Six tough institutional challenges this century

In 1900, the modern nation states of Europe faced many challenges in terms of how they were run, with poverty and disease still prevalent. The largest problems were more or less successfully addressed by 2000. The road involved world wars and civil wars, but the essential recipe to the problems prevalent in 1900 has been found and implemented in most countries in Europe. In turn that recipe has been copied in many other places.

The problem of how to organise the economy has been addressed via the mixed-market system and the general organisation of a national bureaucracy in large semi-autonomous institutions with specific roles, such as national police systems and national water supply systems.

The problem of how to get legitimacy in the whole system and turnover amongst the elites has been largely solved by the universal democratic franchise, a non-religious non-ethnic story telling national identity, and a basic safety net for all.

The problems of low health and low productivity in the general population have largely been solved via national health services and free state-organised education.

The problem of over-militarisation and a highly disruptive nobility class oriented around land rents has been solved in Western Europe by having most of them killed or displaced by two World Wars. We have also outsourced the gravity point of the military to the Americans, greatly increased human capital investments, and been lucky to have had few natural resources. Combined, they have prevented the production of lots of new barons.

What are the main challenges facing European countries today in terms of how our societies are organised? How might these challenges be addressed? Let us not bother with small stuff like Brexit or fake news, which are basically historical blips and part of the ongoing theater of politics, but only talk about general challenges to our survival and quality of life.

One challenge is that of the internet to national identity, national taxation, and national truths. Our countries face the problem that the population in many ways lives and trades online in an international no-man’s land that is conducive to internationalism, tax avoidance, and the creation of truths on the basis of economic interests and religious ideologies rather than national interest.

I suspect that the route now explored in Russia and China is going to win out, which is the emergence in each large region of a bureaucracy that controls the important aspects of the internet as pertaining to that country or region. This partly involves a nationalisation of some of the key functions now performed by private companies (search functions, social networking, market places), as well as the establishment of a national internet police service and a national internet identification service. You see a lot of steps in this direction.

We cannot know how this nationalisation of the internet will go, but I suspect that we will end up with a system whereby anyone on the internet will have to wear a unique nationally-distributed device that identifies them and their activities. I am thinking of a biometric identification device that will unlock financial, democratic, and other functions on the internet, but that is of course also related to their taxes and propaganda behaviour.

A quite different challenge is that of climate change and other international environmental problems like too much plastic in the oceans and too few fish.The ‘old approach’ of letting someone own the common resource (the oceans or the climate) is unlikely to work. The ‘obvious approach’ of having a world empire in which a world bureaucracy enforces an international solution is unlikely to emerge because I think nation states will continue to win the political battle for hearts and minds, beating all international ideologies, as nation states have done in the previous 500 years.

I suspect that we will see coalition-of-the-willing engineering solutions to many of these problems. As a non-engineer I can only take a wild guess at just what the winning solutions will look like. The way the marine scientists in Australia are now planning to essentially (genetically) engineer a heat-resistant Great Barrier Reef ecosystem is a good example for how I think lots of other environmental challenges will actually be tackled.

I imagine autonomous vessels with artificial intelligence that roam around the oceans to collect the surplus plastic, organised by a UN-type organisation.

I imagine huge national marine ponds floating in the oceans to spawn fish and other marine life, with larger water territories emerging on the basis of regional cooperation, perhaps slowly converging on global cooperation.

I imagine groups of large countries combining to pump reflective aerosols into the higher atmosphere to cool down the planet, resisted by other countries who want it to be warmer.

I foresee both national and regional attempts to preserve and increase biodiversity, including the creation of new species (“how much diversity do you want? Labs can provide!”).

Hence I suspect we will get a patchwork of specific alliances that try engineering solutions to specific global environmental problems.

Another challenge is that of the disconnect between mobile international elites and the majority populations of the nation states. This problem has exacerbated elite tax evasion, attacks on the stories of national identity, widening inequality, and political corruption on a scale not seen after WWII.

