Autor si pokládá zajímavé otázky a v knize je postupně zodpovídá neuvěřitelně komplexním pohledem.
What does the rise of Donald Trump signify? What can we do about the epidemic of fake news? Why is liberal democracy in crisis? Is God back? Is a new world war coming? Which civilisation dominates the world–the West, China, Islam? Should Europe keep its doors open to immigrants? Can nationalism solve the problems of inequality and climate change? What should we do about terrorism?Who are we? What should we do in life? What kinds of skills do we need? Given everything we know and don’t know about science, about God, about politics and about religion–what can we say about the meaning of life today?
7 billion people have 7 billion agendas, and as already noted, thinking about the big picture is a relatively rare luxury. A single mother struggling to raise two children in a Mumbai slum is focused on the next meal; refugees in a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean scan the horizon for any sign of land; and a dying man in an overcrowded London hospital gathers all his remaining strength to take in one more breath. They all have far more urgent problems than global warming or the crisis of liberal democracy
My agenda here is global. I look at the major forces that shape societies all over the world, and that are likely to influence the future of our planet as a whole. Climate change may be far beyond the concerns of people in the midst of a life-and-death emergency, but it might eventually make the Mumbai slums uninhabitable, send enormous new waves of refugees across the Mediterranean, and lead to a worldwide crisis in healthcare.
Big Data algorithms might create digital dictatorships in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite while most people suffer not from exploitation, but from something far worse–irrelevance.
Since the corporations and entrepreneurs who lead the technological revolution naturally tend to sing the praises of their creations, it falls to sociologists, philosophers and historians like myself to sound the alarm and explain all the ways things can go terribly wrong.
Part I: The Technological Challenge
In 1938 the condition of the common person in the USSR, Germany or the USA may have been grim, but he was constantly told that he was the most important thing in the world, and that he was the future (provided, of course, that he was an ‘ordinary person’ rather than a Jew or an African). He looked at the propaganda posters–which typically depicted coal miners, steelworkers and housewives in heroic poses–and saw himself there: ‘I am in that poster! I am the hero of the future!’ In 2018 the common person feels increasingly irrelevant. Lots of mysterious words are bandied around excitedly in TED talks, government think tanks and hi-tech conferences–globalisation, blockchain, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, machine learning–and common people may well suspect that none of these words are about them. The liberal story was the story of ordinary people. How can it remain relevant to a world of cyborgs and networked algorithms?
Perhaps even Westerners should take a break from trying to run the world, and focus on their own affairs for a change? This is arguably what is happening all over the globe, as the vacuum left by the breakdown of liberalism is tentatively filled by nostalgic fantasies about some local golden past. Donald Trump coupled his calls for American isolationism with a promise to ‘Make America Great Again’–as if the USA of the 1980s or 1950s was a perfect society that Americans should somehow recreate in the twenty-first century. The Brexiteers dream of making Britain an independent power, as if they were still living in the days of Queen Victoria and as if ‘splendid isolation’ were a viable policy for the era of the Internet and global warming. Chinese elites have rediscovered their native imperial and Confucian legacies, as a supplement or even substitute for the doubtful Marxist ideology they imported from the West. In Russia, Putin’s official vision is not to build a corrupt oligarchy, but rather to resurrect the old tsarist empire. A century after the Bolshevik Revolution, Putin promises a return to ancient tsarist glories with an autocratic government buoyed by Russian nationalism and Orthodox piety spreading its might from the Baltic to the Caucasus.
Most humans never enjoyed greater peace or prosperity than they did under the aegis of the liberal order of the early twenty-first century. For the first time in history, infectious diseases kill fewer people than old age, famine kills fewer people than obesity, and violence kills fewer people than accidents.
In the last few decades research in areas such as neuroscience and behavioural economics allowed scientists to hack humans, and in particular to gain a much better understanding of how humans make decisions. It turned out that our choices of everything from food to mates result not from some mysterious free will, but rather from billions of neurons calculating probabilities within a split second. Vaunted ‘human intuition’ is in reality ‘pattern recognition’.
Can you guess how long it took AlphaZero to learn chess from scratch, prepare for the match against Stockfish, and develop its genius instincts? Four hours. That’s not a typo. For centuries, chess was considered one of the crowning glories of human intelligence. AlphaZero went from utter ignorance to creative mastery in four hours, without the help of any human guide.
Human happiness depends less on objective conditions and more on our own expectations. Expectations, however, tend to adapt to conditions, including to the condition of other people.
‘What do you feel about it?’ You might object that people were asked ‘What do you think?’ rather than ‘What do you feel?’, but this is a common misperception. Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality. If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights–or perhaps any voting rights. There is ample evidence that some people are far more knowledgeable and rational than others, certainly when it comes to specific economic and political questions. In the wake of the Brexit vote, eminent biologist Richard Dawkins protested that the vast majority of the British public–including himself–should never have been asked to vote in the referendum, because they lacked the necessary background in economics and political science.
Elections and referendums are not about what we think. They are about what we feel.
This reliance on the heart might prove to be the Achilles heel of liberal democracy. For once somebody (whether in Beijing or in San Francisco) gains the technological ability to hack and manipulate the human heart, democratic politics will mutate into an emotional puppet show.
Feelings aren’t based on intuition, inspiration or freedom–they are based on calculation.
Feelings are thus not the opposite of rationality–they embody evolutionary rationality. We usually fail to realise that feelings are in fact calculations, because the rapid process of calculation occurs far below our threshold of awareness. We don’t feel the millions of neurons in the brain computing probabilities of survival and reproduction, so we erroneously believe that our fear of snakes, our choice of sexual mates, or our opinions about the European Union are the result of some mysterious ‘free will’.
It is one thing to continue smoking despite general statistics that connect smoking with lung cancer. It is a very different thing to continue smoking despite a concrete warning from a biometric sensor that has just detected seventeen cancerous cells in your upper left lung. And if you are willing to defy the sensor, what will you do when the sensor forwards the warning to your insurance agency, your manager, and your mother?
Yet even in allegedly free societies, algorithms might gain authority because we will learn from experience to trust them on more and more issues, and will gradually lose our ability to make decisions for ourselves. Just think of the way that within a mere two decades, billions of people have come to entrust the Google search algorithm with one of the most important tasks of all: searching for relevant and trustworthy information.
When all is said and done, would you rather the car next to you was driven by a drunk teenager, or by the Schumacher–Kant team?
