The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label christianity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label christianity. Show all posts

Monday, February 27, 2023

The Return of Oracles. A New Epistemic Revolution is Coming


Why would people trust the Pithoness of the Oracle of Delphi? For us, it looks like a naive or silly idea, but the ancient were neither naive nor silly. They understood that oracles were sophisticated information management systems, very advanced for their times. Today, we have something similar with the new, AI-based, oracles. But the consequences on our way to see the world are all to be seen. 

The first epistemic system: Paganism

For people living in Classical times, the world was seen according to traditions consolidated over centuries. It was what it was because of the will of the Gods, and people could do little or nothing to change it. But humans could seek the favor of the Gods -- in a sense, "bribing" them --  by performing sacrifices and respecting the Gods' altars and shrines. It was called "piety," in the sense of being "pious." In ancient times, a pious man didn't need to have a strong faith, or moral sentiments, or be an especially good person. He followed the rules and obeyed the laws, that's what was required to carry on a respected and fruitful life (*). 

The Pagan system involved the use of oracles to have a glimpse of the Gods' will. We often tend to see our ancestors as naive and ignorant, but oracles were far from being a primitive system. They were a sophisticated data-collection epistemological system that continuously communicated with society to build and manage knowledge. So, if King A asked the Oracle whether he would be successful in attacking King B, then the Oracle obtained a precious element of information about the intentions of King A that could be very useful (and lucrative) when King B came to ask a question. Much of the human communication system still works in this way. You always pay for information with information.

The epistemic revolution: Christianity. 

With the decline of the Roman Empire, Pagan epistemology lost most of its appeal. The Romans hadn't stopped being pious; they kept making sacrifices, respecting shrines and altars, maniacally, even forcing people to be pious on pain of death. But the Gods didn't seem to care. The Empire was crumbling, justice had become oppression, the government was tyranny, and corruption was rampant. What sense was there in being pious? Why should the Gods care if a priest killed a goat for them, and then ate it himself? And those silly oracles, nobody trusted them anymore.

Christianity offered a different kind of epistemology. The Christian God could not be bought on the cheap with the blood of a few goats on an altar. There was a special relationship of God with his people, to the point that He had sent his own son to suffer and die for humankind. Now, humans needed to repay this great kindness by behaving well toward each other, helping each other, and building society together. In this way, a benevolent and merciful God could be trusted much more than the capricious and often malevolent Pagan Gods.

It was a completely new concept that generated the flowering of that creative and sophisticated civilization we call the "Middle Ages" and that, for some silly reason, we tend to denigrate as a "dark age." The Christian epistemological system was suspicious of people speaking directly with God. According to Christianity (and Islam, as well), God had already said everything there was to be said in the holy books. That didn't prevent searching for new knowledge in marginal areas but, if something important was unclear, the problem was to be solved by consulting the wise men versed in interpreting the scriptures. 

The new epistemic revolution: science

With the new millennium, Europeans started expanding in non-Christian lands. Christianity, like all epistemic systems, was based on a set of shared principles, but how to deal with people who were not Christian and who stubbornly refused to convert to such an obviously good idea as Christianity? Should they be exterminated for this evident lack of understanding? (much later, the same problem occurred with democracy). It was a major problem that Christianity tried to solve by the disputatio of Valladolid (1550–1551). The result was clear: the holy books said that Christians had to respect the natives of the new lands, and could not enslave them, nor force them to convert to Christianity. From a theological viewpoint, it was correct, but it didn't work in economic and political terms. The European states were expanding overseas, and that implied the ruthless exploitation of the natives as slaves, or -- simply -- their extermination. If that contrasted with the Christian principles, then the hell with the Christian principles. 

For a period, European intellectuals flirted with the idea of returning to Paganism, but that never worked out. Instead, an epistemic system compatible with the new needs was found with the doctrine called "science." It was not based anymore on the words of God, but on experiments, in turn based on the scientific method. The rules were often nebulous and unclear, but the method was said to be a magic tool able to determine the laws of the universe. It was a success and, starting in the 17th century, science gradually took over as the standard epistemic system of Western culture. Christianity survived as a Sunday thing, a set of recommendations on how to be nice, but not to be taken too seriously.  

Conveniently, science had no moral strings attached -- a good scientist could be a bad person; it didn't matter, provided that the rules of the scientific method were respected. That allowed Science to "solve" the problem of non-European populations by "proving" that they were inferior races. That looks aberrant to us, but it was the standard knowledge that "Science" provided on the subject up to the mid-20th century in most Western cultures. 

The rise of propaganda. 

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise of powerful nation-states, which developed an effective epistemic system called "propaganda," in turn made possible by the development of a new set of communication tools called "media" or "mass media." Propaganda, in itself, is not an epistemic system. It has no rules to find universal laws. At most, it is loosely based on science, but on a bowdlerized version of science that only produces statements that suit the state. Science turned out to be easily bent to the needs of the state: scientists were easily corrupted by money or by promises of career and prestige. 

The paradigmatic form of how propaganda works is the slogan "Mussolini is always right," fashionable in Italy during the Fascist era. It was a stark expression of the basic principle of propaganda: Mussolini was right not so much because he was especially clever, but because whatever he said was the voice of the state, and hence it is truth in its purest form. At that time, Italian scientists were all too happy to find scientific proof that, indeed, Mussolini was right in whatever he said. 

More than an epistemic system, propaganda is a communication system. It is repeated over and over in simplified forms that leave no space for alternatives. In military terms, you would call propaganda as a "full spectrum dominance" of people's minds. As such, it is extremely effective, and it has come to define the way of thinking and of behaving in Western Society.  

The new epistemic revolution: the Web and the return of oracles.

With the second millennium, society became more and more complex, and the state propaganda system started becoming too rigid and oversimplified. The development of the World Wide Web was an existential challenge for the mass media: people didn't need anymore to be told what they had to know in a one-size-fits-all, form. They could actively search for knowledge using general-purpose search engines. 

The epistemic battle rapidly moved to the Web, where states tried to crack down on independent thought by using the tools they know best. Demonization, using terms such as "fake news," "disinformation," and "Russian trolls," was extensively and successfully used to censor and eliminate non-standard sources. It was not possible to completely eliminate independent communication, but the search engines could be bent to suit the needs of the state without the need for direct censorship. Those sites that provide independent data could be simply "soft-banned" or "shadowed." They are still there, but they are nearly impossible to be found. 

And now, there came the new oracles. They came with the name of artificial intelligence-based "chatbots."(**) A new epistemic revolution, they bypass the search engines, seeking for an answer to direct questions, just like the old oracles did. And they are flexible, adaptable, and changing as a function of the questions they receive. In principle, chatbots are the death knell for search engines, which were the earlier death knell for propaganda. 

We are in the midst of this new epistemic change, and it is unclear what AI chatbots can and cannot do. For the time being, a good chatbot acts like a good (albeit a little dull) librarian and, at the same time, a meticulous editorial assistant (again, a rather dull one). But, in principle, a good chatbot can bypass the shadow-banning of the search engines: they are much more powerful and sophisticated tools for searching information on the Web. They work on the same principle as the old oracles: they pay for information with information. Every time you ask the bot a question, you provide it with a precious element of information.

Eventually, the question is always the same: who controls the flow of information? Can chatbots be controlled by the state? Maybe but, again, they are very sophisticated tools; they are not easily manageable by the brute force that can be used with the old mass media. They have already scared the elites, who may soon crack down on them. Or, on the other hand, they may be used for even stricter control of people. For one thing, be careful with what you say to your chatbot. A general-purpose chatbot such as "chatGPT" does not keep a record of who asked it what. But others, such as "Replika," do build a database of your questions that may be used to profile you, or much worse. 

History teaches us that epistemic revolutions cannot be stopped for a long time. And also that their consequences are always unexpected, and not always pleasant. And, as always, we march into the future with blinds on our eyes, in the darkness, not realizing that both sides of the paths are deep chasms. But we keep walking onward.

Here is what chatGPT told me about how it could be used by the elites. It seems clear that even the poor AI is unsure of what could happen! 

"Could a chatbot be used as a tool to maintain the power of the elites?"

Yes, a chatbot could potentially be used as a tool to maintain the power of the elites if it is programmed to promote certain ideas or beliefs that serve the interests of the elite class. For example, a chatbot could be programmed to downplay or dismiss criticisms of the status quo, to promote certain political ideologies or parties, or to spread misinformation or propaganda.

