Tuesday, 9 May 2017

THOUGHTS ON MAGIC AND CONSCIOUSNESS UPON REREADING IOAN COULIANO




How do magic, consciousness and social manipulation overlap?  I began to think about this things yesterday while I was rereading The Tree of Gnosis by o. The book was originally published shortly before Culiano was murdered in a bathroom of the  of the divinity school, Swift Hall, at the University of Chicago. He was shot once in the back of the head. His murder has never been solved. (I digress.)


I was particularly intrigued by the last chapter of the book, Modern Nihilism. In it Couliano traces the roots of the modern prevalence of a Nietzschean concept nihilism as found in his untranslatable idea of unbuilding which is in its German original: "man legt Hand an, man richtet zugrunde." Couliano interprets the pun as richten meaning "to build," and zugrunde to mean down to the ground, so the meaning here is more than to simply demolish, instead, for Culiano, it is to un-build, build down. And it is through this un-building that culture can find a way to move beyond its old ideas of transcendence, such as those found in Jewish-Platonistic ideas, particularly those of Christianity. 

But it is in short the epilogue, Games People Play, that the intriguing interplay of all these binary, dualistic thought systems come together more persuasively.  Coulianu's juxtaposing of these religious mind games as power games which I found the most perceptive point he made in the book. Unfortunately, he does not explore this in any great detail. If he had lived longer perhaps he would have done so in a later work. 

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Infinite Strange Loop

A mirror mirroring a mirror 
I Am a Strange Loop.
~Douglas R. Hofstadter


 For as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with my attempts to understand human consciousness. My obsession has led me on many long treks only to find that they terminated in cul-de-sacs. For a time I read philosophy at Oxford. My studies seemed promising at first, but I gradually came realise that my professors were as clueless about the nature and explanation of consciousness as I was. In fact, at Oxford the whole pursuit was most often seen as trivial metaphysics. In stead,Oxford most often focused on analytic philosophy. So after my post-graduate studies, I continued to read as a frustrated autodidact. I read Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers, Roger Penrose (one of my all time favorites who by coincidence happens to be a professor emeritus at Oxford but unfortunately in mathematics, not philosophy), Max Velmans….The list is very long indeed. BUT I have to admit that I am as lost now as I was at the beginning of my exploration. I intend to keep looking…I’ll let you know if I find anything worth reporting.

Friday, 6 January 2017

ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD

I've begin posting on a Wordpress blog, and so I'm going to post the same content here as well. I guess I'm trying to reanimate the dead a bit by coming back here with an echo of my other blog, but here it is the blog I posted in response to Wordpress's daily prompt to today's word "FLOAT". This is my first post here on WordPress. I have given my blog the name of a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The protagonist of that novel, Ono, is an unreliable narrator, and since I too can have an unreliable worldview, I adopted this novel’s title as my moniker. Because of his his inflated sense of his own grandiosity and importance, the picture Ono paints of himself is often at odds with the view the reader hold of him . I hope if you read this you won’t find that to be the case with me. No, my problem is not that I want to make myself look more accomplished or proficient than I am. I don’t care about that. Instead, I want is to use this blog to try to refocus my view of reality. My problem, and I’m guessing that it’s a problem shared by many equally befuddled individuals right now, is how to find what is true, important and meaningful in this seventeenth year of the twenty-first century. Our collective narrative has become so divided, fragmented, and hostile that the world has, in a lot of ways, stopped making sense. So I will be exploring the reasons we have entered a post-truth world, why it matters, and how to begin to devise an escape from our broken perspectives. I don’t have high hopes that I’ll be successful, but the effort of writing and thinking about our predicament might help me sort through the chaos a bit. Thank for reading this first attempt, and please let me know if you have the similar misgivings about the what passes as reality today. And if you do not hold such misgivings, I’d love to know why you are so certain you’re right. Again, thanks!

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Death

I have not written here in four years now. I am not certain why. These four years have been eventful and sometimes frightening, My mind has been changed in the intervening time. I have become convinced that the world is far more complex than I had thought.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

What does it mean to be human?

I've just splashed out  for another book I can't afford. This time it's Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape Our Live by Jesse J Prinz. New Scientist had an interview with Prinz in the 21 January 2012 issue. (There is a link to the interview, Humans Are Learning Machines, but you need to be a subscriber to access it). Also,  there was a favourable review of it in the London Times this morning. but it also requires a subscription to view.  If I were going to digress (which is of course exactly what  I am doing obviously),  I'd say something moody here about  the free dissemination of knowledge   disappearing and how  I guess soon only the rich will be able to afford the  luxury of information.

Prinz emphasizes  flexibility, nurture and cultural influences as the important ingredients in arriving at what we are and what we might become. He makes short work of evolutionary psychology's claims that our natures are largely the result of our evolutionary origins. He disagrees with their assertions that since we evolved from  higher simians--bonobos, gorillas and some of the higher apes-- we must still be like them in critical ways.

The section on the cultural roots of depression were enlightening. For example, he  claims that depression does not have its origins in genetics only. He discusses the alarming increase in depression rates among young Americans. He thinks they result in changes in culture. In 1955 only 2% of  twenty-five-year-old Americans were depressed. Now the number is closer to one in every four American in that age group have had a severe bout of depression.  Prinz says the increase is due in large part to peer interaction. That is that we're learning from each other how to be depressed.




Friday, 20 January 2012

The Second, Third, and Fourth Cultures and Their Discontents


Felix, qui, potest rerum cognoscere causa
(“Fortunate is he who is able to know the causes of things”)
~Virgil
I actually had two comments posted to one of my recent blog entries, and that seemed strange. I think of this process as the solipsistic beginning of my writing day. It's a sort of warm up where I give myself permission to write about what I thought about when I couldn't sleep or when I was waiting in a long queue in a shop.  [Since these are solitary and disorganized, I need to unlink this blog from my social network links. No-one could read these ramblings without becoming totally crazed with boredom).


