AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Saturday, 31 December 2016

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” (Carl Sagan)



by Todd Duncan, Science Integration Institute


Science has had an uneasy relationship with the human desire for personal meaning and significance to our lives. It is sometimes tempting to conclude we’d all be better off keeping the two topics confined to separate categories  that  make contact only if absolutely necessary.
But science and meaning are connected in a  fundamental way, which artificial categories can never completely keep  apart. This connection is forced upon us by the remarkable success of the scientific process in uncovering new information about the universe in which we are immersed. We want any meaning we construct for ourselves to be on solid ground, to be based on the “real world.” Science has worked so well that it is difficult to deny it a central role in telling us about how the world really is. Even if we sometimes don’t like what we think science is telling us, because it may conflict with some ideas on which we happen to base our current sense of meaning, we feel obligated to pay attention and look to it as a source of information about the meaning we seek.
Evidence that many people sense this can be seen both in our fascination with science and in our reactions against it. What are millions of people looking for in such science books as Stephen Hawking’s amazingly popular A Brief History of Time, and in other similar works of popular science? Many intuitively sense that science must have an important impact on the search for meaning, which may be why they turn to such books for answers. Most, I suspect, are disappointed in one way or an- other. Abstract approaches to “theories of everything,” while certainly important in the search to understand the universe and ourselves, have a hollowness to them that always leaves us wanting. In one sense they profess to  offer the  whole story. But in another, more intuitive sense, we know they can never  be the whole story because they leave out  what  is the  very stuff of life to us. These descriptions of the universe seem too far removed from our experience, with nothing that brushes against the universe as we experience it in everyday life, the one in which we make choices and seek meaning and a place for ourselves and our thoughts. Science provides a mental map of the universe, but it is in many ways an unfamiliar and unhelpful map, without clear connections to the concepts  we  operate with in our immediate experience. Most glaringly, it seems to lack a clear “you are here” marker needed to place ourselves within the framework of the map and use it as a guide to the choices we face in life.
This situation may explain some of the vigorous resistance to scientific ideas and the continued popularity, despite strong evidence against them, of so-called “pseudosciences” such as astrology, creation science, psychic phenomena, or quantum healing. They address directly the daily concerns of life, and thus offer something we have a deep and real need for, which science seems not to provide.
We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.
We all operate within a framework of concepts that make sense of the world to us, which we use to formulate our goals, hopes, and dreams, and to seek ways to overcome problems  and obstacles as we build our lives. Certainly the universe out there has much to say about all this, but it’s hard to figure out what it says when our scientific description exists for us as a remote framework without clearly articulated connections  to the concepts with which we operate in daily life. So we live in a disconnected state: abstract and evolving knowledge of the grand universe on one hand, and the immediate need for a guide to our individual choices on the other hand. How do we bring these together, so that we can guide our immediate choices from a perspective that is informed by and connected to the big picture?
These connections exist, but they are easily disguised, lost in the abstractions. The links are difficult to maintain even for sciences that specifically describe us, our bodies and mental processes. In some way we remain detached from these descriptions, still not quite feeling they tell us much about the essence of the world as we experience it. For sciences that describe distant places and distant times, the links can seem almost impossible to maintain. The connections must be consciously made, the insights from science explicitly appropriated into our day-to-day awareness of who we are and how we interact with the world. We can learn to think not of  the scientific universe out there, far away and long ago, but  right here, where we live and experience the world. The big bang, for example, happened here, in the little region of space we can now hold in our hands, as well as out there in regions that are now 10 – 15 billion light years away. We are just now receiving the glow from a condition once experienced billions of light years away, but that condition was also experienced right here, a long time ago. Bizarre properties of electrons and atoms and photons described by quantum theory can seem abstract and detached, until we realize we’re talking about us, too—our atoms, the air we breathe, the sunlight which sustains us. Many of the remarkable insights from science remain abstract, disconnected from our personal worldviews which are the maps we use to guide our choices and our lives. But this need not always be the case.
I suggest that the meaning behind our individual lives, which science can help us uncover, is not to be looked for only in regimes where our current scientific understanding is stretched or incomplete—in exotic theories of the early universe, in black holes and warped spacetime and the arcane mathematics of grand unified theories. It is found, rather, in the “ordinary world”—the world in which we live every day, but  which really is so full of mystery and wonder that it seems inappropriate to call it ordinary. Once we learn to live with a full awareness of our connections to the universe we are a part of, I think it’s safe to say the world will never seem ordinary again.
  • The author then defines his intent and goal in writing this book:
My goal in this short book is to illustrate that the seemingly opposing aims of “personal meaning” and “consistency with science” need not be in conflict. On the contrary, the process and insights of science can act as a valuable filter and guide to developing our sense of being part of a bigger context, within which our lives have meaning. We live our lives motivated and guided by a set of beliefs about how the world works and how we connect to it. These connections are all around us, in every action and every assumption about what is important for us to do. And science, while certainly not capable of providing all the answers, has a great deal to say about these assumptions. We just need to be aware of how to use the science, and what to look for.

