of recovery. This data does not have to be researched, it merely has to be retrieved.

Neale shares his answer to the question: What is the Only Thing That Matters?

“What One Desires”

I understand the point the book is making that We Are All One, and that, therefore, what I do for me I do for others, and that what I do for others I do for me.

And so, focusing on “What One Desires” is not “selfish” at all.

I also understand what this text is telling me when it declares that the writer and the reader are, at the level of Essence, in no way separate—and that I am at choice, always, about whether I choose to experience that.

And here is something else that I know: I know that the Illusion of Separation sometimes serves humanity. In fact, if it didn’t serve the species, I have to believe that we would have eliminated the Illusion altogether a long time ago.

Evolution itself would surely have produced that result. But we’ve kept this Illusion of Separation in place because we see that it in many ways serves us.

Now it seems to me that what would be most beneficial to us at this stage of our development as an evolving species would be to step aside from the Separation Illusion where it serves us to do so (if it could more rapidly end global suffering, for instance, or create a larger and more joyful experience of the Self), and to continue to use the Illusion when it facilitates our growth or understanding.

The ONE in his phrase “What One Desires” is not the small self. It is the big Self. It is the ONE in the phrase of a good friend of mine:  “There is only ONE of us here.”

What that ONE desires is a WIN-WIN outcome for ALL involved. Since we are really ONE, then what is the best solution for all of us. When I first read Walsch’s answer to the question “What is the only thing that matters?”


 “What one desires,”

I misunderstood, because I thought he was speaking about “what my small self desires.” Then I realized I was viewing this from the Illusion of Separation. When I shifted to viewing this from the Truth of ONEness, it made total sense, and I experienced a major Aha! moment. Marc explains this idea in a slightly different way:

God is changed, evolved, by our loving God. The stranger is changed and evolved through our love. You are changed and transformed through self-love. Love is not an emotion but a perception of the True Nature of what is, through which emotion is awakened. We become lovers through the profound perception of the True Nature of reality as itappears in first, second, and third person. This perception of love is the realization that you and other are part of the same fabric of All-That-Is. You are part of the whole.

This realization changes the nature of both you and other because you realize your ultimate indivisibility from the other. It is this realization that leads to compassion and then to compassionate action. The evolutionary mysticism of Unique Self teaches that it is this realization, and the compassion and action that it births into reality, that catalyzes the evolution of God.The whole is evolved by the part. This is the very purpose of existence.

Fear is a result of seeing separate otherness. Love is a result of seeing unique oneness. Fear is self-contraction. We always need to remember that fear is the contraction of the self into ego. In ego, the part withdraws from the whole to assert and protect its part nature. Yet we always need to remember that the core intuition of ego is always at its root a glimmering of something necessary and sacred. Healthy self-contraction is the divine self-contraction that allows the world to come into being. God, the whole, steps back in love to allow room for other—the part. Other—the part—is God in disguise from itself. The disguise makes other seem a-part from God rather than a part of God. The disguise, in other words, is the illusion that other is unique and special in a way that separates from God rather than in a way that manifests God. The goal of existence is to pierce the veil of the disguise and reveal the underlying love unity of All-That-Is. Right relationship needs to be established between the part and the whole. Ever-higher integration of parts and wholes is the basic dynamic of evolution.

Healthy human self-contraction motivated by love allows for the world of an other to exist alongside your world. Love allows me to step back to make room for you. You and I recognize each other as unique and special, even as we know that we are together part of the larger divine whole, the seamless coat of the Universe.

Then Marc Gafni further teaches us, that we each bring our own unique perspective to answering Walsch’s question: What is the only thing that matters?

What ONE desires is that our Unique Gift be shared. Everyone’s Unique Gift is necessary to make things better for all of us.

Our unique perspective helps us remember, recover, and retrieve our unique gift that we are here to share with all our brothers and sisters. Elsewhere Marc has explained this:

Recently people have been asking me what I mean by the phrase, “Answering the Call,” which I have been talking about so often during my talks about the democratization of enlightenment teachings in these past years. So when I woke up this morning, before I was fully awake, I jotted down a couple of words on this topic. …

Once you understand that your uniqueness is not a historical accident but an intentional expression of essence, then you realize that enlightenment is a genuine option for every human being. Including You. When you realize that your Unique Self is the God having a You experience, everything in your experience of your life changes.

