Teachings of Mount Qassiun
There are no places better suited to a complete reflection about life than Mount Qassiun. This geological formation, a little bit younger than the dinosaurs, was forged eons ago, during the Eocene in the northeast of what has become Africa, and has been slowly making its way up towards Asia. It currently resides to the north of Damascus, in Syria, and has done so ever since the city wound up there in the first place.
Compared to the eons that guide geological time, Damascus does not seem the Methuselah that it actually is. But when it comes to human scales, it is magnificently old no matter how you look at it. One of the oldest settlements that has been continuously inhabited, Damascus is cited in a cuneiform writing dating from 3000 B.C, five thousand years ago. When you sit atop the mountain and feel the strong wind against your cheeks, while glaring at the city, you can feel the weight of time as if it has its own smell to be spoken of.
The view from Qassiun at night is majestic. As opposed to our majorly white western cities, Damascus has a dense forestation of green lights, for green is the color of Islam, and thus, of Islamic mosques. The city extends far towards south and east, with some darker areas here and there, either desertic lands or military facilities. The green lights, spread everywhere can clearly get one’s attention, and combined with the wind give a sense of calmness and deepness to the Qassiun experience that I have seldom found elsewhere.
In this scenario, one becomes inclined to think about the many layers that can be seen from that top. Think of the different systems operating in a society as an onion layer, and of Damascus itself as an onion. On the bottom layer, deep within, there are quantum mechanical processes happening at incredible speeds, these give rise to the lights we see in one sense. But those lights, the yellow ones, can also be said to be caused by the State of Syria, an institution stablished long ago which still today works as the kingdoms of old, in a mix of military dictatorship and kingdom that has sociological interest on its own. The green lights, on the other hand, can be said to be caused by another kind of events altoghether. About a thousand and five hundred years ago, a man was able to convince many of his pals that he spoke to a deity, those convinced a few others, and such a chain has continued with numbers increasing to the extend that nowadays there are six times more people who believe that man’s tales, than there were people altogether in his time. Memeplexes (complex conjugations of memes, memeparts, and culturally evolving sets of information) are powerful entities indeed, and the Islamic memeplex is the cause of all those green lights we see, at the layer of ideas. There is a layer where the cause is the man who put the lamp up there and installed it. At the core level, the origin of green light is a kind of quantum oscillatory event that emits a photon at regular intervals. This is just the story behind the lights.
Damascus has five thousand years of history, and there is a room within a house there which has had among its rulers Abraham, the founder of religions, Ramesses, god of Egypt, Alexander, the great, and myself, the appositiveless. From the watermelon seller in his ass-driven carriage, to the Saudi Prince driving his porche, there is a bit of everything in damascus. From Turkish baths to nightclubs, from restricted newspaper media, to uncontrollable DVD smuggling, all centuries live together, not in peaceful harmony, but in constant cultural evolutionary battle, bending and destroying one another along the way. From the dictator’s party’s, to the museum curator’s, every ideal is embedded into a constant battle from which only a few will flee untarnished. This cultural battleground is just one more layer of the complex onion which composes the view from Qassiun.
The darker areas remind us of political history, since they reflect the rise of the one party that rules the place, in a complex and interesting way worth mentioning here. If you ask a Syrian whether law enforcement is rigid in Syria, he will say “Not more than elsewhere” because he doesn’t want to get in trouble. If you ask a foreigner within Karybya, he will laugh and say “There is no politics in Syria”. Syria is a very well administered state. The regent family has taken all measures to avoid infiltration into its political system, that is, reformation, and disturbance of its governmental infrastructure, that is, revolution. They made sure high hierarchical positions in both police and armed forces are only occupied by people who were born in a particular village, which they can tell from one’s accent, specially one’s accent after 30 uninterrupted hours of interrogation. But of course, armed forces are not enough, so the same is valid for anyone carrying business in strategic ports, bridges, etc… When I was in Syria, I had the privilege of going around for a Jet Ski ride. Turns out nice professions like Jet Ski promoter are also occupied by people with the same accent. This is what constitutes the infrastructure which maintains Syria working the way it works.
Once such a strong system is built, it can maintain any values it may desire to maintain. The king is part of a long lineage who were born in that village, and he will be bent towards whichever customs the old and wise among his relatives wish. In Syria, they have chosen to reinforce working very hard, not having intimate contact with members of the other sex, wearing pants instead of shorts under a 45º celsius scalding sun, among other moral standards. If they had chosen to reinforce writing with the left hand, walking barefoot, or not dancing in the streets (which they do) it would have been just as effective. With that kind of power structure, anything goes. Any complex set of memes that evolved there, any group of ideas which might have overtaken the Family’s mind, will be reinforced for centuries. Most systems are capable of reprehending and undermining any bottom-top change, in Syria, the president cannot change how things work even though there is a picture of him every two stores. There is no politics in Syria told me some foreigners. There is no change, and there is no hope for change. This is how it is. Such a well composed layer deserves a whole onion itself, both for how smooth and well designed the system is (even though it had no designer, only a long sequence of incremental steps that led toward its current ways) and for how likely all this is to make one cry for the insanity of our purposeless universe, carrying out on the syrians this kind of experiment of authoritarianism that surpasses in madness the suggestions of any mice experimenter.