My hope is that someday science will play a much more central role in our varied individual efforts to construct an overall context for our lives. I hope we will learn to see new discoveries in basic science not as detached and esoteric curiosities, justified by the vague possibility of technological spin-offs, but as crucial pieces or steps in the process of uncovering humanity’s role in the cosmos. My aim is to help bring this day closer, by offering a point of view from which science can be seen as an important tool in your personal search for meaning in your daily life. Along the way, I also present some concrete suggestions for putting it to use for yourself.
And here is Carl Sagan (1934-1996) with his famous sentence, in fact his most powerfull sentence from the scientific serie Cosmos : "The cosmos is also within us, We're made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."

...and another video about Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Arthur C. Clarke - God, The Universe and Everything Else (1988):

Musings on the Universe

The beep beep sound of Sputnik (mp3)

There is something indefinably magical in space. Mankind has looked upwards for centuries, always wanting to know more. Where did we come from? Why does the rain fall? What Gods make lightening? What have we done to make the Gods angry? What are stars made of? How did the universe begin? How will it end? How can we see further and further into a mystery always just beyond reach?
Ancient civilizations had cause to fear the sky. In the modern world, however, we have lost any sense of fear and wonder about that which suspends our tiny planet in the vastness of space and time. The ability for the majority of us to experience the universe first hand is small. Astronauts are heroes because they dare to step into the vastness that has frightened and awed and puzzled mankind since our first ancestor rose onto two legs and looked towards the sky.
Did dinosaurs ponder the wonders of space? Fish? Lions? Horses? Even the small one-celled amoeba? The creatures of this world don’t need to ponder space because they are space. Instinctively, they know their connection to the universe, something we forgot long ago when we chose to divide and accept ‘he’ is different than ‘me’.
So why does the sound of a machine beeping in space open up such a vast emptiness inside me? Awe that, even though the sounds were recorded over 40 years ago, makes me shiver, forces me to admit I, too, am part of the wonder of the universe. Sounds which make me feel something opening inside me in a way I have never experienced before;  connects me to the universe in a way I never imagined possible.
I am, you are, every living thing in this world and beyond, not to mention rocks and chairs and books, and computers are made of starstuff. We see solids when, in reality, the atoms  from which we are made are simply gathered together and pretending to be the solids called ‘me’ or ‘you’ or ‘Fido.’ The same as a star 40 million light years away is pretending to be the solid called ‘star.’  I am ‘me,’ but I am also Sputnik, forty years ago, sending the sounds of infinity back to the’ me’ on earth listening this very moment.
What awe would fill this world if we all understood, down to the tiniest particle of our being, that we aren’t different.  We are all made of the same stuff as the stars. We all feel that deep instinctive pull towards knowing, understanding, who we are and where we belong in this infinite universe.
Perhaps that is what the beeping of Sputnik reminds us. Somewhere out there, beyond our sight, in the blackness both outside and inside us, there is an emptiness we all understand – loneliness, fear, death –  but we do not need to be afraid. We are one. No matter the vastness between the stars, or between two neighbors, there is always a bridge, always a connection of starstuff binding us together.
  • This video shows the launch of Sputnik 1 - October 4, 1957:

  • From Wikipedia:
Sputnik 1 (/ˈspʌtnɪk/RussianСпутник-1 [ˈsputnʲɪk] "Satellite-1", or ПС-1 ["PS-1", i.e., RussianПростейший Спутник-1 "Elementary Satellite 1"])[3] was the first artificial Earth satellite. The Soviet Union launched it into an elliptical low Earth orbit on 4 October 1957. It was a 58 cm (23 in) diameter polished metal sphere, with four external radio antennae to broadcast radio pulses. It was visible all around the Earth and its radio pulses were detectable. This surprise success precipitated the American Sputnik crisis and triggered the Space Race, a part of the larger Cold War. The launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments.[4][5]
Tracking and studying Sputnik from Earth provided scientists with valuable information, even though the satellite itself wasn't equipped with sensors. The density of the upper atmosphere could be deduced from its drag on the orbit, and the propagation of its radio signals gave information about the ionosphere.
Sputnik 1 was launched during the International Geophysical Year from Site No.1/5, at the 5th Tyuratam range, in Kazakh SSR (now known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome). The satellite travelled at about 29,000 kilometres per hour (18,000 mph; 8,100 m/s), taking 96.2 minutes to complete each orbit. It transmitted on 20.005 and 40.002 MHz,[6] which were monitored by amateur radio operators throughout the world.[7] The signals continued for 21 days until the transmitter batteries ran out on 26 October 1957.[8] Sputnik 1 burned up on 4 January 1958, as it fell from orbit upon reentering Earth's atmosphere, after travelling about 70 million km (43.5 million miles) and spending three months in orbit.[9]
Sputnik 1 in space

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Life After Death

Reincarnation? Disembodied survival? Resurrection? 
Steve Stewart-Williams ponders the possible ways in which he could survive his own death, and decides that he doesn’t have a ghost of a chance.

Human beings are the only animals on earth who understand they will one day die. This tends not to be knowledge they relish. People throughout history have sought eternal life, most recently pinning this hope on science. But more common than the hope that death can be postponed forever is the hope that life will continue after death. The belief in life after death comes in all shapes and sizes. We can distinguish, for instance, between views involving continued existence in a physical body, and those in which survival takes place outside the body. The first category includes reincarnation, and the Judeo-Christian and Islamic doctrine that God will resurrect our bodies at some future time. Survival outside the physical body is variously conceived as survival in a non-physical body (an astral or ghost body), or survival as a disembodied mind. These conceptions of life after death have in common the fact that the individual person survives in some sense. Another belief is in impersonal survival. Some strains of Buddhism, for instance, hold that the individual mind merges back into a universal mind. And contrasting with all these views is the belief that with death we cease to exist in any sense.

The Case for Survival

The question of whether we survive death is one of the big questions of human life. In this article, I explore some of the arguments and evidence for and against survival. I begin with the case for.

Empirical Evidence for Life after Death

Some of the most convincing evidence for life after death comes from the many stories and reports of paranormal phenomena. Among these allegedly paranormal occurrences are out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, ghost sightings, mediums communicating with the dead, and memories of past lives. Such occurrences, if they were what they appear to be, would constitute empirical proof for the belief we survive death (although note that they would not show that we necessarily survive forever). So, how good is the evidence for paranormal phenomena?

Contrary to the impression the popular media sometimes gives, the evidence is not great. Much of it is easily explained in naturalistic terms. For example, although there are no reasonable grounds to doubt that people sometimes have outof- body experiences and near-death experiences, these experiences are plausibly explained in physiological and psychological terms. Similarly, memories of past lives may be false memories, and ghost sightings misinterpretations of ambiguous stimuli. These possibilities do not in themselves prove that supernatural explanations are not called for. Nonetheless, wherever there is a plausible alternative explanation for a piece of evidence, we must at least concede that that evidence cannot justify a strong belief in a supernatural explanation. Moreover, some evidence actively undermines the credibility of paranormal explanations. For instance, mediums have been able to contact people who, unknown to them, were fictional or still alive.

But not all alleged paranormal occurrences can be explained in naturalistic terms. We have all heard stories, for example, of deceased relatives returning and conveying information that could not possibly have been gained in other ways. If such things really happen, non-supernatural explanations would simply not be plausible. It should raise our suspicions, however, that the evidence for such unambiguously paranormal occurrences is almost always poorly corroborated or anecdotal. Anecdotal reports are notoriously unreliable, and when reliable scientific methods are instituted, paranormal phenomena tend mysteriously to vanish. So the situation is this: Where there is good evidence for an occurrence (for example, near-death experiences and out-ofbody experiences), that occurrence can easily be given a naturalistic explanation; where a naturalistic explanation cannot be given for an occurrence, there tends not to be good evidence for that occurrence – suggesting it does not really occur at all. This is precisely the pattern we would expect if there were no reality to paranormal phenomena. In short, there is no good empirical evidence for life after death.

