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The thing that distinguishes our species from others is only this: We Contemplate the Future

Scientists have come to learn something important and fundamental about our species. Unlike other animals, we cogitate on what our future might be.

In an opinion piece in the current New York Times issue of its Sunday Review [for 5/21/17], we are told by Psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center, and John Tierney, a New York Times journalist, that "We aren't built to live in the moment" and that "what best distinguishes our species from all others is that our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation."

"[W]e thrive by considering our prospects," the Times piece tells us. "The power of prospection [anticipation, foresight] is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present."

Further, we're told ...
Psychoanalysts believed that treating patients was a matter of unearthing and confronting the past. Even when cognitive psychology emerged, it focused on the past and present — on memory and perception. But it is increasingly clear that the mind is mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past. Behavior, memory and perception can’t be understood without appreciating the central role of prospection: the generation and evaluation of mental representations of possible futures. We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities. Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected.
Our emotions are less reactions to the present than guides to future behavior. Therapists are exploring new ways to treat depression now that they see it as primarily not because of past traumas and present stresses but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead.
While the mayor of Sacramento and the Bee's lead editorial writer, Marcos Breton, focus on human feces left next to buildings by homeless people, downtown, likely we and they should be focusing on the possible futures of many homeless people that are getting lost in the slumber of having nothing they want to do. We can see individuals wrapped up in blankets, sleeping their day away on sidewalks, downtown, and under freeway overpasses.

I would say that these are people who need to be invigorated and have a parade of possibilities presented to them of what their future can be. It is the antidote to poverty. George Orwell said, "The essence of poverty is that it annihilates the future." Thus, it is our task to dust off the future, shine a light on it, and return it to them!

You don't save lives only by keeping people's bodies alive; we have to create hope and prospects for a merciful and endearing future whirling around in "lost" people's heads.

The great majority of prominent philosophers in our time and throughout history have been men. But two extremely prominent philosophers of the current time are women, Susan R. Wolf and Vallerie Tiberius. Wolf's concentration is on morality and the philosophy of action. Wolf's most-recent book is "Meaning in Life and Why it Matters" -- a splendid book that encourages people to explore what they might most want in life.

The focus of Tiberius's work has been "a practical, empirical approach to philosophical questions, trying to show how these disciplines can improve the world for the better." Tiberius's most recent book is "The Reflective Life."

We have some terrific sociologists in Sacramento. One is Claudia Dias whom the great James Bradley talked about with me not long before he died, hailing her excellence. Perhaps she could talk to our slumberous homeless brethren about their lives and inspire them to seek valiant, engaged futures.

We simply must do something.


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