I suspect that we will see broadly the same solution to this in the 21st century as we saw to a quite similar problem of elite-disconnect in the early 1900s: political strife resembling civil war culminating in the renewed supremacy of the national project as the dominant political organising force. I just cannot see any form of internationalism supplanting the nation states, though we might get large blocks of nation states becoming more and more like nation states.

The challenge for those who mean well is not how to stop the coming wave of nationalism, but rather how to channel it in a way that maximises it benefits and minimises its damage. It might be that we go the Swiss route to involve populations much more in their own national stories via much more participative democracy. We might go the Chinese social-shaming route wherein everyone, including the elites, have a running social score telling the others how well they are behaving. We might get fascist utopias wherein a small elite enforces a very narrow conception of scientific and genetic purity on a whole population. We might get wild experimentation of hybrid humanoids and AI systems given the responsibility to look after the rest of the country.

I think that there will be a great pull towards new systems that are seen to work in other countries, which at the moment means the systems in Northern and Central Europe. If they can show how to rope their elites back into the national fold, then I can see their examples getting a lot of traction elsewhere. The Dutch and German approach of mandating a limit to the incomes of the managers of state-connected institutions is an important example of new attempts to force the elites back into the fold.

Yet another challenge is the continued increase in the number of ways in which small groups can kill billions of people by design and by accident, via the proliferation of nuclear technology as well as cheaper biological and artificial intelligence systems.

I suspect we won’t do anything serious about this until at least one of these risks materialises in a big way, such as via a nuclear attack by an extremist group, a mistake, or a run-away AI experiment that manages to provoke a large-scale military conflict costing millions of lives. Even then, I suspect the solution will be very much hap-hazard and oriented towards the exact nature of the catastrophe, ie a band-aid.

It is hard to see a general solution to this general problem emerge because national sovereignty and the strong incentives for leaders to grand-stand will be in the way of any more permanent solution that would require countries and elites to give up their power. I thus suspect this problem will not be solved this century and will be part of the luggage of the next one.

My anticipated ‘solution’ in the long-long-run is the emergence of actual gods that will rule us and whom the human survivors will worship, ie the end of nation state supremacy and the emergence of a pluralist theocracy in which humans are no longer the dominant entities. However, that’s a highly uncertain future possibility and part of a larger and different conversation.

Another international challenge is that the areas of the world producing more children are those with the least well-run governments, leading to a massive and disruptive migration flow from poor to rich, threatening the social integrity of some destination countries. In turn, this migration takes away the pressure on the elites in the countries from which they come to really reform.

I see a combination of three factors that might solve this: i) dropping fertility rates even in the poorest and worse-run countries due to things like the increased presence of the internet and mobile technology, which in turn increases the returns to educational investment everywhere, which in turn makes kids expensive; ii) special economic zones in other continents set up by Western countries and China that effectively become well-run colonies that absorb most of the local migrants (pretty much like Hong Kong and Macau in previous centuries) ; iii) continued globalisation of languages and culture that will reduce the cultural distances which will reduce the disruption associated with migration flows making people in richer countries less bothered about in-bound migration.

Finally, there are the dangers to world peace emanating from flaws to the political institutions of the main super-powers, with two main sub-problems that I see as the biggest threats: America will have to get used to its lost dominance, and China is inherently politically unstable because it lacks a separation of powers. This is really tricky. Very few realise that both problems exist and are serious; neither the Americans or the Chinese want to acknowledge the problem, making a transparent solution to them impossible; and I do not see historical solutions to either type of problem that did not involve large-scale blood-letting. They are design flaws, one inherent to national pride, and the other to collectivist empires.

I am not aware of an historical instance where dominant nation states learned to get comfortable with being subservient without getting a bloody nose, or worse. The UK didn’t stop dreaming about its Empire till the Americans forced them to back down in the Suez crisis of the 1950s and even now some of the UK elites dream of the glory days at the expense of the present. French wounded pride was partially responsible for the Second World War via their insistence on German humiliation in the treaty of Versailles. It took a devastating defeat with millions of casualties to get the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires to get used to their lower status. Etc.