Once you understand that your uniqueness is not the haphazard result of your cultural social or psychological conditioning, but all of these are necessary conditions for the emergence of the personal face of essence which is You, your essential experience of your life transforms. You move from a desperate need to escape your life to the radical embrace of your life.

When this happens, fate is transformed to destiny. Desperation becomes celebration. Grasping becomes purposeful action and resignation becomes activism. The contracted smallness of your frightened suffering self becomes expanded joyful realization of Your Unique Self. At such times, the irreducible human uniqueness of every human being is the invitation to enlightenment. For the full and authentic expression of your uniqueness living in the world as God’s verb, that is, essence living in you, as you and through you, is the essence of enlightenment.

It is from this place that you “Answer the Call.” It is from this place that you give the world your desperately needed “Unique Gifts,” those endowments that derive from your Unique Self. This is what I mean when I talk about Unique Self enlightenment.

Unique Self enlightenment is a genuine possibility and therefore responsibility for every human being. For there is no separation in essence. Every unique expression of essence is part of the seamless coat of the universe. Seamless but not featureless. Failure to clarify the contours of your Unique Self is not a failure of the contracted ego but a failure to love God. For to love God is to let God see through your eyes. Through the unique perspective of essence which is You.

Realizing Your Unique Self and giving your Unique Gifts is the evolution of love which is the evolution of God upon which the future of God depends. There are two key steps involved.

Firstly, you clarify your realization to know that you are not a separate self but a True Self, inseparable from the All.

Secondly, you realize that your True Self has a Unique Perspective. True Self + Perspective = Unique Self. Your Unique Self is able to address a Unique Need that can be addressed by no one else in the world that ever was, is or will be other then you. No one has the capacity to address this unique need in that the way that you are able to do. This is your Unique Gift.

In sum, your obligation and joy in being alive is to clarify your Unique Perspective, realize your Unique Self and give your Unique Gift. This is how you Answer the Call. Transforming your awareness of self to unique Self-consciousness is the change in your life which changes everything.

Democratization of enlightenment therefore does not mean that everyone is enlightened but rather that a full expression of authentic unique essence is a genuine possibility and therefore a genuine delighted obligation for every living being. In other words, it is the joy and responsibility of Answering the Call.

There is an enormous amount of wisdom in both Walsh’s and Gafni’s books, and I am not yet finished, I am hopeful that both of these books can communicate effectively with my brothers and sisters on the path. I have purchased extra copies of both books for my family and friends.


Marc Gafni’s Your Unique Self at Amazon or fine book stores everywhere.

Neale Donald Walsh’s The Only Thing That Matters at Amazon or fine book stores everwhere.

Front Page

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

If John Lennon were living today, he might have written one more verse for his song “Imagine” …

. . .

Imagine there’s no market

It’s not hard if you try

No advertisements, no commercials

Nothing to sell or buy

Imagine all the people

Helping others, in each and every way

. . .

You may say I’m a dreamer,

But I’m not the only one

I hope some day you’ll join us

And the world will live as one
. . .

Imagine a community where the members freely help each other by gifting Goods, Services, Knowledge and Compassion. Where they help each other unconditionally just because they want too.

There are no exchanges. No bartering. No haggling. Just people helping people.  The market roles of sellers and buyers have been transformed into the co-operative roles of GIFTors and GIFTees.  Imagine a new system where every member is both a giver and a receiver of help. As a GIFTor, you meet the needs of other members with your gifts. As GIFTee, your needs are met by receiving the gifts of other members.

Our members understand that we humans are an INTERdependent species —that we depend on each other —that sometimes I will need your help, and sometimes you will need mine.

Imagine the community has a website that displays all the available gifts and all the current needs of its members for browsing and searching. It serves to connect those with gifts to those with needs, and those with needs to those with gifts.

Whenever a gift is given or a need is met, the gifting event is rated by both the GIFTor and the GIFTee. These ratings from one to five stars as well as optional written comments become a permanent part of our member profiles, and serve to inform all members in future gifting events. Within our imagined community, helping others is an open and transparent process.

When you request a gift from another member, they have the opportunity to view your membership history, profile, and read the comments made about your previous gifting events. They may or may not offer the gift to you. All gifting is voluntary.

