11 November 2007

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, we stand poised on the brink of revolution in every field of human endeavor, because classical forms have advanced far enough to lay bare the contradictions in their foundation, but new forms have yet to emerge.

  • In mathematics, Godel’s theorem showed us that the program of systematization and formal demonstration that propositions were either true or false had fundamental limits, and that there would ever be statements in perpetual limbo, defying all efforts to determine their truth.
  • In physics, the vision of the world as a machine that unfolds with deterministic certainty was shattered by the shocking success of quantum mechanics, in which solid, particulate objects spread eerily through space, and clear causal links are subverted by the metastasis of entanglement.  While the ‘Theory of Everything’ remains elusive, we are certain that the next theoretical unification will not be familiar or comforting to our intuitions about physical reality.
  • In biology, the orthodox idea was that DNA defines a living organism, that random mutations cause variation from one generation to the next, and that natural selection chooses the fittest individuals from among each generation’s mutated forms. This picture has been undermined by the ubiquity of horizontal gene transfer among unrelated organisms, by adaptations that benefit the species (or an entire ecosystem!) at the expense of the individual, and an emerging realization that the very ability of living things to evolve has itself been crafted in a process of natural selection.
  • In economics, free market capitalism has emerged as the ideological victor, only to show its cracks when implemented in practice. Capitalism has produced steady growth in productivity and consumption, while real people who were the intended beneficiaries of the system have succumbed to waves of alienation, ennui, and existential angst.
  • In politics, global communication links have catalyzed the emergence of a universal conscience. Ancient practices of conquest and subjugation have been thoroughly discredited, but we have yet to come together on an egalitarian structure that will enable the world’s people to live in harmony.
  • In music and the arts, free expression has blossomed, formal limits have loosened, and structures have been discarded. But paradoxically, the result has not been a deeper and more immediate emotional impact for the audience, but too often, what remains is a parched abstraction, without the power to move or inspire us.
  • As top predator of all the world’s ecosystems, mankind has successfully exploited his dominion over all living things, but we have been mired in denial concerning the global impact of our success.

With so many fundamental changes following on each others’ heels, it is no wonder we have spawned a culture of doomsday theorists, with credible-sounding forecasts of global annihilation.

But the truth is that the future is likely to hold at least as much magic and wonder as tragedy and doom.  No one among us has the wisdom and the vision to imagine such a future, but it will be our unprecedented privilege to watch it unfold.

— Josh Mitteldorf

11 November 2007

Rational empiricism is a dream of Descartes

It is a great irony of intellectual history that the movement which sought to found all human knowledge in empirical observation and logical deduction had its origin in divine revelation.

It was the night of 10 November, 1619, the eve of St Martin, when René Descartes had three dreams.  (Later, he was to recall that he had been abstaining from drink, which had led to ‘a steady rise of temperature in his head.’)

“Of these three dreams, it is the third that best expresses the original thought and intention of René Descartes’s rationalism. During the dream that William Temple aptly refers to as, ‘the most disastrous moment in the history of Europe,’ Descartes saw before him two books. One was a dictionary, which appeared to him to be of little interest and use. The other was a compendium of poetry entitled Corpus Poetarum in which there appeared to be a union of philosophy with wisdom. Moreover, the way in which Descartes interpreted this dream set the stage for the rest of his life-long philosophical endeavors. For Descartes, the dictionary stood merely for the sciences gathered together in their sterile and dry disconnection; the collection of poems marked more particularly and expressly the union of philosophy with wisdom. He indicates that one should not be astonished that poets abound in utterances more weighty, more full of meaning and better expressed, than those found in the writings of philosophers. In utterances which appear odd when coming from a man who would go down in history as the father of Rationalism, Descartes ascribes the ‘marvel’ of the wisdom of the poets to the divine nature of inspiration and to the might of phantasy, which ‘strikes out’ the seeds of wisdom (existing in the minds of all men like the sparks of fire in flints) far more easily and directly than does reason in the philosophers. The writings of the professional philosophers of his time, struck Descartes as failing to supply that certitude, human urgency, and attractive presentation which we associate with a wise vision capable of organizing our knowledge and influencing our conduct...

“It would be an unfortunate intellectual and historical mistake to take Rene Descartes for a relativist, who wished to undermine all certainty, along with dividing the individual sciences from each other into airtight compartments. That the contemporary end result of Cartesian Rationalism has been nothing but relativism and the fragmentation of knowledge is, simply, the ironic outcome of Descartes’s efforts towards the attainment of certainty and a ‘universal mathematics.’ Here we must remember the traditional Aristotelian/Thomistic understanding that each specific science (e.g., botany and entomology) had not only its own proper object of study (e.g., plants or insects), but, also, its own proper method of investigation and demonstration. This is why Descartes’s insistence upon a single ‘universal’ method, resembling the method employed in geometry, is so destructive and disorienting. As we shall see when we consider the method that Descartes constructs in order to achieve scientific certainty, it was his departure from agreed upon philosophical principles and fundamental presuppositions that causes the philosophical trend he initiates to steer the post-Christian mind into the ditch of democratic relativism and religious indifferentism.”

account by Peter Chojnowski

9 November 2007

Synthesizing happiness

“Let me not injure the felicity of others if I say I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than Achilles: fortune hath not one place to hit me.”
Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, 1642

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert has a 20-minute video in which he explores the idea that our sense of wellbeing is largely manufactured within us, and independent of our circumstances.  We adapt to whatever befalls us and rapidly return to the level of happiness for which we are programmed.  Major life events like winning the lottery or losing the use of our legs has little permanent effect.  He is witty and entertaining as well as thought-provoking, (if only partially convincing).

