Covid-19. Why the search for a new equilibrium is necessary?
Translation from Italian of an interview by Antonella Vitelli with Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi, Turin, published on Lentiapois on March 21, 2020.
A tragedy, a disaster, one of the worst “accidents” that could ever happen to us. What is coronavirus? Physicist Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi calls it a “hacker created by nature to show the vulnerability of our system before it completely collapses”. So, are we receiving a warning? To a necessary step that we have to take before everything goes inexorably downwards, like a ball on an inclined plane? Sassoli de Bianchi, turning upside-down the “only problem perspective,” invites us to look at the disease also from the viewpoint of a solution. But what should we solve? And who is the subject of this new turning point? If we can speak of a turning point. How much does the individual have to do with it, how much do I have to do with it? Charles Darwin taught us that surviving reality means reacting, reacting to change. Neither strength nor intelligence is needed, only reactivity to change is needed. We need, now more than ever and on several levels, to restore a new equilibrium with what we have irreversibly changed. From these questions comes this interview with Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi, Ph.D. in theoretical physics and researcher at the Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Studies (CLEA) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), in Belgium. His research mainly focuses on the foundations of physical theories, quantum mechanics, quantum cognition and the study of consciousness.
Massimiliano a few days ago, by chance, this interesting quote of yours appeared to me.
Coronavirus is a hacker created by nature to show the vulnerability of our system before it completely collapses.
Can you explain better your idea? Do you see relationships with natural evolution?
Hi Antonella, this metaphor of mine is to be understood, above all, in the following sense. To correctly interpret a phenomenon, it is often important to adopt more than a single perspective, and sometimes also to be able to turn upside-down the perspective that appears to be the most obvious to everyone. Does the sun revolve around the earth or the earth around the sun? The coronavirus is now understood only as the vehicle of a threatening problem, which we must get rid of as soon as possible. And that’s the way we usually interpret each of our diseases. But what if, for a moment, we try to completely reverse this perspective and look at disease as a solution, rather than as a problem?
If the coronavirus is the vehicle of a powerful solution, what is the problem it would be trying to solve? Can we align ourselves with this solution, instead of fighting it?
And what does it mean to ally with a solution of this kind? Obviously, these are not easy questions: they are only the beginning of a possible research path, which in my opinion too few are exploring. Regarding the relationship between these questions and evolutionary theories, we can ask ourselves: what has made the “humanity system” so fragile and vulnerable? And again: is a solution always something pleasant and harmless? Human organisms, in particular, have become much more fragile. I’ll give you an example.
In our industrial societies we always keep our living environments at constant temperatures, heating in winter and cooling in summer. It is very pleasant, of course, but our body is not made for this: it needs to explore a much wider spectrum of temperatures. And if it doesn’t, it weakens.
As Wim Hof, the famous Dutch “Iceman” (whom I recently met on a small expedition in Poland) recalls, “if you don’t go to the cold, the cold comes to you!” It is just an example, we should talk about many other things, about nutrition, environmental poisons (not forgetting the mental ones), and in the specific case of coronavirus, about the unnatural promiscuity conditions created in the Chinese “wet markets”, real genetic time bombs, but also the way in which air pollution promotes the spread of viruses. All this, in one way or another, leads us to contemplate something we usually don’t pay attention to: the quality of a “terrain”. Here you must understand the notion of terrain in a dynamical sense. For example, for our body, the immune system must also be included in its definition. Now, what is able to grow in a degraded (polluted, depleted) terrain cannot grow in a rich and vital terrain. In the first, “hackers” can easily penetrate, and through their actions denounce the situation of degradation; in the second, they cannot do so. A question then arises: once a hacker has penetrated, and has caught my attention by creating disarray and destruction, how can I protect myself against the next “attack”?
If I can suggest a possible answer: by dealing with the quality of my terrain, first of all as an individual, then as a community. Because if I just put the hacker in prison, instead of listening to his important message, his attempted solution will fail, and the next solution will be even less pleasant, up to the structural collapse of the entire system.
There are two very interesting points in what you say. One concerns the individual and his or her responsibilities and another the choice we have made with modernity by trading a little of freedom for a little of security. The primary foundation of our social organization. I would also like to ask you, given your experience as a physicist and scientist, what is your relationship with reality, with the observation of the latter. What does reality tell us? Our survival as “human factor” seems to have to proceed in a communion of intent with our surroundings, with the ecosystem, under penalty of falling back on unpleasant events. In this regard, is Covid19’s dramatic experience telling us something?
You raise an important point. We, humans, have emancipated ourselves from the animal world not so long ago (on a planetary time scale). On the other hand, man now, as Vercors said, “does two” with nature: moving from passive unconsciousness to interrogative consciousness, a schism, a divorce, an eradication has occurred. To use a terminology taken from physics, an irreversible state transition has occurred. As humanity, we are still metabolizing this transition, this exit from the “earthly paradise”, and willingly or unwillingly we must find a new balance. Returning to the previous equilibrium is no longer possible.
