Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ways of Understanding

What is it to understand something? Is understanding illusory? A necessary fiction? Is it tangible and whole, a true grasp of reality? How do we get there?

One way of understanding things is to divide stuff into groups or categories, so I'll start by identifying three modes of understanding and see how they fly.

1. Mythological understanding.

This I would say is the most common means of understanding and it entails viewing the world through narratives or stories. These stories are regarded as true and typically are provided through some sort of ideological or religious authority. Christianity's sin and salvation through Christ is one example. Marx's idea that, through economic forces, history is moving toward a
definitive end is another example.

On a more mundane level, I would consider most of what is considered common sense to be a form of mythological understanding. A key feature of this kind of understanding is the perception that our categories of the world are indeed accurate and intrinsic to reality. So "apple" is a true category that represents the intrinsic nature of the fruit I'm
crunching on right now.

2. Scientific understanding.

This is similar to mythological understanding in that it relies on categories and relationships between categories. But, here, the categories are subordinate to empirical observation. The categories might have to be redrawn in light of new observation. Pluto, for example, has been demoted from the category of planet because more accurate observations have revealed it to be
smaller than previously thought.

This approach is revolutionary because it suggests our categories -- "planets," "apples," -- aren't intrinsic but provisional. Our truths about the world are an observation away from having to be re-figured.

Of course, there are those who believe that science brings us to the the true categories of the world. For example, regarding Newton's law of gravity as a true description of an intrinsic feature of the world. To believe this about science, I'd say, is another form of mythological

3. Poetic understanding.

One necessary feature of mythological understanding is that folks don't see their understanding as mythological; they see it as true. The recognition of one's own understanding as mythological (and that of others), is the basis of poetic understanding.

A poetic understanding sees the value and richness of stories but always acknowledges that the story is just a story. It embraces the rigor of science but never regards it as approaching some final truth. A poetic understanding is unlikely to be impressed by authority or
confuse social convention for truth.

(Obviously, I'm privileging the poetic understanding.)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Christianity as Answer to Paganism

Being the Easter season, I thought I'd bring up a pet thesis I've been nursing for some time, though I'm still not sure if it's coherent or supportable. But anyway ...

It came to me when I was reading pagan epics -- Gilgamesh, Homer, et al -- for a comparative literature class many years ago. A central theme of the epics is the potential nobility of the human condition that comes from striving to lead an exemplary life in the face of inevitable death. This aspect of the human condition separated men from the gods who didn't have to face death. There was something ennobling about the struggle with death. And the gods, being immortal, couldn't partake in it. The epic hero, despite his shortcomings, was more courageous than the gods and, in a way, morally superior to them. This I think is the core appeal to the epic literature, the courageous striving in the face of death and stoically dealing with the capricious actions of the gods.

An interesting period of history, and perhaps not studied enough, is the time between the decline of Greek civilization after Alexander and the rise of the Roman empire. It is a time when we have a meeting between Greek and Semitic cultures. Out of that brew came Christianity.

So here's the thesis: Christianity was the Semitic answer to paganism. Semitic culture had some appeal to the Greeks, it's mystery, it's monotheism and so forth, but it was quite culturally bound to the Jewish peoples. It's God was remote, tribal and not very approachable to outsiders. The Christ story brings God down to earth to face death and He becomes like an epic hero. God humanizes himself and becomes very personal. This greatly enhances the appeal of Semitic religion. God is ennobled by facing death and becomes more worthy of worship.

If I recall correctly, Soren Kierkegaard touched on this and remarked that the incarnation was the most important aspect of Christianity. He also thought the resurrection was of dubious value and actually defeated the point of the incarnation.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Many Worlds Epiphany

I had a kind of "many-worlds" epiphany a couple of years ago. I was watching some show of college football highlights and it came to the "play of the year." It was a long pass that pinballed off four different players before alighting, in stride and as if by magic, into the arms of a receiver who pranced into the endzone.

The first thing that struck me was how improbable the event was. Even the smallest of deviations would have resulted in an entirely different outcome. Naturally, the play was perceived as "destiny." And looking back, the event can be ably explained as a deterministic causal chain along the lines of f=ma mechanics. But, nevertheless, it seemed that if you could rewind the tape of history to the exact same conditions at the start of the play, you still would most likely get a different result. (Sadly, it's difficult to test this idea.)

But the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics happened to be on my mind at the time. So I thought, if I understand the implications correctly, the play *did* have different outcomes, and most of those outcomes would have followed more probable paths (incompletion, interception, etc.). At each point where one or another thing can happen, both things do happen; they just split off into different branching lines of reality. And these realities are in turn contained in a greater kind of meta-reality.

Or, as the more Buddhist-inclined adherents to the many worlds view like to point out, it's not the realities that are splitting, but the minds of the aware entities that inhabit the meta-reality that are splitting. The mind of the receiver splits into the reality of him catching the ball, and into reality of him dropping the ball, and so on.

