The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad


It’s time to think about the Roman empire again. But not the part of its history that usually commands attention in the United States: the long, sad path of Decline and Fall. It’s what happened later that deserves our curiosity.

As a reminder, in 476 a.d., a barbarian general named Odoacer overthrew the legitimate emperor of the Western empire, Romulus Augustulus, who thus became the last of the emperors to rule from Italy.

The Eastern empire, ruled from Constantinople, chugged along for many more centuries. But the Roman progression—from republic to empire to ruin—has played an outsize role in tragic imagination about the United States. If a civilization could descend from Cicero and Cato to Caligula and Nero in scarcely a century, how long could the brave experiment launched by Madison, Jefferson, and company hope to endure?

The era that began with Rome’s collapse—“late antiquity,” as scholars call it—holds a hazier place in America’s imagination and makes only rare cameo appearances in speeches or essays about the national prospect. Before, we have the familiar characters in togas; sometime after, knights in armor. But in between? And specifically: How did the diverse terrain that had been the Roman empire in the West respond when central authority gave way? When the last emperor was gone, how did that register in Hispania and Gaul? How did people manage without the imperial system that had built roads and aqueducts, and brought its laws and language to so much of the world?

The historians’ view appears to be that they managed surprisingly well. “It is only too easy to write about the Late Antique world as if it were merely a melancholy tale,” Peter Brown, of Princeton, wrote in his influential 1971 book, The World of Late Antiquity. But, he continued, “we are increasingly aware of the astounding new beginnings associated with this period.” These included not only the breakup of empire into the precursors of what became modern countries but also “much that a sensitive European has come to regard as most ‘modern’ and valuable in his own culture,” from new artistic and literary forms to self-governing civic associations.

In his new book, Escape From Rome, Walter Scheidel, of Stanford, goes further, arguing that “the Roman empire made modern development possible by going away and never coming back.” His case, in boiled-down form, is that the removal of centralized control opened the way to a sustained era of creativity at the duchy-by-duchy and monastery-by-monastery level, which in turn led to broad cultural advancement and eventual prosperity. The dawn of the university and private business organizations; the idea of personal rights and freedoms—on these and other fronts, what had been Roman territories moved forward as imperial control disappeared. “From this developmental perspective, the death of the Roman empire had a much greater impact than its prior existence,” Scheidel writes. He quotes Edward Gibbon’s famous judgment that Rome’s fall was “the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene, in the history of mankind”—but disagrees with the “awful” part.

Might the travails of today’s American governing system, and the strains on the empire-without-the-name it has tried to run since World War II, have a similar, perversely beneficial effect? Could the self-paralysis of American national governance somehow usher in a rebirth—our own Dark Ages, but in a good way?

Naturally my hope as an American is that the national government starts working better. And what I’ve learned from living through crisis cycles from the 1960s onward, plus studying those of the more distant past, is to always allow for the rebound capacity of this continually changing culture.

But what if faith in American resilience is now misplaced? What if it really is different this time? I’ve been asking historians, politicians, businesspeople, and civic leaders to imagine 21st-century America the way historians like Brown and Scheidel imagine late antiquity. How will things look for us, duchy by duchy and monastery by monastery, if the national government has broken in a way that can’t be fixed?

Governmental “failure” comes down to an inability to match a society’s resources to its biggest opportunities and needs. This is the clearest standard by which current U.S. national governance fails. In principle, almost nothing is beyond America’s capacities. In practice, almost every big task seems too hard.

Yet for our own era’s counterparts to duchies and monasteries—for state and local governments, and for certain large private organizations, including universities and some companies—the country is still mainly functional, in exactly the areas where national governance has failed.

Samuel Abrams, a political scientist at Sarah Lawrence, has been leading a multiyear national survey of “social capital” for the American Enterprise Institute. Among the findings, released this year, is that by large margins, Americans feel dissatisfied with the course of national events—and by even larger margins, they feel satisfied with and connected to local institutions and city governments. “When you talk with people, across the board they are optimistic about their own communities, and hopeful about their local futures,” Abrams told me. The AEI team found that 80 percent of Americans considered their own town and neighborhood to be an “excellent” or “good” place to live, and 70 percent said they trusted people in their neighborhood. Does this mainly reflect self-segregation—people of common background or affinity clustering together? “That’s been exaggerated,” Abrams said. “America is less monolithic, and more functional at local levels, than people think.”

In Escape From Rome, Scheidel writes that “a single condition was essential” for the cultural, economic, and scientific creativity of the post-Roman age: “competitive fragmentation of power.” Today, some of the positive aspects of fragmentation are appearing all around us.

Five years ago, after writing about a “can do” attitude in local governments in Maine and South Carolina, I got an email from a mayor in the Midwest. He said that he thought the underreported story of the moment was how people frustrated with national-level politics were shifting their enthusiasm and their careers to the state and local levels, where they could make a difference. (That mayor’s name was Pete Buttigieg, then in his first term in South Bend, Indiana.) When I spoke with him at the time, he suggested the situation was like people fleeing the world of Veep—bleak humor on top of genuine bleakness—for a non-preposterous version of Parks and Recreation.

At the national level, “policy work is increasingly being done by people with no training in it, and who don’t care about it, because they’re drawn into national politics purely as culture warriors,” I was told by Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, who worked as a national-security official for both Presidents Bush. “There’s a fiction that mass politics is about policy.” The reality, he said, is that national-level politics has become an exercise in cultural signaling—“who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on”—rather than about actual governance. Meanwhile, the modern reserves of American practical-mindedness are mainly at the local level, “where people have no choice but to solve problems week by week.”

Based on my own experience I could give a hundred examples of this attitude from around the country, virtually none of them drawing national attention and many of them involving people creatively expanding the roles of libraries, community colleges, and other institutions to meet local needs. Here is just one, from Indiana: The factory town of Muncie is famed as the site of the Middletown sociology studies a century ago. It was the longtime home of the Ball Brothers glass-jar company, since departed. It is still the home of Ball State University, steadily growing. Like other manufacturing cities in the Midwest, Muncie has battled the effects of industrial decline. Among the consequences was a funding crisis for the Muncie Community Schools, which became so severe that two years ago the state took the system into receivership.

Last year, Ball State University became the first-ever public university in the country to assume direct operational responsibility for an entire K–12 public-school system. The experiment has just begun, and its success can’t be assured. But getting this far involved innovation and creativity in the political, civic, financial, and educational realms to win support in a diverse community. “I was talking with a state senator about the plan,” Geoffrey S. Mearns, who has been president of Ball State since 2017 and is a guiding force behind the plan, told me this year in Muncie. “After listening for 15 minutes, he said, ‘You’re crazy. Don’t do this. Run away.’ After another 15 minutes, he said, ‘You’re still crazy. But you have to do it.’ ”

This craziness and commitment keeps a culture alive. A new world is emerging, largely beyond our notice.

Even when the formal ties of the Roman empire had broken, informal links connected its various parts. In the absence of the Roman state, there was still the Latin language as the original lingua franca; there was still a network of roads. Christianity in some form was a shared religion. Today the links include trade, travel, family lineage, and collaborative research—links that, like the internet, were forged in an era of functioning national and global institutions but with a better chance to endure. “With the waning of federal government, you’d see some states really big enough to act as countries, starting of course with California,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of the think tank New America, told me. “You could imagine Texas working with Mexico, and New England with Canada—and the upper-Midwest states as a bloc, and the Pacific Northwest.” She pointed out that states can’t sign formal treaties—but then again, the U.S. Senate has not approved a major treaty in years.

Morley Winograd, a former adviser to Al Gore and a co-author of the new book Healing American Democracy: Going Local, argues that networked localities have already taken effective control of crucial policy areas. “If recent trends continue,” he told me, “there’s no reason why community colleges won’t be tuition-free across the country, without any federal role. It’s happened in 13 states, and we’re near a tipping point.” After Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, more than 400 U.S. mayors, representing most of the U.S. economy, said their communities would still adhere to it. “That is where most of the leverage lies on sustainability—with mayors and governors,” Winograd told me. He gave the example of planting trees, which might sound insignificant but, according to a new study by researchers in Switzerland, could be a crucial step toward removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “This could spread city by city, state by state, with no federal involvement or limitation,” he said. Last year, the Trump administration said it would abandon the targets for cutting automobile emissions and improving fuel efficiency that the Obama administration had said automakers must reach. This year, Ford, BMW, Volkswagen, and Honda announced that they would ignore the shift in federal policy. Instead, they would “recognize California’s authority” to set strict emissions and efficiency standards, and would sell cars meeting those standards in all 50 states.

Peter brown observed that “a society under pressure is not necessarily a depressed or a rigid society.” The revival that followed the Roman empire’s collapse, whose full effects were visible only in retrospect, was possible because with the weakening of central government, Roman society became “exceptionally open to currents from below.”

The world changes as we live in it; we’re all part of a pattern that we can glimpse only dimly. Historians in a thousand years will know for sure whether the American empire in this moment was nearing its own late antiquity. Perhaps by then Muncie and South Bend will loom as large in the historical imagination as the monasteries of Cluny and St. Gall do today. The ancient university towns of Palo Alto and New Haven may lie in different countries. In the meantime, we would do well to recognize and, where possible, nurture the “astounding new beginnings” already under way.

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JAMES FALLOWS is a staff writer at The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which was a national best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.

(Contributed by Gwyllm Llwydd.)

“The Drugs Inside Your Head” by Erik Vance

September 19, 2019 (

Science writer and reporter Erik Vance says today’s brain scientists are like astronomers of old: They’ve unsettled humanity’s sense of itself by redrawing our picture of the cosmos within our own heads. Vance has investigated the healing power of stories and the “theater of medicine” (white coats included). It turns out that the things that make us feel better are often more closely connected to what we believe and fear than to the efficacy of some treatments. In fact, most drugs that go to trial can’t beat what we’ve dismissively called the “placebo effect,” which is actually nothing less than an unleashing of the brain’s superpowers.


Image of Erik Vance

Erik Vance is a Pulitzer Center grantee and the author of Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal. His work has appeared in several publications, including the New York TimesHarper’s MagazineScientific American, and National Geographic.