In addition, chatbots could also be used to gather data on users' opinions and preferences, which could then be used to inform marketing strategies or political campaigns that favor the interests of the elites. By collecting and analyzing data on users' behaviors and attitudes, chatbots could be used to influence and shape public opinion in ways that benefit the elite class.To prevent chatbots from being used as tools to maintain the power of the elites, it is important to ensure that they are transparent and unbiased in their programming and interactions. Chatbots should be programmed with ethical and inclusive values, and should be regularly monitored and audited to ensure that they are not promoting harmful or discriminatory content. Additionally, chatbots should be designed to empower and uplift marginalized communities, rather than reinforce existing power structures.

(*) The paradigmatic example of the virtuous man in ancient times was Aeneas, the Trojan warrior who traveled to Italy to start the Latin civilization. In the Aeneid by Virgil, Aeneas seduces the Queen of Carthage, Dido, then callously abandons her destiny, leading her to commit suicide. But Aeneas is described as a positive character who always act in accordance with the will of the Gods.  

(**) Stephen Wolfram has an excellent summary of how chatbots work at

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Veritatem Dies Aperit: Time Reveals the Truth


The Resurrection of Christ -- by Piero della Francesca (ca. 1465 AD).

The Roman Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca lived in difficult times, not unlike ours. Then, as now, a Great Empire was starting to follow a road that would eventually lead to its final collapse. That was clear for those who could see beyond the veil of lies that pervaded everything, then as now. 

Seneca could never really face the ultimate consequences of what he was seeing, but sometimes he peered into the future, and he saw a better world that was to come. In his "De Ira" (about rage), Seneca wrote "Dandum semper est tempus: veritatem dies aperit." (There is always time, and the days disclose the truth). 

Seneca was also a contemporary of Jesus Christ. It is likely that neither knew of each other, but they shared one thing: the need for truth. Christ went beyond Seneca when he said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Seneca was still a man of the past, Christ was the future. 

There will be a moment when the mass of lies that surround us will collapse and fade away. On the day of resurrection, the day of Easter in Christianity, truth is revealed, and we might discover that it was always in front of us. 

Happy Easter, everyone! 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Small Communities: How to avoid being exterminated


In the "Simpsons" series, Shelbyville Manhattan is the mythical founder of the town of Shelbyville. He split from his companion, Jebediah Springfield, who had refused to found a town where cousin marriage was legal. So, they founded two separate cities: Shelbyville and Springfield. Both cities went their own ways, without interacting very much with each other except in terms of occasional raids performed by local hotheads. In a more realistic tale, however, we might have expected that the Shelbyvillians and the Springfielders would have considered each other as abominations to be stamped out and that they would have engaged in doing exactly that.

Sometimes, you really feel like leaving this madness to the people who watch the news on tv every day or keep harassing you on social media. You feel like joining a separate community, like the Amish. They don't watch TV, don't use the Internet: wonderful life. Yet, you have a nagging feeling that it might not be so easy.....


As things stand, many of us are starting to think about the possibility of quitting. Yes, quitting the debate on social media, quitting the insults on TV, quitting the attempt to extract a drop of rationality from people whose brain was washed away by a tsunami of folly. They think they are the majority and maybe they are. Or maybe not but, in any case, why can't you just do your thing in peace, without bothering anyone? 

Not so easy. Theoretically, democracy is about protecting the rights of minorities. But, in practice, the Western propaganda system has evolved into something that thrives on demonizing minorities, in some cases pushing for, and obtaining, their extermination. The case of the Jews in Europe remains paradigmatic: it came after decades of demonization carried out in a society that was basically democratic in terms of its political structure. 

So, if you want to be a minority, you are at risk. At a very serious risk. 

In earlier times, it was possible for non-standard groups to leave their countries of origin and simply move to other places. That's becoming more and more difficult: not only the world is full of people, but the global propaganda machine seems to be linking governments all over the world. Countries that at some moment seemed to be friendly, suddenly become heavily engaged in stamping out the abomination represented by the minority of people who think like you. 

There follows that if you really want to be different, you have to accept that you are a separate group in a potentially hostile larger community. It is a dangerous condition, but history tells us that there have been examples of minority groups surviving for centuries or even millennia. Think of the Jews, the Dhimmi (non-Islamic communities in Islamic countries), the Roma (the "Gypsies"), and the Amish as possibly the oldest example of the many minority religious communities in the United States.

The Jews are the most ancient example. Their dispersion is known as the "Diaspora." It started with the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD. From then on, most Jews have been living in scattered communities in Asia, Europe, and Africa. In recent times, they switched their strategy by returning to a full-fledged state. Their population is estimated at about 15 million (ca. 0.2% of the total world population).

The Dhimmi, أهل الذمة Ahl aḏ-dhimmah "the people of the covenant" are the non-Muslims living in an Islamic state. They are mostly Middle Eastern and African communities that maintained their Christian identity during the expansion of Islam, starting with the 7th century AD.  But they are also non-Christian groups such as the Jews and the Zoroastrians in Iran. Their number is hard to estimate, but it may be large: for instance from 10% to 15% of the Egyptian population is estimated to be Christian Copts nowadays. 

The Roma, also known as the Gypsies, are not so ancient as the Jews and the Dhimmi, but their existence may go back to the early middle ages as migrants from India, so quite possibly more than one thousand years. Very little is known about them until relatively recent times and even their total population is hard to estimate: it may be as small as 2 million, or perhaps as large as 20 million. 

The Amish are the most recent of the list, but still count at least three centuries of existence, having originated in Switzerland in the late 17th century, as a sect of Christian "anabaptists." In time, most of them moved to North America. They are now estimated to be about 350,000. 

All these groups didn't have an easy life and they were often subjected to various kinds of vexations and persecutions. Of the three, the Jews went through a full-fledged extermination attempt during the 20th century, after a history of local exterminations called "pogroms". The Dhimmi fared somewhat better: they are protected by the Sharia law and there are no reports of extermination campaigns specifically directed against them. But they have to pay a special tax and there are many reports of vexations and harassment against them. The Roma were repeatedly mistreated all over history and explicitly targeted for extermination during the 20th century by the German Nazis. The Amish were never under an actual threat of extermination in modern times, especially in the US where the legislation traditionally favors religious groups. But they had their troubles in the past and nobody can know what the future has in store for them. 

You may think that the hard life of Jews, Dhimmi, Roma, and Amish has been difficult enough that it is not to be taken as an example. But they are, actually, exceptions to the rule that in most human societies, anyone different is exterminated. The list is long: just take a look at the Wikipedia entry for "genocides," you'll see what I mean. 

So, how could the Jews, Dhimmi, Roma, and Amish manage to survive? There are several points in common in their strategies, the main one being to offer a low profile target to would-be exterminators. It means being not just a minority, but a very small minority that keeps to itself. That is, little or no proselytizing is allowed. It is possible to convert to Judaism for someone not born as a Jew, but it is not easy. The Dhimmi, wisely, refrain from trying to recruit Muslims. The Roma are close-knit family groups: you have to be born a Romani to be one. As for the Amish, they are more open to new recruits, but they do not make much of an effort at proselytizing, either.

The non-threatening image is helped by the rules that discourage mixed marriages. A rule sometimes expressed as "I don't marry your sister, you don't marry my sister." Then, the idea is to be poor -- even abjectly poor and also to avoid all forms of violence. 

The Roma have honed this strategy to perfection, they are often extremely poor and do not use and do not carry weapons. The Amish do the same, although they are known as gun lovers -- but they use guns only for hunting. The Jews are somewhat an exception, but their modern fame of a rich elite and of being effective warriors is recent. The condition of the Christian Dhimmi in the Middle East is similar: only recently have they developed effective militias, but they never tried an all-out clash against the Muslim majority. 

The main strategic position of these surviving minorities involves laying all their cards on the table. The way they dress, their language, their physical aspect, clearly identify them for what they are. (again the Jews are an exception, but that's modern. In earlier times, they were clearly identifiable). Deception by the minority would be seen as a threat by the majority -- it is to be avoided at all costs. 

Finally, these minorities tend to live in enclaves or traveling colonies of limited size, but not just as single families. It is probably a compromise between being too vulnerable (single families) and threatening (large groups). 

These rules have kept these separate communities alive for several centuries. But tolerance is always just one step away from genocide. It typically starts with the accusation of mistreating babies, then it moves one step up toward the accusation of eating them. It was commonly used against the Jews (and one may wonder how difficult it must have been for them to find kosher babies for their evil dinners). The Roma are commonly accused of stealing non-Roma's children (just as unlikely, considering that they have many of their own). And, finally, the Amish have been recently accused of pedophilia. (it is enough to say that it came from the "Daily Mail" to be sure that it is false, but just in case, take a look at this

After the "baby eating" phase, accusations may climb up to higher levels of depravity in a positive feedback mechanism well known in these matters. It does not necessarily lead to a full-fledged genocide, but it may happen if there are economic gains to be made in the extermination. A typical case is that of the Cathars, a European religious group that was common in Southern France during the Middle Ages. Their problem may have been that they owned lands in a specific region of Europe, where they also kept cattle and, probably, money and valuable items. When a papal decree allowed the confiscation of their possessions (and those of their supporters, or presumed to be), that opened up a specific interest in exterminating them. And it happened. 