Prior to my little epiphany, much of this spooky QM stuff troubled me (and still does), especially the intertwined role of consciousness. One problem was that if my mind was in some part responsible for fashioning the perceived reality around me, how is it that I could discover things I had never thought of before, nor ever would think of. Like a strange fossil in the ground, for example. Finding an otherwise unknown fossil implies a reality beyond myself determined by forces beyond my consciousness. The idea that "consciousness determines reality" as advocated by fringe misinterpreters of QM struck me as absurd. And it is absurd.

But the many-worlds idea is beginning to make more sense to me. My mind didn't put fossils in the ground. Nor did it insert distant galaxies into the universe. What's happening when I look at these things is that I'm perceiving the line of reality, the only line actually, that could lead to me as am now.

Not that I'm anything special. It's the same for everybody.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Secret Agency

I finished two books -- "Atrocity Archives" by Charles Stross and "Declare" by Tim Powers. Both are espionage books with supernatural elements. "Declare" is by far the better of the two -- rich detail, complex characters and backstory -- it has a gloomy mood openly similar to John LeCare. Whereas "Atrocity Archives" is campy and rompish, saved mainly by moments of humorous hyperbole. Despite Stross' effort to back the Lovecraftian magic stuff with scientific explanations, the novel evokes no suspension of disbelief. "Declare" does achieve that, not with explanations, but through construction of a world that seems quite real.

Both books play on a couple of themes, or wishes, that seem to pervade the human psyche:

1. The important forces of history are hidden, secret, accessed only by a select few. The more potent the forces, the more secret they are. (The more secret they have to be to protect the ignorant public.) And these hidden forces are directed by agents, human and supernatural.

2. Words and symbols have a direct relationship with reality. They can conjure and influence physical forces in ways beyond just influencing other minds.

Both of these themes (wishes) are misguided.

I use "wishes" because the themes seem to reflect a desire of many people, a desire that there be some kind of agency behind events -- God, demons, angels, aliens, Illuminati, smoked-filled rooms of conspiring oligarchs.
And there is an associated desire that these agents can be communicated with, influenced, evoked, commanded to some extent with ritualistic use of symbols.

Of course, the world isn't like that, really. Agents or agency, such as they exist at all, are limited in scope. The truly potent forces that shape the world -- those related to such things as thermodynamics, climate, ecology and culture (yes, culture) -- can't really be categorized as having agency, not in the anthropomorphic sense that a person has agency (even this kind of agency may not hold up under critical scrutiny). Nevertheless, these non-agent forces defy ready understanding. Close analysis reveals layers of complexity -- each category we apply contains yet more orders of complexity *and* breaks down at the boundaries of the category (things that don't fit, what Jacques Derrida would call undecidables -- is a virus living or non-living. What about a prion?).

It's frustrating. As deeply social creatures we're geared to understanding things in terms of human wants, i.e., in terms of interacting agents. But this type of understanding, when applied to the greater reality out there doesn't map very well. The world is beyond the grasp of this kind of understanding.

But for some reason it's comforting to think that some behind-the-scenes agent, or agents, do grasp the greater reality and can bend its currents to their will. Why is it comforting? I don't know. Maybe it relieves a sense of loneliness, grants the illusion that the world in some way cares in the same kind of way that we care.

Also it feeds back to the use of symbols to directly influence reality. Really, however, a symbol has meaning only insofar as a perceiving mind can comprehend it. The word "stop" on a red octagon is only so much white paint without someone to comprehend its meaning. The word carries no meaning in and of itself. But if the forces of the world are marked by agency, if an agent or agents governing the world can comprehend our symbols, it opens the possibility that we might be able to influence the course of events with petition, summons or command.

It's an attractive idea but, sadly, futile. And, I believe, a barrier to understanding what kind of creatures we really are and what kind of world we inhabit.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Word

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

-- from the Tao Te Ching
(Stephen Mitchell version)

In the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God, and the Word was God.

-- from The Gospel According to John
(King James version)

These introductory utterances draw distinct lines between approaches to the world; one beholden to words, ideas, concepts, proclamations and revelations; the other suspicious of these things, distanced from them; one confident that the truth can be told; the other comfortable with the sense that the Truth is beyond knowing. One is tempted to make some sweeping declaration that this epitomizes the divide between Western and Eastern styles of thought. But that would be too pat. The cultures of the Occident and the Orient each contain versions of both views.

Curiously, what got me thinking about this stuff is the seemingly never-ending evolution-creationism wrangle, one venue of this occurring at a favorite blog, The Loom

To me the creationists are carrying on with the fundamental assumption laid out by John, while evolutionists (myself included) are carrying on in the Taoist paradigm. Evolutionary theory is messy, always changing, being revised, debated and updated. It's explanations are wonderful, powerful but never quite right; there's always something new to consider, surprising things always crop up. Creationism is clean, it answers (God did it). Creationism is the end of the search. Evolution is always at a beginning.

But to find "the Answer" is self defeating and destructive. Where do you go once you have it? With nothing left explore, you're left with the mission of bringing "the Answer" to others as a means of continuously validating the "the Answer." The missionary act, however, is inherently arrogant and tyrannical.