Well, maybe Tesla will just leave it to the market. Tesla will produce two models of the self-driving car: the Tesla Altruist and the Tesla Egoist. In an emergency, the Altruist sacrifices its owner to the greater good, whereas the Egoist does everything in its power to save its owner, even if it means killing the two kids. Customers will then be able to buy the car that best fits their favourite philosophical view. If more people buy the Tesla Egoist, you won’t be able to blame Tesla for that. After all, the customer is always right.
Imagine the situation: you have bought a new car, but before you can start using it, you must open the settings menu and tick one of several boxes. In case of an accident, do you want the car to sacrifice your life–or to kill the family in the other vehicle? Is this a choice you even want to make? Just think of the arguments you are going to have with your husband about which box to tick.
Already today whenever Palestinians make a phone call, post something on Facebook or travel from one city to another they are likely to be monitored by Israeli microphones, cameras, drones or spy software. The gathered data is then analysed with the aid of Big Data algorithms. This helps the Israeli security forces to pinpoint and neutralise potential threats without having to place too many boots on the ground. The Palestinians may administer some towns and villages in the West Bank, but the Israelis control the sky, the airwaves and cyberspace. It therefore takes surprisingly few Israeli soldiers to effectively control about 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank.
We are researching and developing human abilities mainly according to the immediate needs of the economic and political system, rather than according to our own long-term needs as conscious beings. My boss wants me to answer emails as quickly as possible, but he has little interest in my ability to taste and appreciate the food I am eating. Consequently, I check my emails even during meals, while losing the ability to pay attention to my own sensations. The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentives to expand and diversify my compassion. So I strive to understand the mysteries of the stock exchange, while making far less effort to understand the deep causes of suffering.
We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk, but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious and less resourceful. We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but these data-cows hardly maximise the human potential. Indeed we have no idea what the full human potential is, because we know so little about the human mind. And yet we hardly invest much in exploring the human mind, and instead focus on increasing the speed of our Internet connections and the efficiency of our Big Data algorithms. If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.
Already today, the richest 1 per cent owns half the world’s wealth. Even more alarmingly, the richest hundred people together own more than the poorest 4 billion.
Ordinary humans will find it very difficult to resist this process. At present, people are happy to give away their most valuable asset–their personal data–in exchange for free email services and funny cat videos. It is a bit like African and Native American tribes who unwittingly sold entire countries to European imperialists in exchange for colourful beads and cheap trinkets. If, later on, ordinary people decide to try and block the flow of data, they might find it increasingly difficult, especially as they might come to rely on the network for all their decisions, and even for their healthcare and physical survival.
Part II: The Political Challenge
Humans lived for millions of years without religions and without nations–they can probably live happily without them in the twenty-first century, too. Yet they cannot live happily if they are disconnected from their bodies. If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.
European civilisation is anything Europeans make of it, just as Christianity is anything Christians make of it, Islam is anything Muslims make of it, and Judaism is anything Jews make of it. And they have made of it remarkably different things over the centuries. Human groups are defined more by the changes they undergo than by any continuity, but they nevertheless manage to create for themselves ancient identities thanks to their storytelling skills. No matter what revolutions they experience, they can usually weave old and new into a single yarn.
People care far more about their enemies than about their trade partners. For every American film about Taiwan, there are probably fifty about Vietnam.
So when you watch the Tokyo Games in 2020, remember that this seeming competition between nations actually represents an astonishing global agreement. For all the national pride people feel when their delegation wins a gold medal and their flag is raised, there is far greater reason to feel pride that humankind is capable of organising such an event.
Identity is defined by conflicts and dilemmas more than by agreements. What does it mean to be European in 2018? It doesn’t mean to have white skin, to believe in Jesus Christ, or to uphold liberty. Rather, it means to argue vehemently about immigration, about the EU, and about the limits of capitalism. It also means to obsessively ask yourself ‘what defines my identity?’ and to worry about an ageing population, about rampant consumerism and about global warming.
The big challenges of the twenty-first century will be global in nature. What will happen when climate change triggers ecological catastrophes? What will happen when computers outperform humans in more and more tasks, and replace them in an increasing number of jobs? What will happen when biotechnology enables us to upgrade humans and extend lifespans?
Though humankind is very far from constituting a harmonious community, we are all members of a single rowdy global civilisation.
The problem starts when benign patriotism morphs into chauvinistic ultra-nationalism. Instead of believing that my nation is unique–which is true of all nations–I might begin feeling that my nation is supreme, that I owe it my entire loyalty, and that I have no significant obligations to anyone else.
Russia and the USA have recently embarked on a new nuclear arms race, developing novel doomsday machines that threaten to undo the hard-won gains of the last decades and bring us back to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Meanwhile the public have learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (as suggested in Dr Strangelove), or have just forgotten about its existence.
Thus the Brexit debate in Britain–a major nuclear power–revolved mainly around questions of economics and immigration, while the vital contribution of the EU to European and global peace has largely been ignored. After centuries of terrible bloodshed, French, Germans, Italians and Britons have finally built a mechanism that ensures continental harmony–only to have the British public throw a spanner into the miracle machine.
As long as humans know how to enrich uranium and plutonium, their survival depends on privileging the prevention of nuclear war over the interests of any particular nation.
Consider, for example, the use of phosphorus as a fertiliser. In small quantities it is an essential nutrient for the growth of plants. But in excessive amounts it becomes toxic. Modern industrial farming is based on artificially fertilising the fields with plenty of phosphorus, but the high-phosphorus run-off from the farms subsequently poisons rivers, lakes and oceans, with a devastating impact on marine life. A farmer growing corn in Iowa might thus inadvertently kill fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
However, agriculture, cities and complex societies have existed for no more than 10,000 years. During this period, known as the Holocene, Earth’s climate has been relatively stable. Any deviation from Holocene standards will present human societies with enormous challenges they never encountered before. It will be like conducting an open-ended experiment on billions of human guinea pigs. Even if human civilisation eventually adapts to the new conditions, who knows how many victims might perish in the process of adaptation.
Unfortunately, as of 2018, instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the global emission rate is still increasing. Humanity has very little time left to wean itself from fossil fuels. We need to enter rehab today. Not next year or next month, but today. ‘Hello, I am Homo sapiens, and I am a fossil-fuel addict.’
