Monday, June 15, 2020

COVID-19 Was Started by a Pun!

I don't do puns. It's a brain-wiring thing. My brother in law can't help himself from punning. It's amusing until it becomes annoying, like anything that hides behind a front of 'I just can't help it.'

Much behavior in China derives from the punning which seems to descend from the way the written language constrains the number of phonemes to something like an order of magnitude fewer than are available to speakers of English. 

I know that it's linguistic dogma that the written language doesn't infect the spoken, but there you go. Mandarin is pretty much a concocted language, and it has a perfect one-to-one correspondence with written vernacular Chinese. That was never true for all the languages which used the Chinese writing system. In practice, that meant that literacy was reserved for those who understood and could use a written language that diverged from their native tongue. That was the case in the West as well, before we started writing in the vernacular. 

I digress. 

In my observation, there is a stunning increase in visits to traditionally Chinese temples in China. I don't think the particular variety of temple matters, but there is a very familiar pattern to what goes on. Incense is lit, bows are made with clasped prayerful hands, and names may be written on elaborate tokens. The prayers are for wealth and happiness.

On the trunks of many of the cars which circulate in China is fixed a chrome gecko. It puns with "avoiding misfortune" or avoiding an accident. It's pretty much the same as those St. Rose of Lima dash ornaments you see on car dashboards over here.

Now they don't really do God in China, at least not the way we do. Over here, we seem increasingly divided between believers and non-believers, and that is reflected in our increasingly dysfunctional adversarial system for achieving truth, justice, and American democracy. I know it's dysfunctional because Richard Dawkins told me how, in evolutionary terms. Of course I'm including on the non-believer side those who say that they believe, but really don't.

This has clearly become insupportably dangerous for the planet.

So, as is my habit, I go looking for what is most general about what is going on. You could call that the lowest common denominator - like punning as a basic form of humor, or, for instance, laughing at public farts; the lowest common denominator for humor in that case, or anti-scientific behaviors in the other. 

The low denominator is that people look for magic intervention in the workings of the world to make things better for themselves. Now in my cosmos, such selfieness is a form of evil. But it is just lowest common denominator enough so that it can be harnessed for many many purposes. For one, it's how our economy works. 

Both our economy and our politics work as though it were a zero-sum game, like football is. Let's make a deal; you lose, I win! It's more like you pay what you think is next to nothing and I claim nearly everything for myself. The religion of going for the lowest price is making lawyers, finance workers, tech titans, and WalMart seriously seriously rich. The rest of us not so much.

Frankly, I think that's why Dawkins' insistence that evolution is about selfish genes and not selfish individuals is so important. In general, that's why science is so important. The scientific method leads us to certain kinds of understanding that really must be believed, no matter what language you speak, or even if you read or write. It undergirds our technology. You may say that you don't believe it - if you're a creationist say - but you don't act that way most of the time.

Anyhow from this cosmically distant frame, it becomes easier to see why Trump has overtaken what was once an ideologically based political proclivity. We should all agree that it's a very bad idea to have a selfie obsessed person in the office of the President. But we don't. That's because about half of us are selfie-obsessed. We think it's the only way to be. We make a religion of it.

I'd say it's about half of each of us as individuals, though, and so it's an internal battle too. Without something like God in our sense of reality, we end up feeling lost. Happiness just doesn't quite cut it as the meaning of life, the universe and everything. But sometimes humor does. Lots of the time, really. Anybody remember George Carlin? He was so cynical about Americans ever sharing an understanding of what's actually real, that he had to reach for dark humor to reach any of us at all. Pretty clever of him, I'd say.

But back to what is really batshit crazy. In Chinese the word for bat can be composed into many many puns for prosperity, long life, and all the good things. Now some Chinese folks will eat ground up rhinoceros horn for virility, because of the obvious horny pun. It only stands to reason that they'll eat bats in one form or another. Girls in China use software to trim their selfie stick photos so that they all look like the ideal. Like Plato came in the back door, pun intended. 

Over here, we know it's our broken immune system which is killing us. But we've got the self-interest thing upside down and backwards. I mean come on now, how is it functional in time of plague to ascribe conspiracy theory style blame to China? What fucking difference does it make? We're killing ourselves here, people, because we really don't know who to trust. We don't act as though we trust the scientists. But why should we? They can be as selfie-motivated as the rest of us. But we should at least trust the science. And elect a president who's instincts are to bring us together with calm authority.

And speaking of selfies, what do you think happens to consciousness when we saturate our senses with pictures of ourselves all trying to look our best as movie stars?

I'll tell you what I think it means. I won't elaborate right here and now, so don't you worry, but consciousness works like this: Your brain does not contain your self. Sure, you destroy your brain and you're dead, but that would also be true if you destroy your heart and lots of other parts. The thing is that there's no artificial replacement for your brain. But your brain is not your self. Your self is all that you experience, and mostly your mind is outside your body. Your proper experiences are identical with the perceptual objects you've experienced. 

Our experience of consciousness has been located in the most primitive regions of the brain. That's the part we share with reptiles, and the seat for our affective response. Believe it or don't but you can destroy your brain's conscious functioning and still experience consciousness. Your affective center just happens to be more efficient at making the right choices when matching present perceptions to past experience. Generalizations about, say, a lion, are matched against a real lion right in front of you and you just run before you can even think about it. Even a reptile does that. Feelings come before thinking. Duh!

You don't impute malevolent intent to the lion unless you're telling stories. You just simply know what the lion will do to you. Now is not the time to be telling stories about who's at fault or who has malevolent intentions. Now is the time to get real about who has your best interests in mind. We can work out our differences later, but no, I won't be talked out of believing in the fact of evolution. 

I also won't ever eat a bat or a rhinoceros horn in any form, unless I'm tricked into it by a practitioner of fake Chinese medicine. No, I don't mean that Chinese medicine is fake, but some of it is when it relies on puns. Like "signatures" for our folk healers. Life is never so simple. Wouldn't it be just grand if it were??

So giving vent to selfiness is never a good idea. It's of a piece with racism, xenophobia, gender binary bigotry, and all other forms of self-indulgence which might rest on false beliefs in idols. Especially when that idol is your selfie self.

But I don't know if we who are on the right side of things (which would be the left, unless you're sinister) should be so intent on doing away with belief in something bigger than mankind. So long as it's not a personal God, and so long as it's not science in service to the economy. Heck so long as the God you believe in isn't just there as some kind of insurance policy which is written in your name, I can't see any harm to it. So long as it doesn't interfere with science, and so long as it doesn't pretend to give you some advantage.

I suppose I'm making a distinction without a difference, but I do have a hard time believing in any God or scientific truth which is true only for me. That doesn't mean I won't use scientific knowledge to my own advantage. It's a survival tool, most of the time, and we all collectively benefit from it even while we benefit individually. But if I save myself at your expense, we end up at each other's throats.

God used to help with that. Not any more. Neither God nor evolution has ever taken sides. It has never been a zero-sum game, though now we make it one. 


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