Mind at the End of its Tether

Image: amazon.com

“in sœcula saeculorum” [Latin: the end of the ages]

In Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945),  H. G. Wells last book, I think the ever-prescient Wells anticipates the demise of optimistic science-futurism. For most of his life Wells was such a futurist, but his later work became increasingly dark and pessimistic. Ultimately his powers of prediction seemed to fail him and he imagined some underlying existential change in the universe as the cause. Some critics explain this as Wells projecting his own approaching death on the world itself. I have an entirely different take on it. Wells (referring to himself as “the writer”) tries to express his growing frustration with a curtain that seems to be drawn between him and the future that he has constantly striven to scientifically and rationally foresee:

“It requires an immense and concentrated effort of realization, demanding constant reminders and refreshment, on the part of a normal intelligence, to perceive that the cosmic movement of events is increasingly adverse to the mental make-up of our everyday life. It is a realization the writer finds extremely difficult to sustain. But while he holds it, the significance of Mind fades. The secular process loses its accustomed appearance of a mental order. The word “secular” he uses here in the sense of the phrase “in sœcula saeculorum”, that is to say, Eternity. He has come to believe that that congruence with mind, which man has attributed to the secular process, is not really there at all. The secular process, as he now sees it, is entirely at one with such non-mental rhythms as the accumulation of crystalline matter in a mineral vein or with the flight of a shower of meteors. The two processes have run parallel for what we call Eternity, and now abruptly they swing off at a tangent from one another—just as a comet at its perihelion hangs portentous in the heavens for a season and then rushes away for ages or for ever. Man’s mind accepted the secular process as rational and it could not do otherwise, because he was evolved as part and parcel of it. ” ( Wells, HG; Rucker, Rudy; Wilson, Colin (2013-04-02). The Last Books of H.G. Wells: The Happy Turning: A Dream of Life & Mind at the End of its Tether (Provenance Editions). Monkfish Book Publishing. Kindle Edition Kindle Location 810)

What Wells imagined as a cosmic tangent of some kind that was rendering the future world obscure and unpredictable is better framed as a radical divergence between the accelerating pace of anthropogenic changes to the environment and the maximum effective speed at which a) the biosphere and b) the human bio-computer can adapt to those changes. Humanity seems to have passed the point of peak fitness right along with peak oil and peak water.  Our increasing “adaptive lag” relative to environmental change is likely to prove catastrophic. Humanity is producing its own virtual asteroid or iceberg impact. Even though many see it coming (and have seen it coming at least since Wells’ day) the time to fatal impact is too brief for us to turn the Titanic ship of human nature (i.e. the operating system of the unconscious mind) and human culture out of harm’s way. We are increasing the scope and severity of our intellectual, emotional and social challenges (e.g. environmental destruction, overpopulation, resource bottlenecks, etc.) far more rapidly than we are increasing our effective problem-solving capacity. The irony is that our inability to increase our effective problem-solving capacity is in stark and glaring contrast to what our potential problem-solving capacity might be.  The optimism of Well’s earlier work and the optimism of futurists like Buckminster Fuller and Ray Kurzweil comes from a well-justified estimation of the enormous creative and rational potential of the human brain–but optimists turn a rather blind eye to how refractory the unconscious brain (that creature of slow evolution that determines most of our behavior) tends to be. We mostly repeat unconsciously generated behavior patterns regardless of their decreasing utility under changing conditions. If only we could learn to apply to politics and economics the kind of empirical evidence-based practice we apply to things like smartphone engineering or even to modern sports training… But, alas, behavioral economics has shed startling new light on the predictable irrationality of human behavior and the degree of “artistic license” we take with the explanatory  narratives with which we rationalize our irrational, corrupt, and anti-social behavior.

In short, the problem is not so much some metaphysical change in the universe as an inability of the unconscious mind to keep up with (much less get ahead of) its own growing impacts on the physical world.

Wells circa 1945

Wells circa 1945

“Of everything he [Wells referring to himself] asks: “To what will this lead?” And it was natural for him to assume that there was a limit set to change, that new things and events would appear, but that they would appear consistently, preserving the natural sequence of life. So that in the present vast confusion of our world, there was always the assumption of an ultimate restoration of rationality, and adaptation and a resumption. It was merely a question, the fascinating question, of what forms the new rational phase would assume, what Over-man, Erewhon or what not, would break through the transitory clouds and turmoil. To this, the writer set his mind. He did his utmost to pursue the trends, that upward spiral, towards their convergence in a new phase in the story of life, and the more he weighed the realities before him the less was he able to detect any convergence whatever. Changes had ceased to be systematic, and the further he estimated the course they were taking, the greater their divergence. Hitherto events had been held together by a certain logical consistency, as the heavenly bodies as we know them have been held together by the pull, the golden cord, of Gravitation. Now it is as if that cord had vanished and everything was driving anyhow to anywhere at a steadily increasing velocity. The limit to the orderly secular development of life had seemed to be a definitely fixed one, so that it was possible to sketch out the pattern of things to come. But that limit was reached and passed into a hitherto incredible chaos. The more he scrutinized the realities around us, the more difficult it became to sketch out any Pattern of Things to Come. Distance had been abolished, events had become practically simultaneous throughout the planet, life had to adapt itself to that or perish, and with the presentation of that ultimatum, the Pattern of Things to Come faded away. Events now follow one another in an entirely untrustworthy sequence. No one knows what to-morrow will bring forth, but no one but a modern scientific philosopher can accept this untrustworthiness fully. Even in his case it plays no part in his everyday behaviour. There he is entirely at one with the normal multitude. The only difference is that he carries about with him this hard harsh conviction of the near conclusive end of all life. That conviction provides no material at all for daily living. It does not prevent his having his everyday affections and interests, indignations and so forth. He is framed of a clay that likes life, that is quite prepared to risk it rather than give way to the antagonistic forces that would break it down to suicide. He was begotten by the will to live, and he will die fighting for life. He echoes Henley:

“Out of the night that covers me Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul…

Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.”

There, for all his philosophical lucidity, in his invincible sticking to life and his will to live, he parallels the normal multitude, which will carry on in this ever contracting NOW of our daily lives—quite unawake to what it is that is making so much of our existence distressful and evasive and intensifying our need for mutual comfort and redeeming acts of kindliness. He knows, but the multitude is not disposed to know and so it will never know. The philosophical mind is not what people would call a healthy buoyant mind. That “healthy mind” takes life as it finds it and troubles no more about that. None of us start life as philosophers. We become philosophers sooner or later, or we die before we become philosophical. The realization of limitation and frustration is the beginning of the bitter wisdom of philosophy, and of this, that “healthy mind”, by its innate gift for incoherence and piecemeal evasion and credulity, never knows. It takes a priest’s assurance, the confident assertion of a leader, a misapplied text—the Bible, bless it! will say any old thing one wants it to say if only one picks out what one needs, or, better, if one lets one’s religious comforters pick out the suitable passages—so that one never sees it as a whole. In that invincible ignorance of the dull mass lies its immunity to all the obstinate questioning of the disgruntled mind. It need never know. The behaviour of the shoal in which it lives and moves and has its being will still for a brief season supply the wonted material for that appreciative, exulting, tragic, pitiful or derisive comment which constitutes art and literature. Mind may be near the end of its tether, and yet that everyday drama will go on because it is the normal make-up of life and there is nothing else to replace it. To a watcher in some remote entirely alien cosmos, if we may assume that impossibility, it might well seem that extinction is coming to man like a brutal thunderclap of Halt! It never comes like a thunderclap. That Halt! comes to this one to-day and that one next week. To the remnant, there is always, “What next?” We may be spinning more and more swiftly into the vortex of extinction, but we do not apprehend as much. To those of us who do not die there is always a to-morrow in this world of ours, which, however it changes, we are accustomed to accept as Normal Being. A harsh queerness is coming over things and rushes past what we have hitherto been wont to consider the definite limits of hard fact. Hard fact runs away from analysis and does not return. Unheard-of strangeness in the quantitative proportions of bulk and substance is already apparent to modern philosophical scrutiny. The limit of size and space shrinks and continues to shrink inexorably. The swift diurnal return of that unrelenting pendulum, the new standard of reference, brings it home to our minds that hard fact is outpacing any standard hitherto accepted. We pass into the harsh glare of hitherto incredible novelty. It beats the searching imagination. The more it strives the less it grasps. The more strenuous the analysis, the more inescapable the sense of mental defeat. The cinema sheet stares us in the face. That sheet is the actual fabric of Being. Our loves, our hates, our wars and battles, are no more than a phantasmagoria dancing on that fabric, themselves as unsubstantial as a dream. We rage in our dreaming. We may wake up storming with indignation, furious with this or that ineffectual irremovable general, diplomatist, war minister or ruthless exploiter of our fellow men, and we may denounce and indict as righteous anger dictates. ’42 TO ’44 was made up of that kind of outbreak. But there are thousands of mean, perverted, malicious, heedless and cruel individuals coming into the daylight every day, resolute to frustrate the kindlier purposes of man. In CRUX ANSATA again, this present writer has let himself boil over, freely and violently. Nevertheless it is dream stuff. “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this pretty pace from day to day…and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death… Life… struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…” It passes and presently it is vague, indistinct, distorted and at last forgotten for ever. We discover life in the beginnings of our idiot’s recital as an urge to exist so powerful that every form it takes tends to increase in size and numbers and outgrow its supply of food energy. Groups or aggregates or individuals increase not only in numbers but in size. There is an internecine struggle for existence. The bigger aggregations or individual eliminate the smaller and consume more and more. The distinctive pabulum of the type runs short, and new forms, capable of utilizing material which the more primitive were not equipped to assimilate, arises. This inaugurates a fresh phase in the evolving story of Being. This idiot’s tale is not a tale of yesterday, as we, brief incidents in the story of life, are accustomed to think of yesterday. It comprehends the whole three thousand million years of Organic Evolution. All through we have the same spectacle of beings over-running their means of subsistence and thrusting their fellows out of the normal way of life into strange habitats they would never have tolerated but for that urge to live, anyhow and at any price, rather than die. For long periods, in our time-space system, a sort of balance of life between various species has existed, and their needless mutations have been eliminated. In the case, however, of a conspicuous number of dominating species and genera, their hypertrophy has led not only to an excess of growth over nutriment, but also in the case of those less archaic forms with which we are more familiar to a loss of adaptability through the relative importance of bigness over variation. The more they dominated the more they kept on being the same thing. The continual fluctuations of normal Being in time, and its incessant mutations, confronted each of these precarious hypertrophied unstable dominating groups with the alternative of either adaptive extension of their range or else replacement by groups and species better fitted to the changing face of existence. Astronomical and internal planetary shrinkages in this universe of ours (which are all a part of the Time process) have, for example, produced recurrent phases of world-wide wet mud and given away again to the withdrawal of great volumes of water from a desiccated world of tundras and steppes, through the extension of glaciation. The sun is a variable star, but we can fix no exact term to its variations. The precession of the equinoxes is a wabble in the sequence of our seasons. The same increasing discordance with the universe which we regard as real being, grows more and more manifest. Adapt or perish has been the inexorable law of life through all these ever intensifying fluctuations, and it becomes more and more derisive as the divergence widens between what our fathers were wont to call the Order of Nature and this new harsh implacable hostility to our universe, our all. Our universe is the utmost compass of our minds. It is a closed system that returns into itself. It is a closed space-time continuum which ends with the same urge to exist with which it began, now that the unknown power that evoked it has at last turned against it. “Power”, the writer has written, because it is difficult to express this unknowable that has, so to speak, set its face against us. But we cannot deny this menace of the darkness.” (Wells, ibid., Kindle Locations 826-905).

