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Saturday, August 7, 2021

Neuroexistentialism...really?

 David Wallace-Wells, of the New York Times, writes (global warming) this all-encompassing threat is now the theatre to which all our stories unfold.” (Humanity’s Greatest Existential Crisis, by William Walkley, in newamerica.org/weekly April 18, 2019)…Walkley again quotes Wallace-Wells from a public address, ‘We have an incredible ability to normalize a grotesque amount of suffering’ (Op. Cit.)

Naturally, such ability to normalize huge amounts of suffering lead to inaction on a number of fronts. Normalizing suffering is another way of saying, we have an ability to fail to see, or to recognize, or to fail to want to see, or to refuse to acknowledge. Ostriches, with their head in the sand, have nothing on us. Ephret Livni, writing in Quartz, in a piece entitled “Feeling anxious? It’s not just you, it’s our philosophical era of neuroexistentialism,’ January 25, 2019, says this:

It’s not easy being human. It never was, really, if William Shakespeare is to be believed. In the 16th century, the playwright noted that ‘life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ Neuroscience is increasingly confirming this view. The more scientists learn about the human brain and how it operates, the more obvious it is that being human is no big deal. We’re just animals, complex biological systems operating according to the laws of nature-from physics to biology and chemistry Many scientists, like the late Stephen Hawking, and philosophers like Duke University professor of philosophy and neurobiology Owen Flanagan and SUNY University professor of philosophy Gregg Caruso in a recent issue of The Philosophers Magazine argue that we have no soul, no fixed self, and no inherent purpose. We exist simply because we exist, tiny specks on a small planet in qn infinite universe, and not because a god made the Earth for us…..Collectively, whether we’re aware of the effects of scientific findings specifically or not, much of society is suffering a crisis of ‘neuroexistentialism,’ according to Flanagan and Caruso. ‘Today there is a third-wave existentialism, neuroexistentialism, which expresses the anxiety that, even as science yields the truth about human nature, it also disenchants, they write.

Both Shakespeare and the contemporary neurobiologists/philosophers, independently ‘frame’ the human condition as ‘signifying nothing’ and yet, centuries of different perspectives have attempted to elevate the human being (and thereby the human condition) to a higher plane. Phrases like “more perfect union” and “equal justice for all” and the sacred right to vote, and the elevation of democracy to an ideal, in addition to a political theory and praxis. If we are caught between the seemingly polar opposites of “our better angels” and insignificance, and we tend to be sliding toward a heavily weighted scale in favour of the latter, there seem to be several spin-offs that just might be emerging.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s epithet, “You are entitled to your opinion but not your own facts” seems to have eroded, if not evaporated from the public square. Millions are simply replacing a body of agreed facts with their own opinions that supplant the need for, and the dependence on any body of agreed facts. Consequently, for many, there simply IS no climate change or global warming; science and scientists, too, have been trashed (on the virus, vaccines, therapeutics, and preventives). Political ambition on steroids renders, or attempts to render, individuals immune to empirical evidence. If we are all sitting on a precipice about to fall into the ocean of nothingness, then, it seems that one last gasp of “whatever” (narcissism, fascism, racism, sexism, homophobia, selfishness and even a resorting to the law of the jungle) have become the new norm. Seeking to appear powerful, irrespective of holding any principles, or even an ideology, for the sake of the “hunt” for the kill, in a zero-sum political equivalent to the Roman coliseum’s kill or be killed, seems to give proof of our basest animal instincts. That process also repudiates, not merely ignores, any ‘higher’ moral ambition to collaborate, to compromise and to seek a higher ground of what some would call responsibility.

Greece, Turkey, California, British Columbia….they are all being consumed by fire as I write this. Friends in Vernon B.C. when asked what they need most, reply simply and poignantly and even hopelessly, “a rain dance!” Species of both flora and fauna are disappearing hourly; the oceans are filling up with garbage, as are the landfills, as the air becomes increasingly dangerous to breathe. Hundreds of thousands of people in all countries, have died because they “couldn’t breath’ as the final life-destroying symptom of COVID-19. Millions either defiantly and categorically refuse to be vaccinated, opening the door for the DELTA variant, and the potential of even more dangerous variants, as the spread of the virus spikes even in what were conventionally considered ‘developed’ nations like the United States.

Power differentials, superior/inferior, are a form of plague, imposed primarily by those who hold power. Income spreads, food scarcities, drug-overdose deaths, mass shootings, hate crimes, and even road carnage are all rising in frequency and severity. “What’s in it for me?” has replaced the former maxim of the movie Wall Street, “Greed is good!” Literalism, and the reductionisms that flow therefrom, takes all metaphoric mountains and their streams and flattens them into arid flatlands. Bottom lines, expressed in an erosion of volunteerism, in another demise of community, not to mention the emptying of many sanctuaries, mosques and synagogues, teach our kids that two thousand years of enlightenment are replaceable by neuroexistentialism.