At present the meat industry not only inflicts untold misery on billions of sentient beings, but it is also one of the chief causes of global warming, one of the main consumers of antibiotics and poison, and one of the foremost polluters of air, land and water. According to a 2013 report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, it takes about 15,000 litres of fresh water to produce one kilogram of beef, compared to 287 litres needed to produce a kilogram of potatoes.
This might sound like science fiction, but the world’s first clean hamburger was grown from cells–and then eaten–in 2013. It cost $ 330,000. Four years of research and development brought the price down to $ 11 per unit, and within another decade industrially produced clean meat is expected to be cheaper than slaughtered meat. This technological development could save billions of animals from a life of abject misery, could help feed billions of malnourished humans, and could simultaneously help to prevent ecological meltdown.
Some countries, most notably Russia, might actually benefit from it. Russia has relatively few coastline assets, hence it is far less worried than China or Kiribati about rising sea levels. And whereas higher temperatures are likely to turn Chad into a desert, they might simultaneously turn Siberia into the breadbasket of the world. Moreover, as the ice melts in the far north, the Russian-dominated Arctic sea lanes might become the artery of global commerce, and Kamchatka might replace Singapore as the crossroads of the world.
Similarly, replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources is likely to appeal to some countries more than to others. China, Japan and South Korea depend on importing huge quantities of oil and gas. They will be delighted to be free of that burden. Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia depend on exporting oil and gas. Their economies will collapse if oil and gas suddenly give way to solar and wind.
Global warming, in contrast, is a more vague and protracted menace. Hence whenever long-term environmental considerations demand some painful short-term sacrifice, nationalists might be tempted to put immediate national interests first, and reassure themselves that they can worry about the environment later, or just leave it to people elsewhere. Alternatively, they may simply deny the problem. It isn’t a coincidence that scepticism about climate change tends to be the preserve of the nationalist right. You rarely see left-wing socialists tweet that ‘climate change is a Chinese hoax’. Since there is no national answer to the problem of global warming, some nationalist politicians prefer to believe the problem does not exist.
In order to make wise choices about the future of life we need to go way beyond the nationalist viewpoint and look at things from a global or even a cosmic perspective.
Even on a united planet there will be plenty of room for the kind of patriotism that celebrates the uniqueness of my nation and stresses my special obligations towards it. Yet if we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement such local loyalties with substantial obligations towards a global community. A person can and should be loyal simultaneously to her family, her neighbourhood, her profession and her nation–why not add humankind and planet Earth to that list?
Rather, to globalise politics means that political dynamics within countries and even cities should give far more weight to global problems and interests.
Hundreds of years ago, religions such as Christianity and Islam already thought in global rather than local terms, and they were always keenly interested in the big questions of life rather than just in the political struggles of this or that nation.
Even mental illness–the last bastion of religious healers–is gradually passing into the hand of the scientists, as neurology replaces demonology and Prozac supplants exorcism.
Traditional religions have lost so much turf because, frankly, they just weren’t very good in farming or healthcare. The true expertise of priests and gurus has never really been rainmaking, healing, prophecy or magic. Rather, it has always been interpretation. A priest is not somebody who knows how to perform the rain dance and end the drought. A priest is somebody who knows how to justify why the rain dance failed, and why we must keep believing in our god even though he seems deaf to all our prayers.
That’s why scientists gradually learn how to grow better crops and make better medicines, whereas priests and gurus learn only how to make better excuses.
Take for example the question whether to grant AI the authority to make decisions about people’s lives–choosing for you what to study, where to work, and whom to marry. What is the Muslim position on that question? What is the Jewish position? There are no ‘Muslim’ or ‘Jewish’ positions here. Humankind is likely to be divided into two main camps–those in favour of giving AI significant authority, and those opposed to it. Muslims and Jews are likely to be found in both camps, and to justify whichever position they espouse through imaginative interpretations of the Quran and the Talmud.
However, though they may quote various biblical passages in defence of their positions, the real source of their difference will be in modern scientific theories and political movements, not in the Bible. From this perspective, religion doesn’t really have much to contribute to the great policy debates of our time. As Karl Marx argued, it is just a veneer.
Human power depends on mass cooperation, mass cooperation depends on manufacturing mass identities–and all mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities. In the twenty-first century, the division of humans into Jews and Muslims or into Russians and Poles still depends on religious myths. Attempts by Nazis and communists to scientifically determine human identities of race and class proved to be dangerous pseudo-science, and since then scientists have been extremely reluctant to help define any ‘natural’ identities for human beings.
In order to draw firm lines in the shifting sands of humanity, religions use rites, rituals and ceremonies. Shiites, Sunnis and Orthodox Jews wear different clothes, chant different prayers, and observe different taboos. These differing religious traditions often fill daily life with beauty, and encourage people to behave more kindly and charitably. Five times a day, the muezzin’s melodious voice rises above the noise of bazaars, offices and factories, calling Muslims to take a break from the hustle and bustle of mundane pursuits, and try to connect to an eternal truth. Their Hindu neighbours may reach for the same goal with the help of daily pujas and the recitation of mantras. Every week on Friday night, Jewish families sit down for a special meal of joy, thanksgiving and togetherness. Two days later, on Sunday morning, Christian gospel choirs bring hope to the life of millions, helping to forge community bonds of trust and affection.
Looked at from the outside, the religious traditions that divide people often seem trifling, and Freud ridiculed the obsession people have about such matters as ‘the narcissism of small differences’.
No matter how archaic a religion might look, with a bit of imagination and reinterpretation it can almost always be married to the latest technological gadgets and the most sophisticated modern institutions.
We are trapped, then, between a rock and a hard place. Humankind now constitutes a single civilisation, and problems such as nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption can only be solved on the global level. On the other hand, nationalism and religion still divide our human civilisation into different and often hostile camps. This collision between global problems and local identities manifests itself in the crisis that now besets the greatest multicultural experiment in the world–the European Union. Built on the promise of universal liberal values, the EU is teetering on the verge of disintegration due to the difficulties of integration and immigration.
Coming back from the realm of fiction to the realm of facts, we see that the European debate about immigration is far from being a clear-cut battle between good and evil. It would be wrong to tar all anti-immigrationists as ‘fascists’, just as it would be wrong to depict all pro-immigrationists as committed to ‘cultural suicide’.