The Conservation of Energy

The search for empirical evidence is not the only attempt to give belief in survival scientific respectability. Some argue that the scientific principle of the conservation of energy supports the idea that the mind survives bodily death. According to this principle, energy never just springs into existence or ceases to exist; it simply changes form. Some argue it follows from this principle that mind or consciousness cannot just go out of existence or disappear at death. An initial criticism of this argument is that the conservation principle applies only to physical energy. Thus, if mind is viewed as non-physical or spiritual energy, there is no reason to think the conservation principle would apply. Furthermore, even if the mind were a form of physical energy, the principle would not guarantee survival. Though energy never ceases to exist nor comes into existence, it does change form. Thus, if the mind is physical energy, it could eventually transform to the point were we could no longer say the original mind still exists.

But perhaps those deploying this argument really have in mind a more general principle than the conservation of physical energy, such as the simple claim that nothing is created and nothing destroyed. This principle has less scientific credibility, but it may be the only way to salvage the argument. Assuming it is true, which is debatable, would it guarantee the survival of the mind? To begin with, the principle would not apply to aggregate entities – things composed of other things. The atoms composing your body, for instance, will continue to exist after your death, but your body will not. Some Buddhist philosophers believed the mind was an aggregate of ‘mental atoms’. If so, the dissolution of the mind would not contradict the premise that nothing is created or destroyed, any more than would the fact that a pattern in the sand ceases to exist when scattered by the wind. The premise would only guarantee survival if we could first establish that a mind is a single, indivisible, and indestructible unit. The evidence does not favour this position. Research and clinical practice in neuropsychology shows that when part of the brain is damaged, part of the mind is damaged. This casts doubt on the possibility that the mind is either indivisible or indestructible.

Arguments from Authority

The attempt to link belief in survival to the authority of science has not been successful. There are, however, other authorities to which the believer can appeal. A common argument relies on the authority of numbers. It is often pointed out in defence of the survival hypothesis that the vast majority of human beings have believed in survival. First, it should be emphasised that people have not all believed in the same forms of life after death, which weakens the case. But there is a more decisive response. As Bertrand Russell noted: “The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatsoever that it is not utterly absurd. Indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.”

Another approach, then, would be to cite the authority of wise people and prophets of the past, many of whom have believed in life after death. But how do we know such people are wise? Presumably, if we thought their teachings were completely false, we would not consider them wise. That we do consider them wise shows we already think their teachings are true. If we think they are wise because they hold certain beliefs, we cannot then cite their wisdom as proof for these beliefs. The argument from the authority of wise people does not support belief in life after death; it merely reveals the preexisting beliefs of those who employ the argument.

The Argument from Justice

A very different argument for life after death starts from the observation that if life does not continue after death, there could be no justice. In this world, the innocent suffer, and often the good receive no reward while the bad go unpunished. If this moral imbalance were not balanced, the universe would not be rational. It would be unjust, meaningless and absurd. Therefore, the unfairness of life in this world indicates that life must continue after death, for only if life continues can the scales of justice be balanced.

This argument has a number of implications people typically overlook. First, it does not specify the form that survival will take. It is an equally good argument for karma and reincarnation as it is for the view that God punishes or rewards us with hell or heaven. Thus, this argument alone would not justify any preference between these two views. Second, the argument would support survival of death, but not necessarily immortality. Given that each of our lives is finite, only a finite time would be required to balance the scales of justice.

But does the argument even establish temporary survival? Stripped down to its basic form, the argument consists of a premise (if life ends at death, then life would not be fair) and a conclusion (life does not end at death). As it stands, this is not a valid deductive argument; the conclusion does not follow directly from the premise. To make the argument valid, we must include an intermediate premise. The argument in full might then read as follows:
If life ends at death, then life would not be fair.
Life is fair. 
Therefore, life does not end at death.
The argument is now valid. The new premise is an implicit assumption that had not been stated previously, but on which the argument depends. However, having made clear the full argument, it is this premise that seems most questionable. It is far from obvious that life is fair, and there is nothing irrational or contradictory about a universe that is unjust by human standards. Unless we have good reason to believe the universe is fair, the justice argument fails.