If we are to burn (or even worse to permit the burning of) all our perceptions and values of a potential of living together and replace them with the law of the jungle, we are falling into the literal snare of meaninglessness, purposelessness and a literal, individual fight for survival at its most base level. Phrases like “Our brother’s keeper” and ‘empathy, compassion, and sharing’ blow across the plains of our consciousness like tumbleweed drying out even further the fertility of the soil of our imaginations, not to mention our sources of food. The indigenous concept of a partnership with mother earth, a respect for and an honouring of the fruits of food, shelter and clothing, through a time perspective of something approaching and evocative of timelessness, is both ignored and dismissed as somehow merely appropriate for “those” others.

Of course, there are a plethora of programs, government-based, philanthropic-engendered, outreaches on behalf of attempting to support struggling survivors of the many ‘plagues’ like famine, war, hopelessness, and voicelessness….as if to assuage our anxiety and psychic pain of indifference….unless and until some single image jolts us into a ‘new’ consciousness of seeming to care.

We champion billionaires, as models of success for our children to emulate. We pour billions into weapons, into intelligence and national security, into espionage, and into competing with others whose leaders and people are not “as good” as we are.,…when we all know that such a claim is pure propaganda. And those billionaires wield direct and indirect political and cultural influence far beyond their intellect, far beyond their compassion, and far beyond their imaginations.

In the midst of this burning landscape, suffocating oceans and lakes and rivers, and armies of families attempting the ultimate walk to freedom, while there are tiny ripples of sound and rhythm of hope and empathy and compassion, the overriding cacophony of selfishness drowns out those melodies and harmonies.

Another symptom perhaps of this neuroexistentialism is the rising tolerance and even championing of parochialism, nationalism, community resistance to change in favour of ‘preserving’ the past through the monuments of figures and patterns long ago irrelevant to the contemporary consciousness. Some might argue that as men (males) see their/our dominance in all aspects of human existence wane, long after its expiry date, there is a frightened gasp to demonstrate alpha power, defiance of reason and empathy, rejection of facts and responsibility, escape from all forms of shame and guilt, and a Dionysian pursuit of both personal power and a kind of ‘freedom’ that tolerates no limits. The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which sometimes used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques  (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state. (Wikipedia)

There has for centuries been a tension between a view of the epicurean* and the stoic# as to the “better” approach to human existence. If the definition and meaning and implications of the word “nature” are being re-evaluated today, then it would follow that many of the assumptions of religion, thought, human potential, expectations and the relationship between the empirical and the imagination require a new look. For some, that frontier abounds with opportunity, challenge, creativity, promise and hope; for others it signals doom, dystopia, apocalypse and devastation. Just as the extremes of any continuum have traditionally attracted a minority, so too do the extremes of individual beliefs and perceptions require and warrant a leaven of salt, a kind of preservative/conservative/detachment that disentangles the absolutes from their capacity to sabotage.

Scepticism not only permits ambiguity; it requires it. And the sceptic, it seems is not longer an accepted member of the totalitarian right-wing cults that are popping up in many places. Belonging to a cult, or a terrorist organization, or even a apocalyptic belief system, taken literally, opens one to the mind-control of personality….especially charismatic personalities. And such personalities have been thrust into the limelight, in a vain attempt to provide ‘role models’ for youth being parented and educated in a culture of classical conditioning. It is not a surprise, really, that the former president of the U.S. came out of the jungle of real estate developers who broke many planning and standards expectations in the pursuit of sheer profit….given that sheer profit has replace much of the more sustaining appetites that help society to function effectively. Manipulating the message and the delivery systems, it seems, one can attract millions to one’s person/cause, in the mistaken perception and belief that  “I alone can fix it!”

Susceptibility to lies, big and small, continues to plague much of the populace and the discourse in the  United States, and those fires of deceptive propaganda help to fuel the negligence on global warming and climate change. Carl Bernstein  calls trump a ‘war criminal’ for his part in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans whose lives could and should have been preserved, but for trump’s criminal negligence.

However, once Bernstein’s call went out, silence has, like a dark and still night, enshrouded the quote. It has slipped below the public consciousness in the U.S. for the simple reason that Americans are among the best at ‘sucking-it-up” in order to demonstrate a unique capacity to “normalize a grotesque amount of suffering”. Ironically, this capacity is not the hallmark of a strong and health nation, no matter the latest figures of job creation and DOW data.

Individuals like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, both highly developed and talented performers in their respective events (gymnastics and tennis respectively) may ultimately bring the edifice of “sucking-it-up” down in a heap of long-repressed tears, as if the “Berlin wall” of the denial of human emotions finally gave way to a much more integral and pervasive truth: we are not “things” to be molded and programmed and performing for a gold medal. We are far more complex, vulnerable, interesting, and also empathic than too many have wanted us to be for far too long.

The moment our puppy recognizes that she has inflicted even a second of discomfort, in her play with her family, she is immediately able to withdraw, and then to administer comfort, compassion, and empathy, through her multiple displays of body language. This too is part of nature, whether or not it is implicated in our neuroexistentialism. And her demonstration of her ‘connection’ in language beyond words, is a sign of hope for our relationship with her, and a model of hope for the world.

Whether or not that model conforms to purposelessness and meaninglessness, I do not know. For me, it is more than enough to want to engage and to sustain the relationship with her. And that, too, is worth the doing.

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