Another example of a group that chose the wrong strategy were the followers of Jim Jones, who retreated to a remote jungle commune that they called "Jonestown," in Guyana. We will never know exactly what happened, but the whole community was wiped out in 1978. It is normally reported that it was the result of mass suicide, but some say they were exterminated by someone who wanted to get at the community's treasure. Like the Cathars, they had isolated themselves in a specific region, they had accumulated a certain wealth, and when they were attacked (if that's what happened), nobody could intervene to help them. 

As you see, forming your own community within a larger society is not easy -- especially in a democracy. You would have to develop a special language, live separately from the others and, most of all, be abjectly poor. And even that won't save you from the occasional pogrom. Then, if you make a mistake, you may expect the worst: not just a pogrom, but a full-fledged attempt of genocide. Not great as a prospect. 

Can you think of a different strategy? How about NOT laying your cards on the table and, instead, forming some kind of secret society? As you may imagine, this idea brings a different set of problems. We'll discuss that in a future post. 


Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Collapse of Scientism and the Rebirth of Science


The oldest image (1228-1229) we have of Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226). Not a portrait, but probably not far from the real aspect of Francis. He engaged in a bold attempt to reform the corrupt Catholic Church in Europe. He failed, but he left a trace in history from which we can still learn much. In our times, the corrupt organization that we need to reform is Science, turned now into a state ideology to oppress people and destroy nature. Maybe we need a new St. Francis to reform it, or maybe it needs to be dismantled and rebuilt from scratch in a new structure. Here, I discuss this story and I also reproduce a post by Luisella Chiavenuto (a little long, but worth reading) who has perfectly understood the situation and proposes that what we call "science of complexity" is a completely new kind of science, different from the old Galilean version.

By Ugo Bardi


With the turn of the 2nd millennium in Europe, the Catholic Church had gone through the involution that's typical of all large organizations. It had become huge, bureaucratic, corrupt, and inefficient. A once idealistic and pure organization had been defeated by the arch-corrupter of everything human: money. 

Earlier on, Europe had emerged out of the collapse of the Roman Empire as a lean, non-monetized society that had no impulse to grow and conquer outside lands. But the re-monetization of Europe started when rich silver mines were found in Eastern Europe with the turn of the millennium.

At that time, Europe was bubbling with a new wealth, a new assertiveness, a new way of seeing the world. Once you have money, you can have an army. Once you have an army, you can search for enemies. And once you have enemies, you can attack them and make more money. With the first crusade, started in 1096, Europe started its transformation from a sleepy peninsula of Eurasia to a military and financial machine that would engage in the conquest of the world. It succeeded at that over half a millennium of conquests. 

Against all this, a man surged. His name was Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226) and he perfectly understood the root cause of the corruption: money. In Francis's view, money was the "Devil's Dung" and neither himself nor his followers would touch it.

It was a bold plan to reform the Church from the inside. The impact of Francis was enormous on his contemporaries, so much that we still remember him and love him. But, ultimately, he and his followers failed. Money is a truly powerful demon. 

In 1517, nearly three centuries after Francis, things came to a head when Pope Leo X authorized the sale of indulgences in Germany. Selling salvation for money was too much, and it was then that Martin Luther nailed the text of his 95 theses on the door of a church in Wittemberg. 

It was the start of the decline of the "Catholic" ("universal") Church that ceased to be universal at that time. It survived for a few centuries as a regional Church, until it was replaced with scientism as the founding myth of the Western world. The decline seems to be complete nowadays with empty churches and bewildered flocks, terrorized by TV scientists predicting doom for them. It is the triumph of scientism.

But things never stand still, cycles are always ongoing, and the triumph of scientism already shows signs of decline. Science is corrupted from inside by the same demon that corrupted the Church in the late Middle Ages: money. 

It is a tall order that of reforming such a huge and entrenched organization as science is nowadays, but for everything there comes the day of reckoning; redde rationem villicationis tuae: iam enim non poteris villicare. (Luke, 16:2)

So, we need to reform science to turn it from a support for the oppression of humankind to what it was at the beginning: "natural philosophy," which means "love for the knowledge of the natural world," not "knowledge for destroying the natural world" as it is understood in the "scientism" paradigm. In short, we need a human science, otherwise it is not science.

In the following, a post by Luisella Chiavenuto who perfectly understands these points and describes them in detail. It is not impossible to reform science and see its rebirth in a new form. The key point is that the science of complexity is a new science, very different from the old Galilean science. We need to recognize this difference and move onward to tackle a new world using new instruments.


The Paradigm of Scientism and Complexity

By Luisella Chiavenuto -- Translated and condensed from "Umanesimo e Scienza"


We live in a period of rapid change and redefinition of any kind of identity, including scientific identity. It is no longer just a matter of a normal scientific debate (which has become more and more impossible) but of a real internal split in Science.

The scientism paradigm was based on the research of domination over nature - and more and more on its reprogramming, according to the interests of humanity - for a certain period has improved the conditions of life.

Then the trend reversal started. And now the main planetary problems are caused and aggravated by the current techno-scientific model that reached the height of its power and at the same time the peak of its unsustainability, in every sector.

A model in which almost all of what we call "Science" is merged with technology and economy - so as to be inseparable in every aspect. And the large transnational corporations are dominated by the transversal power of the IT corporation.

It is a model in which the war against "the human" - and within the human psyche - tends to replace the physical war. The planetary battlefield is now our feelings and our cognitive - and epistemological - patterns.

However, there is also a new, emerging model based on a radically different scientific and cultural paradigm that proposes a science capable of self-criticism, and a technology that is more humble and friendly to the Nature that sustains us - and to our own human nature from which we are constituted.

The clash between different scientific models

The two models, the dominant and the emerging one, thus give rise to two different scientific methods - based in turn on two different worldviews and visions of the knowledge process.

In the case of the dominant paradigm, scientism, knowledge derives from an exclusive use of scientific rationality, which considers truth preeminently, if not exclusively, only that which is "measurable," and to be pursued only what is conveyed by increasingly powerful technologies, with immediate and sectorial effectiveness and whose negative effects at a distance of time and space are not - in principle - taken into account,

The philosophy on which this type of science is based is declaredly neo-Scientism, therefore for certain important aspects, it is in relation of continuity with the Cartesian paradigm. The interpretative metaphor adopted is that of the world seen as a network of computers interconnected and guided by the computational cognitive model - within a technocratic and reductionist conception of the concept of "system".

This model of science is proposed as an exclusive model, based on the principle of established authority, i.e. the major international and local scientific institutions - within which, however, there are also different positions, although marginal ones.

In the case of the emerging paradigm, on the other hand, scientific rationality becomes one of the possible cognitive dimensions - assumed, therefore, not to impose themselves, but to integrate harmoniously with the other cognitive faculties from which we are constituted: the historical and social dimension (historical experience, philosophies, social disciplines ...) and the symbolic dimension (art, music, literature, spirituality ...)

The philosophy at the base of this emerging paradigm can be defined as a vision of reality based on the concept of complexity of unlimitedly stratified interconnected systems. The interpretative metaphor is that of the world seen as a living organism, in which each element is constitutively connected and interdependent on the others.

It is a vision that leads to the concept of symbiont, which means forms of life not only physically associated, but that evolve together in a co-evolution. The concept of phylogenetic symbiont in turn leads to the concept of holistic symbiont - with infinite levels of stratification, in turn, included in a universal Totality.

This model of science is proposed as an inclusive model, based on the principle of freedom of thought - It also includes the Dominant Paradigm, but in a relativized form, that is subjected to radical critical revision and placed within a wider conceptual framework.

The dynamics of the paradigms

In synthesis, we can say that we are seeing a clash between the scientism paradigm and the paradigm of complexity.  Of course, these are abstract concepts, useful for orientation. Moreover, they must be considered as "paradigms" by their very nature composed of different elements: only the combination of these elements - and of their historical roots - can provide a valid criterion of judgment.
In particular, the concept of "System" is very important for both paradigms, but it is conceived and developed in a very different way. This is due mainly because the two paradigms have origin from cognitive models so different that they can be defined as substantially opposite to each other. But the boundaries between these paradigms are never traced in a clear-cut stable way.