Part III: Despair and Hope
Terrorists are masters of mind control. They kill very few people, but nevertheless manage to terrify billions and shake huge political structures such as the European Union or the United States. Since 11 September 2001, every year terrorists have killed about fifty people in the European Union, about ten people in the USA, about seven people in China, and up to 25,000 people globally (mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria). 1 In contrast, each year traffic accidents kill about 80,000 Europeans, 40,000 Americans, 270,000 Chinese, and 1.25 million people altogether. 2 Diabetes and high sugar levels kill up to 3.5 million people annually, while air pollution kills about 7 million people. So why do we fear terrorism more than sugar, and why do governments lose elections because of sporadic terror attacks but not because of chronic air pollution?
Terrorism is a military strategy that hopes to change the political situation by spreading fear rather than by causing material damage.
Never underestimate human stupidity.
In the great age of conquerors warfare was a low-damage, high-profit affair. At the Battle of Hastings in 1066 William the Conqueror gained the whole of England in a single day for the cost of a few thousand dead. Nuclear weapons and cyberwarfare, by contrast, are high-damage, low-profit technologies. You could use such tools to destroy entire countries, but not to build profitable empires.
None of the religions or nations of today existed when humans colonised the world, domesticated plants and animals, built the first cities, or invented writing and money. Morality, art, spirituality and creativity are universal human abilities embedded in our DNA. Their genesis was in Stone Age Africa. It is therefore crass egotism to ascribe to them a more recent place and time, be they China in the age of the Yellow Emperor, Greece in the age of Plato, or Arabia in the age of Muhammad.
Just as it would be unfair to blame Judaism for the mass killings of the Crusades (Christianity is 100 per cent culpable), so also there is no reason to credit Judaism with the important Christian idea that all human beings are equal before God (an idea that stands in direct contradiction to Jewish orthodoxy, which even today holds that Jews are intrinsically superior to all other humans).
Throughout history, humans have created hundreds of different religions and sects. A handful of them–Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism and Buddhism–influenced billions of people (not always for the best). The vast majority of creeds–such as the Bon religion, the Yoruba religion and the Jewish religion–had a far smaller impact. Personally I like the idea of descending not from brutal world-conquerors, but from insignificant people who seldom poked their noses into other people’s business. Many religions praise the value of humility–but then imagine themselves to be the most important thing in the universe. They mix calls for personal meekness with blatant collective arrogance. Humans of all creeds would do well to take humility more seriously.
Does God exist? That depends on which God you have in mind. The cosmic mystery or the worldly lawgiver? Sometimes when people talk about God, they talk about a grand and awesome enigma, about which we know absolutely nothing. We invoke this mysterious God to explain the deepest riddles of the cosmos. Why is there something rather than nothing? What shaped the fundamental laws of physics? What is consciousness, and where does it come from? We do not know the answers to these questions, and we give our ignorance the grand name of God. The most fundamental characteristic of this mysterious God is that we cannot say anything concrete about Him.
On other occasions people see God as a stern and worldly lawgiver, about whom we know only too much. We know exactly what He thinks about fashion, food, sex and politics, and we invoke this Angry Man in the Sky to justify a million regulations, decrees and conflicts. He gets upset when women wear short-sleeved shirts, when two men have sex with one another, or when teenagers masturbate. Some people say He does not like us to ever drink alcohol, whereas according to others He positively demands that we drink wine every Friday night or every Sunday morning. Entire libraries have been written to explain in the minutest details exactly what He wants and what He dislikes. The most fundamental characteristic of this worldly lawgiver is that we can say extremely concrete things about Him.
When the faithful are asked whether God really exists, they often begin by talking about the enigmatic mysteries of the universe and the limits of human understanding. ‘Science cannot explain the Big Bang,’ they exclaim, ‘so that must be God’s doing.’ Yet like a magician fooling an audience by imperceptibly replacing one card with another, the faithful quickly replace the cosmic mystery with the worldly lawgiver. After giving the name of ‘God’ to the unknown secrets of the cosmos, they then use this to somehow condemn bikinis and divorces. ‘We do not understand the Big Bang–therefore you must cover your hair in public and vote against gay marriage.’ Not only is there no logical connection between the two, but they are in fact contradictory. The deeper the mysteries of the universe, the less likely it is that whatever is responsible for them gives a damn about female dress codes or human sexual behaviour.
The missing link between the cosmic mystery and the worldly lawgiver is usually provided through some holy book. The book is full of the most trifling regulations, but is nevertheless attributed to the cosmic mystery. The creator of space and time supposedly composed it, but He bothered to enlighten us mainly about some arcane temple rituals and food taboos. In truth, we haven’t got any evidence whatsoever that the Bible or the Quran or the Book of Mormon or the Vedas or any other holy book was composed by the force that determined that energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared, and that protons are 1,837 times more massive than electrons. To the best of our scientific knowledge, all these sacred texts were written by imaginative Homo sapiens. They are just stories invented by our ancestors in order to legitimise social norms and political structures.
I personally never cease to wonder about the mystery of existence. But I have never understood what it has got to do with the niggling laws of Judaism, Christianity or Hinduism. These laws were certainly very helpful in establishing and maintaining the social order for thousands of years. But in that, they are not fundamentally different from the laws of secular states and institutions.
When all is said and done, it is a matter of semantics. When I use the word ‘God’, I think of the God of the Islamic State, of the Crusades, of the Inquisition, and of the ‘God hates fags’ banners. When I think of the mystery of existence, I prefer to use other words, so as to avoid confusion. And unlike the God of the Islamic State and the Crusades–who cares a lot about names and above all about His most holy name–the mystery of existence doesn’t care an iota what names we apes give it.
Yet though gods can inspire us to act compassionately, religious faith is not a necessary condition for moral behaviour. The idea that we need a supernatural being to make us act morally assumes that there is something unnatural about morality. But why? Morality of some kind is natural. All social mammals from chimpanzees to rats have ethical codes that limit things such as theft and murder. Among humans, morality is present in all societies, even though not all of them believe in the same god, or in any god. Christians act with charity even without believing in the Hindu pantheon, Muslims value honesty despite rejecting the divinity of Christ, and secular countries such as Denmark and the Czech Republic aren’t more violent than devout countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
Morality doesn’t mean ‘following divine commands’. It means ‘reducing suffering’. Hence in order to act morally, you don’t need to believe in any myth or story. You just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering. If you really understand how an action causes unnecessary suffering to yourself or to others, you will naturally abstain from it. People nevertheless murder, rape and steal because they have only a superficial appreciation of the misery this causes. They are fixated on satisfying their immediate lust or greed, without concern for the impact on others–or even for the long-term impact on themselves. Even inquisitors who deliberately inflict as much pain as possible on their victim, usually use various desensitising and dehumanising techniques in order to distance themselves from what they are doing.