The Theistic Argument

Some believe, however, that there is good reason to believe the universe is fair. This belief hinges on the existence of God. According to the theistic argument for life after death, an all-good God would not want an unjust universe, and because God is omnipotent, He would be able to create any universe He wanted. Thus, if there were an all-good, omnipotent God, life would be just and fair. The justice argument would then work, establishing life after death as a necessary consequence of the existence of God.

Not everyone is convinced that the existence of God would necessarily mean life is just by our standards, and therefore that we survive death. But again for the sake of discussion, let’s assume life after death is a necessary consequence of God’s existence. In that case, arguments for God would also be arguments for life after death. (Acceptance of this view comes at a price for the theist: A corollary of the view is that arguments against life after death are also arguments against the existence of God.) There are many arguments attempting to prove God’s existence. The majority of thinkers today, however, regard these as failing to achieve their goal. But even supposing they do establish the existence of God, before we can take this as proof of life after death, we must ask: Do they establish the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God? For it is only if God has these traits that we can have any assurance the universe is fair, and thus that life continues after death.

Most of the best-known arguments for God establish some attributes of the deity, but not those that would make life after death a logical necessity. For example, the argument from intelligent design, if sound, would establish the existence of a designer, but would not show that this designer is omnipotent or infinitely good. Similarly, the first cause argument demonstrates, at best, that there must have been a first cause, but does not say anything about any other characteristics this would possess. In assessing the possibility of life after death, we do not even need to consider whether these arguments are sound. Even if they were, they would not establish survival.

Of course, there are other arguments believers may claim fit the bill. This is not the place to deal with the question of the existence of God. But that is not to say we have reached an impasse, or that the question of life after death must remain open until we have investigated every argument for God. On the contrary, we can continue to investigate the issue of survival, for in doing so we can chip away at the theistic argument from another direction. As noted earlier, if we accept the view that arguments for God are also arguments for survival, we must also accept that arguments against survival are also arguments against the existence of God. Such arguments, to the extent they are sound, will further weaken the theistic argument. It is to these arguments we now turn.

The Case against Survival

There are a number of arguments against survival. Here I propose to look only at some of the more important.

Wishful Thinking

First, let us dispose of an invalid, though common, argument against life after death: the wishful thinking argument. It is sometimes argued that the sole reason people believe in life after death is that they find the idea comforting. The belief in survival can remove – or at least lessen – the fear of death and extinction, the sadness experienced when a loved one dies, and the sense that a life of finite duration would be meaningless. It also holds out the promise that the scales of justice will be balanced. The comfort this belief provides can completely explain why people hold it. There are no other reasons to believe, and thus we can assume the belief is false.

An immediate criticism of this argument is that the belief in life after death is not always comforting: Millions have lived in fear of hell and eternal damnation, or other frightening post-mortem possibilities. But this criticism is actually beside the point. It is possible to invent ulterior motives to explain why people hold anybelief. But even if a person does believe it for the reason suggested, this does not in any way show that the belief is false. It is, after all, possible to hold correct beliefs for the wrong reasons.

Furthermore, believers in life after death could use exactly the same argument against non-believers. Some people may welcome the idea of personal extinction at death, because it promises the cessation of the misery and unsatisfied yearning we experience in life. Some non-believers have suggested life without a body would be dull and pointless, and Nietzsche thought belief in another life after this one diminishes this life. On these grounds, it could be argued that the belief in extinction at death is mere wishful thinking. The wishful thinking argument can thus be used to attack either point of view. Consequently, it does not advantage either side of the debate, and we should completely ignore it. Of course, if we have other reasons to think one or other view is false, then we might speculate about why people hold this view despite its falsity. Such speculation cannot, however, be used to argue a view is false in the first place.

The Dependence of Mind on Brain

We turn now from a weak argument to perhaps the strongest argument against survival: the claim that mind is dependent on the brain. If it could be established that minds cannot exist without brains, this would undermine not only the possibility of survival outside the body, but most other survival theories as well. For example, some believers in resurrection hold that the mind continues to exist between the moment of death and the resurrection of the body by God. But this would not be possible if minds could only exist when coupled with working brains. Similarly, believers in reincarnation are committed to the view that the same mind that inhabited one body comes to inhabit another; however, this would require the continued existence of a mind without a brain between incarnations. The possibility of impersonal survival or a universal mind would also be ruled out by the dependence of mind on brain (unless we wish to claim the physical universe is one large brain).

