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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Where Now?

Two years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a blog, The Bird of Dawn, full of hope for the indomitable human spirit which can transcend and erode all repression, whether religious or political. A year ago, in The Way We Were, I connected the liberal Western Civilization, where my soul and body reside, to its ancient Greek roots. Both pieces have been wildly popular with the readers around the world, because they spelled out hope for humanity and its future.

Today we are in Cefalù in Sicily, immersed again in a simpler world of the past, the world which graces us only occasionally when we leave our thoroughly modern, connected academic cocoon, powered by a high-rate throughput of fossil fuels that appear mostly as research funding, electricity, computers, and airplane tickets. Compared with Cefalù’s Arab fortress of 1063, and the Norman cathedral with the magnificent twelfth century mosaics our world is truly ephemeral. It cannot last for longer than a few more decades. Yet, this realization never bothered me, because another successful civilization would likely replace, I thought, what we have now. So far so good, were it not for the year 2016, which delivered a powerful jolt to the millions of people like me.
This Arab castle in Cefalù was built in 1063, renovated by the Normans, and burned three centuries later. Photo by Patzek, 12/24/2016.

For me the biggest shock was realization that we are not in full control of our complex brains. While I warned about it a year ago, I really thought that the primitive reptilian brain can dominate only relatively few people and others will compensate. Boy, was I wrong! I call 2016 the year of erupting primitivism, powered and assisted by modern technology that now unites the creepy reptilians around the world and feeds their hallucinations. With modern communication networks, hardware like the smart phone, and software like Facebook and Twitter we have created a myriad of mutually-abetting tribes out of the scared, confused, and angry people everywhere. These people are lashing out at anything they perceive as being not them. All this is deadly for civilization and democracy everywhere.

A year ago, I did not believe that the European Union project that united arguably the most sophisticated societies in human history, might be a thing of the past in another year or so. I did not believe that an ominous sociopath would be elected president of my country, the most powerful nation on the earth. And I did not believe that so many psychopaths would be dominating other places, including my old country, Poland. The feeling is truly sickening, but what are we to do?

One way, familiar to all scientists of the world, is to understand and analyze the problem. Indeed, many of my close friends have been pursuing this approach with gusto. Yesterday, one of them, a famous ecologist from Canada, wrote:
 …The human brain evolved in stages with each new neural component becoming integrated with pre-existing structures. The cerebral cortex—the seat of reason, self-awareness, analytic prowess, language and voluntary movement in humans—is the most recent major ‘add-on’. It comprises the bulk of the cerebral hemispheres in humans but was essentially layered-over the evolutionarily older limbic system (complex emotions, motivation, relationships) and the truly ancient (reptilian) brain stem (basic emotions, autonomic functions, survival instincts [including lying and cheating]). While each of these ‘sub-brains’ and related components are structurally distinct, the brain functions as an integrated whole; expressed human behavior generally reflects a complex interplay of rational, emotional and instinctive impulses.  
 …Two major points follow from these behavioral realities. First, most expressed human behavior, from routine one-on-one interaction to international political posturing, is shaped, in part, by innate subconscious mental processes and their associated chemical/hormonal agents. Second, everyone will eventually encounter circumstances in which high intelligence founders absolutely. When physically attacked, or when hard-won socio-political status or political or economic power are under threat, people’s defensive emotions may combine with sheer survival instinct to override more rational thought in shaping their response. Passion often trumps reason…
He is spot on. But my question is, so what?! What changes if we understand these psychological subtleties? Aren’t we better off looking carefully around when we walk down a street or buy a last-minute present at a Christmas market? Otherwise, we might end up like Pythagoras who, according to one story, calmly warned an intruding Syracusan soldier against disturbing his mental concentration. Undeterred, the Syracusan pierced the old man with his sword. And that was that. One of the greatest philosophers and mathematicians of all times was slaughtered and the soldier marched on. Talk about situation unawareness.

My advice to myself and others goes like this: I never try to completely understand and control the circumstances in which I find myself. Instead, I try to learn and estimate, and adapt and act. I call this approach adaptive, open-loop, process-based control. Thus far, thinking-and-acting have served me well and prevented from stumbling into many objectively inevitable disasters, including the martial law in Poland in 1981; the disintegration of Shell’s research in 1990; the post-2007, self-inflicted decline of the University of California at Berkeley; and the precipitous fall of oil price in 2015. Each time, an ounce thinking and a pound of action have prevented me from falling flat on my face and dragging my family down. I have also avoided making the morally dubious compromises I abhor. And this I wish you all. Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!
This beautiful, fearless young woman in Rafael's last painting, The Transfiguration (1619), is hope for humanity. Photo by Patzek, the Vatican Museum, 12/22/2016.
P.S.  Of course, Mr. Trump was helped not only by the Russians, but also by the disconnected, delusional Democrats.  Here is my rejected reader's comment I sent to the New York Times in early November. I was reacting to yet another light-on-reality editorial:
Yesterday, I watched on Al Jazeera International the "Fault Lines" program about rural West Virginia. AJI is virtually unknown in the U.S. and likely the best source of in-depth, heart-wrenching reporting in the world. The reporters interviewed several destitute, mostly jobless people in the run-down, desperately poor mining counties there. These people made an incredible emotional investment in Mr. Trump, who will betray them infinitely more than us. One woman, a volunteer from Mr. Trump, said crying that she would kill herself if Mr. Trump does not win. Think about it. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately, especially when I listen to the empty talk by Mrs. Clinton, for whom I already voted.