Column: Making sense of life, history . . .
“The tao that is taught, is not the Tao.” — LaoTzu
Does your life “make sense”? Does that question mean anything to you?
As an historian, it is my profession to make sense of The Past. For certain, the past that is my life is not exempt from my effort to find meaning and sensibility in it.
Of news and explanation
“What if god was one of us?” –Joan Osbourne
You are human, and humans need meaning. The need originates in consciousness. God(s) is one, ancient way we’ve responded. It’s not a universally-satisfactory response to the need for meaning.
Every day, you consume news, more than likely. Who makes sense of news for you? The journalists who report? I’m a loyal CBC-news consumer. I so often hear earnest declarations from (liberal) Adrienne Arsenault or (empathetic) Ian Hanomansing urging us to trust CBC, as “we help you make sense of the news.”
But the task of making sense is the consumer’s responsibility, not the journalists’. They can’t do it; human obstacles prevent them. You must do it.
Every day, you experience feelings and thoughts. You understand yourself: making experience make sense. It is a commonplace observation that the Delphic Oracle admonished visitors to “know thyself:” gnothi seauton. Socrates added force to the axiom, saying “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But you cannot automatically carry interior understanding of Self to the level of the exterior world.
“Please don’t kill the machine.” — Neil Young
Here’s a topic for making sense of the human world: artificial intelligence. Macleans magazine has made AI its special-November-edition cover.
I dislike AI on principle. It is artificial. It is artifice/culture/nurture. Therefore it’s subject to malformation (already manifesting in it). And it’s intelligence: thinking; not-feeling, not-conscious. It’s manufactured, an invention. Our species has a poor historical record for not controlling our tools.
We know they have a shadow side, yet we push ahead technology that has ruined ecosystems, caused unspeakable horror when applied to slavery and empire, and in the case of weapons-of-war, progressively leads to non-combatant death tolls in exponentially-increased numbers.
Humans have not eliminated war, nor atrocities like genocide, slavery, ecocide, and extreme inequality. Why trust such a species to employ AI with better results than we have had with our capitalist social order and scientific innovations like gunpowder or cars? Intelligence is not the only quality of human being we value; body, heart, and soul, have always mattered to us.
Yet AI has no physical fear as we do of mortality, no heart where our emotions originate, no soul where human spirit resides. AI is a very limited being to be put in charge of human destinies, yet it’s trending to that destination. Our efforts at control do not give me confidence.
Sense and Living
“Thank God — it’s not that simple, in my secret life.” — Leonard Cohen
Will the much-greater intelligence of AI reveal to humans the meaning of a human being alive? No chance of that. AI cannot comprehend meaning. To find meanings in human experience is not part of its constitution.
Humans made AI We’d be fools to imagine AI will see meaning in their origin or in us as creators. Meaning comes from heart and soul and mortality. The Sixth Stage of humans’ process for imminent death is finding meaning. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507885/
God? A help, a hope — for some. A mystery, a provocation, childishness — to others.
War and good intentions
“I will help you if I can, I will kill you if I must.” — Cohen
Gaza and Ukraine haunt news-consumers in the West today. In war we see humans at their worst. In war we see the lack of sense in our species.
[free, profound books on war here: https://epdf.pub/queue/ride-of-the-second-horseman-the-birth-and-death-of-war.html and https://silo.pub/a-terrible-love-of-war.html ]
Charles Eisenstein asserts the war in Gaza is the pivot to find peace…
Andrew Coyne says the West must possess “moral certitude” to defeat foes on Ukraine’s and Israel’s frontiers.
Niall Ferguson fears the West can decline so fast it becomes a Fall, unless we recover past virtues.
Naoise MacSweeney declares Western Civilization cannot let critics deny all its goods, nor let the triumphalists say “West is best”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=quP2TD8IGk0
“War is a force that gives us meaning.”* Does that make sense to you and your experience?
History and Canadian-Indigenous Reconciliation
“They built up with their bare hands what we still can’t do today.” — Neil Young, Cortez the Killer
Martin Scorsese’s current much-discussed film, Killers of the Flower Moon, must motivate Canadian film-makers to create a similarly-iconic film from history. We need a potent story to put the injustice and criminality of colonist activity among natives front-and-centre in public consciousness.
Canada needs this conversation, truth, reconciliation. But with precise definition, not rhetoric, on “evils” of colonizers. Attacking symbols accomplishes too little, substantively.
Histories of Canada, of Western society, demands nuance. We are not the worst civilization ever. And, the injustice of annihilating indigenous societies needs present-day restitution. We have to create restorative justice while not succumbing to self-loathing for ancestral wrongs.
I cannot extract meaning from my observations of recent world news, but conclusions from my own writing… I can. I intend intellectual nurture when I write, for readers meandering like me in swamps of bewilderment. I apologize if the nutrition fails.
- An individual finds meaning for oneself. But: we need other people; so first, one has to talk to others – some loved, some not — about our world, before we go to our interior to discover sense in the data. Meaning is not found in vacuums.
- One has to limit consumption of news. It’s not generally uplifting to the spirit. Monitor inflows
- Forgiveness for historical wrongs is a necessity, beyond argument. Humility for error, ditto.
- There is no one who would not benefit from reading quality history by quality scholars.