You might object that every human naturally seeks to avoid feeling miserable, but why would a human care about the misery of others, unless some god demands it? One obvious answer is that humans are social animals, therefore their happiness depends to a very large extent on their relations with others. Without love, friendship and community, who could be happy? If you live a lonely self-centred life, you are almost guaranteed to be miserable. So at the very least, to be happy you need to care about your family, your friends, and your community members.
On a much more immediate level, hurting others always hurts me too. Every violent act in the world begins with a violent desire in somebody’s mind, which disturbs that person’s own peace and happiness before it disturbs the peace and happiness of anyone else. Thus people seldom steal unless they first develop a lot of greed and envy in their minds. People don’t usually murder unless they first generate anger and hatred. Emotions such as greed, envy, anger and hatred are very unpleasant. You cannot experience joy and harmony when you are boiling with anger or envy. Hence long before you murder anyone, your anger has already killed your own peace of mind.
Secularism can provide us with all the values we need.
What does it mean to be secular? Secularism is sometimes defined as the negation of religion, and secular people are therefore characterised by what they don’t believe and do. According to this definition, secular people do not believe in any gods or angels, do not go to churches and temples, and do not perform rites and rituals. As such, the secular world appears to be hollow, nihilistic and amoral–an empty box waiting to be filled with something.
Religious leaders often present their followers with a stark either/ or choice–either you are Muslim, or you are not. And if you are Muslim, you should reject all other doctrines. In contrast, secular people are comfortable with multiple hybrid identities. As far as secularism is concerned, you can go on calling yourself a Muslim and continuing to pray to Allah, eat halal food and make the haj to Mecca–yet also be a good member of secular society, provided you adhere to the secular ethical code. This ethical code–which is indeed accepted by millions of Muslims, Christians and Hindus as well as by atheists–enshrines the values of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility. It forms the foundation of modern scientific and democratic institutions.
Like all ethical codes, the secular code is an ideal to aspire to rather than a social reality. Just as Christian societies and Christian institutions often deviate from the Christian ideal, so too secular societies and institutions often fall far short of the secular ideal. Medieval France was a self-proclaimed Christian kingdom, but it dabbled in all kinds of not-very-Christian activities (just ask the downtrodden peasantry). Modern France is a self-proclaimed secular state, but from the days of Robespierre onwards it took some troubling liberties with the very definition of liberty (just ask women). That does not mean that secular people–in France or elsewhere–lack a moral compass or an ethical commitment. It just means that it is not easy to live up to an ideal.
What then is the secular ideal? The most important secular commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence rather than on mere faith. Seculars strive not to confuse truth with belief. If you have a very strong belief in some story, that may tell us a lot of interesting things about your psychology, about your childhood, and about your brain structure–but it does not prove that the story is true. (Often, strong beliefs are needed precisely when the story isn’t true.)
The other chief commitment of secular people is to compassion. Secular ethics relies not on obeying the edicts of this or that god, but rather on a deep appreciation of suffering. For example, secular people abstain from murder not because some ancient book forbids it, but because killing inflicts immense suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because ‘God says so’. Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches, adulterers or foreigners?
We cannot search for the truth and for the way out of suffering without the freedom to think, investigate, and experiment. Secular people cherish freedom, and refrain from investing supreme authority in any text, institution or leader as the ultimate judge of what’s true and what’s right. Humans should always retain the freedom to doubt, to check again, to hear a second opinion, to try a different path. Secular people admire Galileo Galilei who dared to question whether the earth really sits motionless at the centre of the universe; they admire the masses of common people who stormed the Bastille in 1789 and brought down the despotic regime of Louis XVI; and they admire Rosa Parks who had the courage to sit down on a bus seat reserved for white passengers only.
People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
rituals. The secular world judges people on the basis of their behaviour rather than of their favourite clothes and ceremonies.
There are plenty of Jewish scientists, Christian environmentalists, Muslim feminists and Hindu human-rights activists. If they are loyal to scientific truth, to compassion, to equality and to freedom, they are full members of the secular world, and there is absolutely no reason to demand that they take off their yarmulkes, crosses, hijabs or tilakas.
For similar reasons, secular education does not mean a negative indoctrination that teaches kids not to believe in God and not to take part in any religious ceremonies. Rather, secular education teaches children to distinguish truth from belief; to develop their compassion for all suffering beings; to appreciate the wisdom and experiences of all the earth’s denizens; to think freely without fearing the unknown; and to take responsibility for their actions and for the world as a whole.
Secular science has at least one big advantage over most traditional religions, namely that it is not terrified of its shadow, and it is in principle willing to admit its mistakes and blind spots.
Part IV: Truth
In the last few centuries, liberal thought developed immense trust in the rational individual. It depicted individual humans as independent rational agents, and has made these mythical creatures the basis of modern society. Democracy is founded on the idea that the voter knows best, free-market capitalism believes that the customer is always right, and liberal education teaches students to think for themselves. It is a mistake, however, to put so much trust in the rational individual. Post-colonial and feminist thinkers have pointed out that this ‘rational individual’ may well be a chauvinistic Western fantasy, glorifying the autonomy and power of upper-class white men.
A hunter-gatherer in the Stone Age knew how to make her own clothes, how to start a fire, how to hunt rabbits and how to escape lions. We think we know far more today, but as individuals, we actually know far less. We rely on the expertise of others for almost all our needs.
We think we know a lot, even though individually we know very little, because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own.
The world is becoming ever more complex, and people fail to realise just how ignorant they are of what’s going on. Consequently some who know next to nothing about meteorology or biology nevertheless propose policies regarding climate change and genetically modified crops, while others hold extremely strong views about what should be done in Iraq or Ukraine without being able to locate these countries on a map. People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming newsfeeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.