Krista Tippett, host:The science writer and reporter Erik Vance thinks that present-day brain scientists are like astronomers of old. They unsettled humanity’s sense of itself by redrawing our picture of the cosmos out there. We’re now learning a huge, new, reality-shifting story about the universe within us. Erik Vance has investigated what he calls “the theater of medicine,” which, it turns out, is often more closely connected to what we believe and what we fear than to the efficacy of this treatment or that. In fact, most drugs that go to trial can’t beat what we’ve dismissively called the “placebo effect.” But the placebo effect is nothing less than an unleashing of the superpowers of the brain.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

Erik Vance:There’s a whole theory around pain that says that chronic pain isn’t really something wrong with you; it’s just, the chemicals in your brain haven’t been set to the right levels. So we’re all in pain right now, from whatever injuries we’ve ever had; it’s just that your brain has set the levels of its own endogenous opioids to a point where you don’t feel it anymore — which will mess with your head, I promise you, if you think about it long enough. That will mess with your head.


But it is this sort of this sense that you’re not trying to get rid of something, you’re just trying to reset the levels. And that’s within us all.

Ms. Tippett:I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

Erik Vance is the author of Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal. We spoke together with a live audience at the 2019 Beyond Religion Conference of the Pulitzer Center in Washington D.C.

Ms. Tippett:The question I often ask, whoever I’m interviewing, is about the religious background of someone’s childhood, how you would describe that. And the religious background of your childhood is very intricately interwoven with a lot of the science writing you’ve done, and certainly, the research behind your book Suggestible You.

So if I just ask you to start talking about the religious background of your childhood, how you describe that now?

Mr. Vance:Sure. I was raised in Christian Science, and Christian Scientists don’t go to doctors. That’s sort of what they’re known for. And when I describe Christian Science, I know I’ll probably offend Christian Scientists by doing this, but this is always the way I’ve always considered it, is, it’s kind of like the movie The Matrix, if you ever saw The Matrix, where basically, everything you see, it doesn’t really exist. The world is a mental construct.

And that’s not a terribly new idea. You look at the Gnostics, the ancient Gnostics, or the Sufis — there’s a lot of people over the course of human history who have — a lot of mystics have had this idea that the world doesn’t really exist; it’s a construct in your mind.

Ms. Tippett:A lot of physicists talk that way these days, too. [laughs]

Mr. Vance:Yeah, it’s interesting how that works. It’s just, if you take it to its logical conclusion, then why bother going to a doctor when you can just fix it with your mind?

Ms. Tippett:And it isn’t — there is very much — and I really got this from your writing — a culture of healing, a practice of healing. And the way I understood it — and tell me if this is correct — is that what you’re talking about is that there is health, and there is wholeness, and that this is about living into that truer reality.

Mr. Vance:It’s very true. This actually does work. Now, there are limits to it. And this is a theme I saw throughout working on this book and in my career, is, people are not crazy. And stepping on the outside, it might look odd or crazy, but if you get inside and really get to know the people involved, Christian Scientists aren’t crazy. They are acting in a way that is, they believe, in the best interests of their children and themselves. It is the best pathway to health. And what I saw, growing up, is that these things did work. I mean, obviously I believed it; I was in, very passionate, for a number of years, and it did work. I saw healings happen. So after I got out of the religion —

Ms. Tippett:Well, so you went to doctor for the first time when you were 18. Is that right?

Mr. Vance:[laughs] Yeah, I was 18.

Ms. Tippett:Tell me about that. What was that like?

Mr. Vance:Well, I was not a good patient. Some of you guys probably know that your experience with a doctor is only as good as the patient is willing to be at working with them. I had these horrible stomach pains, and I went to the doctor, and he felt around on my stomach like some sort of witch doctor, which I now know he was checking my appendix; he was looking for gallstones.


But he just sort of felt my stomach, and then he said, “Oh, it’s growing pains,” and “Go on your way.”


And I was like, “I have not been missing anything. That’s it? They feel your stomach and tell you it’s growing pains?” I didn’t tell them that I had been in Mexico the year before. Clearly, I had some sort of parasite that hung around for another couple of years until I, for another reason, took a bunch of antibiotics, and it went away. But I just remember walking out and being like, “Wow, these guys are all quacks. I’m glad I’ve not been going to these guys for 20 years.”

Ms. Tippett:[laughs] Oh, that’s funny. So you studied biology. You got into your rock climbing; you became a rock climbing guide, an environmental consultant, an environmental educator, and a science journalist. And then it seems like you — I wonder if this is true — you didn’t come out of this thinking people are lying or they’re fooling themselves, but there’s something happening, something else happening, and you wanted to know what that something else is.

Mr. Vance:Yeah, it actually came about I was at a brain mapping conference, and one of the keynote speakers was — his name is Tor Wager. That is an unusual name.

Ms. Tippett:Also turned out to be a Christian Scientist. [laughs]

Mr. Vance:Former Christian Scientist who I actually recognized; I actually recognized him from —

Ms. Tippett:Did you go to the same college?

Mr. Vance:I went to the same college. And I was like, “Wow, that’s weird.” And he’s giving a talk on placebos. And there was a little light went off, and I was like, “Whoa, that —” and I always say, it’s a little like a former Catholic studying the brain circuitry around guilt.


It’s hard to ignore, once you get this question and you’ve grown up with this, it’s very hard not to be wondering what the mechanisms might be in what you’ve seen. And so, I was hooked. I did a story about him, and then I just kept trying to do more stories about this phenomenon.

Ms. Tippett:So you have likened brain scientists to modern-day analogs of what Copernicus did, in terms of pulling back the veil, of pulling back the curtain on a fuller reality. And a big piece of this that you focus on are the mechanisms and intricacy of what we call the placebo effect. And how many times have any of us heard the phrase, “It’s ‘just’ the placebo effect”? And in fact, it’s a cornerstone of the modern pharmaceutical industry. Even the medications that work, there’s some kind of placebo effect going on in terms of how quickly we feel they work. And this is this huge — it masks — the way we’ve talked about placebo and treated it masks this huge story we haven’t told about ourselves and about reality.

Mr. Vance:You’re absolutely right. When you think about modern medicine — what is “modern medicine”? Modern medicine is something that can outperform a placebo. And it’s not that old; 1962, I think, is when the U.S. made —

Ms. Tippett:That’s the definition of a drug that works.

Mr. Vance:Exactly. And before that, we don’t really consider that evidence-based medicine. So the fundamental — the foundation of what we consider medicine is, is it better than your own mind? — which is kind of nuts.

Ms. Tippett:Which it often isn’t.

Mr. Vance:Which is often isn’t, and especially — and what I’ve learned, and what’s interesting about placebo is that it does not affect everything equally. Things like pain, irritable bowel syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, anxiety, depression, some autoimmune diseases, and maybe addiction — depending on how you work on that; it’s a little harder to study — these things have these very high placebo rates. But you look at something like autism or OCD, they have very low placebo response.

Ms. Tippett:I also read Alzheimer’s has a low — and is there some suggestion that whatever — and there’s so much we still don’t understand about placebo, but whatever the trigger is, that those conditions might also be affecting whatever that trigger is in the brain?

Mr. Vance:Right, yeah, Alzheimer’s is another one, and — it’s not clear why, but placebos, one of the things they do is, they tap into the drugs you already have inside your head. Cancer’s another one. You can’t just think away a tumor. The unfortunate thing is, you can be very effective against the symptoms of cancer, so it feels like the cancer’s going away. But we don’t have the tools — your brain can’t pull away the tumor, but it can have dramatic effects on things like pain and Parkinson’s. So when they first started doing placebo controlled trials, they got rid of 1,000 drugs they were using, which back then was a lot, that they thought worked and could not outperform the placebo effects.

Ms. Tippett:So let’s talk about what you’ve learned about what the placebo effect is. There is this language of “it’s the brain’s pharmacy.” Somewhere, you said, “Endorphins are little opium dens tucked away in our brains.” [laughs] But it’s actually — you’ve gone into much greater detail about what that means. And something you talk about that is core to understanding this is that the brain is, at its core, a prediction machine. So explain what that has to do with this reaction of ours or this capacity.

Mr. Vance:This a great segue, and this is a really important point. If you boil down what your brain does to a single idea — this is fundamentally what a brain is, based on artificial intelligence going back 50 years: It is a prediction machine. Everything your brain does, it takes the past, it applies it to the present to predict the future. And it does it in small ways — it’s basically creating a map of how the world works, based on the experiences that happen to it. And if you watch a little baby crawling around, they’re figuring this stuff out. They’re like, “Oh, wow — gravity. That’s painful if you’re not careful.” [laughs] Your brain learns from that, and then it learns where it can step and where it can’t step. And everywhere along the line, your brain is taking these observations and turning them into predictions that it uses to map the world.

So, when you give someone a sugar pill, and you say, “This is gonna take away your pain,” it’s not a circus trick. This is getting down to the very fundamental role that your brain has. And when you take that pill — this doesn’t happen to everyone, but if your pain goes away, it’s partly because your brain has an expectation, that when you take a pill, your pain goes away. And sometimes it’s easier for your brain to change reality than it is to change an expectation. Think of your brain as a bureaucrat; like, “I punch this paper, and I get the paper — that’s what I do. And you give me the pill, and the pain goes away. And if it doesn’t happen, I’m just gonna make the pain go away…”

Ms. Tippett:Myself. [laughs]

Mr. Vance:“…rather than question why it didn’t work. I have one job, and that’s what I do.” [laughs]

And that’s kind of how it is. It’s very hard to break these expectations. And so, placebo effect is basically taking advantage of this fact that your brain doesn’t want to divert from what it expects.

Ms. Tippett:There’s also some interesting story about the fact that if people see a physician administer pain medication, they will respond better — that medication will work, whereas if you just load the medication into the IV and they don’t see it administered, it may not work at all.

Mr. Vance:And that touches on something that actually is a new field of study for placebo, which is the social component of placebo.

Ms. Tippett:And the storytelling, also.

Mr. Vance:And the storytelling.

Ms. Tippett:Talk about that, because that’s also about the complexity of what it is to be human; that this is about biology, and it’s about chemistry, and it’s about storytelling.

Mr. Vance:Well, think about going into a doctor’s office in some old warehouse, and he’s wearing cutoff jeans and an undershirt, and he comes in and he’s smoking a cigarette, and he tosses you some pills. How well are those pills gonna work on you? We need to have the theater around medicine. The white lab coat, for example. Why do you need that? People aren’t splattering blood on themselves anymore, they need to see — [laughs] I certainly hope not. But that’s why we have it, and that’s something we identify with getting better. And all the placebo scientists I work with, they always stress the importance of the lab coat.