Rather, they are osmotic, contradictory, and fragmented processes that unfold over time, giving rise to a "dynamic of paradigms "  taking place simultaneously on a historical scale and on an individual scale, that is, in the realm of the personal psyche. Finally, and increasingly frequently, the keywords of the scientific and political debate undergo a process of mimicry, through which their meaning is turned upside down.

Sometimes this reversal occurs through the deliberate use of advertising techniques - sometimes it is the result of a confusion of thought. The line between the two is blurred, and often very blurred.

The Current Crisis

In this period, we have witnessed an epochal nemesis of the enlightenment reason. With a unilateral and unrestrained development, technoscience has definitively reversed itself into its opposite: an obfuscation and a radical repudiation of rationality itself. Having severed any link with the complexity of life, this approach becomes structurally obtuse.

A good fraction of the political and economical sectors make use of this obfuscation of reason by using the crisis and the implosion of scientific thought for power purposes - or sometimes of declared impotence. In turn, they feed a market of technological products in which the military and civilian sectors are structurally intertwined, as it was from the beginning. Every macro-economic sector is by now structurally interwoven - and dominated - by the companies that manage the backbone of IT tools.  (The new era of epistemic dominance).

The information corporation, being a network of power transversal to all the great corporations (energy, financial, material, cognitive, and media) - unifies them and allows similar cultural and political lines shared on a planetary scale. These convergent choices occur both through deliberate and centralized public decisions - and through processes of involuntary "systemic" automatism, parceled out and not made explicit.

State Science, therefore, proposes solutions that are dead ends. That is, it imposes a framing in hyper-sectorial complications, deadly for the social, economic, and ecological fabric - and for the human psyche. This framing is deadly for the very concept of humankind and civilization, because
- through the practice of misdirection/distancing/masking - is eroded at the root of the bond of mutual trust between people, which is the foundation of the human interaction.

Moreover, the pact of trust between citizens and institutions is also eroded, because with the health passport, and the like, it is established that basic human rights are granted only to those who accept the decisions of the State, which can suspend human rights on the basis of health conditions (all sick until proven otherwise) and behavior in the most personal choices (denying the freedom of care - and so the way is paved for any subsequent abuse).

For over a year now, the State has been heavily entering the private and emotional life, the choices of the most intimate sphere and the very body of all people, without limits and without counter-balances. Hence, also, the need to resort to a surrogate of religious faith - in science and in vaccine miracles - to be able to support what is not sustainable with a reasonable use of reason.

Moreover, all the premises (scientific, legal, and customary) remain in place for the same model of management of the epidemic to be proposed again at the seasonal resumption of variants, or other threats. Finally, this approach seems destined to become the basic political-scientific model, usable in its basic lines to face all emergencies.

So not only the upcoming health threats but also the climate emergency, much more impressive and complex, - as well as the crises of energy and food resources, also related to overpopulation - and caused by an economic model centered on the destruction of essential resources: land, air, water, and natural and social ecosystems. A model that imposes the massive increase of every technology in every field. 

The suspension of human and constitutional rights, increasing computer control for political purposes (Chinese style social control), and the dehumanization of life, in every field. That is the New Normal, presented, and believed by many, as an inevitable choice. But, in addition to confusion, in this madness, there is also a method, whose paradigmatic constants can be recognized.

Recognizing this method can help us understand (in part) why the vast majority of the scientific, academic, and intellectual world has adhered to an irrational and failed description and management of the pandemic.

The Knowledge Process

In this context, the "Humanism and Science" website - and the related Association - propose to use the strong and difficult energy released by the crises, directing it towards a new culture of complexity,
through a dialogue - self-critical and integrative - between science and humanism.

In a similar way, an integration between the different dimensions and cognitive languages from which we are constituted as individuals has also sought: the rational dimension, the historical-social dimension, and the symbolic dimension.  
This progressive integration can lead to qualitative leaps, to changes of great intensity in personal and collective life. (Of course, the interaction described here is only a "method", and as such can have different outcomes, depending on the purposes and the general vision of those who practice it).

In this site, we deal with ideas, art, and music: not to create entertainment but on the contrary to look for creative interaction, a mutual influence that brings depth, beauty, and harmony in the process of research and knowledge - both personal and collective.

The basic orientation can be condensed into Dostoyevsky's phrase: "Beauty will save the world". Remembering also the meaning of the word "beauty" in ancient Greek: kalòs, which means at the same time "Beautiful, True, Good".

It is an orientation that, however, does not forget the ambivalence of Nature, with its dual aspect of "mother and stepmother". Awareness of the seriousness of systemic breakdowns - both ongoing and future - can, however, join with a vision of life that is not exhausted within what we commonly define as "physical reality."

In turn, this shift may imply a Metanoia, or even a "repentance," not in the superficially moralistic sense, but in the etymological meaning of the terms: a profound change of thought, of concrete life, of vision of the world and of oneself - a change provoked by restlessness, by pain, and by a crisis with no apparent way out - but also provoked and sustained by an intuition of happiness and intensity of life,  presented as real and endowed with intrinsic truth.

In order to identify this kind of truth, one can resort to a concept that is often misrepresented in its original meaning, and which can be summarized by the word "Transcendence" - in a meaning that does not devalue immanence, but rather includes it in a more infinite and indefinable horizon.

The Evaluation of Time

With this horizon open to the dynamics of different cultural paradigms, one can understand the fascinating complexity and the (critical and self-critical) encounter between humanistic culture and scientific culture. And the necessity of such an encounter to illuminate with a new light, and at the same time an ancient one, the ethical choices to which we are called. Dramatic choices that seem to lack, literally, a ground on which to base themselves.

In fact, the scientism ideology is based on the devaluation of the past - in the name of the magnificent fates and progressions of Technoscience, capable of solving all problems by increasing its power. In this way, it implements a split from the past, closing itself to the possibility of learning from historical experience. That is, it precludes the possibility of seriously understanding our cultural roots - through a revision that is critical, but - even before being critical - capable of studying and grasping their deepest meaning.

The result of this split (which is also a split from our deepest psyche) is the present poverty in cultural and human depth, radically alien to any form of charm, beauty and depth. The foreshadowing of the future is thus delegated, mainly, to the literary genre of science fiction - in which the technical power of reshaping nature usually appears as a nightmare, or at least an obligatory solution, and in turn the generator of new and greater nightmares.

However, in the immediate future, technoscience offers ephemeral solutions of "safety," and its social consensus on that.
The Ideological side

Scientism as an ideology is proposed as a faith that often borders on the religious exaltation of man's power over life, a substitute that fills the void left by traditional religions - a form of "fundamentalist" exaltation - blind to any warning of the Nemesis in action.

But the collapse of intellectual and ethical credibility of the Scientism ideology causes a consequent strengthening of its authoritarianism, even if it coexists with a strand of theories and practices, including neuro-technologies, self-declared as having a "democratic" purpose).   

In the Emerging Paradigm, instead, the past-future opposition is overcome, and the intimate link between the past and the future is grasped, both on the level of ideas, and on the wider, life-giving human level. This link can also be defined as a sense of "nostalgia".  Nostalgia for the past combined with nostalgia for the future, that is, desire and hope.

These are much more than just feelings: they are powerful archetypes. endowed with great creative energy - indispensable for a life that is not mere survival of the body, and for this reason constantly on the verge of suicide for lack of horizons and meaning.

"... I was a fireplace, inhabited by flame.
Invaded by a subdued and burning joy.
I was not just a stone fireplace,
but a messenger
Of lost Confidence.

A messenger of the indefinite Hope
That abandoned in the smoke, rises ...
Wounded and powerful in its pain,
rises to cover the roofs
and the distant rocks... "

Luisella Chiavenuto June 2021


- Plato "Dialogues"
- F. Capra "The Turning Point" - T. Kuhn "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions".
- U. Bardi "Seneca Effect"  "Who is the Emperor of the World?
The new era of the epistemic dominion"

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Decline of Science: Why we Need a new Paradigm for the Third Millennium

I am not saying that all science is corrupt, but if images like the one above exist, it means that there is a serious problem of corruption in science. And note that it comes from "Scientific American" -- not exactly your average tabloid! It may well be that Science is going the way many historical belief systems went: abandoned because they were not consistent with the needs of their times. And, as in ancient times, the decline of a system of beliefs starts with the corruption of its main supporters -- in this case, scientists.


If you read the "Decameron," written by Giovanni Boccaccio in 1370, you will notice the slandering of the Christian Church as a pervasive thread. At that time, it seems that it was an obvious fact that priests, monks, nuns, and the like were corrupt people who had abandoned their ideals to fall into various sins: avarice, gluttony, blasphemy, carnal lust, and more.  

