Is The Future A Distant Past?
“Peace? Peace!? I HATE the word,
as I hate HELL,
…and THEE,.. Benvolio!”
Some time ago Pocket proposed me an article from a certain Yuval Noah Harari: “Why Humans Run The World”. It started with the usual observation that historically humans were far from the most likely candidate to become leader of the world. The question is indeed very relevant today as we are periodically confronted with evidence of our closest cousin, the chimpanzee, displaying the ability to learn capabilities we used to believe to be unique to human evolution.
“If you place me and a chimpanzee together on a lone island, to see who survives better, I would definitely place my bets on the chimp.”
With bipedalism and ‘tool-using’ ruled out as purely human traits mr. Harari proposes another, not so far-fetched explanation.
“Humans control the world because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers.”
“Only Homo sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. One-on-one or ten-on-ten, chimpanzees may be better than us. But pit 1,000 Sapiens against 1,000 chimps, and the Sapiens will win easily, for the simple reason that 1,000 chimps can never cooperate effectively.”
This explanation leans, as a strategy, heavily in the direction of “language and communication”, things which have earlier been nominated for fundamental differentiator. So the proposition is certainly not controversial. Especially the level and flexibility of our communication (as opposed to bees for instance) is a good candidate for being the primary motor for our current [temporary] dominance. But mr. Harari takes his explanation just a little further. Humans are not organizing on the grant scale through direct verbal negotiation:
“We can cooperate with numerous strangers because we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of strangers to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.”
It is the emplotment of our reality, our alignment in values that makes for extended “unnatural/artificial” cooperation. But before you go all ‘Humans talk, Humans Rule!’ on me, realize what this means to us atheists:
“You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising that after he dies, he will go to Chimpanzee Heaven and there receive countless bananas for his good deeds. No chimp will ever believe such a story.”
Indeed, religion is found at the very basis of what distinguishes our species from others and thus at the foundation of our species’ dominance. As atheist I would gladly deny religion such a prominent past (and present?) significance. But unfortunately reality is what she is, despite our liking or lack thereof. Looked at it from another point (purely to make you feel better): religion is perhaps so stupid, no chimp would buy it J.
In any case, the potential importance of religion on the road to here may not even be the most unsettling take-away from this because it would seem that even us atheist believe in things that mr. Harari would call ‘just stories’. But let me tell you this one story first:
Une pupille noire entourée de blanc, le visage fatigué braqué sur un lieutenant
l’ordre sera donné dans quelques instants, deuxième assaut de la journée et Marcel attend.
A black pupil surrounded by white. An exhausted face to one lieutenant is fixed.
The order will given without delay,
the second attack of the day
and Marcel awaits the eclipse.
On the Western front in early 1916 (WWI) Verdun was a bulge in the long trench-line, which ran from Nieuwpoort (in Belgium) to the border of Switserland. Verdun was known and appreciated for its relative tranquility during the first year of the war. Battered French troops cycled through it to regain their strength and recuperate their nerves. Based upon bunker-forts surrounding the iconic city of Verdun it had all the makings of a good post. However the French’ general fondness for Verdun and its relative tranquility were exactly what drew the German general Erich von Falkenhayn to it. Having noticed the relative strength of the defensive strategy in trench-warfare von Falkenhayn devised a plan to conquer a city by surprise which the French would, for morality purposes, have to retake at all costs. The idea was to basically kill French, from a defensive position, at a rate of 5 against 2 Germans and win the war by sheer numbers from there on. Verdun would become an 8 km2 meat-grinder, also known as ‘hell on earth’.
Il a placé au bout de son fusil une baillonette pour lutter contre une mitraillette de calibre 12-7
prés de sa tranchée placée a 20 ou 30 mètres, la guerre des bouchers, nous sommes en 1917.
He placed a bayonet on top of his FAL,
to fight against machineguns of 1.27CAL,
close to his trench, only a couple yards between,
it’s the trenchwar, we are in 1917.