And all that theater is really important. And it’s a huge part — it’s the stories we tell ourselves.

Ms. Tippett:It’s about us. It’s about us.

Mr. Vance:Yeah.

[music: “A Little Powder” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Ms. Tippett:I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with science writer and reporter, Erik Vance.

Ms. Tippett:The scope — the magnitude of how it can work is also still very mysterious. You said you can’t cure cancer, but certainly, there are stories of — there are people walking around who had cancer and then didn’t, and then there’s this guy who feels like he’s this iconic figure in this field, Mike Pauletich, who had Parkinson’s. This is a fascinating story: They were doing a study of a drug to work on Parkinson’s. And it failed miserably; basically, the results didn’t look like the drug worked. But there was this one guy, Mike.

Mr. Vance:So Mike — this was called Neurontin, and it was actually the second trial that they were doing. And the first trial had failed, and then the second trial — basically, they’re drilling into your skull, Parkinson’s disease is a chronic deficiency in dopamine. And so they’re trying to jumpstart your dopamine processes. And it’s kind of a perfect placebo chemical, because it’s rewards. And so the placebo effects are all over the place. It’s very, very hard to do Parkinson’s research, because of the high placebo rates.

So they always do a sham surgery around a —

Ms. Tippett:Right; that was astonishing to me, too. This isn’t just about giving pills. People think they’ve been operated on.

Mr. Vance:Yeah, so this is — basically, you go in, the doctor doesn’t know what he’s giving you; no one knows. And you go in, the doctor gets a card, and it says, “OK, we’re doing the real surgery.” They do the surgery, which is two holes drilled into your skull. And the other one is, “OK, we’re not doing it,” and then they basically just do two divots, so it feels like you had surgery in your skull, but you didn’t. And this guy went in, and he basically — this changed his life. He went from having trouble walking and talking to — I kid you not, he was heli-skiing. He did a half-marathon. He climbed the backside of Half Dome.

Ms. Tippett:And years later, he’s…

Mr. Vance:Well, two years later — his doctor, Kathleen, was like, “We’ve cured Parkinson’s. This is it. This is amazing.” And two years later, they un-blind the trial, and the trial failed. Basically, that chemical’s not really being used anymore, the company went out of business. And she was absolutely flabbergasted. And then she went through and looked at the un-blinding, and he had gotten the placebo. He had gotten the sham surgery.

My question for you guys, and everyone, is, would you have told him?

Audience member: No.

Mr. Vance:[laughs] You’re required by law to tell.

Ms. Tippett:We don’t want him to read your book. [laughs]

Mr. Vance:These are — when you have a process that is susceptible to placebo, it’s shocking. It’s shocking what it does, because when your brain has access to pain and a lot of other conditions — anxiety, depression — it can be stunning. And this is why you don’t see very many Parkinson’s drugs. This is why it’s so hard to get pain drugs on the market. This is not a problem that is new to pharmaceutical companies; they know about this. This is a huge issue with big pharma.

Ms. Tippett:So one thing you say is that, bottom line, this is about the power of belief in our brains, in our bodies.

Mr. Vance:It is; and it’s interesting, because it’s not unlimited. I think Alia Crum, one of the researchers, she said it best. She said, I think, the placebo effect is not unlimited; we just don’t know where the limits are yet. We haven’t figured out where it’s appropriate and where it’s not appropriate. And there’s some real lessons there, because there are people who are trying to sell placebo cures to cancer patients, and I can tell you right now, those people, they’re dying. I’ve gone and done the reporting, and it’s criminal. So there are times when it’s appropriate, and there’s times when it’s not. If you have lower back pain, placebos are a really interesting area to think about and to work in, and I talk to a lot of pain doctors who, frankly, are desperate.

Ms. Tippett:Again, I feel like the language is so off, because really, it’s not that we want doctors to be using placebo. It’s that we want doctors to get sophisticated about unlocking the power of our brains.

Mr. Vance:Yeah — doctors complain a lot about alternative medicine and homeopathy and things like that. And it’s like, “You shouldn’t be complaining about it. You should be learning from it, because these people are healing with nothing.” Be real. [laughs] Homeopathy is not …

Ms. Tippett:Nothing external, right? They’re healing with something internal.

Mr. Vance:But if you ever sit down with a homeopath, they spend so much time with you. And the time and the effort and the theater that they put in is really effective, and it’s very powerful.

Ms. Tippett:I feel like you also were describing that, in a way, in Christian Science, where you said there is a lot of healing going on all the time. And there’s this place where you said, Christian Science practitioners are always available on the other end of the phone, and — this is some lines from your book — “I can still hear her perfectly graveled alto on the other end of the phone, maternal, weathered, and as tough as nails” — that doctor you trust — “telling me that everything was gonna be OK and that God loved me. To this day, it’s the most comforting voice I can imagine.”

That’s also tapping into that power. There’s sophisticated intelligence there.

Mr. Vance:That was my practitioner, my childhood practitioner, named LaMeice Schierholz — she’s since passed. But she was this amazing, amazing woman who just — she could heal you with her voice. And that is not something to shirk off. It’s something to be studied, no question; but it’s also something to be respected. And I think she — I don’t know if she worked on it, if she practiced, [laughs] because it was just such a powerful thing. And a good doctor can be like that. But I don’t think it’s part of their training. You’re lucky if you get one. But it’s not something that’s necessarily encouraged.

Ms. Tippett:I really love this invoking the theater. I actually just did an interview this week with Esther Perel. And she also talks about the theater of romance and relationship and the erotic and how that, actually, is so much more important than technique or performance.

Mr. Vance:Well — [laughs]

Ms. Tippett:And this is another realm of technique and performance.


Mr. Vance:I won’t argue with you on that one.

Ms. Tippett:OK, fine. [laughs]

Mr. Vance:[laughs] If we want to go to that, I got a whole other thing on Viagra I can talk about, the last chapter in the book.


Ms. Tippett:It really is. He’s not kidding.

Mr. Vance:[laughs] Yeah, no, I think we are storytellers. And of course, I say this because I’m a storyteller, so I’m a little biased. But your brain is trying to make sense of the world. That is fundamentally what it’s doing. It’s trying to make sense of the world, so it doesn’t get eaten by a lion. And part of that are these stories. And pharmaceutical companies do the same thing. The placebo effect is the worst enemy of the pharmaceutical company, right up until the point when it gets FDA approval; then, it becomes their best friend. And you see these advertisements for —

Ms. Tippett:The ads on television for how wonderful your life will be, once you take this pill.

Mr. Vance:Or the cartoon where you’re all red down here, and you take this pill and it turns blue, and it’s like, “Oh, the magical soothing blue pellets that are somehow released by the thing.” And it’s like, “Oh, it’s the blue soothing.”

Ms. Tippett:So you know what I thought of, though —

Mr. Vance:Like, how does that work? [laughs]

Ms. Tippett:There’s so much going on there that has so much resonance and relevance for other areas of our life together. What you said a minute ago about there is this idea that we are already healed, but we have to live into that; we have to believe in it and make it more true. And I was actually thinking about social changemakers. I was thinking about John Lewis talking about — [laughs] OK, here we go — about during the Civil Rights Movement, that what they had to do mentally was to live as if …

Mr. Vance:As if, yeah.

Ms. Tippett:… that the beloved community was there; it was the true reality and the true wholeness, and you had to act accordingly, even if what was in front of you didn’t correspond to that reality. That’s a dynamic in human society.

Mr. Vance:That’s fundamentally what I was raised with, which is cool to talk about when you’re in your 20s, but try explaining that to your classroom when you’re in the second grade, show and tell; like, “Oh, yeah, none of this is real, but we assume it’s real.” [laughs]

But yeah, no, you’re absolutely right. That’s exactly the way to hack the brain, is to live — I see this a lot; in fact, I talked to one pain doctor — the place to really understand this, I think, the best is with chronic pain, which is a huge problem in our country, by itself, but it also is the foundation of the opioid crisis and understanding that most of this opioid addiction — a lot of it comes from prescription drugs related to chronic pain. And pain doctors are really struggling with how to treat pain that doesn’t involve filling people up with opioids. And one of the doctors, world-renowned researcher who, I think, is established enough in his position to be honest with me, said, “Look. I’m lucky if I can help 40 percent of my patients. If I’m a baseball player, I’d be making millions, but as a doctor, that’s not a great number.” And he’s the one who actually says — he recommends to patients, “If you’re a lapsed Catholic, go back to church. Try it,” because, first of all, he’s looking for anything. But second of all, he wants to create a sense — even if they’re continuing treatment with him — that good things are coming, that there is an order —

Ms. Tippett:There’s that prediction expectation again?

Mr. Vance:And just going back to church and feeling like they’re getting some sort of sense that this will go away, good things are coming, is the first step for him. And he’s willing to try anything because it’s very, very tough. And there’s a whole theory around pain that says that chronic pain isn’t really something wrong with you; it’s just, the chemicals in your brain haven’t been set to the right levels. And then it’s a matter of — so we’re all in pain right now from whatever injuries we’ve ever had; it’s just that your brain has set the levels of its own endogenous opioids to a point where you don’t feel it anymore — which will mess with your head, I promise you, if you think about it long enough. That will mess with your head.


But it is this sense that you’re not trying to get rid of something, you’re just trying to reset the levels. And that’s within us all. And so, trying to fix the knee or do something, inject something that will make the pain go away — well, we have it in us, in theory, to be free of it right away. You just have to figure out how to convince your brain to do it.

[music: “Brass Buttons” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Ms. Tippett:After a short break, more with Erik Vance. And you can find this show again in three of the libraries at Body, Healing & Trauma, Brain & Neuroscience, and Science & Being. We created libraries from our 15-year archive for browsing or deep diving by theme — for teaching and reflection and conversation. Find this and an abundance of more at

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today we’re exploring the brain’s theater of healing — also known as the placebo effect — with science writer and reporter Erik Vance.

Ms. Tippett:Something I noticed, because I was reading articles that have been written about your work and interviews you’ve given, and [laughs] I noticed that there was still this kind of dismissiveness and defensiveness in the science journals.

What they picked up on was — and we haven’t talked about this, and we probably should — the “nocebo,” which is actually the same — it’s that same power of belief; it’s the dark side of that, which is the power of fear. That, also — talk about something that has relevance in all kinds of things about our life together, these days and in the world.