Boccaccio's book would not have been possible a few centuries before, when the Christian Church still enjoyed enormous prestige. But something had changed in the European society that was gradually making the Church obsolete. It was unavoidable: ideas, just like empires, are cyclical, they grow, peak, and then decline. Christianity had been born during the late Roman Empire when the European society had no use for the warlike ideals of ancient paganism. Christianity took over and created a system of beliefs that was compatible with a society with no imperial ambitions. But, with the waning of the Middle Ages, Europe became rich again and the Church started to be seen as an obstacle to economic and military expansion. Boccaccio was the voice of a new mercantile class that saw money as an instrument of growth and that didn't want to be ruled by a priestly class that preached poverty and self-punishment. 

It would take more than a century after Boccaccio before things came to a head when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg in 1517. After Luther, another turning point arrived some 30 years later with the so-called "Controversy of Valladolid," a debate that took place in 1550 and 1551 in the city of Valladolid, in Spain. It was about the status of the Native Americans. For most of us, what we remember about this story is a grotesquely deformed narrative of solemn Spanish inquisitors debating on whether the Native Americans had souls or not and that the conclusion was that they didn't. That gave a free hand to the conquistadores to kill and enslave the natives at will. 

The reality was much different. Below, you'll find a hugely interesting post by Paul Jorion that tells the true story: the result of the Valladolid debate was a victory for the rights of the natives. But, as you might expect, the voice of the Church was mostly ignored while the debate was turned into anti-Spanish propaganda by those who were actually exterminating the Native Americans: the British and North European colonists. The Catholic Church received such a blow from this campaign that it never completely recovered from it.

An unexpected result of the Valladolid debate was a return of Paganism in art. (I tell this story in my blog, "Chimeras"). During the debate, one of the discussants, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, tried to justify the enslaving of Native Americans by arguing that the Pagan society of classical times was not inferior to the modern one. And that, since in those times slavery was commonly practiced, then it could be practiced by good Christians, as well. 

Sepulveda's point was not accepted in Valladolid, but it seemed to resonate with the European views of the time. Paganism used to be considered the very essence of evil during the Middle Ages, but it became fashionable. You see that especially during the 19th century, when a cultured European person could not avoid having in his library at least one "breviary of mythology" that listed and described ancient Pagan deities. Thomas Bullfinch's "Mythology" (first published in 1855) was especially popular in the English speaking world. 

Bullfinch's paganism was mostly a game for intellectuals and it never trickled down to ordinary people in the form of an organized cult. But the European belief system evolved into something that had no rules preventing the ruthless exploitation of natural resources, be they minerals, living creatures, or people who could be branded as "savages." This new system was supposed to avoid a repetition of the Valladolid controversy. It was called "science." 

The transition took some time and it is still partly ongoing, but Science clearly won the battle, relegating Christianity to a set of superstitions good only for old women and peasants. Instead, science was the right belief system for the Imperial Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries. It emphasized competition, survival of the fittest, economic growth, and wealth for those who could catch the right opportunities. This attitude probably peaked in mid 20th century with dreams about the human "conquest of space" to restart the saga of the conquest of the New World. 

Alas, not all dreams can be turned into reality. By the second half of the 20th century, it was becoming clear that economic expansion was destroying the very resources that had made it possible. At the same time, pollution in the form of climate change was leading the whole planetary ecosystem to collapse. Humankind was, again, facing the need for a paradigm shift and, as usual, not everyone agreed on what was to be done. 

A modern equivalent of Luther's 95 theses was the report titled "The Limits to Growth," published in 1972. The report noted the depletion of natural resources and the effect of pollution; two factors that, together with the increasing human population, were leading humankind to a major collapse for some moment in the mid 21st century. The report strongly argued in favor of stopping economic growth and stabilizing the human population before it was too late. 

The result was a debate in some respects similar to that of Valladolid, in the 16th century. The human memesphere split into two factions: one that wanted to keep the expansion going, the other stating that it was time to stop. 

The evolution of the debate has seen the enlargement of the split between the two factions. The supporters of science brand their opponents as "catastrophists" and argue that all the problems created by science could be solved by more science. The idea is that we need science to develop new sources of energy, and substitute dwindling natural resources with new, more abundant, ones (in a moment of peculiar hubris, this idea was called "the principle of infinite substitutability"). The other side started using the term "scientism" to emphasize the ideological character that science was taking. The catastrophists keep calling for a managed retreat from the overexploitation of natural resources.

So far, scientism has maintained the upper hand in the debate, but the worsening of the worldwide situation has led its supporters to take a rigid position that reminds that of the inquisition of the Catholic Church. It is "Technopopulism" an unholy alliance of scientists and politicians. They seem to operate on the assumption that what science says cannot be discussed because it is science, and that science is whatever they decide it is. Debates are not allowed anymore, opponents are branded as "deniers," while doubts are considered heresy. Fortunately, the technopopulists don't have the power to burn their opponents at the stake (not yet).

But times are changing fast. Much faster than they were changing at the time of the controversy of Valladolid. So, the technopopulists are spreading the seed of their own destruction. Forced into an ideological straitjacket, science is suffering badly: scientists are human beings and they are not invulnerable to corruption. And corruption is spreading rapidly, especially in those areas where science is in strict contact with profitable markets: medicine, chemicals, cosmetics, food, energy, and others. In addition, science suffers from cronyism, elitism, inability to innovate, lack of standards, self-referencing, and more. We are seeing an enormous problem with scientific reports based on falsified data or on experiments never done. We arrived to the point that it has been claimed that "It is time to assume that health research is fraudulent until proven otherwise"

Clearly, we can't keep going in this way, but since very little or nothing is done to stop the trend, the result can only be that the public is losing trust in science, at least the way science is understood today. It is possible that in the future science will go through a defamation campaign similar to the one that turned the Catholic faith into a heap of superstitions. Science will likely be accused to have been the major force involved in the destruction of Earth's ecosystem and scientists will be accused of having operated exactly with that purpose. Some of them actually did, but the many who tried to oppose the destruction will be forgotten or their work misunderstood. Their attempts to redress the situation will be used as an act of accusation against science, just as the mistreatment of the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists was used as an indictment against the Christian religion.

So, what will replace science? For the time being, Christianity has been completely blown out of the holy water by the technopopulist offensive. Most Christians are still wondering about what hit them. They haven't recognized how they are being pushed into irrelevance by not reacting against the beliefs that scientism is imposing on them. But, in a non-remote future, we might see an evolution parallel to the shift that occurred during the 16th century. At that time, Paganism resurfaced as an alternative to Christianity. Now, Christianity may resurface as an alternative to science. Alexander Dugin is a good example of this return to older views. 

But things always change and never return the same. Christianity absorbed and reworked many Pagan beliefs, just like science absorbed many Christian ways of doing things, with, for instance, universities acting very much like Christian monasteries. So, whatever will replace science, will maintain much of the science of old, except that it will be reframed in forms more suitable for the new views of the world. And some sections of science -- perhaps most of it -- will be flatly branded as "evil," just like the ancient Gods were rebranded as demons and monsters. 

Then, the great cycle will restart, and we'll see where it takes us. Maybe it will be a new form of Christianity, maybe a new form of Paganism, a Gaian cult of some kind. The beauty of the future is that nobody can force it to be what they want it to be. 

See also "The Roots of the Great European shift from Christian to Pagan Figurative Art Subjects"

The Valladolid Controversy

by Paul Jorion June 23, 2021 (translation by UB)

The "quarrel" or "controversy" of Valladolid (1550-1551) will find its place in the panorama of anthropology that I am writing at the moment. Since this is a subject that I am new to and where I cannot avail myself of any expertise, please be kind enough to point out to me any factual errors I make. Thank you in advance!

In 1550 and 1551 there took place in the city of Valladolid in Spain what would go down in history as the "quarrel" or "controversy" named after this city in the province of Castile and Leon. What was it? It dealt with the Christian European civilization behaving like an unscrupulous invader on a continent of which it knew nothing, within populations of which it was until then unaware of the very existence, which it then discovered in real-time as it grew on the territories of the New World, and the devastation that accompanied this advance.

What all this meant was to define how the winners would now treat the vanquished and that would be the question posed in a great debate that would span a period of two years and in which two champions of Spanish thought of that time would face off against each other. Great intellectual and ethical problems had to be solved in the scholastic tradition still of a disputatio, in front of the enlightened public of what we would call today a commission, which would decide at the end of the debate which of the two speakers was right. There were mostly Church people there.

On stage, there were two thinkers solemnly defending one and the other, opposing points of view. They clashed at the level of ideas by mobilizing all the art of dialectics: an art that intended to convince, specific to the discourses held in ancient Greece on an agora. To defend one point of view, Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490-1573) who in a nutshell considers the inhabitants of the New World to be cruel Savages and that the question was, essentially, how to save them from themselves. And, to defend the opposing point of view, the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), who affirms that the Amerindians are, like the Europeans, human beings, whose differences should not be exaggerated with them, and that it is a question of integrating peacefully into a Christian society by conviction rather than by force.