Similarly, the Chinese political system never learned in their more than 2,000 year history as an imperial bureaucracy to avoid major civil wars as the only way to have significant leadership change. The Chinese suffer from an inherent problem with collectivist winner-take-all decision making systems, which is the lack of a separation of powers that makes it impossible for a previous elite to be secure in some of their property rights when a new elite takes over, which in turn makes old elites fight to the death to hold on to power.

From 1945 till now there were three large internal Chinese conflicts directly caused by power-struggles at the top: the communist takeover of 1949; the Great Leap forward of 1960; and the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s.

Part of the problem is that the Chinese are not taught in school that they lost over 50 million people last century because of elite power struggles. For instance, instead of being told that the Great Leap forward was a Mao-induced disaster that cost 30 million people, they are told there was unusual weather in that period leading to famines. There is hence no open awareness of the flaws in their political system.

The tell-tale sign of increased pressure at the top is an ideological purity drive, invariably invoked by a threatened incumbent elite faction to marginalise another one. Mao in the late 1950s inflicted an ideology of a Great Leap Forward, and then in the Cultural Revolution inflicted the ideology of his little red booklet. Both heralded disasters.

The Chinese were lucky in the late 1970s to be led by Deng Xiaoping who managed to get the Chinese Communist Party to adopt a system of gradual elite renewal that worked from 1980 to 2010, but with his death the natural tendency of winner-takes-all politics has been re-established.

Xi Jiping has consolidated ultimate power in his hands and that of the group around him, just as Mao did in the 1950s. Mao needed a catastrophe every 10 years to fend off the opponents. With the death of Deng Xiaoping and his pragmatism, the Chinese leadership has now returned to ideological slogans of the Mao era.

Mao used purity drives to mobilise idealistic young people against political opponents. There are indications a new conflict is brewing right now, with a new ‘social virtue’ drive sweeping through China. It probably won’t get too bad whilst growth is easy, but the inherent instability is there.

So the odds are that the US problem will cost other countries a lot of lives and the Chinese will continue to have civil strife from time to time. I don’t think there is much we can do about either, so let us hope we are lucky and that both will be contained.

On the whole, I am optimistic about this century, with many indicators of humanity’s progress looking very healthy indeed. Our population levels are likely to stabilise; our ability to feed ourselves looks guaranteed; poverty rates are falling; the incentives to be nice to each other keeps increasing due to the increased connections between our economies; and we are likely to live much longer too. The main dangers come from the same place as the solutions: technology and politics.

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38 Responses to Six tough institutional challenges this century

  1. Aaron says:

    “My anticipated ‘solution’ in the long-long-run is the emergence of actual gods that will rule us and whom the human survivors will worship, ie the end of nation state supremacy and the emergence of a pluralist theocracy in which humans are no longer the dominant entities. However, that’s a highly uncertain future possibility and part of a larger and different conversation.”

    Please elaborate. Sounds interesting. Almost as if there’s a ‘business cycle’ in human-god relations. Will the future generations ‘resurrect’ God just as Nietzsche’s claimed that the Enlightenment killed him?

    • paul frijters says:

      Hi Aaron,

      I put some preliminary thoughts down in this blog:

      http://clubtroppo.com.au/2019/01/22/the-logic-of-the-inevitable-nuclear-apocalypse-can-the-gods-save-us/

      I do now have a longer piece on this. Something for another day! How about hearing your thoughts on the matter?

      • Hi Paul
        On reflection “emergence” (of gods) is close to a literal description of what happened between about 5000 bc and about 300 ad
        Maybe it could happen again who knows,
        it will be up to …god :-)

      • Aaron says:

        Interesting. However, a created God is still one step removed from one that is outside the system. I think this would only work if the older generations explicitly lied to the younger generations about the Gods being real and not created. In a few generations of lying, the shroud would be complete, and ‘true’ worship could take place.

        And then several thousand years later generations would discover the ‘lie’ and a new age of individualism and enlightenment would arise.

        Rinse and repeat, humanity!