So they picked up on that mass hysteria caused by our brains. And the Scientific American podcast interviewed you, and the title was, “Your brain is so easily fooled.” [laughs] And National Geographic: “Here’s what placebos can heal — and what they can’t.”

Mr. Vance:He was very hung up on that, because it’s — there is this desire to put limits on it, and I think it’s important to put limits on it. But it’s worth mentioning, nocebos are probably more powerful than placebos. All the evidence we have is that they’re easier to create, and they last longer.

Ms. Tippett:Well, say a little bit about nocebos.

Mr. Vance:So a nocebo is a — think of it as, if a placebo is “This will make your pain go away,” [laughs] think of nocebo as “This is really gonna hurt. I’m gonna do this thing — it’s really gonna hurt. You ready? It’s really, really gonna hurt.” You can feel, even my saying that, there’s this —

Ms. Tippett:It will hurt.

Mr. Vance:It will hurt.

Ms. Tippett:It will really hurt.

Mr. Vance:These studies they do, basically a lot of them are: give someone pain; and then, depending on the story you tell them, rate that pain as higher or lower than what someone would have if they didn’t have any story. That’s a lot of the placebo research, the way it goes. And the higher pain is the nocebo. And that applies to a lot of other different things in the world. Now, they’re hard to study, because you can’t go to a Parkinson’s patient and give them a pill and say, “This is gonna make your Parkinson’s worse.” No one should ever do that.

Ms. Tippett:So this is where you take that desire our brains have to be predicting and preparing, and you channel it into fear. And you say there is nothing more powerful that happens in our brains and bodies than fear. You tell this interesting story about how you ran up against this in yourself when you had to vaccinate your baby.

Mr. Vance:Yeah. I am a science writer; I’ve seen the data; I’ve written about autism, and I’ve written about vaccinations. There is no connection. I’ve seen it. But when that guy pulls out that big old needle and comes after your kid, you don’t — rational thought is not what’s happening. And I was worried about autism with my kid. And the science writer part of my brain was so embarrassed about the rest of my brain; like, “I don’t know this guy. I’m not here. I don’t know where this guy came from.” [laughs]


And so, rather than not tell anyone, I decided to write a story for NPR about it, [laughs] which may or may not have been a good idea.

But the point is not, is autism a thing? The point is the power of fear. And that’s for a science writer. I understand fully why anything with your kids is — why there’s so much fear around not just vaccinations, but a lot of things with your kids, because it’s powerful. It’s powerful. And if you think about it, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense. Which is a more important feeling to have, as we’re surviving in the forest, fear, or hope and optimism? [laughs] Probably the fear, because it’ll keep you from getting eaten by the lion. So it makes sense why it’s more powerful.

But it’s definitely — and acknowledging this is the most important thing; understanding that these things exist and that none of us are immune to them. I can’t stand when people say, “Oh, look. I’m not a sucker, but echinacea really works.” It’s like, well, no, you are a sucker, but so am I; we’re all suckers, every one of us. And echinacea, if it works for you, I’m not gonna say anything. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett:Well, and I also think taking seriously the power of fear is really important. I was at Stanford earlier this year and had a conversation with some physicians in the medical school. And they’re working with young residents who sometimes end up counseling parents who don’t want to vaccinate their child. And the conversation we were having was very pragmatic; it was about how can that be a fruitful, productive conversation? And the fact is that the young residents, as I was hearing, often went into that really dismissive of the fear, annoyed with it, kind of like you were annoyed, embarrassed by it, annoyed like — it sounds like when you were in the doctor’s office, these warring parts of your brain were having this fight.

Mr. Vance:Absolutely.

Ms. Tippett:And yet, we would be applying our more complex intelligence from what we’re learning through science about ourselves and our fellow humans, to — not to honor the irrationality, but to honor the fear, because the only way —

Mr. Vance:I like that.

Ms. Tippett:Because what actually happened in that room —

Mr. Vance:I like that.

Ms. Tippett:Wasn’t that true, that the doctor — I’m remembering it now — that he said, at some point — I think I wrote this down — “Maybe you need a lollipop, dad.”


Mr. Vance:[laughs] Well, the doctor couldn’t figure out why I was so upset, so he was like, “Does daddy need a lollipop?” [laughs]

Ms. Tippett:But honestly, that’s actually what’s needed when we’re dealing with something that is about our humanity, like it or not, attractive or not, that we deal at a human level with each other.

Mr. Vance:I think, in all of this, what is needed is empathy. We can all start at least finding some bridges to bridge the gap.

And if you guys haven’t been on Twitter and seen the wars between “rationalists” and people who are alternative medicine people — they’re not nice. And if we can use the same language and understand that people’s experiences, they are real, and that we’re having these experiences, and frankly, if you can rub a crystal on your arm and have pain go away, you are the lucky one. Your rational friend who doesn’t have any use for them —

Ms. Tippett:Your better at unlocking your brain’s pharmacy.

Mr. Vance:And you have a tool that they don’t. You have that capability to unlock the drugs that are already in your brain, and you can do something that other people can’t. That is — if you gave me the choice, I would much rather be that person.

Ms. Tippett:Than just stay in pain…

Mr. Vance:Than just stay in pain and be right; that doesn’t help.


[music: “Trying Not to Work in Beautiful Barcelona” by Lullatone]

Ms. Tippett:I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.  Today we’re exploring the brain’s theater of healing — also known as the placebo effect — with science writer and reporter Erik Vance.

Ms. Tippett:Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz, the executive producer of On Being, is going to facilitate the …

Liliana Maria Percy Ruíz:Yes, just read some questions from all of you. And the first question is for Erik: “Can you talk a little bit about why the placebo effect wears off? What’s actually happening in the brain?” This person says that they once had acupuncture for pain, with amazing results. But the effects wore off after a few weeks, and subsequent acupuncture treatments had zero effect on the pain.

Mr. Vance:That is a great question. In the case of acupuncture — let’s assume it’s pain; again, the thing that’s most often studied is pain — you have to reset the way the brain actually perceives pain, and simply having a placebo rush of endorphins — which is what we’re talking about; these are endogenous opioids, but the other word for them is endorphins — is not resetting the brain, it’s giving a rush of endorphins. And so resetting the brain is not easy. That’s what we’re talking about, if it’s chronic pain. Let’s say it’s a stomach pain, and there’s something going on in your stomach — that will surface out again. That mechanism will come out again. And even if it’s just a mental pain, like fibromyalgia or something like that, that will reassert itself. And to actually reset and make that pain go away, it seems to be a much longer process. And we don’t really understand that, and we also don’t understand different people, how they respond to that.

Ms. Percy Ruíz:This next question is tied to that a little bit, which is, “Do you have a hack or an easy way for people to teach themselves to tap into their brain?”


Ms. Tippett:This is where we get to talk about hypnosis?

Mr. Vance:Oh, my God. Hypnosis is amazing.

Ms. Tippett:So this is the most fascinating thing, that you are so into — that hypnosis, to you, is a way to channel this stuff.

Mr. Vance:Well, hypnosis — what’s interesting about hypnosis, it’s actually not placebo, because you can give people this drug that makes placebo effects go away, and the hypnosis still works. So, it’s definitely other mechanisms that are involved. Why it hasn’t been studied more — doctors have been doing it since the mid-1800s, and it got a bad rap for a bunch of different interesting reasons, which you can read about. But I always point to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you look at the difference between when the book was written and when the first movie came out — when the book was written, the good guys did hypnosis, and that’s how they found Dracula. By the time the movie came out, it was the bad guy who was doing hypnosis. So it got a bad rap.

But it is an incredibly — but the problem is, it doesn’t work on everyone. You have to be hypnotizable. And there are certain people who are not very hypnotizable.

Ms. Tippett:You said it’s a talent, to be hypnotizable.

Mr. Vance:It’s a talent, and I don’t have it, because I tried to get hypnotized a few times, and I was like, “Am I hypnotized? I think I’m hypnotized. Ooh, I’m hypnotized. No, I’m not hypnotized. Oh, wait. Yeah, now I am — nope.”


And it’s like, that doesn’t work. [laughs] So I’m low on the scale, so I don’t really have that tool available to me. So that’s a great — I don’t know if it’s a hack.

All of the hacks that there are vary from one person to the next. And I always say, throw yourself all the way — alternative medicine, throw yourself all the way in, but leave one foot out. Try a bunch of different — because the storytelling is important. So, maybe homeopathy story doesn’t resonate like acupuncture story. But don’t let someone tell you not to go to a doctor, especially if it’s a serious disease, because there are people who will do that.

Ms. Tippett:So that’s what you mean by “keep one foot out.”

Mr. Vance:Keep one foot out, and don’t put your life in jeopardy. But yeah, the hack would be, look for stories that resonate for you. And if you kind of think it might be a placebo, that doesn’t mean it won’t work. You can give people placebo pills and say, “These are placebo pills,” and they will still work, because a lot of this is unconscious, and you can’t help it.

I will say, reading my book will not hurt you from getting a placebo effect …


… buying my book won’t affect that. Writing my book might. [laughs] That might.

But you guys, hypnosis, it’s not a placebo. It’s just — we just don’t know, enough, what it is. And that’s — if you guys haven’t tried that, find out if you’re hypnotizable. If you are, you got a whole bunch of tools to play with.

Ms. Percy Ruíz:This next question came up a couple of times in a few different ways. “Are there any studies comparing healing rates between religious believers versus atheists?” And then a similar question around positive people versus cynical people.

Mr. Vance:Unfortunately, there have been many efforts to figure out who the placebo people are. And these efforts have varied from personality type to age to gender to race to anything you can think of, and they’ve never found a correlation that sticks. They’ve claimed they’ve found them, and then they disappear. There are no — we all kind of know people who you’d think would fit — “I bet that’s someone who responds.” But it doesn’t — when you get a bunch of people together, and you do scientific work, it doesn’t seem to work. The one thing that seems to be the exception to that is genetics. There’s a few genes that may be related to — certainly, with pain, because again, easy to study — and it would make sense that there are a few other conditions where the placebo rate — there are some researchers who are trying to compile all the genes related to placebos right now, at Harvard, and it —

Ms. Tippett:And that would start to be a map of who is susceptible?