If you really want truth, you need to escape the black hole of power, and allow yourself to waste a lot of time wandering here and there on the periphery. Revolutionary knowledge rarely makes it to the centre, because the centre is built on existing knowledge. The guardians of the old order usually determine who gets to reach the centres of power, and they tend to filter out the carriers of disturbing unconventional ideas. Of course they filter out an incredible amount of rubbish too. Not being invited to the Davos World Economic Forum is hardly a guarantee of wisdom. That’s why you need to waste so much time on the periphery–they may contain some brilliant revolutionary insights, but they are mostly full of uninformed guesses, debunked models, superstitious dogmas and ridiculous conspiracy theories.
As Socrates observed more than 2,000 years ago, the best we can do under such conditions is to acknowledge our own individual ignorance.
It doesn’t matter if you judge actions by their consequences (it is wrong to steal because it makes the victims miserable) or whether you believe in categorical duties that should be followed irrespective of consequences (it is wrong to steal because God said so). The problem is that it has become extremely complicated to grasp what we are actually doing.
How can we act morally when we have no way of knowing all the relevant facts?
In one noteworthy experiment, people were asked to donate money to help a poor seven-year-old girl from Mali named Rokia. Many were moved by her story, and opened their hearts and purses. However, when in addition to Rokia’s personal story the researchers also presented people with statistics about the broader problem of poverty in Africa, respondents suddenly became less willing to help. In another study, scholars solicited donations to help either one sick child or eight sick children. People gave more money to the single child than to the group of eight.
It is far easier to imagine that twenty multibillionaires are pulling the strings behind the scenes, controlling the media and fomenting wars in order to enrich themselves. This is almost always a baseless fantasy. The contemporary world is too complicated, not only for our sense of justice but also for our managerial abilities. No one–including the multibillionaires, the CIA, the Freemasons and the Elders of Zion–really understands what is going on in the world. So no one is capable of pulling the strings effectively.
All the existing human tribes are absorbed in advancing their particular interests rather than in understanding the global truth. Neither Americans, Chinese, Muslims nor Hindus constitute ‘the global community’–so their interpretation of reality is hardly trustworthy. Should we call it quits, then, and declare that the human quest to understand the truth and find justice has failed? Have we officially entered the Post-Truth Era?
I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly the point. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month–that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years–that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it ‘fake news’ in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath). Note, however, that I am not denying the effectiveness or potential benevolence of religion. Just the opposite. For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s toolkit. By bringing people together, religious creeds make large-scale human cooperation possible. They inspire people to build hospitals, schools and bridges in addition to armies and prisons.
Branding often involves retelling the same fictional story again and again, until people become convinced it is the truth. What images come to mind when you think about Coca-Cola? Do you think about young healthy people engaging in sports and having fun together? Or do you think about overweight diabetes patients lying in a hospital bed? Drinking lots of Coca-Cola will not make you young, will not make you healthy, and will not make you athletic–rather, it increases your chances of suffering from obesity and diabetes. Yet for decades Coca-Cola has invested billions of dollars in linking itself to youth, health and sports–and billions of humans subconsciously believe in this linkage.
In practice, the power of human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction.
On the other hand, you cannot organise masses of people effectively without relying on some mythology. If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you.
When most people see a dollar bill, they forget that it is just a human convention. As they see the green piece of paper with the picture of the dead white man, they see it is as something valuable in and of itself. They hardly ever remind themselves ‘Actually, this is a worthless piece of paper, but because other people view it as valuable, I can make use of it.’
Humans have this remarkable ability to know and not to know at the same time. Or more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know it. If you really focus, you realise that money is fiction. But usually you don’t focus.
If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.
The most powerful scholarly establishments–whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or communist ideologues–placed unity above truth. That’s why they were so powerful.
Humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it–and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it.
First, if you want reliable information–pay good money for it. If you get your news for free, you might well be the product. Suppose a shady billionaire offered you the following deal: ‘I will pay you $ 30 a month, and in exchange, you will allow me to brainwash you for an hour every day, installing in your mind whichever political and commercial biases I want.’ Would you take the deal? Few sane people would. So the shady billionaire offers a slightly different deal: ‘You will allow me to brainwash you for one hour every day, and in exchange, I will not charge you anything for this service.’ Now the deal suddenly sounds tempting to hundreds of millions of people. Don’t follow their example.
Very few people read the latest articles in the fields of machine learning or genetic engineering. Instead, movies such as The Matrix and Her and TV series such as Westworld and Black Mirror shape how people understand the most important technological, social and economic developments of our time.
As a result, it is overly concerned about a potential war between robots and humans, when in fact we need to fear a conflict between a small superhuman elite empowered by algorithms, and a vast underclass of disempowered Homo sapiens. In thinking about the future of AI, Karl Marx is still a better guide than Steven Spielberg.
People are afraid of being trapped inside a box, but they don’t realise that they are already trapped inside a box–their brain–which is locked within a bigger box–human society with its myriad fictions. When you escape the matrix the only thing you discover is a bigger matrix. When the peasants and workers revolted against the tsar in 1917, they ended up with Stalin; and when you begin to explore the manifold ways the world manipulates you, in the end you realise that your core identity is a complex illusion created by neural networks.
People fear that being trapped inside a box, they will miss out on all the wonders of the world. As long as Neo is stuck inside the matrix, and Truman is stuck inside the TV studio, they will never visit Fiji, or Paris, or Machu Picchu. But in truth, everything you will ever experience in life is within your own body and your own mind. Breaking out of the matrix or travelling to Fiji won’t make any difference. It’s not that somewhere in your mind there is an iron chest with a big red warning sign ‘Open only in Fiji!’ and when you finally travel to the South Pacific you get to open the chest, and out come all kinds of special emotions and feelings that you can have only in Fiji. And if you never visit Fiji in your life, then you missed these special feelings for ever. No. Whatever you can feel in Fiji, you can feel anywhere in the world; even inside the matrix.
Pain is pain, fear is fear, and love is love–even in the matrix. It doesn’t matter if the fear you feel is inspired by a collection of atoms in the outside world or by electrical signals manipulated by a computer. The fear is still real. So if you want to explore the reality of your mind, you can do that inside the matrix as well as outside it.
Have you any idea how many movies, novels and poems you have consumed over the years, and how these artefacts have carved and sharpened your idea of love? Romantic comedies are to love as porn is to sex and Rambo is to war. And if you think you can press some delete button and wipe out all trace of Hollywood from your subconscious and your limbic system, you are deluding yourself.