        • Hi Aaron
          ‘ god’ and ‘religion ‘ are Western European words-concepts and they are also fairly recent; current usages date roughly to about the enlightenment and the beginnings of social sciences and cladistics in life sciences.
          They are terms that are worse than useless when applied to faiths-cultures that do not fit into the Western European scheme of things.
          For example :
          the Dalai Lama is both a famous religious figure and an ,atheist .
          And in the ancient Indian tradition in the beginning the gods were mortal and lived in constant fear of the sharp shining blades of creation, it was only when they stole meter and thus wrapped themselves in poetry that they became immortal.

          BTW
          I have never been able to really workout what Paul means by the term “god”.

        • paul frijters says:

          Hi Aaron,

          by design humans cannot create something that is outside of human capabilities. But, like cathedrals, we can create something bigger than any of us. And the entities I am envisaging would be powerful and independent, truly not needing humans for their continued existence. They would be more powerful than the humans, so no uprising scenarios. Also, these gods would not necessarily present themselves as unearthly.

          John,
          by God I primarily mean something humans worship and that they believe is more powerful than themselves, superhuman in some sense. As you say, that need not be supernatural at all and the monotheistic invention of totally unreachable gods already made Gods much more remote than those that preceded it. The Greek gods were neither indestructible nor outside of the human realm, walking amongst their believers. In a way, monotheism killed off most of God way before the Enlightenment.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Paul,

    Your analysis looks as good as can be expected for anyone gazing into the future. The one area where I’m much less optimistic is nuclear war – including one set off by error. A serious one of those will be so devastating that it is largely unimaginable.

    My other great worry is the literal derangement of democratic politics as exemplified by the Republicans in the US. Look at this column for a reminder of the old ‘reality based’ world where the ideologies stood for basic perspectives and interests which were fairly sane. We haven’t seen the Republicans and their current nutjob in a serious crisis. Not that I think it’s likely that serious catastrophe emerges from one crisis. But it’s actually quite hard to imagine a President more unhinged from reality and his job than the current fellow. A string of those and I think you have a society pretty much unable to pursue it’s own interests – eventually an Operation Barbarossa becomes kind of inevitable.

    Can you supply some more detail on this claim “The Dutch and German approach of mandating a limit to the incomes of the managers of state-connected institutions is an important example of new attempts to force the elites back into the fold.”

    • paul frijters says:

      Hi Nick,

      thx. Its chrystal ball glazing without any real agency on my part to change anything about these scenarios, so there are obvious caveats here, but its the kind of thing one feels drawn to having some reasoned position on.

      On the issue of the internal troubles of the US, this falls under the banners of elite disconnect and the internet challenge to national truths. Its more hurt American pride that I worry about than people like Trump. Narcissists have a great interest in their own survival and that of their business empires. Besides, on most objective indicators the US is not doing that badly. It could do much better, but would need a reality check, after which they’ll follow the example of countries that are seen to have done better.

      On the nuclear stuff, I find a truly large nuclear war unlikely. A ‘small one’ that kills off a few cities, yes perhaps, but an all-out one that kills off 99.999% of us? Possible, but I think unlikely. A ‘small one’ fits the bill of what I discuss in the text.

      The Dutch policy is called the ‘Balkenende’ norm and essentially holds all tertiary sector managers to a maximum income that is a certain percentage (120% or so) or the income of the prime minister. I believe that has had a big effect on Dutch administrative culture because it has forced the managers back into the role of looking after institutions rather than treating them as territories for them to abuse. In turn, that layer now has an incentive (ie jealousy) to rope in the managers of the commercial sector too. I believe the Germans have done something similar, though I don’t know what the law is called.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Thanks – can you oblige with any links

        (I justify this request for you to do me a favour on strictly utilitarian grounds. I think you’ll spend less time and do rather a better job navigating the Dutch internet than I will ;)

        • paul frijters says:

          https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balkenendenorm

          is a good description, and here is one in English (they apparently got so many requests for an English explanation that the ministry produced one in English.

          https://www.government.nl/topics/senior-public-sector-pay/documents/publications/2015/09/28/standards-for-remuneration-act-the-netherlands

          Paul

          • paul frijters says:

            The background story to this law is an interesting one.
            For decades it has been compulsory for all incomes of top managers to be visible and newspapers regularly ran stories on how CEOs were enriching themselves.
            What this transparency did initially was to increase the top incomes rapidly because the other CEOs deduced from these lists what they could get away with. So there was rapidly increasing inequality and grabbing encouraged by the transparency of top incomes.
            Yet, the longer-term effect of the transparency was to create public pressure against it. In 2006, the government of that day decided to openly adopt a new maximum that would curtail every senior person in the public sector and semi-public sector (including universities and hospitals). This got the name of the then-prime minister who was from the Christian democratic party (best thing he ever did), Balkenende.