When you are offered a gift from another member, you have the same opportunity to view their membership history, profile, and read the comments made about their previous gifting events. You may or may not accept the offered gift. All receiving of gifts is voluntary.

When both a GIFTor and GIFTee agree to a gifting event they are provided with contact information so they can meet in the real world.

This gifting process is a move from Market to Co-operation. Our relationships with each other are naturally personal, supportive, and caring. We do best when we treat each other as loving family.

Within gifting community, you will soon discover that the best strategy is to Be Love and to Do Good. Your goodness will be of such value to gifting community, that you can trust the gifting community to insure that you Have Everything you need.


Timothy Wilken, MD

If we are to move beyond adversity and conflict – if we are to move beyond neutrality and anonymity, then we must get to know each other. The secret of creating synergic relationship is WE-ness. Synergic relationship is close and personal. It requires trust, caring and committment. It requires honesty and openness.

Trust is not a new word for humanity. It was coined long ago when the world was first dominated by the adversary way.

Trust –def–> Trust meant that I could rely on you not to hurt me. It was safe to assume that you were not my enemy. Trust meant the ability to rely on the absence of a negative.

Synergic Trust is more that Trust.

Synergic Trust –def–> Synergic trust means that I can rely on you not to hurt me, but further, I can rely on you to help me. It is safe to assume that you are not my enemy, and to further assume that you are my friend. Synergic trust is more than the ability to rely on the absence of a negative. It is that, plus the ability to rely on the presence of a positive.

As children we all taught that it is better to give than to receive. Certainly, that seems like an excellent philosophy for making close relationships and living in the social world. Jesus of Nazareth is credited with saying: “It is Better To Give Than To Receive.”

My focus as a synergic scientist is on understanding how humans can relate together using structures and mechanisms that will insure that all parties to a relationship win. That means that all parties to the relationship feel they are better off with the relationship than they would be without the relationship. Each participant determines for himself whether a relationship is synergic, adversary or neutral. This is determined from his point of view, and he cannot be fooled.

We are either more happy, more effective, more productive because of the relationship; or we are less happy, less effective, less productive because of the relationship, or our happiness, effectiveness and productivity is unchanged by the relationship.

The truth is in the eye of the beholder. We can´t be fooled. However, the effect can be partial. There may be relationships that are partially synergic, and/or partially adversary, and/or partially neutral.

True synergy exists when all the participants of a relationship are more happy, more effective, and more productive. True synergy is WIN-WIN-WIN-WIN. I win, you win, others win and the Earth wins.

In today´s world, most humans use monetary exchange and the fair market to meet their needs. In this paper, I will propose a radically different mechanism that humans could use to meet their needs. I will show that our present system of monetary exchange and fair market while important in the history of our human species is now obsolete.

The mechanism of the Gift Tensegrity is derived from a number of new and old discoveries in synergic science. Synergy means working together – operating together as in Co-Operation – laboring together as in Co-Laboration – acting together as in Co-Action. The goal of synergic union is to accomplish a larger or more difficult task than can be accomplished by individuals working separately. These new and old discoveries include:

1) The Golden Rule – Help others as you would have them help you. And, do not hurt others as you would have them not hurt you.

2) Human INTERdependence – The human condition of INTERdependence means all humans need help. This is important enough that it can not be said too often. All humans need help unless they wish to live at the level of animal subsistence. INTERdependence means sometimes I depend on others and sometimes others depend on me.

Sometimes self is a giver of help. Sometimes self is a receiver of help. Sometimes other is a giver of help. Sometimes other is a receiver of help. Sometimes my actions help others meet their needs. Sometimes other´s actions help me meet my needs.

3) Tensegrity – A tensegrity is a balanced system composed of two elements – a continuous pulling balanced by discontinuous pushes. When these two forces – continuous pulling and discontinuous pushes – are in balance, a stabilized system results that is maximally strong. The larger the system the stronger the system.

The Gift Tensegrity is a new mechanism for the human exchange of goods and services. This new mechanism is radically different from the way we do things today. Nothing really effects our lives more than the way we exchange goods and services. That makes this discovery of potential interest to all humans.

“Give, and it will be given to you.”  “This is a law of life. And the more lavishingly we show kindness and concern, the richer is our life. In what manner we get back what we have given is of minor importance. The only thing that Life promises is that Life pays back all its debts to us.”

