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.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

For starters ...

In the beginning (although "beginning" doesn't really fit here because there was no time to speak of) there was a stately, serene Universe that was contented, whole, single, pure and at peace when suddenly, out of nowhere (literally), came an excited Littleverse, darting this way and that for reasons unknown. In its zigging and zagging, the Littleverse happened to graze Universe. Universe responded to this disturbance with a flash of anger (which to us looks a lot like a big bang), reaching out with its energies to push the annoying Littleverse far away.

With the task accomplished, Universe set about harmonizing itself and reestablishing its serene singularity. When it released its energies, Universe had to divide itself. Two of these divisions were matter and antimatter. To regain equilibrium, matter and antimatter merged together, annihilating the division and becoming singular energy again. This process was almost done when a problem arose: There was a tiny bit of matter left over and its antimatter counterpart was nowhere to be found. Where had the antimatter gone?

Littleverse had taken it.

Desperate to find Littleverse and the lost antimatter, Universe used its dark energies to expand, reaching out further and further, faster and faster. But to this day, Littleverse and the lost antimatter have yet to turn up. The search goes on.

Meanwhile, within Universe, many strange things have happened ...