            It took more than 10 years for this maximum to become truly enforced and binding. In 2017 every manager was supposedly constrained by it, but even today there are still a few dozen managers in the public sector paid more, though particular arrangements have been made to gradually reduce their incomes over time. This gradualism is typically Dutch.

            Also interesting, university professors are not in principle subject to this rule because they are not the senior managers of their universities! Yet in practice it has come to apply to them as their bosses are subject to this rule and understandably didn’t want the profs to be paid a lot more than them.

            Jealousy has thus been a powerful force to first increase inequality (when the top could get away with it) and then to reduce it (once the top was curtailed they started to curtail others).

    • Tumble says:

      My other great worry is the literal derangement of democratic politics as exemplified by the Republicans in the US.

      Gruen, what’s your expert take on her? Also, should have capitalized “democratic”?

  3. You are on to something with the small-g gods, Paul. There is a lesson here
    for the Christians who need an abstract meaning for their big-G God. The answer is staring them in the face. Their God should be the embodiment of the Christian ideal, which is the brotherhood of man. This will allow Christians to retain the structure of their religion — the trinity — while holding some relevance for a technically-educated 21st Century population.

    The issue is topical in Australia where one of the world’s best rugby players is nailing himself to a cross behind the altar of the hilllbilly church, preaching a load of silly garbage about naughty boys and girls going to hell. Alarmingly, there has been no theological criticism of this nonsense from the leadership of the established Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.

    The hillbilly churches attended by the rugby player and the Australian Prime Minister are the growth congregations in Christianity. How do people learn to think? In my observation they acquire the habit in spite of their education. I suspect you fall into that category, which may be why I enjoy reading your thoughts. Great stuff. I think you are on the right track.

  4. Hi Paul the thread was getting too long.

    Worshiping reifications ; illusions, is worse than foolishness.
    Am told that the best translations of the ancient term(s) for God are terms like : light or hum .
    One of the more important moments in the passion is when the veil separating the temples inner sanctum from the world, was torn asunder .
    The Buddha’s rejection of worshiping gods was grounded in the importance of non-attachment ( to illusions).
    And much Christ’s teaching is also grounded in non- attachment to illusions such as social status and the virtue of ostentatious legalistic religiosity (and even to life itself).

    • paul frijters says:

      what do you mean Christianity is not about worshipping illusions? What do you think praying to a trinity that is outside of the physical realm actually is? :-)

      I recall you asked me in the previous god discussion whether I could ‘bend the knee’ to an actual god. When I said ‘yes, probably’ you replied you couldn’t worship something real. And now look at what you’re arguing here!

  5. rog says:

    Hi Paul

    You preface many of your comments with ‘ I suspect’ or ‘I imagine”.

    Are you able to accept the findings from the IPCC?

    And if not why not, they appear to be reasonable.

    • paul frijters says:

      Hi rog,

      already in the 1980s I completely accepted the likelihood that the world was warming due mainly to our fossil fuel burning. One of my first papers in the 1990s used the then IPCC projections to estimate how Russia’s wellbeing would change with climate change.

      So yeah, I take the business as usual scenario of the IPCC as the best guess as to what is going to happen to the world’s climate. I am certainly above 99% convinced and have used the ice sheet data and others as evidence in my teaching on this subject for decades.

      I have said all this to you before but somehow you cannot conceive of someone who genuinely believes the earth is warming and who thus accepts the mainstream opinion of the climate scientists as to what is going on with the climate, and who at the same time finds the emission trading stuff and much of the mainstream debate around what to do misconceived. I do not just say what I think wont work though. I also indicate what I think could work, which is what I do again in this post.