Clearly, the dependence of mind on brain would be devastating to the survival hypothesis. So, what is the evidence for and against this position? We have already considered the evidence against it. Paranormal phenomena, such as ghost activity and medium contact with the deceased, suggest minds exist without brains. As argued, however, this evidence is weak. Furthermore, we must weigh it against the evidence of neuroscience, which points to the opposite conclusion. And this evidence is strong, abundant, and well replicated.

The guiding assumption of neuroscience is that for every mental state, there is a corresponding brain state. Literally thousands of studies have vindicated this assumption. Neuroscientists have shown, for example, that when you look at something – when you have a conscious visual experience – certain parts of your brain become more active. If you then close your eyes and imagine the same visual scene, the same parts of your brain are again active. If you electrically stimulate the visual areas of the brain, this produces conscious visual experience. Stimulating other sensory areas produces other sensory experiences. Other things that influence brain states, such as drugs, also influence states of mind. Neuroscientists are making great progress finding the neural bases of perception, memory, attention, thought, emotion, motivation, and indeed of all psychological phenomena.

Some might argue that this shows only that mental activity and brain activity go hand-in-hand in living human beings, but not that mental events can only occur in conjunction with a brain. One piece of evidence in particular answers this challenge: When part of the brain is destroyed, part of the mind is destroyed. Surely it is reasonable to assume that when the brain is completely destroyed, so too is the mind. David Hume summed it up well several centuries ago, when he wrote: “The weakness of the body and that of the mind in infancy are exactly proportioned; their vigour in manhood, their sympathetic disorder in sickness, their common gradual decay in old age. The step further seems unavoidable; their common dissolution in death.”


The dependence of mind on brain rules out survival outside the body, reincarnation, and impersonal survival. There is, however, one form of survival that would not be affected by the dependence of mind on brain: the resurrection of our current bodies by God. Again, this is not the place to go into the question of God’s existence. However, we can ask whether, even if God does exist, resurrection could be possible. If it is a logical impossibility then we can rule it out, God or no God. A well-known criticism of the idea that God literally resurrects our current bodies is illustrated by the cannibal problem. When a cannibal eats another person, the matter of his meal’s body is incorporated into his own. How can God then resurrect both the cannibal’s body and the body of the person he ate? The problem does not apply only to cannibals and their victims. The atoms of your body today may have been atoms in the bodies of other people in the past, and may be atoms in other people’s bodies in the future. How can we all be resurrected?

One suggestion is that God will rebuild us from other atoms. But surely these new bodies would not actually be us at all, but rather would be replicas. Consider what would happen if God created you from different atoms now, while you were still alive. You would consider this a copy, and not actually you. It would have another brain – albeit one almost identical to your own – and thus would have another mind, to which you would not have direct access. It appears, then, that the replica version of resurrection cannot secure survival anymore than the original version.


Earlier I suggested that only after we have good reason to reject a belief should we speculate about why people may hold that belief, despite its falsity. We have now seen good reasons to reject the possibility of survival. So, by way of a conclusion, I will briefly touch on the issue of why people might hold this belief. Wishful thinking and other psychosocial factors probably provide a partial explanation. However, we should not overlook more obvious explanations, such as that most people believe in survival simply because they were told when young that we survive, and in day-to-day life we experience little that contradicts this view. And there is another factor that may be relevant, one that has received little if any attention. This relates to the limits of what is conceivable. We cannot imagine nothingness, and thus cannot imagine our own non-existence. Consequently, it may come very naturally to us to believe our minds continue to exist after death. Regardless of how naturally it comes, however, there seems little reason to think it is true.

© Steve Stewart-Williams 2002

Steve Stewart-Williams is with the School of Psychology at Massey University in New Zealand. His main academic interest is the philosophical implications of evolutionary psychology.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Hasta la victoria siempre, Comandante!

A great death epidemic of great personalities this year. Elie Wiesel, Umberto Eco, Shimon Perez, Dario Fo, David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, and on 25 November, Fidel Castro...

Fidel Castro: a life – and death – in context

The temptation to conflate the complexities of historical outcomes with the will of one man must be resisted. The biography of Fidel Castro is not the history of Cuba.

Photo by: Getty Images
Cuban leader Fidel Castro is presented with an invitation to the New York Press Photographer's Ball, New York City, April 23, 1959.