Chapter summary of Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness

8 November 2007

Song of the Swordsmith by Coleman Barks

There is a swordsmith in a valley in eastern Afghanistan.  When there is no war, he forges steel plows, and he shoes horses, but he is most known for his singing.  People come from all over to listen to him, from the forests of the giant walnut trees, from Qataghan and Badakstan and Herat and Paghman. They come to hear one particular song about the far valley of paradise.

This song has a haunting lilt, and makes those who hear feel that they are in that place, the paradisal valley.  Someone always asks when he finishes, Is that a real place? 

It is as real as real can be, is ever his answer.

Have you been there?

Not in the ordinary way of traveling.

The singer loves Aisha, a young woman in the valley. But she doubts that there is such a place as the one he sings of, and so does his rival for her love, Hasan, a swordsman of great strength and agility.  He has full confidence that he will eventually win Aisha. 

He mocks the swordsmith-singer.  One day the villagers  are sitting inside the blessed quiet that happens after that song.  Hasan says, Why don’t you follow the blue haze that rises there from the mountains of Sangan, and actually go to the place of which you sing?

I feel it would not be right.

Well, that is a convenient feeling.  It keeps you from being revealed as a fraud and a sentimental dreamer.  I propose a test to decide several things at once.  You love Aisha, but she does not believe in your valley.  You two could never be married in such a discord of trust. 

The Swordsmith replies, You expect me then to seek out the valley and return with proof of its existence?

Yes! call out Hasan and the crowd together.

I will make this trip then, but will Aisha promise to marry me if I succeed?

I will, says Aisha quietly.

He collects dried mulberries and scraps of bread in a sack and starts on the journey.  His way is always up.  He climbs until he comes to a sheer wall blocking the way.  He scales that, and there is another, another, five walls in all.  On the other side of the last wall he finds himself in a valley like his own.  People come out of their houses to welcome him. 

Months later he walks back into the valley from whence he began, an old man limping to his hut.  Word spreads that he has returned.  Hasan is spokesman for the crowd.  He calls the singer to the window.  They gasp at how old he has become.

Did you find the valley?

I did.

What was it like?

He is quiet for awhile in the weariness and confusion, in the difficulty of saying where he went, where he is now, what has happened.

I climbed until it seemed no human habitation could be so high.  But there was, a valley identical to this one.  And the people there are not only like us, they are us.  Hasan, Aisha, myself, you, you, everyone is there.  It is we here who are the shadowy copies.

Everyone turns and walks away, convinced that the singer has gone mad in his solitary search.  Aisha marries Hasan.  The singer ages rapidly and dies.

The people who heard the story as he told it also soon grow old.  They lose interest in their lives.  They feel some huge event is about to occur, over which they have no control.  Vital energy drains away.

Once in a thousand years such a secret is revealed to someone like the singer-swordsmith.  But no one yet has been able to take in the truth that we are two selves, this one and one more real that lives in the valley, for which we yearn in song.  That we are that being as well as this familiar one.

That the two valleys are one living being cannot be said in any language.  That we are already the perfect ones cannot be spoken.

— from Central Asian Sufis and the Nature of the Heart, by Coleman Barks

7 November 2007

We are what we read

“There are few more powerful mirrors of the human brain’s astonishing ability to rearrange itself to learn a new intellectual function than the act of reading. Underlying the brain’s ability to learn reading lies its protean capacity to make new connections among structures and circuits originally devoted to other more basic brain processes that have enjoyed a longer existence in human evolution, such as vision and spoken language. We now know that groups of neurons create new connections and pathways among themselves every time we acquire a new skill. Computer scientists use the term ‘open architecture’ to describe a system that is versatile enough to change—or rearrange—to accommodate the varying demands on it. Within the constraints of our genetic legacy, our brain presents a beautiful example of open architecture. Thanks to this design, we come into the world programmed with the capacity to change what is given to us by nature, so that we can go beyond it. We are, it would seem from the start, genetically poised for breakthroughs.”

— from Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf

6 November 2007

i am a little church(no great cathedral)
far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities
—i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april

my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness

around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope,and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains

i am a little church(far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature
—i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing

winter by spring,i lift my diminutive spire to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever:
standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)

~ e.e.cummings

5 November 2007

Eugene Debs, born this day in 1855, was a labor leader before labor organizing was sanctioned, at a time when striking against an employer could (and did) get him a jail sentence. 

June 16, 1918—Debs made his famous anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, protesting World War I which was raging in Europe. For this speech he was arrested and convicted in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio under the war-time espionage law. He was his own attorney and his appeal to the jury and his statement to the court before sentencing, are regarded as two of the great classic statements ever made in a court of law. He was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison and disenfranchised for life, losing his citizenship.

1920—For the fifth and last time, while a prisoner at Atlanta, he was nominated to run for president on the Socialist party ticket. Conducting his campaign from inside the prison, he was given nearly a million votes but was defeated by the Republican, Warren G. Harding. On Christmas Day, 1921 President Harding released Debs from prison, commuting his sentence to time served.

Debs made his best-remembered statement at his sentencing hearing:

“Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

 Eugene V. Debs Society web site