We moreover live in the so-called anthropocene, an era in which for the first time humans, with their actions, produce planetary-level structural changes, and we have to deal with this new condition, which makes the search for this new equilibrium even more urgent .
We still have an animal body and many of our primary instincts are always active, some of which unfortunately lead us to prey on every available resource, but we have lost many of the ancient regulatory mechanisms, such as the species that once were in direct competition with us. Unfortunately, we have not yet learned to self-govern our “human-machine,” to become conscious masters of ourselves, as individuals. Viruses (and bacteria), however, are millions of years old, much older than us humans, certainly still able to give us a hard time. And looking at things from a certain perspective, maybe it’s a good thing that it is like this. Let me explain by returning to the concept of “solution disguised as a problem”. More than asking “what is the coronavirus telling us”, I would simply start by observing “what it is doing.” It promotes the crumbling of old structures, making it easier to replace them with new ones, possibly less likely to create irremediable conflicts in the future. But the choice of the direction of our change is always and only ours. For example, we are currently working on identifying effective substances to reduce the viral load, and we are testing vaccines. These are important and urgent things to do.
But how many of us are also dealing with the other side of the coin (again, the reversed perspective), the more important aspect of the strengthening of the immune system of the human population, of its health in a broad sense?
The difficulty lies in the fact that this type of change can only start from awareness and assumption of responsibility at the individual level. If this happens, and a certain critical mass of people is reached, change can then become “pandemic” and we can truly give birth to the legendary “new era.” Physics obviously doesn’t study the issues we are talking about. However, I can tell you that the stuff reality is made of, at a fundamental level, has a lot to do with what we indicate with the word ‘potentiality’. If potentiality is real, choice is too. And crisis means choice.
But how do we strengthen our immune system? From what I understand, you propose a sort of abandonment of the so-called “comfort zone” and the recovery of our ancestral potentialities. Did I get it right?
Let me be clear, I love comfort. But as Paul Watzlawick said, two times more of something is not two times more of the same thing. On this planet, more people die from overfeeding than from underfeeding. We must study the functioning of our human-machine more carefully, in a more objective way, without cultural prejudices whatsoever. Let’s talk about nutrition for a moment. I do not go into the merits of the quality of what we eat, obviously very important, because it would be too long a speech.
But let’s ask ourselves: what happens if we simply skip a meal a day? Suppose we usually make three. What happens if we skip one? Well, after the discomfort of a short period of adaptation, we will realize that we have much more energy available, that we lose excess weight, that inflammatory pains are reduced, that we sleep better, that we get sick less.
Our body is strengthened and we also have more money in the wallet, and we have also reduced our carbon footprint. To tell the truth, in this case we cannot even say that we are “out of the comfort zone”, because after that first moment of adaptation, having two meals a day remains something very comfortable. On the other hand, in the course of our evolution, our body has been confronted for millennia with the alternation of moments of abundance of food and absence of food. This is why, when we fast, our metabolism does not initially drop, quite the contrary. Fasting for long periods of time involves some stress for the body, of course, but this stress allows one to activate dormant resources, for example, the ability to effectively use the ketone bodies, as an alternative energy source.
Those who eat less, who fast intermittently, paradoxically are less hungry than those who eat a lot and often. The fear of running out of food disappears and our “inner terrain” becomes cleaner and more vital.
I spoke before about the contact with the cold. Surely being exposed to cold temperatures is perceived as something unpleasant. On the other hand, once again, we can ask ourselves: what happens if in a cold environment we wait before covering ourselves? Well, surprisingly, after a small phase of adaptation, the feeling of cold disappears, the body adapts and begins to draw on its natural thermogenesis abilities. Today cryotherapy is trendy. It is a shy way with which we are rediscovering the benefits of exposing our body to low temperatures. What happens when we do so is truly remarkable. A real reset of the immune system is promoted. When I got into the habit of swimming in the lake in winter, staying immersed for up to ten minutes, my seasonal allergies became a memory. And once again, if we lower the heating in winter and the cooling in summer, we have more money in the wallet and have further reduced our carbon footprint. We are better, the planet is better (if we can say so).
These are just examples. As you can imagine, the theme is vast and complex. Allow me to evoke another fundamental way of getting out of our comfort zone: sitting on a meditation cushion, remaining still, in silence, by simply paying attention to our breath. If we try to do this, our monkey mind (to use a concept dear to Buddhists) will rebel. However, if we really want to observe reality (interior and exterior) in a more objective way, a conscious effort is needed to govern those aspects of our personality that the concept of monkey mind in part summarizes, such as capriciousness, inconstancy, confusion, indecision, uncontrollability.
If we learn to do it, not only will we will have much more energy available (because we will disperse less of it), but from the inner peace that we will gradually build, day after day, we will see more clearly how we can make our contribution to the evolution of all humanity, obviously starting from ourselves. In other words, how to become part of the solution, rather than the problem.