Synergic Trust means that while I can rely on you not to hurt me, I can further rely on you to help me. And, while it is safe to assume that you are not my enemy, it is further safe to assume that you are my friend. Synergic trust is much more than simply the ability to rely on the absence of a negative. It is that plus the ability to rely on the presence of a positive. Synergic trust means that I can rely on you, not only to not hurt me, but also to help me.

In the future, we humans can use co-Operation to attract help from others by insuring that those who help us are also helped.

When we co-Operate, others will seek to invest their action with ours for a share of the co-Operators’ surplus. They will understand that when we win, they will win, and they will support and celebrate our every success.

If we humans choose a synergic future, we will trust each other. We will care about each other. We will help each other. Our relationships will be loving positive experiences. We will all win. We will be more together than we can ever be apart.

We humans can create a future based on synergic trust. We can build it by working together. We can heal ourselves and our world by co-Operating. The choice is ours.

GIFTegrity Defined    Read the Scientific Basis for the GIFTegrity     Specifications for a GIFTegrity   More about Gift Economy

If you are new to synergic science, the basics are covered here: We Can All Win!(PDF) See in html: 1) Understanding Life, 2) Three Ways of Relating, 3) The Relationship Continuum, 4) Three Classes of Life, 5) Human Neutrality, 6) INTERdependence is the Human Condition, 7) What is Wealth?


Front Page

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Today on his The Big Picture blog, Barry Ritholtz  recommended the following article which is re-posted from

Thomas Jefferson wrote:

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

Science now affects every aspect of life and is an increasingly important topic in national policymaking. invited thousands of scientists, engineers and concerned citizens to submit what they felt were the the most important science questions facing the nation that the candidates for president should be debating on the campaign trail.

ScienceDebate then worked with a number of the leading US science and engineering organizations to refine the questions and arrive at a universal consensus on what the most important science policy questions facing the United States are in 2012. This is their answer:

The Top American Science Questions in 2012

1. Innovation and the Economy.  Science and technology have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII, when the federal government first prioritized peacetime science mobilization. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?

2. Climate Change.  The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?

3. Research and the Future.  Federally funded research has helped to produce America’s major postwar economies and to ensure our national security, but today the UK, Singapore, China, and Korea are making competitive investments in research.  Given that the next Congress will face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in research in your upcoming budgets?

4. Pandemics and Biosecurity.  Recent experiments show how Avian flu may become transmissible among mammals. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from emerging diseases, global pandemics and/or deliberate biological attacks?

5. Education.  Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st.  In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?

6. Energy.  Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

7. Food.  Thanks to science and technology, the United States has the world’s most productive and diverse agricultural sector, yet many Americans are increasingly concerned about the health and safety of our food.  The use of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, as well as animal diseases and even terrorism pose risks.  What steps would you take to ensure the health, safety and productivity of America’s food supply?

8. Fresh Water.  Less than one percent of the world’s water is liquid fresh water, and scientific studies suggest that a majority of U.S. and global fresh water is now at risk because of increasing consumption, evaporation and pollution.  What steps, if any, should the federal government take to secure clean, abundant fresh water for all Americans?

9. The Internet.  The Internet plays a central role in both our economy and our society.  What role, if any, should the federal government play in managing the Internet to ensure its robust social, scientific, and economic role?

10. Ocean Health.  Scientists estimate that 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are in serious decline, habitats like coral reefs are threatened, and large areas of ocean and coastlines are polluted. What role should the federal government play domestically and through foreign policy to protect the environmental health and economic vitality of the oceans?

11. Science in Public Policy.  We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society, and so must be included in well-informed public policy decisions.  How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information, and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?

12. Space.  The United States is currently in a major discussion over our national goals in space.  What should America’s space exploration and utilization goals be in the 21st century and what steps should the government take to help achieve them?

13. Critical Natural Resources.  Supply shortages of natural resources affect economic growth, quality of life, and national security; for example China currently produces 97% of rare earth elements needed for advanced electronics.  What steps should the federal government take to ensure the quality and availability of critical natural resources?

14. Vaccination and public health.  Vaccination campaigns against preventable diseases such as measles, polio and whooping cough depend on widespread participation to be effective, but in some communities vaccination rates have fallen off sharply. What actions would you support to enforce vaccinations in the interest of public health, and in what circumstances should exemptions be allowed?