      I have suggested geoengineering solutions by a coalition of the willing for several decades as the most realistic way forward on a range of climate issues. I remember how that offended you each time. Yet, slowly, very very slowly, I think that geoengineering is starting to become part of the mainstream opinion as to what we should do, though it is not yet there.

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  7. Hi Paul

    Great stuff for catalysing thoughts about the future. I particularly like your attempt to identify fundamental design problems. The US and China problems seem well set out.

    I think though what you do with drawing the links between the different domains you look at more. Presumably what is doable around climate change is relative to what happens in the rest of the international scene. For instance the more fractured the international scene, the more fractured efforts would be to regenerate ecologies and hence the more likely they would be to fail.

    Meanwhile, there is clearly a lot of climate change already built into the system which will play out over the next decades presumably causing further stress on already only just coping political-economic systems with increasing numbers of failed states, migration etc. Many of these states presumably are also effectively China client states due to the debts they owe. This may precipitate the development of a Chinese empire (after all wasn’t the UK Indian empire partly driven by the need to replace failing states?). Presumably this would be challenged by the US leading to increasing international fracture and reduced ability to effectively regenerate the ecology…

    So maybe the risks are the interplay between your challenges that lead to the possibility of negative feedback loops and hence failure/collapse, while each individually might not seem so bad.

    cheers
    Henry

    • paul frijters says:

      yeah, fair enough. There are lots of possible interplay effects I haven’t gone into here, though if you accept that the nation state will win out, the rest indeed are somewhat stand-alone problems.
      People make a lot of noise about how climate change is forcing nations to fail and how few nations are really working well. I basically dont buy those arguments. Nation states are still on a roll and many are starting to function better. I certainly put India and China in that list: they are functioning much better and are on much better trajectories than either was in 1970 or 1900. So 1/3 or the world is now in a better functioning nation state than they were a century back. That compensates for a lot of small African countries.
      Latin America too has a lot of better functioning countries in it, as does South East Asia. So really thinks are not so bad for nation states.

      A big unknown risk is the whole business of AI and technology that replaces the role of humans. That could upset the apple cart in a big way. Implicit in the above is the judgment that as a combined force, human collectives will continue to be more powerful. However, that is not a given, in which case we are into more fascist and religious scenarios.

      We could write a whole book shelf on this Henry! :-)

  8. rog says:

    Hi Paul

    the IPCC recommendation is for emissions to be decreased to decrease the downside consequences of climate change.

    They do not recommend geo-engineering. They say;

    C.1.4. Solar radiation modification (SRM) measures are not included in any of the available assessed pathways. Although some SRM measures may be theoretically effective in reducing an overshoot, they face large uncertainties and knowledge gaps as well as substantial risks and institutional and social constraints to deployment related to governance, ethics, and impacts on sustainable development. They also do not mitigate ocean acidification.

    https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/summary-for-policy-makers/

    • paul frijters says:

      yes Rog, but those are not findings about the climate. When they say ‘do x’ they leave the realm of earth science and enter that of economics and politic. The climate science is about the existence of a change and what the coming changes would look like under various scenarios. The question of what can be done within our political and economic system is a very different one. The IPCC recommendation has lead to a lot of hot air because, of course, when it comes to economics and politics they are amateurs. It shows that they are amateurs. It would have been better if the IPCC refrained from any recommendations about what to do and simply kept itself to stating findings, which could include scenarios.

      This too I have done for decades, ie ridicule the recommendations in some (not all) of the IPCC reports.
      Again, I know full well what many of the tradeoffs of geoengineering are. They have been clear for decades. Still, my recommendation to you is to get used to the idea that that is where we have to look for the most realistic chance of cooling things down.

  9. Hi Paul
    “illusions are out but incomprehensible awesome wonders are fine?”

    Do you really mean or understand what you wrote?