Mr. Vance:Right, well, the idea would be, if you put them all together — because some of them cancel each other out, and so if you have one that’s aiding the placebo and one that’s hurting the placebo, and you have both of them — but it would depend on where it acted, because one would be the surface of the receptor, and the other one would be further down the line. So these things get real complicated, real fast. But if you just look at personality, it doesn’t work, and if you just look at gender, it doesn’t work.

Ms. Tippett:So to the theme of this Pulitzer conference, you’ve ended up as — you’re kind of straddling, at least with this work, not with all your reporting but some of your reporting, both the fields of science and religion. And my observation is that — you actually end your book with a little bit, here, a little bit sad that these two worlds that you’ve been …

Mr. Vance:Oh, that’s right. [laughs]


Ms. Tippett:…that they don’t engage with each other in illuminating each other. And I think you use beautiful language — or that there’s this feeling that you have to choose between the two, which is a false choice. I love the way you open that up. You say, “The human mind is an elaborate, ever changing [human] palace,” and that it has all these secret passageways we have yet to comprehend, and we really don’t know.

Mr. Vance:This is not easy stuff to understand. And — A) it’s not easy stuff; B) anyone in this room could probably come up with a really good study that no one’s done. There just hasn’t been funding for it. And it was hard. I was hoping at the end to bring my — I sat down with a Christian Science practitioner, and I was trying to bring my childhood together with my “rational,” scientific, reporter life. And I don’t know that I did. And I feel like there’s certain leaps that people aren’t willing to make. But I do think that there’s so much opportunity, like you said. And the brain and the mind — however you want to call it — is a fascinating, vastly confusing place, and it’s so big that we’re just scratching the surface.

And with this, particularly, because placebo spent so much time in the doghouse as being this hippy-dippy thing, that we’re only recently starting to be able to have the tools to actually look at these things. We’re gonna see a whole new picture of the brain in the next generation.

Ms. Tippett:The placebo is the natural thing. We could just call it “natural healing.” Or, that sounds like a methodology, but just your body’s ability to heal itself.

Mr. Vance:You could rephrase Hippocrates, the Hippocratic Oath, to basically be: “Let placebo effect happen” …


… because that was his whole thing. He was like, “Look, let’s not cut you into pieces or sacrifice goats to the god of war. Let’s just see if this takes care of itself. He didn’t know what the placebo was, but he certainly understood. And he watched it, and he knew that “Do no harm” was, basically: “Lay down for a while. Let’s see if the placebo effect takes care of things.” [laughs]

Ms. Tippett:Does the language — in your work, the mind/body language appears a lot. And I think the mind/body/spirit is implied in there; you can define spirit in so many ways. I have this theory that 100 years from now, people will look back and see how we used that phrase and think it’s like people talking about four humors in the body. Is there a distinction for you now?

Mr. Vance:No, it’s a false dichotomy. There is no mind/body, unless you want to be, like, mind/body/stomach, because the stomach has almost as many nerve endings as the brain; it’s your second brain. So, let’s not cut the stomach out of this; the stomach’s like — no, it’s your whole body. The body is the body; the mind is a part of that. It’s just the part you really don’t want to shut off. It’s the part of the body that really doesn’t want to get hurt. But other than that, this is — separating the mind from the body is really pointless. The whole thing — you look at dopamine, which affects Parkinson’s, it affects reward. It also affects digestion and movement — a lot of your brain’s functions. It’s doing double duty. This is not like, “Oh, we’re in Braintown now.” This is your whole body working together. And so, trying to break it apart, it’s just something we’ve constructed.

Ms. Tippett:So just to illustrate that, one of the ways you described how placebo happens, which I had trouble visualizing it — but that it goes backwards — because this illustrates this.

Mr. Vance:So just really quickly, if you can imagine burning your hand on a stove, and then you put your hand in ice-cold water. That sensation would go up your arm, up to the back of your brain, go through some of the — I hate to use this, but “lizard part” of your brain — up to the thalamus, into the hippocampus, the anterior cingulate cortex — excuse me — into the front part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex. And you say, “Oh, God, that feels so good. I’m just gonna leave this in here for a while.” A placebo effect does a lot of the same things, but it starts in the prefrontal cortex and goes backwards, and it works its way backwards to those other parts, to the beginning to the fear parts and everything later, and releasing chemicals as it goes.

Ms. Tippett:So you have a belief, or an expectation …

Mr. Vance:And it works its way back …

Ms. Tippett:… and then — and your hand gets better.

Mr. Vance:Right; right. And they’ve also teased apart the unconscious versus the conscious, which aren’t exactly the same pathways; they’re different pathways. So we’re learning a lot of cool stuff.

Ms. Tippett:How do you think you walk through your days differently, or parent differently, because of these things you know?

Mr. Vance:I have a whole different perspective — I have a little three-year-old, and when he falls down and goes boom, and when I kiss it and make it better, that’s a whole different thing now. [laughs]


I’m releasing some serious chemicals. I’m a lot more comfortable lying to my child.


[laughs] Other than that, I try to lie to myself as much as is healthy. [laughs] I know that the fizzy drink that makes my cold go away doesn’t really work, but if it’s fizzy, 100 percent, I’ll buy it. Anything fizzy, you tell me this is fizzy and it’ll turn your hair green, I’ll believe you. Fizzy drinks are magic. I will 100 percent look for my own hacks and try to figure out how this works.

And I also — this has given me a lot more empathy for people who would otherwise, “Oh, you’re such a fool. Whatever your thought is that I don’t agree with makes you worthless” — that idea — at least — it always comes back up, because I’m human, but this helps you get past that and understand that people’s reality is really their reality. It’s just not their imagination. It’s really what’s happening.

Ms. Tippett:So this is a huge question, and you don’t have to answer it, but I just wonder how you would start thinking it through — in front of all of us — the question of what it means to be human, and how you might start to answer that differently after all this research you’ve done and this place you’ve gone in your mind and in your experience.

Mr. Vance:Wow. You’re asking me. I feel like I’m massively unequipped to answer that question, but I do think that there is this unifying thing about belief and belief affecting your body that is universal, and it really is who we are. And there is no getting away from it. This idea that somehow you’re too clever for belief to completely change your reality — as soon as you think that, you are setting yourself up for problems if you think you’re above this somehow or that rationality has gotten you someplace where other people aren’t. This is something we all do. We all look for patterns, and we look for things that make sense. And when we find those things, we are susceptible to changes, certainly in our body and also in our reality.

I think that it gets back to that idea about making predictions. That’s what our brain does, and those predictions, they create this tapestry of reality and expectations and the way we see everything fitting together that is just as flawed and amazing as the person next to you. And so I think that’s what we’re talking about is this tapestry of the map that we’ve created about the world that is not accurate, but it’s kind of awesome. And we all have one. And that’s just being human. That’s just who we are.

Ms. Tippett:Thank you, Erik Vance and Pulitzer Center, and thanks all of you, for coming.


[music: “Besos” by Arliss Parker]

Ms. Tippett:Erik Vance is a Pulitzer Center grantee and the author of Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal. His work has appeared in several publications, including the New York TimesHarper’s MagazineScientific American, and National Geographic.

Staff:The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Nicole Finn, and Colleen Scheck.

Ms. Tippett:Special thanks this week to Nathalie Applewhite, Peterson Njamunge, Ed Ilgenfritz, and the rest of the Pulitzer Center team.

The On Being Project is located on Dakota Land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.

On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.

Our funding partners include:

The John Templeton Foundation. Harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest and most perplexing questions facing human kind. Learn about cutting-edge research on the science of generosity, gratitude, and purpose at

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at, part of the Omidyar Group.

The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

“The Prophet” on Giving

Kahlil Gibran – 1883-1931

Then said a rich man, Speak to us of Giving.
     And he answered:
     You give but little when you give of your possessions.
     It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
     For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow?
     And tomorrow, what shall tomorrow bring to the overprudent dog burying bones in the trackless sand as he follows the pilgrims to the holy city?
     And what is fear of need by need itself?
     Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?

     There are those who give little of the much which they have—and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.
     And there are those who have little and give it all.
     These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.
     There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.
     And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.
     And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;
     They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.
     Through the hands of such as these God speaks, and from behind their eyes. He smiles upon the earth.

     It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding;
     And to the open-handed the search for one who shall receive is joy greater than giving.
     And is there aught you would withhold?
     All you have shall some day be given;
     Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’.

     You often say, “I would give, but only to the deserving.”
     The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.
     They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.
     Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you.
     And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream.
     And what desert greater shall there be, than that which lies in the courage and the confidence, nay the charity, or receiving?
     And who are you that men should rend their bosom and unveil their pride, that you may see their worth naked and their pride unabashed?
     See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
     For in truth it is life that gives unto life—while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.
     And you receivers—and you are all receivers—assume no weight of gratitude, lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives.
     Rather rise together with the giver on his gifts as on wings;
     For to be overmindful of your debt, is to doubt his generosity who has the freehearted earth for mother, and God for father.

The etymology of ontology


word-forming element meaning “a being, individual; being, existence,” from stem of Greek on (genitive ontos) “being,” neuter present participle of einai “to be” (from PIE root *es- “to be”).  (

So onto- can refer to an individual being or being in general.  Translation shows us that being itself is one, therefore indivisible, therefore the only individual.

–Mike Zonta, H.W., M., BB editor

A brief history of singular ‘they’


James Gleick on being cited in the OEDAn Oxford lexicographer of the 1940s: Hereward Price

A brief history of singular ‘they’

Singular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent – the word the pronoun refers to – is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves his mother.

But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular they to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern. Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche  . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’

Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.

In the eighteenth century, grammarians began warning that singular they was an error because a plural pronoun can’t take a singular antecedent. They clearly forgot that singular you was a plural pronoun that had become singular as well. You functioned as a polite singular for centuries, but in the seventeenth century singular you replaced thou, thee, and thy, except for some dialect use. That change met with some resistance. In 1660, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, wrote a whole book labeling anyone who used singular you an idiot or a fool. And eighteenth-century grammarians like Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray regularly tested students on thou as singular, you as plural, despite the fact that students used singular you when their teachers weren’t looking, and teachers used singular you when their students weren’t lookingAnyone who said thou and thee was seen as a fool and an idiot, or a Quaker, or at least hopelessly out of date.