The dark, unknowable power that has set its face against us is is not some cosmic “Antagonist” as Wells imagines it. As I suggested before, it is really the dark power of the unconscious, which makes up by some estimates well over 90% of our brain and rules most of our behavior. We might make that dark universe much more visible and tractable to enlightened cultivation (e.g. cognitive re-engineering) if we explored it with the same urgency and fantastic levels of resources that we pour into our struggles for wealth and power and into all the other efforts that we devote to “daily life”.

But that, in fact, is what we all dread and resist the most–seeing ourselves as we really are and taking responsibility for our irrationality. We conflate the dark unconscious with our individuality, creativity, spontaneity, and “freedom”. It is just the opposite–it is the tyranny of biological evolution and the haphazard, ad hoc development of an unconscious brain reacting in  “wild” instinctive ways to random experience despite the thin veneer of “civilization” and “learning”. While we hope for social justice we reflexively pursue individual advantage and immediate gratification.

The unconscious brain resists domestication like a wolf resists captivity. Of course there is much that we love about our dark, wild, unconstrained wolfishness. Among other things it is the source of what some call the Ego. We shall continue to indulge it in exorbitant excess, regardless of the  disaster we know that overindulging the Ego invites. The apex predator (or the apex artist, engineer, economist, or politician) will not domesticate itself. A higher power is required. Some hope for the intervention of gods, some for enlightenment, others for better science or artificial intelligence, and still others place hope in the invisible hand of markets.

Unfortunately the science that might help enlighten and save us (make us better fit for modern life as in the optimistic science-futurist’s imagination) is more likely to be used to further brainwash and enslave the majority of us. That’s how we roll.

“The writer is convinced that there is no way out or round or through the impasse. It is the end.” (Wells, ibid., Kindle Location 823)

However, as Wells also observes, “in sœcula saeculorum,”  the end of the ages, i.e. the end of the future, is not the end of daily life or daily cares. No amount of future-anchored existential absurdity eclipses the eternal present. Our cares persist. Except for the most pathologically depressed among us, those with extreme existential and philosophical neuroses, the effort to “make the best” of even the worst possible circumstances is the only rational approach. This can be described as maintaining psychological hardiness under stress. What often matters most is how we go about adjusting our emotional balance controls to fit the circumstances. There is a fine line between down-regulating negative emotions or cognitive dissonance, or moving unpleasant signals to the “background,” and constructing a full blown delusion or personality disorder. Cognitive filters and biases can be useful adaptive mechanisms when artfully applied; but unpracticed, careless, or excessive application quickly becomes pathological.  Unfortunately, given our unfamiliarity with our own brains, the latter is most often the case. Again, that’s just how we roll.

Poor Richard

H. G. Wells later non-fiction works from Project Gutenberg Australia

  • World Brain (1938)– HTML
  • The Fate of Man [a.k.a. The Fate of Homo Sapiens] (1939)–HTML
  • Utopias (1939)–HTML
  • The New World Order (1940)–TextZIPHTML
  • The Common Sense of War and Peace (1940)–HTML
  • Crux Ansata (1943)–HTML

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