Among the many tens of thousands of well-wishers to congratulate the newly re-elected President Franklin Roosevelt in November 1940 was a 12-year-old boy writing in halting English. “I like to hear the radio,” the youngster wrote, “and I am very happy, because I hear in it that you will be President for a new period.” The letter was sent from the Colegio de Dolores, the Jesuit boarding school in Santiago de Cuba. The writer was Fidel Castro Ruz, who also added a request to his congratulations. “If you like,” he asked President Roosevelt, “[to] give me a ten dollars bill green american because...never I have not seen a ten dollars bill american and I would like to have one of them.”

Can the imagination contemplate the possibility that had 12-year-old Fidel Castro Ruz received a “ten dollars bill green American,” history would have been different? Not plausibly – but it does make for an arresting outcome to ponder.

On the other hand, outcomes no less plausible have acted to shape much of the history attributed to Fidel Castro. How utterly implausible: a revolution of uncommon breadth and depth in a country that before January 1959 was thought of – if thought of at all – as hardly more than a client state, an American playground: a place of license and loose morality; of prostitutes, pimps, and pornography; of bars and brothels; casinos and cabarets; in a country where the United States, former ambassador Earl E. T. Smith was to acknowledge, “was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that…the American ambassador was the second most important man in Cuba; sometimes even more important than the President.”

That the government of Fidel Castro expelled the United States, nationalised U.S. property, and aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union — and also survived decades of U.S. efforts at regime change, including one armed invasion, years of covert operations, scores of assassination attempts, and 50 years of withering sanctions. How implausible indeed.

It was precisely this implausibility that so tormented the United States. Fidel Castro cast a dark shadow over the U.S. sense of equanimity, a bad dream that would never go away.

Notions of injured national pride, of humiliation and embarrassment – very emotional stuff, indeed – all attributed directly to the person of Fidel Castro, shaped the mindset with which the U.S. fashioned policy toward Cuba. Fidel had to be punished, and U.S. policy toward Cuba was nothing if not punitive: all Cubans would be punished until they did something about Castro.

His mere presence served as a reminder of the inability of the United States to will the world in accordance with its own wishes, a condition made all the more insufferable by the fact that this was a country upon which the United States had routinely imposed its will. U.S. politicians could hardly contain their indignation. Cuba under Castro developed into an obsession and into a peculiar American pathology. The Cuban revolution, personified by and personalised in the figure of Fidel Castro, challenged long-cherished notions about national well-being and upset prevailing notions of the rightful order of things. Fidel Castro became a very personal bête noire for the Americans. Certainly the scores of U.S. assassination plots against the life of Castro could not have made American wrath any more personal.

Cultures cope with the demons that torment them in different ways and indeed the practise of exorcism assumes many forms. Castro occupied a place of almost singular distinction in that nether world to which the Americans banish their demons. He was reviled and vilified, he was denounced as a madman, a megalomaniac, a menace, an anathema and phantasma, given to evil doings, a wicked man with whom honorable men could not treat. Fidel was beyond the pale, an utterly reprehensible man of despicable character, devoid of the most minimal moral credibility necessary to negotiate in good faith. Simply put, he was a wicked man with whom honourable men could not deal, so irredeemably contemptible as to make even being in his company seem as something akin to consorting with the devil and the prospects of rapprochement appear an accommodation to evil.

Creating Fidel in America's image

Fidel Castro was in many ways defined through his confrontation with the United States. His uncompromising defence of Cuban claims to self-determination as a matter of a historically-determined mandate and a legacy to fulfil more than adequately validated his moral claim to leadership. To confront the United States in defence of national sovereignty was to make good on the internal logic of Cuban history, a summons to which millions of Cubans could respond unequivocally, without regard to political affinities. It was in Juan Arcocha’s novel Los Muertos Andan Solos that the poignancy of this moment in Cuban history was preserved in the thoughts of protagonist Esperanza. “At first, when Fidel had put it to the Americans,” the narrator comments, “she had liked that, because finally there was in Cuba a man of integrity who would stand up boldly and speak sternly to the Americans,” who would hold them accountable.

What resonated in 1959 and in the years that followed was the very phenomenon of the Cuban revolution, of a people summoned to heroic purpose, to affirm the right of self-determination and national sovereignty. Fidel Castro was the most visible representative of that people.