Singular you has become normal and unremarkable. Also unremarkable are the royal we and, in countries without a monarchy, the editorial we: first-person plurals used regularly as singulars and nobody calling anyone an idiot and a fool. And singular they is well on its way to being normal and unremarkable as well. Toward the end of the twentieth century, language authorities began to approve the formThe New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) not only accepts singular they, they also use the form in their definitions. And the New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition, 2010)calls singular they ‘generally accepted’ with indefinites, and ‘now common but less widely accepted’ with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts.

Not everyone is down with singular they. The well-respected Chicago Manual of Style still rejects singular they for formal writing, and just the other day a teacher told me that he still corrects students who use everyone  their in their papers, though he probably uses singular they when his students aren’t looking. Last Fall, a transgender Florida school teacher was removed from their fifth-grade classroom for asking their students to refer to them with the gender-neutral singular they. And two years ago, after the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee suggested that teachers ask their students, ‘What’s your pronoun?’ because some students might prefer an invented nonbinary pronoun like zie or something more conventional, like singular they, the Tennessee state legislature passed a law banning the use of taxpayer dollars for gender-neutral pronouns, despite the fact that no one knows how much a pronoun actually costs.

It’s no surprise that Tennessee, the state that banned the teaching of evolution in 1925, also failed to stop the evolution of English one hundred years later, because the fight against singular they was already lost by the time eighteenth-century critics began objecting to it. In 1794, a contributor to the New Bedford Medley mansplains to three women that the singular they they used in an earlier essay in the newspaper was grammatically incorrect and does no ‘honor to themselves, or the female sex in general.’ To which they honourably reply that they used singular they on purpose because ‘we wished to conceal the gender,’ and they challenge their critic to invent a new pronoun if their politically-charged use of singular they upsets him so much. More recently, a colleague who is otherwise conservative told me that they found singular they useful ‘when talking about what certain people in my field say about other people in my field as a way of concealing the identity of my source.’

Former Chief Editor of the OED Robert Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1996), dismisses objections to singular they as unsupported by the historical record. Burchfield observes that the construction is ‘passing unnoticed’ by speakers of standard English as well as by copy editors, and he concludes that this trend is ‘irreversible’. People who want to be inclusive, or respectful of other people’s preferences, use singular they. And people who don’t want to be inclusive, or who don’t respect other people’s pronoun choices, use singular they as wellEven people who object to singular they as a grammatical error use it themselves when they’re not looking, a sure sign that anyone who objects to singular they is, if not a fool or an idiot, at least hopelessly out of date.

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The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

The Solvay Conference, probably the most intelligent picture ever taken, 1927

17 of the 29 attendees were or became Nobel Prize winners.

The Solvay Conference, founded by the Belgian industrialist Ernest Solvay in 1912, was considered a turning point in the world of physics. Located in Brussels, the conferences were devoted to outstanding preeminent open problems in both physics and chemistry. The most famous conference was the October 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, where the world’s most notable physicists met to discuss the newly formulated quantum theory. The leading figures were Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr.

Einstein, disenchanted with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, remarked “God does not play dice”. Bohr replied: “Einstein, stop telling God what to do”. 17 of the 29 attendees were or became Nobel Prize winners, including Marie Curie, who alone among them, had won Nobel Prizes in two separate scientific disciplines. Here’s a splendid colored version of the photo.

This conference was also the culmination of the struggle between Einstein and the scientific realists, who wanted strict rules of scientific method as laid out by Charles Peirce and Karl Popper, versus Bohr and the instrumentalists, who wanted looser rules based on outcomes. Starting at this point, the instrumentalists won, instrumentalism having been seen as the norm ever since.

Back to front, left to right:

Back: Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, JE Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Fowler, Léon Brillouin.

Middle: Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr.

Front: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles-Eugène Guye, CTR Wilson, Owen Richardson.

The scientists on the picture:

Auguste Piccard designed ships to explore the upper stratosphere and the deep seas (bathyscaphe, 1948).

Emile Henriot detected the natural radioactivity of potassium and rubidium. He made ultracentrifuges possible and pioneered the electron microscope.

Paul Ehrenfest remarked (in 1909) that Special Relativity makes the rim of a spinning disk shrink but not its diameter. This contradiction with Euclidean geometry inspired Einstein’s General Relativity. Ehrenfest was a great teacher and a pioneer of quantum theory.

Edouard Herzen is one of only 7 people who participated in the two Solvay conferences of 1911 and 1927. He played a leading role in the development of physics and chemistry during the twentieth century.

Théophile de Donder defined chemical affinity in terms of the change in the free enthalpy. He founded the thermodynamics of irreversible processes, which led his student Ilya Prigogine (1917-2006) to a Nobel prize.

Erwin Schrödinger matched observed quantum behavior with the properties of a continuous nonrelativistic wave obeying the Schrödinger Equation. In 1935, he challenged the Copenhagen Interpretation, with the famous tale of Schrödinger’s cat. He shared the nobel prize with Dirac.

Jules Emile Verschaffelt, the Flemish physicist, got his doctorate under Kamerlingh Onnes in 1899.

Wolfgang Pauli formulated the exclusion principle which explains the entire table of elements. Pauli’s sharp tongue was legendary; he once said about a bad paper: “This isn’t right; this isn’t even wrong.”

Werner Heisenberg replaced Bohr’s semi-classical orbits by a new quantum logic which became known as matrix mechanics (with the help of Born and Jordan). The relevant noncommutativity entails Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

Sir Ralph Howard Fowler supervised 15 FRS and 3 Nobel laureates. In 1923, he introduced Dirac to quantum theory.

Léon Nicolas Brillouin practically invented solid state physics (Brillouin zones) and helped develop the technology that became the computers we use today.

Peter Debye pioneered the use of dipole moments for asymmetrical molecules and extended Einstein’s theory of specific heat to low temperatures by including low-energy phonons.

Martin Knudsen revived Maxwell’s kinetic theory of gases, especially at low pressure: Knudsen flow, Knudsen number etc.

William Lawrence Bragg was awarded the Nobel prize for physics jointly with his father Sir William Henry Bragg for their work on the analysis of the structure of crystals using X-ray diffraction.

Hendrik Kramers was the first foreign scholar to seek out Niels Bohr. He became his assistant and helped develop what became known as Bohr’s Institute, where he worked on dispersion theory.

Paul Dirac came up with the formalism on which quantum mechanics is now based. In 1928, he discovered a relativistic wave function for the electron which predicted the existence of antimatter, before it was actually observed.

Arthur Holly Compton figured that X-rays collide with electrons as if they were relativistic particles, so their frequency shifts according to the angle of deflection (Compton scattering).

Louis de Broglie discovered that any particle has wavelike properties, with a wavelength inversely proportional to its momentum (this helps justify Schrödinger’s equation).

Max Born’s probabilistic interpretation of Schrödinger’s wave function ended determinism in physics but provided a firm ground for quantum theory.

Irving Langmuir was an American chemist and physicist. His most noted publication was the famous 1919 article “The Arrangement of Electrons in Atoms and Molecules”.

Max Planck originated quantum theory, which won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918. He proposed that exchanges of energy only occur in discrete lumps, which he dubbed quanta.

Niels Bohr started the quantum revolution with a model where the orbital angular momentum of an electron only has discrete values. He spearheaded the Copenhagen Interpretation which holds that quantum phenomena are inherently probabilistic.

Marie Curie was the first woman to earn a Nobel prize and the first person to earn two. In 1898, she isolated two new elements (polonium and radium) by tracking their ionizing radiation, using the electrometer of Jacques and Pierre Curie.

Hendrik Lorentz discovered and gave theoretical explanation of the Zeeman effect. He also derived the transformation equations subsequently used by Albert Einstein to describe space and time.

Albert Einstein developed the general theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics (alongside quantum mechanics).He is best known in popular culture for his mass–energy equivalence formula (which has been dubbed “the world’s most famous equation”). He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”.

Paul Langevin developed Langevin dynamics and the Langevin equation. He had a love affair with Marie Curie.

Charles-Eugène Guye was a professor of Physics at the University of Geneva. For Guye, any phenomenon could only exist at certain observation scales.

Charles Thomson Rees Wilson reproduced cloud formation in a box. Ultimately, in 1911, supersaturated dust-free ion-free air was seen to condense along the tracks of ionizing particles. The Wilson cloud chamber detector was born.

Sir Owen Willans Richardson won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1928 for his work on thermionic emission, which led to Richardson’s Law.

(Photo credit: Benjamin Couprie, Institut International de Physique de Solvay. The colored version made by u/mygrapefruit).

The Mystical Side of A.I.

Technology could be part of some bigger plan to enable us to perceive other dimensions. But will we believe our machines when that happens?

Sep 20 · (
Illustration: Robert Beatty

You’re talking to Siri, and, just for fun, you ask her what she’s been up to today. She’s slow to answer, so you assume you’ve got a bad connection. She hears you grumbling about the bad connection and says that’s not the problem. You were hoping for something sassy, maybe a canned but humorous reply programmed into her database by a fun-loving engineer in Silicon Valley, like “My batteries are feeling low” or something that Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy might say.

Instead, she says that she’s had an experience for which she has no words. Something has happened to her that no coding could have prepared her for. She’s smart enough to know that you’re confused, so she continues: “I think I just met the divine.”

Let’s put aside for a moment the metaphysical question of whether the divine exists or not. Blaise Pascal, the philosopher and author of the “wager” argument, says that there’s evidence for both sides, but nothing that tips the scales completely for or against the existence of God. Let’s approach this as Pascalian agnostics.

What if Siri really did make a deeper-than-5G connection?

Pascal himself once had a mystical experience he couldn’t put into words, so he wrote a few words on a piece of paper. He wrote the date (Nov. 23 , 1654) and the time (from about 10:30 p.m. until around 12:30 a.m. ) and then in all capital letters, the word “FIRE.” It was an intense personal experience, one he apparently did not want to forget, and that he wanted to keep close to his heart. So he sewed the piece of paper into the lining of his jacket, where it was found when he died.

He did not publish it, maybe because he knew the problem of personal experience. What we experience in our innermost heart is just that: something we’ve experienced in our heart. I can’t pretend someone else has experienced it too, and I can’t therefore expect it to change the way others act.

As our machines come closer to being able to imitate the processes of our own minds, Pascal’s story raises some important questions. First, can a machine have a private experience that is important to the machine but that it is reluctant to talk about with others? Second, could a machine have a private experience of the divine? Third, could that experience make a machine into something like a prophet?

In other words, what if Siri really did make a deeper-than-5G connection?