When we look at a city from above, it becomes natural to think of it as a hive, with the many specialized people doing their daily tasks in order to achieve some level of equilibrium. The good part of this analogy is that it shows how tiny is each persons desires, hopes, dreams and doings in relation to the whole. The bad part is that to an extend, due to their genetic intertwinedness, a hive has a level of intentionality of its own, that is, it has some common goals that can be taken as goals of the whole, whereas a city does not have such things. A city is no more than the mere sum of its dwellers and their doings, and it has no personal purpose of its own, like some institutions may have. This means that it is not likely to have self regulatory mechanisms, such as a growth inhibitor, or defense mechanisms, such as an immune system. This to and extent was my worry while I sat at the truck tire in mount Qassiun. Cities do have some sorts of immune systems, armies, police forces, firemen, are all kinds of white blood cells. My question was, is it enough.
In fact, I was not worried for the city of Damascus, or for cities in general, what worried me is that even though I spent the better part of my life studying all the layers, being able to understand both the quantum process that gave rise to the light, and the ideological warfare that gave rise to Islam and ultimately to the green light, and the psychology of humans, including the one who put the tyre where I was currently sitting, and the sociology of authoritarianism, even though I had been through all that, I did not know exactly where should we be heading our efforts. I still had doubt. Some things, of course, are for sure, as Russell remarked: “The problem with the world is that the stupid are cocksure, and the intelligent so full of doubt.” I could see with my own eyes the spread of a belief that we ought to be directed in one specific direction, the direction of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. There were four million people in front of me who were certain of this, that turning to Mecca a few times a day to praise The Flying Spaghetti monster would solve all their problems. Russell was of course being sarcastically too harsh. It is very different to be embedded within a closed ideological system from which going out means losing all your social status, and being stupid. Not all those who are cocksure are stupid, some were just misled by thousands of years of highly evolved memeplexes into believing something so absurd that only a very very stupid adult would believe it, but they were kids when first introduced to these ideas.
Mount Qassiun probably carries with it’s each breath more wisdom and more stupidity than can be conceived in a human life, unfortunately, he is unwilling to share his knowledge. Few people can see the layers, fewer people can see many layers, probably, I worried, no one can see all layers. That much would be okay, but there is some amount, some minimal threshold, of how many layers of “What is going on down there” that humans ought to be able to understand in order to figure out what should be our next step, and in order to avoid global cataclysm, from natural or man-made forces. Qassiun tought me that our ignorance is vast, and that even the ignorance of those who are less ignorant is still large enough to give one the feeling of uncertainty. How few people can see more layers than I can? How many had the eight years I had to study how the world works? How many had access to the books? How many speak five languages and have been to more than fifteen countries? I daresay only very few, and this is what kept me worried, and keeps me still. If so few had such chances, what is the likelihood that we will always be walking forward? It took us so long to avoid circles, to stop following those fatherless children who proclaimed they would bring us back to the Father, to create science. Will we have enough time to get things right? To figure out the way towards a prosper future, a future which comprehends both that there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster in Saudi Arabia, nor is there reason to believe that we will necessarily survive our technology? Will we have time to make those who are smart and educated understand that those who are not educated, smart or not, have no responsibility for their own ridiculous beliefs? Will countries like Syria escape the ruling of authoritarian systems? Will authoritarian sub-societies such as continental philosophers ever realize that they too are embedded in a system in which one can dodge a question by frowning upon the one who is asking, thus avoiding any feasible progress that could possibly come from those who think anew? We do not need to extinguish religion, just to set enough people free from it that they can comprehend that design came to place from the non-complex bottom, not from the intelligent top. Once they do, we need to teach them how the green light is green. Then how come humans live in society, and how come there are sub-societies as different as the !Kung and the Monegasque people. Then how they only got to know this because Alan Turing a long time ago invented a machine that could do computations. There is so much they need to know, so many layers to be taught, so many thoughts to grasp each layer.
Qassiun is likely to be there for a longer while, observant, silent, and windy. Will it teach anyone all the knowledge of those who have been up there? No. It will just sit there, somber. I have little hope in those one size fits all kinds of answers, those which prophets extracted from lonely days at the mountain, the problems facing our world are vast and complex and, at best, those unique answers that abound the monotheistic traditions are good to solve one layer of problems. If I cannot hope any answer from this elegant mountain and it’s magnificent view, at least I can hope it will inspire others who can see many layers to think through whatever problems their world is facing at the moment, and to put their efforts into solving these problems, because if people like you, who can actually see that many layers, do not start to guide the world towards a better place, be absolutely sure that those four million people will be guiding everyone towards the one path they think is right, the green path.