In order to get to that point a quick surprise and terrain advancement would be needed. In an offensive so massive yet so secretive that WWII’s Ardennes Offensive is considered its baby-brother; railways were build during the night and covered by day; 2000 trains displaced 1220 heavy guns and 6 million artillery shells (barely enough for 3(!) days of warfare) under the cover of darkness and several 100.000 troops were amassed behind the lines. Though the surprise was next to total the French sacrificed all their available troops in a desperate fighting retreat. Hastened orders were send out for support from other parts of the line and, in time, 3 out of every 5 French soldiers would come to know the hell that was Verdun. Meanwhile the offensive didn’t go at all as the Germans planned it. After scores of losses several weeks in they still had noting close to the city of Verdun in hands (though the fortresses around it were taken with minimal effort) and conquests were being ordered “at all costs”. What was intended as a French meat grinder became one for the Germans instead. The offensive was finally halted because no more reserves were available and, in fact the German front would be hard to maintain with the troops available. The offensive stopped at 2 miles from Verdun-cathedral.
Tant de journées qu’il est là à voir tomber les âmes, tant de journées déjà passées sur le chemin des damnes. Marcel sent que la fin a sonnée, au fond de sa tranchée ses mains se sont mises à trembler
l’odeur de la mort se fait sentir, il n’y aura pas de corps à corps il sent qu’il va bientot mourir
So many days he was there, so many souls he saw damned,
so many days have come to pass at the ‘Chemin des Dammes’.
Marcel knows that for him the bell tolls,
at the bottom of his trench a tremor has overtaken his hands.
The sent of death makes itself known,
he will soon not have a body for in his hearth of hearths he knows that he will soon been gone.
Having failed their offensive the Germans had no hope their main objective (killing French) could still be saved, but the French supreme command obliged when it decided that every yard of lost terrain would have to be retaken, disregarding all losses. Many months later, at one of the last French’ assaults, soldiers on their way to the line were openly making ‘sheep-noises’ to every officer they met, in protest. They were imitating sheep going to their deaths (which they invariably were going to). They would not disregard direct orders (yet) but they would no-longer quietly go on their way to the slaughterhouse.
Comment un homme peut-il accepter d’aller au combat
et quand il sent au fond de lui qu’il ne reviendra pas
l’homme est-il un animal, comme à cette epoque le mal est déjà caporal
La main du lieutenant doucement vers le ciel s’est levée , la suite ,l’avenir est un long passé
How can a man accept to go to war,
when deep within he knows he will return no more ?
Is man a beast,
served before this century’s evil feast?
The hand of the lieutenant slowly rises towards the sky, and then at last…
…what follows is a distant past.
In the end the frontline around Verdun was hardly moved from the 1916 position. As history goes it is hard to imagine a place in time on earth where the combined absence of love, hope, compassion and even basic things we take for granted as daylight, drinking water and non putrid breathable air was so absolute. The losses on both sides, 600.000 and 700.000 closely matched each other. On a tiny salient of 8km2 1.25 million soldiers had died, many miserably and slowly, mercilessly, for no difference what-so-ever, respectively to hold and dislodge a line ( a border) which today has lost all but the last of its significance. What a difference a 100 years makes for the stories we once held so dear. Just think, most of those who died could have easily lived to see 80.
Mr. Harari pulls no punches and, much to your and my delight, he dismisses religion with barely a breath-worth of syllables.
“It is relatively easy to accept that religious networks of cooperation are based on fictional stories.”
And indeed, you and I find this easy. However much we dislike the implications of mr. Harari’s proposition regarding the social-function of religion and its importance in our history. But [and I did warn you] religion is hardly the issue here. Though we think ourselves skeptics and ‘in touch’ with reality I think many atheists would find what he says next somewhat heavy to digest.
“Today, most legal systems are based on a belief in human rights. But human rights are a fiction, just like God and Heaven.”
“Like gods and human rights, nations are fictions. They are just stories that humans invented and then became extremely attached to.”
Both a sense of justice and a sense of national-identity are known benefactors of civil-obedience. We believe these things exist and believe that their consequences are beneficial to us. We won’t steal because that is wrong and, even if we were tempted, we’d expect to be punished for it. In reverse we believe we can count on justice when victimized. It isn’t always the case. In fact innocent people on death row, as has been known to happen, proves that it is just a story that isn’t entirely true even if we’d all believe in it religiously.
