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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Superficiality versus depth

I want to write about many things that deeply disturb me. But if I did, most readers would not bother to read my sermons and others would be shaken and annoyed by their implications. So I'll limit myself to commenting briefly on the growing chasm between complexity of a modern society and inability of most everyone living in this society to grasp and follow its complexity. Converse is also true: Since we do not understand the complicated world around us, we resort to the simplistic, narrow, and random snippets we call "our opinions". Most of these snippets have little to do with reality, thus the gap between what is and how we perceive it keeps on widening.

Let's start from something light and uplifting. I keep on hearing good news about the various new sources of energy that will totally displace the existing fuel mix: "Genetically modified bacteria or viruses that produce enough liquid fuels to make crude oil production obsolete." Or "North Dakota is the Saudi Arabia of shale oil." Or "soccer balls with motion devices that charge batteries for evening reading, while the balls are kicked by boys in the afternoon, will replace power stations in Africa." Or "an algae pool in Arizona can produce more gasoline than an oil field." Or "because of increasing crude oil production in the U.S., gasoline price may have peaked forever." Or "fracking (of natural gas wells) is terrible for the environment and contaminates groundwater." Or "cars and trains will be replaced with bikes." Or "technology will always win with geology." Or "cellulosic ethanol is better than corn ethanol." Or whatever.

You probably expect me to debunk each one of these statements using thorough scientific arguments and try to win you over with my correct interpretations. I probably would do just that a year or two ago, but it is too late now. The power of self-deception and wishful, soothing thinking is such that I cannot win with your favorite delusions. Therefore, why should I try?

Like a Tralfamadorian watching Billy Pilgrim, I observe this busy nonsense with an increasing peace of mind. The Tralfamadorians could see in four dimensions (space + time), and have already seen every instant of their lives and that of the Universe. Kurt Vonnegut told us that Tralfamadorians could not choose to change their fates, but they could choose to see any moment in their lives or the lives of others. They believed that when a living creature died, it would continue to live in other times and places. By the way, have you seen that German movie, entitled "The Lives of Others," about the second most efficient homeland security apparatus? I watched it three times.

Just as the Tralfamadorians knew with certainty how the Universe would end because of a botched test by their scientists, I know how this current nonsense will end. But I will not tell you, because you are not ready yet to be a Billy Pilgrim. It takes a lifetime of living as a human display in a Tralfamadorian zoo to understand what matters and what does not.  I am not quite there yet, but am doing my best to retain peace of mind about what unfolds in front of my wide open eyes.  The only small award I can claim is that my children and wife have been successfully inoculated, and will lead wise and good lives regardless of me.  Similarly, many dozens of my students have been inoculated and will help in transforming us into a wiser society without me.  So it  goes.

P.S. Today in the morning I ran along the Half Moon Bay beach.  There was not a soul in sight until I ran into a young couple clad in leather and an old homeless man.  The young man suddenly approached the homeless man and in a clear strong voice asked: "Sir, are you hungry?"  Before the visibly frightened old man could run away, the youngster handed him a big sandwich.  And so it goes...


  1. HEAR the voice of the Bard,
    Who present, past, and future, sees;
    Whose ears have heard
    The Holy Word
    That walk'd among the ancient trees;

    Calling the lapsèd soul,
    And weeping in the evening dew;
    That might control
    The starry pole,
    And fallen, fallen light renew!

    'O Earth, O Earth, return!
    Arise from out the dewy grass!
    Night is worn,
    And the morn
    Rises from the slumbrous mass.

    'Turn away no more;
    Why wilt thou turn away?
    The starry floor,
    The watery shore,
    Is given thee till the break of day.'

  2. This beautiful poem, "Hear the Voice," is by William Blake. Thank you for bringing it to this blog.