Friday, January 04, 2019

Yuval Harari - "21 Lessons..." abstracted - Part 5 - Resilience

This is the fifth installment of clips taken from "21 Lessons for the 21st Century," Harari, Yuval Noah. Kindle Edition, Random House Publishing Group. Part V. My idiosyncratic choices of text reducing the contents of each chapter to a single paragraph miss many important points, and don't begin to replace a full reading of the chapter.

Part V Resilience - How do you live in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed and no new story has yet emerged to replace them?

Chapter 19 - Education - Change is the only constant

A baby born today will be thirtysomething in 2050…What kind of skills will he or she need in order to … navigate the maze of life?…At present, too many schools focus on cramming information into kids’ brains...the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. .. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information…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…In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products but above all to reinvent yourself again and again…From time immemorial life was divided into two complementary parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working…accelerating change plus longer life spans will make this traditional model obsolete…you will need the ability to constantly learn and to reinvent yourself, certainly at a young age like fifty…To succeed at such a daunting task, you will need to work very hard at getting to know your operating system better—to know what you are and what you want from life…you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu, and the government are all racing to hack you… you and your organic operating system… we are living in the era of hacking humans…if the algorithms indeed understand what’s happening within you better than you understand it yourself, authority will shift to them… Of course, you might be perfectly happy ceding all authority to the algorithms… If, however, you want to retain some control over your personal existence and 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 baggage with you. Leave all your illusions behind. They are very heavy.

Chapter 20 - Meaning - Life is not a story.

In almost all cases, when people ask about the meaning of life, they expect to be told a story…To give meaning to my life, a story …must give me some role to play….it must extend beyond my horizons…Given everything we know about the universe, it would seem utterly impossible for any sane person to believe that the ultimate truth about the universe and human existence is the story of [any particular nation's nationalism]. A story that ignores almost the whole of time, the whole of space, the Big Bang, quantum physics, and the evolution of life is at most just a tiny part of the truth… a good story .. need not be true… yet [can] provide me with an identity and make me feel that my life has meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, none of the thousands of stories that different cultures, religions, and tribes have invented throughout history is true. They are all just human inventions. If you ask for the true meaning of life and get a story in reply, know that this is the wrong answer…How do we make the story feel real? Priests and shamans discovered the answer to this question thousands of years ago: rituals. A ritual is a magical act that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real…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…We humans have conquered the world thanks to our ability to create and believe fictional stories. We are therefore particularly bad at knowing the difference between fiction and reality. Overlooking this difference has been a matter of survival for us. If you nevertheless want to know the difference, the place to start is with suffering. Because as noted earlier, the realest thing in the world is suffering…Whenever politicians start talking in mystical terms, beware. They might be trying to disguise and excuse real suffering by wrapping it up in big, incomprehensible words. Be particularly careful about the following four words: “sacrifice,” “eternity,” “purity,” “redemption.”…always try to translate such hogwash into real terms: a soldier crying out in agony, a woman beaten and brutalized, a child shaking in fear…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.

Chapter 21 - Meditation - Just observe.

Now that I have criticized so many stories, religions, and ideologies, it is only fair that I put myself in the firing line too, and explain how somebody so skeptical can still manage to wake up cheerful in the morning…When I began studying at university, I thought it would be the ideal place to find answers. But I was disappointed….my good friend Ron suggested that I try putting aside all the books and intellectual discussions for a few days and take a Vipassana meditation course. … after a year of patient nudging, in April 2000 he convinced me to go to a ten-day Vipassana retreat…The first thing I learned by observing my breath was that .. I knew almost nothing about my mind, and I had very little control over it…If you try to objectively observe your sensations, the first thing you’ll notice is how wild and impatient the mind is, and how difficult it is to focus it even on a relatively distinct sensation such as breath…I think I learned more about myself and about humans in general by observing my sensations for those ten days than I had learned in my whole life up to that point… I just had to observe reality as it is. 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…Without the focus and clarity provided by this practice, I could not have written Sapiens or Homo Deus…Over the millennia humans have developed hundreds of meditation techniques, which differ in their principles and effectiveness….but in principle meditation is any method for the direct observation of one’s own mind…Serious meditation demands a tremendous amount of discipline…If we are willing to make efforts to understand foreign cultures, unknown species, and distant planets, it might be worth working just as hard in order to understand our own minds. And we had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us…For a few more years or decades, we still have a choice. If we make the effort, we can still investigate who we really are. But if we want to make use of this opportunity, we had better do it now.

(As an antidote to Harari's doomsaying and dystopian futures, you might glance back at a similar abstracting series of posts,starting March 1, 2018, that I did on Pinker's book "Enlightenment Now.")

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