Part V: Resilience
However, it was clear to you that even in 1050 most people would still work as farmers and weavers, rulers would still rely on humans to staff their armies and bureaucracies, men would still dominate women, life expectancy would still be about forty, and the human body would be exactly the same. Hence in 1018, poor Chinese parents taught their children how to plant rice or weave silk, and wealthier parents taught their boys how to read the Confucian classics, write calligraphy, or fight on horseback–and taught their girls to be modest and obedient housewives. It was obvious these skills would still be needed in 1050.
In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.
Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching ‘the four Cs’–critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.
When you are fifteen, your entire life is change. Your body is growing, your mind is developing, your relationships are deepening. Everything is in flux, and everything is new. You are busy inventing yourself. Most teenagers find it frightening, but at the same time, it is also exciting. New vistas are opening before you, and you have an entire world to conquer. By the time you are fifty, you don’t want change, and most people have given up on conquering the world. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. You much prefer stability. You have invested so much in your skills, your career, your identity and your world view that you don’t want to start all over again. The harder you’ve worked on building something, the more difficult it is to let go of it and make room for something new. You might still cherish new experiences and minor adjustments, but most people in their fifties aren’t ready to overhaul the deep structures of their identity and personality.
So the best advice I could give a fifteen-year-old stuck in an outdated school somewhere in Mexico, India or Alabama is: don’t rely on the adults too much. Most of them mean well, but they just don’t understand the world. In the past, it was a relatively safe bet to follow the adults, because they knew the world quite well, and the world changed slowly. But the twenty-first century is going to be different. Due to the growing pace of change you can never be certain whether what the adults are telling you is timeless wisdom or outdated bias.
In the end, it’s a simple empirical matter: if the algorithms indeed understand what’s happening within you better than you understand it, authority will shift to them. Of course, you might be perfectly happy ceding all authority to the algorithms and trusting them to decide things for you and for the rest of the world. If so, just relax and enjoy the ride. You don’t need to do anything about it. The algorithms will take care of everything. If, however, you want to retain some control of your personal existence and of the future of life, you have to run faster than the algorithms, faster than Amazon and the government, and get to know yourself before they do. To run fast, don’t take much luggage with you. Leave all your illusions behind. They are very heavy.
What kind of an answer do people expect? In almost all cases, when people ask about the meaning of life, they expect to be told a story. Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal, that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believes that the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings. When we look for the meaning of life, we want a story that will explain what reality is all about and what is my particular role in the cosmic drama. This role defines who I am, and gives meaning to all my experiences and choices.
As for the future, physics tells us that planet Earth will be absorbed by an expanding sun about 7.5 billion years from now, 4 and that our universe will continue to exist for at least 13 billion years more. Does anyone seriously believe that the Jewish people, the state of Israel, or the city of Jerusalem will still exist 13,000 years from now, let alone 13 billion years? Looking to the future, Zionism has a horizon of no more than a few centuries, yet it is enough to exhaust the imagination of most Israelis and somehow qualify as ‘eternity’. And people are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of ‘the eternal city’, which they would probably refuse to make for an ephemeral collection of houses.
To give meaning to my life, a story needs to satisfy just two conditions: first, it must give me some role to play. A New Guinean tribesman is unlikely to believe in Zionism or in Serbian nationalism, because these stories don’t care at all about New Guinea and its people. Like movie stars, humans like only those scripts that reserve an important role for them. Second, whereas a good story need not extend to infinity, it must extend beyond my horizons. The story provides me with an identity and gives meaning to my life by embedding me within something bigger than myself. But there is always a danger that I might start wondering what gives meaning to that ‘something bigger’.
Alas, this modest hope of just ‘leaving something behind’ is rarely fulfilled. Most organisms that ever existed became extinct without leaving any genetic inheritance. Almost all the dinosaurs, for example. Or a Neanderthal family which became extinct as Sapiens took over.
If we cannot leave something tangible behind–such as a gene or a poem–perhaps it is enough if we just make the world a little better? You can help somebody, and that somebody will subsequently help somebody else, and you thereby contribute to the overall improvement of the world, and constitute a small link in the great chain of kindness. Maybe you serve as a mentor for a difficult but brilliant child, who goes on to be a doctor who saves the lives of hundreds? Maybe you help an old lady cross the street, and brighten up an hour of her life? Though it has its merits, the great chain of kindness is a bit like the great chain of turtles–it is far from clear where its meaning comes from.
For those who don’t trust any great chains, any future legacies or any collective epics, perhaps the safest and most parsimonious story they can turn to is romance. It doesn’t seek to go beyond the here and now. As countless love poems testify, when you are in love, the entire universe is reduced to the earlobe, the eyelash or the nipple of your beloved.
If you ask for the true meaning of life and get a story in reply, know that this is the wrong answer. The exact details don’t really matter. Any story is wrong, simply for being a story. The universe just does not work like a story.
What evidence do we have that the son of the Creator of the entire universe was born as a carbon-based life form somewhere in the Milky Way about 2,000 years ago? What evidence do we have that it happened in the Galilee area, and that His mother was a virgin?
If you want to know the ultimate truth of life, rites and rituals are a huge obstacle. But if you are interested–like Confucius–in social stability and harmony, truth is often a liability, whereas rites and rituals are among your best allies.
You cannot see or hear France, because it exists only in your imagination, but you can certainly see the tricolour and hear the ‘Marseillaise’. So by waving a colourful flag and singing an anthem you transform the nation from an abstract story into a tangible reality.
Indeed, the very cost of the flag makes the ritual more effective. Of all rituals, sacrifice is the most potent, because of all the things in the world, suffering is the most real. You can never ignore it or doubt it. If you want to make people really believe in some fiction, entice them to make a sacrifice on its behalf. Once you suffer for a story, it is usually enough to convince you that the story is real.
Consequently, the more they sacrifice for a particular belief, the stronger their faith becomes. This is the mysterious alchemy of sacrifice.
Even in romance, any aspiring Romeo or Werther knows that without sacrifice, there is no true love. The sacrifice is not just a way to convince your lover that you are serious–it is also a way to convince yourself that you are really in love. Why do you think women ask their lovers to bring them diamond rings? Once the lover makes such a huge financial sacrifice, he must convince himself that it was for a worthy cause.
Modernity didn’t reject the plethora of stories it inherited from the past. Instead, it opened a supermarket for them. The modern human is free to sample them all, choosing and combining whatever fits his or her taste.
The universe does not give me meaning. I give meaning to the universe. This is my cosmic vocation. I have no fixed destiny or dharma.