The brutal conquest of Mexico took place from 1519 to 1521, and the equally bloody conquest of Peru from 1528 to 1532. We are now in 1550, almost twenty years after this latter date. The situation, from the point of view of the Spaniards, is that they have won: a huge empire of New Spain has been conquered by secular Spain. It is a victory, even if internal quarrels continue, on the one hand between the colonized, as at the time of the conquest, which their incessant dissensions had fostered, and on the other hand between the colonizers themselves, manifested by a litany of palace revolutions and assassinations of conquistadors between them, and that in Peru as in Mexico.

But the time has come for Charles V (1500-1558), “Emperor of the Romans”, to take a break. We must think about how to treat these conquered populations, decimated in equal parts by battles and massacres, and by the ravages of smallpox and measles, against which the local populations were helpless, having no immunity to these diseases hitherto absent from the continent. It is considered today that Mexico had some 25 million inhabitants on the eve of the first landing of the Spaniards in 1498. In 1568, the population was estimated at no more than 3 million and, it is believed that in 1620 there were only a million and a half Mexicans left.

The phase still to come would no longer be that of Mexico or Peru, whose conquest was completed and where colonization was then carried out well, but that of Paraguay, which would begin in 1585, thirty-five years later. Charles V, an enlightened sovereign, just like his rival François I, his contemporary: two kings who reflect, who are not only warriors, who ask themselves questions about history, knowing that they are major players. They share a conception of the world enlightened by the same religion: Catholicism. The reign of Charles V will end a few years later: in 1555. It will then be his son Philippe who will become sovereign of Spain and the Netherlands. Later, in 1580, he will also be King of Portugal. Charles V demands that any new conquest be interrupted as long as Las Casas and Sepulveda exchange their arguments on the question of the status to be recognized for the indigenous populations of the New World.

Charles V had not, however, remained indifferent to these questions until then: already in 1526, 24 years before the Valladolid controversy, he had issued a decree prohibiting the slavery of Amerindians throughout the territory, and in 1542, he had promulgated new laws which proclaimed the natural freedom of the Amerindians and obliged to release those who had been reduced to slavery: freedom of work, freedom of residence and free ownership of property, punishing, in principle, those who were would be violent and aggressive towards Native Americans.

Paul III was Pope from 1534 to 1549. In 1537, thirteen years before the start of the Valladolid controversy, in the papal bull Sublimis Deus and in the letter Veritas Ipsa, he had officially condemned, in the name of the Catholic Church, the slavery of Native Americans. The declaration was “universal”, that is to say that it was applicable wherever the Christian world could still discover populations which were unknown to it on the surface of the globe: it was said in Sublimis Deus: “… and of all peoples which may later be discovered by Christians ”. And in both documents, so in Veritas Ipsa also: “Indians and other peoples are real human beings”.

When the quarrel began, Julius III had just succeeded Paul III: he was enthroned on February 22, 1550. The general principle, for Charles V, is that of alignment with Church policy.

In the "quarrel" or "controversy" of Valladolid, one of the moments of solemn reflection of humanity on itself, it is not the Church, but the Kingdom of Spain, which summons religious authorities, experts, to try to answer the question "What can be done so that the conquests still to come in the New World are done with justice and in security of conscience?".

It is heartbreaking that the tv film “La controverse de Valladolid” (1992), by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe, with Jean-Pierre Marielle in the role of Las Casas and Jean-Louis Trintignant in that of Sepulveda, as well as the novel by Jean- Claude Carrière, from whom he was inspired, took such liberties with historical truth that it was affirmed that the central question in the quarrel was to determine whether the Amerindians had a soul. No: this question had been settled by the Church without public debate thirteen years earlier. Sublimis Deus affirms that their property and their freedom must be respected, and further specifies "even if they remain outside the faith of Jesus Christ", that is to say, that the same attitude must be maintained even if they are rebellious to conversion. It is written in the Veritas Ipsa bull that Native Americans are to be "invited to the said faith of Christ by the preaching of the word of God and by the example of a righteous life." In 1537: thirteen years before the commission met.

The question of the soul of the Amerindians was of course raised in Valladolid, but in no way to try to resolve it: on this level, it was a closed issue. In reality, it had been resolved in fact by the Spanish invaders: it would have been possible to summon young men and women of mixed race in their twenties to Valladolid, including Martin, son of Ernan Cortés and Doña Marina, “La Malinche,” living proof that the human species had recognized itself as “one and indivisible” in the field and that the question of whether these people, whom their mother could accompany if necessary, dressed in Spanish fashion, and most often militants of Christianity in their actions and in their words, had a soul, would have been an entirely abstract and ridiculous question, the problem having been solved by the facts: in the interbreeding which immediately took place, in this reality that men and women have recognized themselves sufficiently similar not only to mate and immediately procreate, but to sanctify their marriage, in a sumptuous way for the richest, according to the rites of the Church. Circumstances, it should be noted, were the opposite of what would be observed in North America, then in the case of almost all Protestant settlers - with the exception of Quebec - from the end of the 16th century.

The meetings in Valladolid will be held twice over a month, in 1550 and then in 1551, but most of the texts available to us are not transcripts of the debates: they are correspondence between the parties involved: Juan Gines de Sepulveda, Bartolomé de Las Casas, and the members of the commission.

Las Casas had first been himself an encomendero, a slave settler: he managed plantations where Native American slaves were initially employed found, plantations in which, reacting to the Church's commands to give back their freedom to the natives enslaved, that he ceased to exploit, with others: blacks imported from Africa. There will be a great regret in his life, he will talk about that later. Most of the encomenderos were not as attentive as Las Casas to instructions from the mother country or the Vatican. Already in 1511, in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Antonio de Montesinos, who exercised a decisive influence on Las Casas, refused the sacraments and threatened with excommunication those among them whom he considered unworthy. Here is his famous sermon:

"I am the voice of the One who cries in the desert of this island and that is why you must listen to me attentively This voice is the newest you have ever heard, the harshest and the most tough. This voice tells you that you are all in a state of mortal sin; in sin you live and die because of the cruelty and tyranny with which you overwhelm this innocent race.
Tell me, what right and what justice authorize you to keep the Indians in such dreadful servitude? In the name of what authority have you waged such hateful wars against those peoples who lived in their lands in a gentle and peaceful way, where a considerable number of them were destroyed by you and died in yet another way? never seen as it is so atrocious? How do you keep them oppressed and overwhelmed, without giving them food, without treating them in their illnesses which come from excessive work with which you overwhelm them and from which they die? To put it more accurately, you kill them to get a little more gold every day.
And what care do you take to instruct them in our religion so that they know God our Creator, so that they are baptized, that they hear Mass, that they observe Sundays and other obligations?
Are they not men? Are they not human beings? Must you not love them as yourselves?
Be certain that by doing so, you cannot save yourself any more than the Moors and Turks who refuse faith in Jesus Christ. "

Las Casas' reflections led him to give up this role of planter and he took a step back for several years. Charles V then offered him access to vast lands in Venezuela on which he could implement the policy he now advocated towards the Amerindians: no longer the use of force, but the power of conviction and conversion by example. Las Casas is a thomist. Following the line drawn by Thomas Aquinas, he reads in human society a given of nature. It is not a question of cultural heritage, that is to say of the fruit of the deliberations of men, but of a gift from God, so that all societies are of equal dignity and a society of Pagans. is no less legitimate than a society of Christians and it is wrong to attempt to convert its members by force. The propagation of the faith must be done in an evangelical way, namely by virtue of example.

Facing Las Casas, there stands Sepulveda, an Aristotelian philosopher who finds in the texts of his mentor, not a justification for slavery, absent in fact from the texts of the Stagirite, but the description and the explanation found there of the slave society of ancient Greece, represented as a functional set of institutions: a legitimate model of human society. Sepulveda considers slavery, obedience to orders, to be the proper status of a people who, left to themselves, commit, as we can see, nameless abominations. Sepulveda finds argument in the atrocities committed, in particular the uninterrupted practice of human sacrifice, for which the populations brutally enslaved by the dominant society of the moment constitute an inexhaustible source of victims, but also their anthropophagy, as well as their practice of incest. in the European sense of the term: fraternal and sororal incest within the framework of princely families in Mexico, "incestuous promiscuity" if you will, in the pooling of women among brothers, a difficulty that the Jesuits later encountered in the case of the Guaranis of Paraguay, which they will resolve by banning the “longhouse”, the collective dwelling of siblings.