Nations are even more shaky stories if we consider them historically. Depending on the timeframe you focus on a nation’s name and delineation may well be entirely unjustified. Who is to say what is a ‘historical root’. Belgium is named after a Gaelic tribe in the North of France, it comprises different cultures apart from three official languages and numerous dialect-speakers that do not understand each-other. Yet it is smaller than the state of Ohio and belonged to two different empires for a large part of its history. Take the story of Ukraine. Today large sections of the population look at its history from when it was a part of some ‘proto-Russia-like’ nation (as in ruled by someone also ruling a big part of what is Russia today). The other part of the country references all the history when it was not a part of such a construct. Who is to say which should be the identity and the borders of such a country? At best there can grow a present-day consensus, as in most countries. But, as in most countries, it would still only be a story.
Une pupille noire entourée de blanc.
Le visage ciré, son regard est terrifiant.
Placé à quelques pas de là des allemands.
1944 Jean-Marc est un résistant.
A black pupil surrounded by white,
a waxen face fixed in fright.
Hidden away, mere few steps from the Germans,
It’s 1944 and Jean-Marc is in the resistance.
You see, us atheists seem to have focused on ‘knowing’ stuff and disregarding ‘believing in’ anything, in anything that didn’t meet some standard of objective truth. But there comes mr. Harari telling us that not only are we just marginally less invested in socially accepted narrative, this in itself is almost mandatory for the construction of society.
That nations are constructs isn’t actually new. We all know it on some level and anarchists have been saying as much for a long time. And given that religions and nations are just narrative of a different kind, it kind of makes me wonder: ‘are atheist then perhaps only anarchists for a different cause?’
Anarchism is a social movement that seeks liberation from oppressive systems of control including but not limited to the state, capitalism, racism, sexism, speciesism, and religion.
The border problem
This all ties in with another problem that I see. It starts with an social axiom. [ln math axioms are the fistful of ground-rules (the most famous example being Euclidian) from which all the other implications of math are derived.] My assumption, though not mathematical in nature, is by itself perfectly innocent, but with daunting repercussions. Here it comes:
– People are, on average, essentially the same everywhere. –
Well that wasn’t too bad was it? And it has all the makings of something to sounds true since the inverse statement: -depending on where they originate from (hence depending on their race) some people are intrinsically superior to other people-, is the very definition of racism. Racism, that has been proven to be without scientific basis and has been demonstrably detrimental historically for any society that supported it as doctrine. So it is not a far stretch to say that in any random body of people, on average, there will be about the same number of good altruistic people versus selfish people, industrious people versus lazy people and compassionate people versus unforgiving ones.
But then, if we accept this, it poses a problem to us because this uniformity on the grand scale doesn’t translate itself to the middle-layer of society. Instead there we see all kinds of groups that define themselves as being ‘not like the others’. From religions to countries to countries based on religion down to factions, political or otherwise, “families”, real families and extended families. And between all of these groups we place delineations. Houses around families, fences around communities, borders around countries and walls to replace front-lines. When looked at from high above, humanity resembles a porcelain plate in which time has traced ‘cracks’. Humanity’s harmony… is fractured.
It thus seems that the fundamental forces of physics are not the only to “suffer” from spontaneous symmetry-breaking. Humanity itself did as much. And the reason for it is because, despite mr. Harari’s clamant indication of man’s talent to organize via the communicative level, in a comparative sense, we sure suck at it in absolute perspective. We are able to cooperate across vast groups of the population but not across the entire human population. One only wonders what would happen if we’d ever encounter an alien-race that could. I think we’d become the chimps to their cages and pharmaceutical testing.
And therefore, with all the fundamental traits on average being the same we still see great differences between people on objective criteria as for example economic power, political organization and broader cultural notions. So even if things started out homogenous it must be that, much like planets from the primordial galactic plasma, small fluctuations in ‘property density’ condensed and clumped together to form pockets of specificity. Specificity in riches. Specificity in morality. Specificity in religious beliefs. In time, and with growing numbers, we have come to recognize and define these notions and mark them with boundaries: species, religions, countries even families were labeled and membership defined. By definition you were in or you were out of the circle.