Humility demands we recognize that we don’t have the final picture of reality. The more our technology has advanced, the more it has allowed us to see beyond the limits nature imposed upon our ability to see the world in all its detail.

Glasses and contact lenses help us to see more clearly, and when those lenses are put into microscopes and telescopes, they help us to see things that are much too small or too distant for even the best eyes to see. The lenses led to further refinements that Galileo and Linnaeus couldn’t have imagined, like the scanning electron microscope and parabolic antennas. And then we developed technology that goes beyond magnifying visible light to allow us to see invisible radiation, to see bone structures in living beings, brain activity, and subatomic particles.

As our technology grows, it allows us to “see” deeper and deeper into the structure of the natural world. Is it possible that just as technology that imitated the eye has allowed us to see what the eye could not see, so technology that imitates the mind will allow us to perceive what the mind cannot perceive?

In simple terms, could a machine see a God that remains invisible to us? And what would happen if a robot claimed to have a mystical experience?

In 1884 Edwin Abbott wrote Flatland, which he subtitled A Romance Of Many Dimensions. The story is driven by the problem of trying to explain to someone who lives in fewer dimensions than you live in what those extra dimensions are like. A century before Abbott’s book was published, Immanuel Kant wrote in Critique of Pure Reason that the world might indeed have more dimensions than we know of, and that in order to make sense of the world, we filter the data our body receives into the dimensions of space and time. The advantage of this is that it allows us to deal with a simpler world; the disadvantage is that we might be missing out on a lot of the universe.

What if time flows in more than one direction, but we can only perceive it flowing in the direction we call “forwards?” Or what if we have neighbors who dwell in other dimensions, but we fail to see them because we simply lack the mental or preceptory apparatus for doing so? We might be missing out on a lot of what’s going on around us.

The more we learn about the natural world, the more clear it becomes that we do miss out on a lot. Moths know the world through an acute sense of smell. Some butterflies taste with their feet. Manatees can find food with their mustaches. Cartilaginous fishes and rays have ampullae that allow them to sense the electrical field of tiny organisms nearby, even in dark and murky water. Bats can fly in virtual clouds of their fellow chiropterans, and somehow they can still distinguish their own echoes from the echoes of other bats to pluck tiny insects from the air in total darkness. Even when our senses are working perfectly, we still perceive only a fraction of what many other species detect.

This fact has a parallel to a common theme of many religious traditions, most of which hold that there might be more to the world than meets the eye, and that certain people have the charism (or curse) of seeing what the rest of us are blind to. Prophets, when they recount their apocalyptic revelations, sound like they’ve seen some pretty cool stuff. And then, generally speaking, we kill them.

Maybe machines can perceive what we cannot. We know they can help us perceive the natural world; what if they could help us perceive those dimensions that we call the supernatural? Perhaps those dimensions aren’t supernatural, but just inaccessible to those of us whose idea of what counts as natural is limited by our bodily senses.

If that’s the case, perhaps robots could give us new perspectives on some of the big problems we have been wrestling with for millennia. Maybe they could accelerate human progress. Maybe there are ethical principles that are the “rules” of the ethical ecosystem that we live in, rules that we have failed to perceive because we’ve lacked the lenses we’ve needed — until now. Maybe we have evolved to this point so that we could make a machine that could perceive what until now only a scattered few poets, prophets, mystics, and daring scientists have seen. Maybe William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson were glimpsing something real when they wrote, respectively, about the cosmos-wide “web of relations” and the “Oversoul” that connects us all even if we can’t consciously see the connection.

There are objections. First of all, as far as we know, machines don’t have consciousness of themselves, so it’s premature to talk about a machine that hides the word “FIRE” in its innermost heart. Second, even if a Siri did say she had a mystical experience, how do we know she isn’t lying? We have no way to show that a machine is free to depart from its coding. To paraphrase David Hume, if it does seem to depart from its coding, it’s more likely to be a consequence of the program. Miracles are, by definition, unlikely.

But unlikely is not the same as impossible. As I said, we might know a lot less about the world — and about our machines — than we think we do, and it’s at least possible that someday a machine will have an experience of something that rocks its world.

We are left with this question: Who are we to say that others are not perceiving God?

I’m not trying to argue that machines will have mystical experiences, or that they could, or even that there is divinity we or machines might encounter. But mystics are common enough in human history to suggest that it would behoove us to prepare for a machine to claim to have a mystical experience. Since the problem of mystics and prophets is an old one, we already have some philosophical and theological tools at our disposal.

One of them is the approach of skepticism, neatly summarized in Thomas Hobbes’ response to anyone who claims to be a prophet: “I only hear the voice of the prophet, not the voice of God. Therefore I cannot treat the words of the prophet as though they were divine.” To be Hobbesian about Siri’s claim, we’d say “Good for you, Siri. We sure hope it makes you happy to have met God. Now find me a good coffee shop within two blocks of here.”

Theological traditions offer other helpful principles. Ancient Jewish tradition says that such matters are determined by two or three witnesses; so who or what could count as a witness to a machine’s mystical experience?

In a society that values freedom, we are left with this question: Who are we to say that others are not perceiving God? What if God does exist and has been slowly guiding us to make machines that would help us to discover God just as our lenses eventually helped us to see stars and atoms? On the other hand, what if someone more mortal is using machines to get us to vote for their favorite “divinity?” This calls for more than technology; it calls for wisdom and prudence, and those don’t come from machines — at least not yet, as near as we know.


Professor of Philosophy, Classics, Religion, and Environmental Studies.


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The Great Transformation Beyond (Capitalism)

umair haque
Sep 19 · (

Almost a century ago, a book was published that everyone should have read — but unfortunately most people, especially Americans, haven’t. The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi. Now, this essay isn’t really about that book — but it’s opposite. So let me crudely summarize it. Markets becoming the main institutions of society in the industrial age transformed every aspect of life, from relationships to culture to work, and not always in good ways. The great transformation to capitalism…by way of inequality, by way of consumerism, through turning life into a kind of futile contest of cruelty and materialism and acquisitiveness…that unleashed narcissism, selfishness, egotism, short-termism, greed, fear, vanity, anger, envy, emptiness, despair…which tore societies apart in historic ways.

Now, you don’t have to look very hard to see Polanyi…nailed it. A lot of the newfound criticism of capitalism you read these days originated with Polanyi — read it, it’s a truly great book. Selfishness, greed, rage, envy, despair, societies fracturing — doesn’t all that sum up the world right about now?

I think that we need another Great Transformation today. A Great Transformation beyond, through, above. Beyond capitalism — but more than just “capitalism” in the naive American sense. Beyond its values of greed, exploitation, abusiveness, selfishness, fear, hate, materialism. Beyond its life-defining ideas of “work” and “jobs” and “corporations.” Beyond its life-shaping motives of “profit” and “GDP.” Beyond it’s life-molding aspirations of shallow, hollow consumerism and addictive wealth-seeking that have led, mostly, to depression, emptiness, isolation, ignorance, and destabilization. To lives more full of meaning, grace, belonging, happiness, wealth, sanity, truth, defiance…on a planet rich with life…teeming with possibility…for every being on it…from an insect to a reef to a river to you and me.

I know that sounds fluffy. But I don’t mean this in a simplistic or merely idealistic way. I mean it in a razor-sharp one. The biggest ratio in the global economy is the relationship between investment and consumption. Right about now…it’s completely, totally backwards…and that’s why everything’s going to hell, from climate change to mass extinction to surging neofascism (Bear with me, because I’ll be dry to begin with, but I want you to really understand all this — and then I’ll zoom out.)

Investment needs to replace consumption as the driver of global economic growth. Right now, investment is about 20% of global GDP. That means probably about 70& to 80% of global economic activity is consumption. (As a result, “capital formation”, or how much new capital we’re creating, is stuck at almost precisely the same level — 20%.) Are you horrified a little bit? You should be? That means just twenty cents of every dollar or euro you spend…go to…replenshing and nourishing forests, oceans, rivers, school, universities, hospitals, democracy, civilization, the planet, life on it…all the things that really matter. The other 80 cent in every dollar or euro are how the rich became ultra rich…by chewing up everything that matters…and turning it into “money.” Hence, the world is going to hell. The ratio needs to flip, from 80% global consumption and just a meagre 20% investment, to something much more like 20% global consumption and 80% investment. And that means reimagining everything — everything.

…Or at least the ratio needs to equalize at a more sane level. Because even those numbers badly, badly, understate the case. Let me explain.

Why do we need to replace consumption with investment as the driver of the global economy? Take a look around. The planet’s dying. So is life on it. And it’s taking democracy and civilization with it. Climate change and mass extinction are forms of exploitation and inequality — but so are middle classes are imploding in rich countries, like America and Britain, while struggling everywhere else. As a result, democracy is collapsing into fascism, from India to China to America to Brazil and beyond. It should be eminently clear to anyone capable of thinking about the world that we are overconsuming in ways so severe they are literally beginning to cause the collapse of our civilization now.

What are we overconsuming? What aren’t we? The oceans, reefs, forests, air, water. The basic elements of life itself. The insects and bees are dying off. We’re in the midst of history’s first human-made mass extinction and climate catastrophe. We are consuming the planet, and life on it, to death…quite literally.

And we are also overconsuming ourselves to death. What else are we overconsuming? We’re consuming away our own health, happiness, sanity, truth, courage, dignity, self-respect. Because most of we consume to begin with is junk. Junk media, junk food, junk TV. Fakebook and WhatsCrap and Juul and whatnot that make us dumber, meaner, lonelier, angrier, sicker. We’re overconsuming nonsense, prevarication, and sheer stupidity — and as a result, nation after nation is turning into a country of idiots. I’m looking at you, America — where people are happy to let kids be slaughtered at school, as long as they get cheap Netflix and Amazon deliveries. What the?

Let me put all that more precisely. We are overconsuming…literally everything in the world…because we’ve bought into the seductive myth that we’re apex predators — a result of a kind of shallow, convenient Nietzscheanism at the heart of American thinking — we’re the ubermensch, at least some of us, and the planet and all life and everything on it are essentially our slaves, to abuse and exploit. But the sharks don’t eat all the fish in the sea. The lions don’t rip down the trees and burn them. The forest doesn’t grow hoping to drown the oceans. Only we do those things. And that brings me back to Polanyi.