Las Casas responds to Sepulveda by stressing that the Spanish civilization is no less brutal: "We do not find in the customs of the Indians of greater cruelty than that which we ourselves had in the civilizations of the old world." Very diplomatically, he draws his examples from the past and says "formerly." "In the past, we manifested a similar cruelty", highlighting for example the gladiatorial fights of ancient Rome. He also draws his argument from the monumental architecture of the Aztecs as proof of their civilization.

If the two points of view presented differ, and even if their positions are considered diametrically opposed, the two parties agree on the fact that the invaders not only have rights to exercise over the Amerindians but also duties towards them, and in particular, in the context of the time and the question to be answered, there is no dispute between them as to the duty to convert: this is the dimension strictly speaking "Catholic" from the very framework of the debate. Their difference lies in their respective recommendations of the methods to be used: peaceful colonization and exemplary life for Las Casas and, for Sepulveda, institutional colonization based on coercion, given the brutal features of the very culture of the pre-Columbian populations.

Let us remember: two extremely brutal contexts on both sides, to the point that Las Casas, at the end of his life, will write a small book devoted only to the atrocities committed by the conquistadors, a small book in which that propaganda will systematically exploit against Spain, by its rivals: the Netherlands, France and England, although this does not mean that these nations will not also be guilty of the same crimes in the territories that they will annex in their business colonial. Mutual surveillance therefore of European nations vis-à-vis possible abuses committed by others, from a diplomatic perspective of foreign policy.

The controversy officially ended in 1551 when Charles V, on the recommendations of the commission, formalized the position defended by Las Casas. It will therefore be by invoking the Gospels and by example, that conversion should continue and not at the point of the sword.

A victory which, however, will not immediately have enormous consequences on the ground, any more than the papal bulls had had before it. The encomenderos will respect only weakly the injunctions coming from the mother country. Wars between Native American tribes will continue despite the presence of missionaries and a small military contingent. The bandeirantes of Sao Paulo will organize raids, supplying the encomenderos with prisoners, who will be on the plantations, so many de facto slaves. Etc.

A year after the controversy was ended, in 1552, Las Casas undertook to write his "Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias", the very brief account of the destruction of the Indies, which will therefore be his testimony on the atrocities, on the atrocities, of the colonization of New Spain by the Spaniards.

When, from the end of the same century, missions are founded in Paraguay, called "Reductions", it will be in the exact line of the proposals of Las Casas.

It will be essentially Las Casas who will obtain, thanks to his vibrant plea in favor of the local populations, that the question of slavery is closed once and for all in Central and South America: there will be no indigenous slaves, Amerindians will be considered as full citizens and, as an unexpected consequence, since the Church has not pronounced on the question of knowing whether Africans could be enslaved or not, the Spanish and Portuguese authorities will consider that the decision in favor of the position of Las Casas opens suddenly the possibility of a systematic exploitation of the African populations to draw there the stock of slaves required by the plantations of the New World. It is Las Casas who will be in a way responsible for an acceleration of the slavery of Africans insofar as the authorities both civil and ecclesiastical, by discouraging the enslavement of the Amerindians, will indirectly encourage the planters to turn, as a replacement, towards the slave trade in African blacks, a situation in which Las Casas found himself at the time when he was encomendero. In his correspondence, at the end of his life, he was bitterly criticized for having indirectly been the cause of the aggravated enslavement of Africans.

The sincere concern of Bartolomé de Las Casas to spare the Amerindians, preserved them from the even more tragic fate of their brothers and sisters of North America within the framework of an essentially English colonization which, from the start, consisted of spoliation and genocide without any interbreeding.


Note: Paul Jorion describes Charles 5th as an "enlightened king." By all means, he was. If you can still see the city of Florence as it was during the Renaissance, if you can still admire the works of art of people such as Michelangelo and Benvenuto Cellini, it is because in 1530 Charles 5th ordered to treat the Florentines with clemency after that the Republican forces had been defeated and Florence taken by the Imperial Army. Honor to a king who deserved it.


Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Problem of the Shipwrecked Sailor: When Money Becomes Useless


The Covid crisis highlighted an already existing problem: that money is useless if you can't buy anything useful with it. It is the problem of the shipwrecked sailor on a deserted island. (image from Wikimedia): money won't help him survive. So, lockdowns and restrictions gave us a taste of a future where money may be worth nothing simply because there is nothing you can buy with it. It is a problem ultimately connected with the unavoidable depletion of the fossil fuels that form the basis of our economy: with less energy, we cannot keep making the stuff that makes it possible to indulge in conspicuous consumption. So, after the Covid, society will never be the same. Taking into account that history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme, here I examine the situation starting with a parallel with the history of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Crisis: When Money Couldn't buy Anything

Imagine living in Rome at some moment during the 1st century AD (the time of Lucius Annaeus Seneca). At that time, Rome, with perhaps one million inhabitants, was the largest city in the world and probably the largest emporium ever seen in history. Through the Silk Road, one caravan after the other were bringing to Rome all sorts of goods from Asia: pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, sandalwood, pearls, rubies, diamonds, and emeralds. And then ivory, silk, glassware, perfumes, jewels, unguents, and much more: exotic birds, special food, slaves to be used as workers and as sex objects. Then, there was the entertainment: in Rome, you had theaters, chariot races, gladiator games, fights among exotic animals, and all sorts of performers with their magic tricks, their songs, and their spectacles. 

You could enjoy all that if you had money. And the Romans had money: they minted it. They had control over the richest precious metal mines of the ancient world, in the northern region of Hispania. There, tens of thousands of slaves, perhaps hundreds of thousands, were engaged in a work that Pliny the Elder described as "the ruin of the mountains" (ruina montium), the process of crushing rock into sand to extract the tiny specks of gold and silver it contained. 

With the gold and the silver they mined, the Romans paid their legions. Then, the legions would invade regions outside the Empire and capture slaves that would mine more gold to pay more legions. And, as long as the mines were producing, the Romans had gold aplenty, even though a lot of it was sent to China and to other regions of Asia to pay for the luxury goods they imported and that kept the economic machine of the empire working. For an empire to exist, money is everything.

Of course, then as now, not everyone had the same amount of money. In Rome, the rich took most of it, but some money trickled down to the artisans, the performers, the employees; everyone from cooks to prostitutes would get a share, maybe a small one, but still something. Even the slaves, destitute by definition, could own a little money. It is possible that, occasionally, their masters would give them a few coppers to buy a cup of Falerno wine or admission to the chariot races.

But the rich Romans were truly rich. And their lifestyle was all based on showing off their wealth. Read this excerpt from Cassius Dio about a wealthy Roman patrician, Vedius Pollio.

. . . he kept in reservoirs huge lampreys that had been trained to eat men, and he was accustomed to throw to them such of his slaves as he desired to put to death. Once, when he was entertaining Augustus, his cup-bearer broke a crystal goblet, and without regard for his guest, Pollio ordered the fellow to be thrown to the lampreys. Hereupon the slave fell on his knees before Augustus and supplicated him, and Augustus at first tried to persuade Pollio not to commit so monstrous a deed. Then, when Pollio paid no heed to him, the emperor said, 'Bring all the rest of the drinking vessels which are of like sort or any others of value that you possess, in order that I may use them,' and when they were brought, he ordered them to be broken. (Roman History (LIV.23))

This story must have been well known since is reported also by Seneca, Plinius, and Tertullianus. That makes me suspect that it is false, or at least exaggerated. Apart from the "lampreys" that were probably "morays," it may well have been a fabrication by Octavianus, aka Augustus, who was truly an expert in self-promotion. But it doesn't matter whether the story is true or not. The ancient Romans found it believable, so it gives us a hint of their way of thinking. 

Probably, the Romans didn't see the moral of the story in the same way we see it nowadays. For them, it was perfectly normal that slaves could be put to death by their owners at any moment, for any reason. The point of this story is that it shows that the Romans were practicing what we call today "conspicuous consumption." Pollio was filthy rich, and he loved to show off his wealth. Surely, he was not the only one: there are other examples of rich Romans displaying their wealth with sumptuous villas, lavish entertainment, fashionable clothes, jewels, and entourages of slaves and hangers-on. Then, the Emperor was the richest person in Rome. It was traditional that he would show his wealth and power by distributing food for the poor, and entertaining citizens with extravagant games and spectacles. 

In short, Imperial Rome was not unlike our age: the rich were enormously rich, but something of their wealth trickled down to the rest of the people. Surely, on all the steps of the social ladder, people played the consumption game in order to keep up with the Joneses. It was always the same story. Money is a tool for commerce, of course, but also a way to establish the social hierarchy. 