Il a eu pour mission de faire sauter un chemin de fer.
Lui qui n’est pas homme d’action est devenu maître de guerre.
Après le cyclone qui frappa sa mère et son père d’une étoile jaune,
idée venue droit de l’enfer.
He received a mission to blow up a rail-way and more.
Before not a man of action now he has become a master of war.
After the blitz that struct his mom and dad, from hell came their yellow David-star.
But as mr. Harari says, these borders are just stories and nowhere is this as clear as near those borders. Look to one side then to the other, what and whom you see is pretty much just the same. On some borders, that have lost most of their significance, barely a stele indicates its presence (e.g. the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, instated –over blood- only in 1831). On borders that are heavily disputed (India/Pakistan, The parallel between the Korea’s) there are usually a lot more people, but when you go down into it, these people are not at all that different and their lives are often only worsened by that border, not improved. At the extreme borders prove to be highly prejudice to the living conditions of the many on one side for the good of the few on the other side. The same goes for those borders that are not physical at all. As a former pupil of a public school in Belgium I can never teach history in a private Catholic school. Which I guess you’d think advisable, but remember I very well just might have been a theist. It seems our lives are largely determined by the intersection of the many different circles to which we belong.
Clearly humanity is exponentially more broken then the forces of physics. We belong to different circles of fraternity. An interwoven pattern of including and intersecting circles where ‘Brothers’ of one circle are adversaries in the next and separated by yet another still. And each circle has its story, a corresponding identity and a wall to mount. Armed if necessary.
In fact, many of the soldiers that mounted ‘the walls’ in Verdun did not do so primarily for the story of ‘France’ or the story of ‘The Kaiser’. They did it because other stories they much more ardently believed in were dependent on those stories. When the poorly armed, understaffed and internally very divided Belgian army threw the invincible army of the Kaiser back across the Yser in 1914, at great expense in lives, it was because it needed to save the last yards of Belgium. In doing so they saved the ‘Story of King Albert’, the story of ‘an independent Belgium’ (still a very young and artificial country at that time) and with it all the stories of their lives they had ever known. If Belgium lived, things could conceivably go back to how they had been, if it wasn’t, well who knows what else would be lost still. So lives were sacrificed, for interlocked layers of stories. For the fables of man!
Tant d’années passées à prendre la fuite.
Tant de journées consacrées à lutter contre l’antisémite.
Jean-Marc sait qu’il n’a plus de recours.
Le câble qu’il a placé pour faire sauter le train est bien trop court.
So many days of taking to flight.
So many days and anti-Semites to fight.
Jean-Marc knows his life won’t go forth,
The fuse he made to blow the train is much too short.
La mort se fait sentir, mais il n’a pas de remords, comment le définir ?
C’est la nature de l’homme qui l’a poussé à être comme ça.
Se sacrifier pour une idée, je crois qu’on ne résiste pas.
Death, comes in its own, but he has no regrets, why by none is known.
It’s in the nature of Man that pushes him to be this way,
To sacrifise himself for an idea, I think one can’t resist anyway
Le mal est maintenant général,
de toutes les forces armées occultes de la mauvaise époque de l’Allemagne.
Au loin le train s’approche et l’on peut distinguer sa fumée.
La suite, l’avenir est un long passé.
Evil is now everywhere
descending from all the dark armies of Germany’s putrid ere.
From the distance the train comes near,
he sees it’s smoke is almost there,
and then at last…
..what follows is a distant past.
But here is the thing: these stories change anyway. Over a century things become unimaginably different. And it may still remain to be seen whether the outcomes are all that different. Two different paths may have the same result (more or less) while one of the two may cost many more lives. Germany dominates a unifying Europe today. That is not what those French soldiers (stepping into the breach) at Verdun meant for to happen. They thought France would be forever and German-dominance could never be a good thing. Two meat-grinders later and the result is much closer to the opposite of what they wanted than not. They didn’t exactly die in vain. The French certainly do not regret the outcome of the two world-wars. They do mourn the fallen and those executed in Every! Single! French! Community during WWII. But the story changed, drastically, none-the-less.