What’s true of sexual desire is true of all desire, and indeed of all feelings and thoughts. Just consider the next thought that pops up in your mind. Where did it come from? Did you freely choose to think it, and only then did you think it? Certainly not. The process of self-exploration begins with simple things, and becomes progressively harder. At first, we realise that we do not control the world outside us. I don’t decide when it rains. Then we realise that we do not control what’s happening inside our own body. I don’t control my blood pressure. Next, we understand that we don’t even govern our brain. I don’t tell the neurons when to fire. Ultimately we should realise that we do not control our desires, or even our reactions to these desires.
Realising this can help us become less obsessive about our opinions, about our feelings, and about our desires.
Humans usually give so much importance to their desires that they try to control and shape the entire world according to these desires. In pursuit of their cravings, humans fly to the moon, wage world wars, and destabilise the entire ecosystem. If we understand that our desires are not the magical manifestations of free choice, but rather are the product of biochemical processes (influenced by cultural factors that are also beyond our control), we might be less preoccupied with them. It is better to understand ourselves, our minds and our desires rather than try to realise whatever fantasy pops up in our heads.
And in order to understand ourselves, a crucial step is to acknowledge that the ‘self’ is a fictional story that the intricate mechanisms of our mind constantly manufacture, update and rewrite. There is a storyteller in my mind that explains who I am, where I am coming from, where I am heading to, and what is happening right now.
It is fascinating and terrifying to behold people who spend countless hours constructing and embellishing a perfect self online, becoming attached to their own creation, and mistaking it for the truth about themselves.
Hence if you really want to understand yourself, you should not identify with your Facebook account or with the inner story of the self. Instead, you should observe the actual flow of body and mind. You will see thoughts, emotions and desires appear and disappear without much reason and without any command from you, just as different winds blow from this or that direction and mess up your hair.
People ask ‘Who am I?’ and expect to be told a story. The first thing you need to know about yourself, is that you are not a story.
The universe has no meaning, and human feelings too are not part of a great cosmic tale. They are ephemeral vibrations, appearing and disappearing for no particular purpose. That’s the truth. Get over it.
According to the Buddha, then, life has no meaning, and people don’t need to create any meaning. They just need to realise that there is no meaning, and thus be liberated from the suffering caused by our attachments and our identification with empty phenomena. ‘What should I do?’ ask people, and the Buddha advises: ‘Do nothing. Absolutely nothing.’ The whole problem is that we constantly do something. Not necessarily on the physical level–we can sit immobile for hours with closed eyes–yet on the mental level we are extremely busy creating stories and identities, fighting battles and winning victories. To really do nothing means that the mind too does nothing and creates nothing. Unfortunately, this too very easily turns into a heroic epic. Even as you sit with closed eyes and observe the breath coming in and out of the nostrils, you might well start constructing stories about it. ‘My breath is a bit forced, and if I breathe more calmly, I will become more healthy’ or ‘If I just keep observing my breath and do nothing, I will become enlightened, and be the wisest and happiest person in the world.’ Then the epic starts expanding, and people embark on a quest not just to liberate themselves from their own attachments, but also to convince others to do so. Having accepted that life has no meaning, I find meaning in explaining this truth to others, arguing with the unbelievers, giving lectures to the sceptics, donating money to build monasteries, and so on. ‘No story’ can all too easily become just another story.
There is very little chance that world peace and global harmony will come once 8 billion humans start meditating regularly. Observing the truth about yourself is just so difficult! Even if you somehow manage to get most humans to try it, many of us will quickly distort the truth we encounter into some story with heroes, villains and enemies, and find really good excuses to go to war.
So if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is. The answer isn’t a story.
Having criticised so many stories, religions and ideologies, it is only fair that I put myself in the firing line too, and explain how somebody so sceptical can still manage to wake up cheerful in the morning. I hesitate to do so partly for fear of self-indulgence, and partly because I don’t want to give the wrong impression, as if what works for me will work for everybody. I am very aware that the quirks of my genes, neurons, personal history and dharma are not shared by everyone. But it is perhaps good that readers should at least know which hues colour the glasses through which I see the world, thereby distorting my vision and my writing.
‘Don’t try to control the breath or to breathe in any particular way. Just observe the reality of the present moment, whatever it may be. When the breath comes in, you are just aware–now the breath is coming in. When the breath goes out, you are just aware–now the breath is going out. And when you lose your focus and your mind starts wandering in memories and fantasies, you are just aware–now my mind has wandered away from the breath.’ It was the most important thing anybody ever told me.
The first thing I learned by observing my breath was that notwithstanding all the books I had read and all the classes I had attended at university, I knew almost nothing about my mind, and I had very little control over it.
For years I lived under the impression that I was the master of my life, and the CEO of my own personal brand. But a few hours of meditation were enough to show me that I hardly had any control of myself.
Between me and the world there are always body sensations. I never react to events in the outside world; I always react to the sensations in my own body. When the sensation is unpleasant, I react with aversion. When the sensation is pleasant, I react with cravings for more.
The most important thing I realised was that the deepest source of my suffering is in the patterns of my own mind. When I want something and it doesn’t happen, my mind reacts by generating suffering. Suffering is not an objective condition in the outside world. It is a mental reaction generated by my own mind. Learning this is the first step towards ceasing to generate more suffering.
Since that first course in 2000, I began meditating for two hours every day, and each year I take a long meditation retreat of a month or two. It is not an escape from reality. It is getting in touch with reality. At least for two hours a day I actually observe reality as it is, while for the other twenty-two hours I get overwhelmed by emails and tweets and cute-puppy videos.
The brain is a material network of neurons, synapses and biochemicals. The mind is a flow of subjective experiences, such as pain, pleasure, anger and love.
The actual practice means to observe body sensations and mental reactions to sensations in a methodical, continuous and objective manner, thereby uncovering the basic patterns of the mind. People sometimes turn meditation into a pursuit of special experiences of bliss and ecstasy. Yet in truth, consciousness is the greatest mystery in the universe, and mundane feelings of heat and itching are every bit as mysterious as feelings of rapture or cosmic oneness.
If you try to objectively observe your sensations, the first thing you’ll notice is how wild and impatient the mind is. Even if you focus on observing a relatively distinct sensation such as the breath coming in and out of your nostrils, your mind could usually do it for no more than a few seconds before it loses its focus and starts wandering in thoughts, memories and dreams.
And we had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us.