It happened too that the Cuban revolution triumphed in a larger context, at a time of decolonization movements in Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. To confront the United States in the name of national sovereignty and self-determination catapulted Fidel onto the international stage, as a powerful symbol to sustain Third World intransigence against First World domination. The Goliath had met his David. That the Cubans could make good on their aspirations resonated across the globe: Cuba as model, Cuba as example. The defeat of the U.S.- organised Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cubans boasted, represented the first defeat of imperialism in the Americas. Cuban bravado reverberated across Latin America.

Castro shaped history but he was also a product of it

It is also necessary to pause in the rush to ascertain Fidel’s “legacy”. It would be well in this time of Fidel Castro obituaries, from friends and from foes, from those who would mourn his passing or celebrate his death, to proceed with informed prudence. The temptation to conflate the complexities of historical outcomes with the will of one man must be resisted. The biography of Castro is not the history of Cuba.

The life of Fidel Castro was contingent and contextual. The social forces that crashed upon one another in fateful climax in 1959 were set in motion long before Fidel Castro. This is not to suggest that the Cuban revolution was a matter of inevitable outcome, of course. But to acknowledge that the revolution was not inevitable should not be understood to mean that it lacked an internal logic, one derived from the very history from which it emerged.

However large a role Fidel played in shaping the course of Cuban history, it bears emphasising that the success of his appeal and the source of his authority were very much a function of the degree to which he represented the authenticity of Cuban historical aspirations. Fidel Castro was an actor, of course, but he was also acted upon. He shaped the history of his times in discharge of the history by which he was formed. The meaning of his life must be situated within that history, as it was lived and learned, as the circumstances that acted to forge self-knowledge and knowledge of the world at large, and served to inform the purpose of his presence.

To subsume outcomes of 50 years of Cuban programmes and policies to the will of one man is facile. It is bad history. Worse still, it is to dismiss the efforts of countless hundreds of thousands of other men and women who – with ill-will or good intentions – played important roles in the decisions, deliberations, and discharge of the purpose that has moved the history of Cuba over the past 50 years. The Cuban people fell in love with their revolution. Their hopes were lifted aloft by the prospects for a better life, if not immediately for themselves then eventually for their children. They were bestirred to act in discharge of sacrifice and selflessness, exhilarated by new possibilities and new promises, but most of all by the prospects of a better future that seemed to be within their reach and through their efforts. Agency, in a word.

The exercise of national sovereignty and self-determination was the defining paradigm from which the leadership of the Cuban revolution understood the logic of everything else. In this regard, Fidel Castro was uncompromising. Many factors played a part in sustaining Fidel Castro in power. 
Certainly the oft-cited resort to repression is not without basis in fact. The system has indeed relied on an extensive and efficient intelligence apparatus. It acted on authoritarian reflexes, and was neither slow nor unwilling to apply repression as a means to maintain internal consensus.

But repression alone is not an adequate explanation for the endurance of a government under extraordinary circumstances, during years of withering economic adversity, compounded by five decades of external pressures – active and passive, principally from the United States. The antecedents of the Cuban revolution reach deeply into the nineteenth century, precisely to the point at which men and women across the island arrived to an awareness of nationality and knowledge of the meaning of nationality. For vast numbers of men and women, being Cuban was a fate. No other aspiration so profoundly shaped the formation of Cuban national sensibility as the ideals of nation and national sovereignty. That is, the premise of the primacy of Cuban interests and the principal purpose of la patria, a deepening recognition of the need to relocate power within Cuba and reorder the purpose of power in behalf of things Cuban, but mostly as affirmation of the prerogative of the Cuban in Cuba. No one articulated these sentiments more frequently or more forcefully than Fidel Castro.

The global resonance of the Cuban purpose was coyuntural, representing a time when the resolve of the people of a small island in the Caribbean served as a symbol of hope to peoples in distant continents. The legacy of Fidel Castro? The example of the Cuban people.

This article was originally published by NACLA on November 29, 2016.
Louis A. Pérez, Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and Director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

E' morto Fidel Castro, portò la rivoluzione  a Cuba. Il sogno con il Che, la dittatura, la malattia.

È morto Fidel Castro, portò la rivoluzione a Cuba. Il sogno con il Che, la dittatura, la malattia

A video on the Cuban revolution: Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Che Guevara:

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