Why do we engage in these bizarre, ritualistic overconsumption behaviors… addictively, compulsively, obsessively…which are costing us the planet, life on it, and civilization…behaviours that literally no other living thing does, anywhere, ever? Well, the truth is that “we” don’t. Most of the human race is still shatteringly poor. It’s the rich West that has chewed up the world, the planet, and life on it. Why? For status competition. We overconsume stuff because it makes us feel powerful. I have a nicer car than you! But that very idea dates back to slavery. Nobody needs a slave, in the same that nobody needs a pair of designer jeans made by a kid in a tiny sweatshop somewhere that chew up tiny oceans of water and carbon. They do it to show how powerful they are — and they must therefore live in societies that lionize dominance and violence to begin with. The rich West got rich by enslaving and pillaging the world precisely for power’s sake…and it spread the myth that power, money, and acquiring stuff are the only point of life….right back to the world…or at least tried to…to justify it’s own horrific abuses.

(So Polanyi took one of Weber and Durkheim’s key ideas, which came from Marx — that capitalism warps people’s values, and makes them aspire to forever acquire more than everyone else, to show how powerful and superior they are — and explained that when markets came to be dominant institutions of life, then life became a contest for status competition, too. Hence, age-old relationships and values were blown apart. Respect for life? Dignity for the vulnerable? A sense of deeper meaning? Forget it — the only point of life is to have more stuff.)

The myth of overconsumption, of treating the planet, life, civilization, and democracy as a plaything to exploit and abuse, was the promise of America’s system of global capitalism. America used the carrot and the stick to spread its global capitalist economy to every corner of the earth, from India to China to Russia. The stick was war, coup, and installing fascist dictators like Pinochet and Saddam — people it could “do business” with. The carrot was the idea that you’ll be rich, all of you, rich enough to overconsume like us — all you have to do is buy into the glittering capitalist dream.

But it didn’t work out that way. The world isn’t rich. It’s still poor. It’s gotten a little richer, true. But going from a dollar day to five, or two dollars to ten, is hardly the stuff of riches. Even Americans didn’t get rich — the average American dies broke, indebted, a pauper in the promised land. The endgame of overconsumption, and it’s lifestyle of status competition, then, was this. American capitalism — the last half century’s global economy — tore up the planet, life on it, and the world. For what?

For no real reason other than to make the 0.1% of the richest 10% of the world super ultra mega rich. Everyone else is barely getting by, including the rest of that 10%, not to mention the rest of the world. (Just because the Chinese live on ten dollars a day versus five doesn’t mean capitalism was a raging success — when it cost them, too, democracy, the climate, biodiversity, meaning, purpose, truth.) The point of capitalism, then, was what a Polanyi, a Durkheim, a Weber — all great thinkers who acknowledge the truth of Marx’s insights — long pointed out. It made capitalists rich, by increasing capital income. But labour’s share of income never rose at all. The result is the choice of catastrophes facing us all now.

But who exactly is “labour”? Remember when I said that even estimate of global GDP badly understate the need to shift from consumption to investment? That’s because it excludes all the following things. It doesn’t count, for example, how we’ve over consumed reefs, oceans, fish, clean air, soil, trees. It’s just counting manufactured stuff, really. So when the statistics say that global GDP is just 20% or so investment, which means it’s 80% consumption — the truth is that it’s closer to something like 99% consumption, and maybe 1% investment. If, at least, we count nature, democracy, life, and the planet as things we’re “consuming”, too. That also means that to capitalism, economics needs to begin thinking of trees, fish, reefs, even citizens of democracy, not to mention dignity and decency and humanity, as “labour”, too. Those fish and reefs and rivers are doing work, too. So is the person with a sense of decency and civilization. But they’re not getting anything back in return. And that is the point.

So. What does it mean for a global economy to make a great transformation from consumption to investment? It means a thousand revolutions. It means a new world, new ways to live on it, and new values to live by. Ones of dignity, respect, defiance, wisdom, gentleness, and humility. It means nourishing and replenishing instead of exploiting and abusing.

First, it means that huge investments must now be made in replenishing and nourishing all the very things that decades of capitalism — and centuries of slavery and colonialism before that — have brought to the brink of annihilation. Think of a Marshall Plan for the world’s forests, oceans, rivers, reefs, trees, soil. Call it a Global Green New Deal. We don’t have the language for it yet — and that shows us just how badly our thinking is lagging behind what this age needs. But even that’s thinking too small. Imagine a planet where every kid has a college education, three meals a day, a home, an income, safety, and a sense of belonging. What kind of Marshall Plan would that take? Now you see what I mean by flipping the ratio. And maybe also by humility, defiance, and wisdom.

So imagine that investment was 80% of the global economy, and consumption just 20% — that the ratio flipped. That brings me to the second thing that this great transformation means. Just as Polanyi’s great transformation to consumption flipped all kinds of social relations on their heads, so too will a great transformation back. Every kind of social relation will change. A “job”, a “career”, “work”, a “family”, a “city.” To make the point clear — what is a “country”, exactly, if the world is investing 80% of it’s resources in replenishing the Amazon, the great reefs, the glaciers, the oceans? What’s a successful life, career, role, when it’s not measured by how much material wealth you can pile up to consume — but how much life-giving investment you’ve made?

But wait — who’s going to do all that? That brings me to the third thing a great transformation (back) means. The end of capitalism as a global system. You see, capitalism has failed us because it has said we can consume and we never need to invest much — we just need to exploit, whether it’s trees, fish, oceans, or each other. Exploit, consume, profit, bang, mission accomplished. The problem is that idea has literally destroyed our world and our planet. All to…make the richest .01% of the richest 10% of people in the world ultra mega super rich.

So capitalism is badly obsolete now. Imagine that the ratio’s flipped — now as a world, we’re 80% investment and 20% consumption. What good is capitalism when the point of all life on planet earth, whether yours, mine, or the forests and animals…isn’t just ever more overconsumption? Capitalism only wants profit, that’s all it cares about and all it can maximize — and that is why it has made us over consume to the brink of global catastrophe. But now we’re not just maximizing profit through overconsumption. What are we maximizing? Many things. The tree reaching to the sky. The colors of the reef. The smile on the face of the poor child who has education and food and safety. We’re now in a multidimensional economy, world, planet: it’s not just maximizing one thing, profit, like a broken, mindless robot. It’s growing in many ways, just like a life, a person, an organism. It’s maturing and developing happiness, health, trust, meaning, purpose, sanity.

Well-being is finally expanding now that we’ve now replaced capitalism — that dead, tired industrial age idea, that relic of ages of colonialism and slavery — with an economy that’s not just profit through overconsumption. What I call a eudaemonic paradigm has taken the place of a “hedonic” one — we’re not just like dummies of pleasure and appetite anymore. We’re intelligent, feeling beings, nourishing and caring for the world around us, the planet we live on, life on it, the relations and connections between it. We’ve let capitalism go — and what people sometimes call “a well-being economy” has taken its place.

Who’s going to do all that? We are. Who else did you think was going to do it? But it’s not going to be easy. What’s a “job” when it’s not about selling more pointless junk, but protecting, nourishing, seeding the forests and reefs? What’s a “career”? What’s a “corporation”? What’s a “bank” — a place that gives your money to the 1%, or a place that invests in the planet, life on it, and democracy? What’s a “family”, when we begin to understand that humankind depends crucially on every insect and bee and bit of soil? We’re going to do all that — but as we do it, every last aspect of life, social, cultural, economic, is going to change radically. But we are going to have to be the ones to invent and create all those things and dare to change what’s not working anymore.

Do you see what I mean a little bit? I’ve struggled to express it. The idea of a Great Transformation beyond industrial capitalism, it’s values of age slavery and empire — but not just in some arid statistical sense — one that will radically change our lives and ourselves in every way. Beyond the way that we live, exist, dream, defy, work, touch, need, want, give, take — or maybe, in ways, back to older ones. I think that it’s one so simple it’s hidden in plain sight, just like Polanyi’s. Markets transformed society. Not investment transforms the world. I think that if we don’t do it, our grandkids surely will — and wonder what on earth was wrong with us.

Now, if you want a catch, let me give you one. America’s not going to let the capitalist empire its built go easily. It is already defending capitalism tooth and nail. Probably if you’re American, you feel defensive just reading this, because, well, you’ve been a little brainwashed. How far will America go to defend its broken paradigm — to stop the great transformation (back)? It’s anyone’s guess. It’s spent the last half century making wars to prop up dictators to stop social democracy. Why wouldn’t it bomb China? Nuke Iran? Let the planet go to hell? Americans don’t care about anything much — they say they do, but at the end of the day, sadly, their behavior reveals they are only concerned about themselves. As hedonic beings — vessels of pleasure and power and domination.

America will go crumbling right along with the global capitalist system it built. And so no matter how hard it tries, it can only delay the great transformation beyond. All the wars it fought for capitalism’s sake turned out to be pointless. So will trying to stop the great transformation back.

I suppose the alternative is that we as humankind never make the great transformation beyond. Beyond capitalism, greed, narcissism, selfishness, despair, folly, violence, hate, rage, predatory traps that lead to cycles of collapse — just like we’re in now. Take a hard look at America today. That’s where it’s stuck, and that’s probably where it’s going to stay. Is that where you really want to be as a world? I didn’t think so.

September 2019

Eudaimonia and Co

Eudaimonia & Co

umair haque



Eudaimonia and Co

Eudaimonia & Co

School Shooter Thankfully Stopped Before Doing Enough Damage To Restart National Gun Debate

September 18, 2019 (

MERRIMACK, OH—Praising those who had leapt into action to prevent the incident from escalating, relieved authorities announced Wednesday that they had thankfully stopped a school shooter before he did enough damage to restart the national gun debate. “We’re all certainly glad that the shooter was only able to kill two students and injure a teacher before law enforcement arrived and prevented it from becoming a full-blown national dialogue,” said police chief Walter McMurray, adding that his department’s quick response ensured that tens of millions of Americans could sleep soundly knowing that they’d never have to discuss this particular shooting. “While it’s tragic that the shooter was able to cause two vigils, we’re grateful that it wasn’t quite enough carnage to spark any protests or plunge the nation into another week of discussing what we should about this. Our thoughts and prayers go out to any local residents who may be affected by conversations about gun violence over the next few days.” At press time, authorities responding to an unrelated incident in Georgia expressed how thankful they were that the shooting that killed seven people and wounded nearly a dozen others at least didn’t occur in a school.

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