    • paul frijters says:

      I know what I meant, but I doubt you meant the same, so no need to feel aggrieved!
      The key point I am trying to make about religion is that God need not be supernatural. When you say one should not worship illusions, then that fits exactly into my key point. A corporeal touchable God is not an illusion, though he/she is neither immortal, omnipotent, or all-knowing.

      The world still has a few of these, btw. To many Japanese their emperor is a God. Not an Idol, but a God. Like many emperors have been living Gods to their people. Worshipped powerful entities.

      • Hi Paul
        If you really believed that a sense of awe and wonder truly equaled illusion we would not be talking – we would have not enough in common.
        (And you would be well on your way to being a very superior VC’.)
        I don’t understand what you mean by the term “supernatural” – your usage seems to suggest a distinction-illusion.
        What is natural ; what defines (or limits) the term?

        BTW
        There was a Indian guru who one day got a bit bored,
        so he levitated off the ground, flew over the himalayas ,stopped of for a cup of tea in some hermits mountain cave , and eventually landed on a road in China.
        Walking down that same road was a Chen master. The guru said to the master : I’ve just flown here from India : ‘what do can you do?’
        The Chen master responded: when I’m hungry I eat, when I’m tired I sleep, when I’m happy I laugh….
        The guru thought about it and after a minute or so, bowed deeply and flew home.

        • paul frijters says:

          I think of supernatural as a different realm to the physical world, ie that different rules and truths apply to the supernatural realm as to the physical realm. In modern-day physics you could say the supernatural lives outside of space-time.

          I don’t believe in anything supernatural. That doesn’t mean I think we know everything there is to know about the physical world, but it does mean I don’t believe there is anything else. No spiritual realm, no omnipotent trinity, no celestial bureau of reincarnation, no souls, etc. Of course this still leaves room for awe and wonder (as in the awe that mountains inspire). It leaves room for a belief in spirituality, but then as a phenomenon we might be able to understand. It leaves room for unseen mysterious forces and phenomenon (quantum entanglement is pretty weird!). It leaves room for notions of superhuman powers (ie entities far more powerful than any small human collective. The nation state is one such superhuman power. The supernatural is usually superhuman, but superhuman need not be supernatural). It thus leaves plenty of room for Gods, but not any outside of the physical realm and it hence does rule out the Gods of the main monotheistic religions.

          You do believe in supernatural phenomena, don’t you? You need them to be as unknowable and mysterious as possible. Therein we differ. I don’t mind. I don’t need my Gods to be unknowable, but needs differ.

          • “You need them to be as unknowable and mysterious as possible”

            No it’s the opposite ;don’t forget I am a artist and reality ‘ unvarnished ‘ is what I do:

            “Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
            As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
            Are melted into air, into thin air:
            And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
            The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
            The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
            Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
            And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
            Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
            As dreams are made on; and our little life
            Is rounded with a sleep.”

            He was not representing some kind of separate phantasy supernatural world , he was talking about here and now and our lives.

          • Paul
            BTW
            I do not believe in what you termed as supernatural .
            Reality is unknowable and strange enough for me.

            • paul frijters says:

              hmm. Then what is the holy trinity for you?

              If its not supernatural, do you think of it as all-powerful, and/or all-knowing, and/or eternal? If ‘yes’ to any of those, how is that not supernatural?

              I agree with your notion that reality is strange enough, though ‘unknowable’ is a stretch. Beyond our ability to comprehend in all its detail? Yes. Beyond any entity’s (now and in the future) capacity to understand in all details? Probably. But ‘knowable’ (meaning some predictability) in both large outlines and many details? Yes again. I guess I have not yet encountered an area that as a whole I see as unknowable both in vague outlines and lots of details.

              • Paul

                Luther once said that to ignore the trinity would endanger your spiritual health but to try to understand it would endanger your mental health.

                ‘The Trinity’ is a string of nine characters of the western alphabet . The
                I don’t accept the dualism implicit in what you have wrote.

                ( you do know Gödel ?)

                • Paul sorry this thread is getting too long.

                  Don’t know how to say this clearly enough , but will try:
                  the notion of God as some supernatural old bloke reclining on a cloud etc, is a renascence invention.

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