Today the stories are simultaneously unprecedentedly strong and weak in different places. Anarchy is again very popular in Greece, where the stories most of us believe in, have resulted in scores of people having nothing left to lose. Capitalism and nationalism generated a generation that, through no doing of their-own, has nothing at all to look forward to but more years of sorrow. Unsurprisingly, through destruction and social sabotage, these young people now try to deny others the right to pretend everything is OK. They try to unveil the stories we all cling to because, for them it is clear these have lost their validity. On the other extreme, ‘tales-of-Russia-past’ inspire careless nuclear doctrines and covert invasions into Ukraine, Georgia and even a commando-kidnapping-raid into Estonia. A reheating of a story that had lost most of its appeal and is utilized only because the domestic political circumstances demand it.
Most if not all of us atheists support a secularized nation. One nation, under no one, where all are free to believe (or preferably not to believe) what they bloody well please. We think this is mighty swell of ourselves. But it shouldn’t surprise us that nations and religions are so interwoven as is the case with Israel and Iran (yeah, I managed to get these two in one sentence, it was surprisingly easy). Both these stories of religions and of nations are the same side of the same coin. And though I’d maintain, for good reason I think, that the stories of religion are worse and less justified than those of nations, my conviction on this point is not always as strong. Seeing as, despite many waking nights, I haven’t found even the beginning of a universal justification that explains, rationalizes or even helps define nations.
But here is the rub: though I occasionally argue we can easily do away with religion I have a hard time closing the book on ALL these fairytales, since, when it concerns the story of nations, I simply have no alternative! And yet, as far as stories go, the stories of nations have occasionally been, and potentially will be, as detrimental to humanity as the stories of religions are and have been. Remember how we started this essay, with the claim that these organizing, aligning stories helped us win the ‘war-on-chimps’, and presented us with human dominance? It now seems that our inability to make that story objectively true or at least a global-working-majority, has us strategically out-maneuvered by ourselves. And this has become a very dangerous situation indeed.
In October 1962 there were 13 days in when the world was a the brink of nuclear war because the Americans discovered Russian nuclear weapons on Cuba. Yet what that situation had as advantage, as opposed to today, was clarity for everyone to know what was on the brink of happening. This article (“How World War III became possible. A nuclear conflict with Russia is likelier than you think”) however makes a good case about the global situation today being about as dire as then, but with the kind of obscurity that helped trigger the first World War in 1914. It kind of looks like the First, the Second and the Cold War had a three-way baby. A perfect storm combining pre-WWI patchwork of allegiances, pre-WWII financial crises (and autocracies) and Cold War ego’s and weaponry (lightly sprinkled with some present day autonomous gun-drones, lasers and EMP-“weapons”) into what could only become the worst thing man ever did. The latter is an easy prediction: it always is! Mankind would have a hard time merely to cope with the environmental impact of another global conflict (World War II and the Environment), never mind the nuclear fall-out and decimation of the world-population. But then to realize it all is done in the name of stories. Stories that aren’t even true objectively, and for the part they are true subjectively, that subjectivity will be unrecognizably different after another century.
I am sure that in 1914 there were Belgian soldiers that believed not the slightest in ‘Belgium’ while they threw themselves into the path of the biggest army the world had seen thus far. Likewise I do not really BELIEVE in Belgium, or even in Europe with an absolute conviction. Yet I will man the walls of those circles and feed that MG, not because of those circles but because they are the only walls protecting smaller circles I very much care for. It will just be one of those things a man simply has to do. But I would urge us to collectively exercise some moderateness. Because I see this either ending without victors or survivors in the blink of an eye, or dragged on by the last 3% of the world-population that literally takes this war underground, only to never-ever see the sky again! What I don’t see happening is a war that is between these two.