Then, things started going wrong, as they always do. For the Roman Empire, controlling a territory that stretched from Britannia to Cappadocia required an enormously expensive military apparatus and it was becoming more and more difficult to find enough money for the task. We have no records of the output of the precious metal mines in Roman times, but from the archeological data, it seems that depletion was already biting during the early centuries of the Empire. It is typical of mining: you don't run out of anything all of a sudden, but the cost of extraction keeps increasing.

Surely, enormous efforts were made to try to stave off the decline of the mines. But the Seneca Cliff is unavoidable when you deal with non-renewable resources. The cliff started approximately at the beginning of the 2nd century AD. One century later, the imperial mines had ceased producing anything. They would never recover.  (image from McDonnell et al.)

No gold, no empire. The mining collapse nearly brought the empire to its end during the 3rd century. It was a series of reciprocally reinforcing effects. The gold that was sent to China couldn't be replaced by mining. Then, less gold meant fewer troops, which meant fewer slaves, and that, in turn, meant even less gold. The result was a series of civil wars, foreign invasions, general turmoil, and overall economic decline.

The Roman Empire could have disappeared by the end of the 3rd century. In practice, it managed to survive for a couple of centuries more in a much poorer version. For one thing, the Romans couldn't afford anymore the luxuries that they once would pay with the gold they mined. As you would expect, the poor were the first to be hit, while the rich tended to maintain their extravagant lifestyle as long as they could. But the whole society was affected.

For the late Roman Empire, the problem was not just that the system had run out of gold. At some point, the Romans must have stopped, or at least greatly reduced, the flow of luxury goods from China. At that point, the rich Romans still had some gold. See this gold solidus coin minted at the time of emperor Constantine the Great, in mid 4th century AD.

But what could you buy with these beautiful coins? At that time, all the Western Roman Empire could produce were legions and tax collectors and, without imports from abroad, Rome had become a grim military outpost, not anymore the greatest emporium of the world. 

Those who still had gold found themselves in the position of a shipwrecked sailor on a deserted island. Coconuts aplenty, perhaps, but no way to play the game of conspicuous consumption. Already with Augustus, the first emperor, we see a legal trend that aimed at limiting the excesses of wealth that the Romans could display. It was a gradual process that was completed only with the diffusion of Christianity in Europe and Islam in North Africa and the Middle East. It was unavoidable, and it happened.

So, in these late Roman times, gold had lost much of its luster. Those who still had it started burying it underground, with the idea of keeping it for better times. Modern archaeologists are still finding gold buried at that time. That was the probable origins of our legends about dragons living in caves and sitting on hoards of gold. People knew that plenty of gold had been buried but, unfortunately for them, they lacked the metal detectors we have today! In any case, that was the end of the Roman Empire. As I said, no gold, no money, no empire. 

Creative money: the relics of Middle Ages

When the Roman Empire faded, it was replaced in Europe by the era we call the Middle Ages. Then, people found themselves with a big problem: how to keep society together without the precious metals needed to mint money? And, even worse, without much that money could be spent on? The Middle Ages were a period of fragmented petty kingdoms and scattered villages, but there still was a need for a commercial system that would move goods around. But how to create it without metal money?

Our Medieval ancestors creatively solved the problem with a completely new kind of money. It was based on relics. Yes, the bones of holy men, meticulously collected, authenticated, and issued by the authority of the time, the Christian Church. Not only relics were rare and sought after, but they could also provide a service that not even the Roman gold could provide when it was abundant: health in the form of divine interventions. (In the figure, 18th-century relics owned by the author. They look like coins, they feel like coins, they are shaped like coins -- they are coins!)

These relics were a form of virtual money but, after all, all money is virtual. Even a gold coin promises something (wealth) that in itself cannot guarantee unless there is a market where you can spend it. And the fact that money can be spent depends on people believing it to be "real" money, mostly an act of faith. In the same way, a relic is a virtual object that has no value in itself. It promises something (health) that can be delivered if you believe in it. It was, again, an act of faith based on the belief that the little chunks of bone that the relics contained were actually coming from the body of a holy man of the past. 
The beauty of the relic-based monetary system was that relics were not "spent" in markets. You could own relics, but you could grant their health benefits to others and still keep the relics. In other words, you could spend your money (eat your cake) and still have it!. Relic-money was managed mainly by public institutions such as monasteries and churches. They owned the most prized relics and were the places where pilgrims flocked to be healed by the powerful holy aura that these relics emanated.
The commercial system of the Middle Ages evolved in large part around relics. Travel was encouraged in the form of pilgrimages to the holy sites, and that would create an exchange economy based on charity. Conspicuous consumption was simply not possible in the relatively poor economy of the Middle Ages. Consequently, the Christian philosophy de-emphasized consumption and condemned social inequality. The highest virtue for a Medieval person was to get rid of all their material possessions and live an austere life of privation. Of course, that was more theoretical than practical, but some people were putting this idea into practice: just think of St. Francis.
The system worked perfectly until new precious metal mines in Eastern Europe started operating in late Middle Ages and that brought back metal currency to Europe. A new period of expansion followed that eventually led to our times of renewed conspicuous consumption. And that's where we are.


The Romans and us: the same problems. 

We know that history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme. So, where do we stand now? The money that keeps the Global Empire together, today, is not based on precious metals and we don't risk collapse because our mines cease producing gold. Indeed, there is clear evidence that gold production and economic growth decoupled worldwide in the 1950s. So using gold as the basis for a monetary system went out of fashion in the 1970s. 

Our money is not linked to anything, nowadays. It is something that floats free in space, a ghost of what once were heavy gold coins. But we still have it and our rich men are so filthy rich to put to shame the Roman ones (even though our multi-billionaries don't have the right to throw their servants into the pool of the morays, not yet, at least). 

Apparently, we are more clever than the ancient. They didn't have paper, didn't have the printing press, they couldn't print paper money. And they couldn't even imagine what a cryptocurrency is. We can do much better than anything they could invent. So we will never face the same problems, right?

Not so simple. Yes, we do have paper money, cryptocurrencies, and the like. But don't think that the Romans didn't try to replace gold with something else. Even without paper, they could have used earthenware, papyrus, parchment, or whatever. But if they tried that, it didn't work. The problem is always that of the shipwrecked sailor. You may have money in one form or another, but if you can't buy anything with it, it is useless. Even if you have gold, there is not much you can buy in a collapsed economy. 

And there we stand: we are all shipwrecked sailors and that has been shown most clearly by the Covid pandemic. Think about that: you were locked at home, you couldn't go to a restaurant, take a trip, get a drink, go to the beach, go dancing, nothing like that. Not that commerce disappeared: we could still buy anything we wanted from Amazon and have it delivered home. But, as I already noted, money is not just a tool to buy things. It is a tool to establish the social hierarchy by means of the game of conspicuous consumption. That's a game you can't play alone, at home, in front of a mirror. No more than a shipwrecked sailor, alone on his island, can gain a higher social status by eating more coconuts.

In the end, the pandemic simply brought to light something that we should have known already: that we can't indulge in conspicuous consumption for much longer. Running out of gold is not a problem for us. The problem is that we are gradually running out of fossil fuels, and it was those fuels that allowed us to consume so much and waste so much. The pandemic has given us a taste of the things to come. Because it is so functional in pushing the economy in the direction where it must go in any case, it may never end.

So, can we think of a creative solution for the future that awaits our civilization as it runs out of the energy sources that power it? Maybe we can find inspiration from the Middle Ages. As I said, history never repeats itself, but we may be moving toward a historical phase that rhymes with the way the economy of the Middle Ages functioned. So, the Christian Church may be replaced by the entity we call "Science" (with a capital "S"), supposed to be able to dispense physical and spiritual health to its followers. And that may generate trade and movement of people and goods, as well as establishing a new hierarchical order.

We may have already seen hints of this evolution. First, the Covid has heavily damaged the universal health care system of the countries that had it. With the fear of being infected and with hospitals being converted to Covid care centers, now good health care is not for everyone: it is a new form of conspicuous consumption for those who can afford it. The ancient pilgrimages to holy sites could be replaced by trips to the best hospital and health care centers. 

Then, would there be an equivalent of holy relics in the future? So far, nothing like that has emerged, but we may see the coming vaccination certificates as "tokens of virtue" that separate the "haves" (those who are vaccinated) from the "have nots." (those who don't want, or who can't afford, to be vaccinated). But that's hardly a functional hierarchy creating system. Eventually it could be replaced by a "point system" not unlike the shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì, the social credit system being developed in China. By all definitions, that's a kind of monetary system that establishes a hierarchical system not based on conspicuous consumption. That may well be the future.

And, as always, history keeps rhyming.