The spirit of scientific inquiry is quite different (though scientists in the particular are not immune to acts of arrogance and tyranny). Its truth seeking is ongoing and its attention is focused there. No time for crusades, there's too many questions and the answering of which leads to more questions.

I think this can be seen in the creationism/evolution "debates." And The Loom highlights it quite well. The evolutionists are interested in exploring the avenues that constantly are cropping up with new findings and new thinking. The creationists don't do that themselves (What is there to do when you have the Answer?) but are constantly trying to dismantle the edifice of evolution. This puts the evolutionists in the position of defending themselves on a level that's not very interesting. It's quite irritating.

In a nutshell, evolutionists aren't barging into churches trying to spread their ideas. Creationists, on the other hand, do barge into arenas of evolutionary discourse trying to spread their Word. What else can you do with a static idea?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


I suppose I should offer something about the title of this blog. A. It's a word that doesn't seem to be too overworked. B. It kind of fit my not particularly focused intellectual explorations.

I first learned "cafouillage" not long ago from a review in the Nation of a biography of Michel Foucault. Basically it means leaving things more confused than when you started. For Foucault, it was part of his method -- pulling at the threads of various ideas and traditions, exposing their instability. While the practice may not lead to coherent alternatives, it does promote a healthy mistrust of any sort of fixed ideas about the world and, I think, fosters a kind of meta-understanding where ideas are in play but don't become centralized, or subsumed into one's identity. A contemporary philosopher, Brian Cantwell Smith, would consider this part of the principle of irreduction (more on this later).

When I typed "cafouillage" into my computer's translator, the English equivalent it came up with was "misfire." I found that rather amusing and, perhaps, apt.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Crossing the Spiritual Rubicon

Last year I read "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by T.E. Lawrence and the book impressed me greatly, not so much for its history (which is pretty good though flawed as I've come to learn), but because of the titanic grappling with the dilemmas of a modern sensibility. One thing that stuck a chord was a theme I've been musing over for a number of years: Modern humanity has crossed a kind of intellectual/spiritual Rubicon and there really is no going back.

Now for the quick and dirty explanation:

Animism, it could be argued, is humanity's most natural* means of viewing the world. For the animist, the material and spiritual worlds are intertwined to the extent that they're essentially indistinguishable. There's no separation of meaning and object. The gods are present in everything. The religions of civilization are abstractions of animism. Early on, the gods are separated from things, commanding them from the heights so to speak. Later the gods are fused into the concept of God to the point that in medieval times God and the divine represent a separate world altogether.

However, the Beduin tribesmen that Lawrence dealt with, while monotheistic in terms of believing in one God, were quite animistic in their approach. Here's how he puts it:

"The Beduin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God. He could not conceive anything which was or was not God, Who alone was great; yet there was homeliness, an everyday-ness of this climatic Arab God, who was their thoughts, their familiar resource and companion, in a way impossible to those whose God is so wistfully veiled from them by despair of their carnal unworthiness of Him and by the decorum of formal worship."

Keeping that in mind: Enter rationality, science and technology. Here God is even more abstracted and, as rationality and empirical investigations march on, God becomes increasingly unnecessary in terms of explaining our existence. By Nietzsche's time, the notion of God has become philosophically absurd and, in light of advances since then, has become doubly absurd.

Yet this complete severance from our animistic roots is, in a way, tragic. Much is lost and there's no going back. To try only creates a parody of belief, a farce, a veiling of what we know in our bones to true: The God we want to worship isn't there.**

Lawrence sensed this. Yet he was drawn to the Beduin's naturalism - the wholesomeness, the meaning and the integrity of their view of life. He could master their language and adapt to their culture but he could not be it. His admiration fueled an ambition to lead the Arabs to their own modern state. But this was contradictory: Lawrence was leading the Beduin across a Rubicon that he himself wished he could cross back over.

*I use "natural" in a qualified sense here. Ultimately there is nothing that isn't natural.

**Here I'm referring to God as transcendental, anthropomorphic, patronly overseer who stands outside of nature and directs things. Martin Buber made an excellent case for believing in an anthropomorphic God: Even though the idea is absurd intellectually, believing in a personal God was the only way he could see to develop an I-Thou relationship with the greater reality out there. We are only equipped to do it this way, Buber asserted. I contend that once the spell is broken, intellectually or otherwise, you can't conjure God up again and take Him seriously. The practice becomes delusional, conflicted and dogmatic.


Hmm. "Cafouillage" and a Proust quote in the sidebar. I must be feeling French lately. Anyway, off I go. The look of the blog isn't ideal but it will have to do until my very limited html skills advance a bit.

I do want to avoid being pretentious but how do you do that and opine on philosophy etc.? You can't, really. Any expression of opinion or artistic offering can be construed as arrogant. And, if you're approach is too humble, things become kind of dull and mousey. Speak with strength but remain open and flexible is the ideal I'll shoot for. As someone pointed out in a discussion on the Well, the difference between an idiot and a genius is pretty small when measured against the grand scheme of things. Not that I'm a genius by any stretch.