It is an insult to Russia that former
colonies comrade-countries from the USSR, after the dismantling of said federation, would even consider allegiances with the former enemy. Putin, like many of his generation regrets the loss of greatness and nothing says ‘loser’ as hard as a country, that can barely provide for itself, spitting in your face. The West, completely convinced it has the greatest state-form ever devised (despite denying its implications when it concerns Greece), is honored that these nations would join their band-of-nations and see it as the ultimate vindication of democracy. Both these stories have their validity, both are connected to some strong emotions and both are leading us headfirst into the worst meat-grinder the world has ever seen.
I’m sure there are many among you, men predominantly, that like myself secretly fantasize about being in war. The game industry sure knows it. And calls for ‘world-peace’ are traditionally the deepest desire of virgin beauty-pageant-hopefuls whose appeals are sculpted so they don’t even penetrate your skin. But my inner-historian is, simultaneous with fantasizing about it, revolted by the idea that we would unleash our present day technology on naked flesh and rip it apart. This is a game we can’t restart, there is only one level, everything degrades, nothing upgrades and the damage is permanent if not immediately total. I’m a atheist-historian-soldier who is utterly scared of war and who thinks any sane person should be. Between media and self-serving politics it’s you that has to apply common sense. For the risk it entails, this
shit stuff is already way too close to be acceptable and we should all back-‘da-fudge’-down!
I think a small gesture, telling Putin he is not a loser, is in order. It could actually save the world. You don’t even have to mean it or do it full-heartedly. I’m thinking: Hillary-Clinton–lookalike + dimmed Oval Office + blowjob. But while you are at it, keep a ‘Bill’ in reserve, just in case Putin swings that way. Not to imply anything, but Hitler was gay and homophobic at the same time, it does happen!
In any case I have to hope this situation will pass without much ado. Getting up at 5 is hard enough without believing the world will be gamma-radiating by the time one gets home. But in case you have missed it, none of this is necessarily immediate. Tell me a story that ends well and I’ll tell you that it hasn’t ended. After Putin&Nato there will be other crises. It is about the fundamentally flawed way that humans have organized themselves around basic resources. It’s the only way we know how to, and it is just not good enough. We have seen how this leads to worlds that get fudged up beyond all recognition. We believe in these stories and we believe they are immutable. But in all their subjectivity, they are anything but, while still leading us into undeniable destruction. And so, unless we find a way to get our stories straight (and international diplomacy does attempt at that) on a global scale, we have to wonder:
Is our future a distant past?
Une pupille noire entourée de blanc.
C’est ce que je peux voir devant la glace à présent.
Je viens de me lever, il y a quelques instants.
C’est difficile à dire au fond ce que je ressens.
Après la nuit que j’ai passé, dur à été mon réveil.
A tout ce que j’ai pu penser avant de trouver le sommeil.
A toutes ces idées qui n’ont causées que des problèmes.
La réalité et toutes ces images de haine.
Tant d’années passées à essayer d’oublier.
Tant de journées cumulées et doucement il s’est installé. <section untranslated>
Je me suis posé ce matin la question.
Est ce que tout recommence, avons-nous perdu la raison
car j’ai vu le mal qui doucement s’installe sans aucune morale.
Passer à la télé pour lui est devenu normal.
Comme à chaque fois avec un nouveau nom.
Après le nom d’Hitler, j’ai entendu le nom du front.
I asked myself this morning the question:
does it all begin again, have we lost any sense of reason?
Because I’ve seen the Evil, softly installing itself, without any moral
Appearing on t.v. for him has really become the new normal.
And every time, with a new name.
After the name of Hitler I heard the name Putain <originaly ‘front’>
Et si l’avenir est un long passé,
je vous demande maintenant ce que vous en pensez ?
Comme Marcel et Jean-Marc ma vie est-elle tracée ?
La suite, l’avenir est-il un long passé ?
So if the future is a distant past
Can I ask you now, what you think, at last?
Like for Marcel and Jean-Marc, has my life been cast ?
So truth: is the future a distant past?
Text from: « L’Avenir Est Un Long Passé » (By Manau)
Translation : Hailaga