Last night my sleep was interrupted by thoughts on C. P. Snow's  account of the two cultures, science and the arts, and the hostility and the lack of communication between them.  Raymond Tallis' in "The Eunuch at the Orgy: Reflections on the F. R. Leavis" (1995) outlines some of the systemic problems which dog attempts to communicate across the cultures of sciences and the humanities, but it seems a slightly  dated now. The arrogance and airs of 'omnescience' which Tallis saw among humanities intellectuals have now largely been displaced by the a pervasive drive  to make science and scientific research the sole arbiters of  cultural relevance and 'truth'.  In other words, the sciences won the culture wars a long time ago. now few reputable thinkers make assertions which are not  demonstrably valid within a naturalistic, scientific framework. 


The beginnings of the ascendency of the sciences  can in small part be traced to a classic online essay published in 1991 by John Brockman, Edge: The Third Culture. The essay is for Brockman part  cri du coeur and partly a call to scientists to reinforce the  the barricades against  the dubious thinking of unscientific infidels. It's a master class in how to rebrand science to guarantee its cultural ascendency.  In the essay, he makes no mention of any thinker who is not a  credentialed  scientist, other than to lament that Snow's original speech included a  "new definition by the 'men of letters'" [but] "excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg."


Brockman was advocating that   "third-culture [scientifically proficient] thinkers...avoid the middleman and endeavor to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public."


What has happened in the two decades since Brockman's Edge essay is that the pendulum has swung strongly away from any consideration of the humanities except as inferior attempts at explanation best left to professional scientist. 


Now don't think that I'm some sort of anti-science Luddite who thinks we should all return to studying the classics and leave science and scientific literacy as the purview of the scientists.  That is not my point at all. This is the twenty-first century. We all need to be conversant about the major new trends  in the sciences. Obviously they are of critical cultural importance.  


Still, for a number of reasons, I think it's time to give this trend of making science to arbitator of all culture some  deep and critical thought.  Jonah Lehrer, who wrote Proust Was a Neuroscientist , has begun to popularize what he's labelled  the Fourth Culture.  As he defines it:


If we are serious about unifying human knowledge, then we'll need to create a new movement that coexists with the third culture  but that deliberately trespasses on our cultural boundaries and seeks to create relationships between the arts and the sciences. The premise of this movement--perhaps a fourth culture--is that neither culture can exist by itself. Its goal will be to cultivate a positive feedback loop, in which works of art lead to new scientific experiments...


Lerher's earlier article in Seed on the roles of science and art is a good place to get more background on his position. 


A quick list of some of the books and thinkers I consider fourth culture thinkers [even if they lived long before the twenty-first century] would be:


1. Giordano Bruno...I'm rereading him right now, and he was an amazing [if technically pre-scientific thinker], even if his writing style is ornate and egotistical for 21st century readers.
2. The Cambridge Quartet by John Casti (Many critical reviewers don't appreciate the fact that sometimes the only way to fully understand a period of time, is to think about it imaginatively.)
3. A Certain Ambiguity by Suri. More books like this one might be a first step to begin to expose the 'culture wars' for what they often are: Dictatorial posturing and overtures to false 'certainties'. 
4. H. Allen Orr's piece in The New York Review of books entitled The Science of Right and Wrong. I added this after finding it referred to in a comment section, being impressed  and mildly amazed by how well it fits the points I was making here earlier today. 


I could make this list a lot longer, but I need to get to my REAL projects.  Nobody pays for solipsistic ramblings. If they did, I'd be quite rich obviously. 

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Giordano Bruno, Free Thought and Its Suppression






One summer long, long ago and far, far away,  I went to the Houston Public Library. It was a way for my mother to get me out of the house and silence my  complaints that there was 'There's nothing to do.' It was before kids with similar complaints could find relief in a game console.

 In my desultory browsing I found a book with an intriguing title, The Cosmology of Giordano Bruno by Paul-Henri Michel. I was obsessed with cosmology and had been since my my dad had given me a subscription to a children's science magazine on my tenth birthday, the same birthday that I'd been given my first telescope.

My odd slightly  neurotic preoccupation with the univese was a lot like Woody Allen's in Annie Hall.  So when I found a whole book on the enigmatic subject, I was immediately enthralled  and decided to try reading it, even though its adult vocabulary made was a bit of a  hard slough for me. Within the first  five pages I was hooked. I found a comfortable chair facing a large window, and  read for hours. Whenever I looked up, I'd see hard-hatted workers  in the massive highrise, which was under construction  across the street from my window, flying paper air planes and leaning out to see if their latest attempt was more air worthy or not.

It seemed to me to fit with what I was reading. I read to page 179 before my mother came to collect me. I stopped with this sentence, "The Earth, the Moon, the Sun and the planets are so many 'worlds' which. taken together constitute a 'system' and any organism whose laws we are permitted to know... consequently, there is a plurality of worlds in a universe which is unique because nothing exists outside of it."


That was my first introduction to Giordano Bruno, and I've been intrigued by him ever since. So much so that I've been to Rome four times on the anniversary of his being burned alive by the Vatican on the 17th of February 1600.  He still intrigues me, and I've noticed that with the recent discovery from NASA of so many exoplanets [which predict that there are prehaps as many as one for each star in our galaxy], Bruno seems more topical then ever. It will be 412 years since he was burned alive for holding what the Catholic Church claimed were heretical ideas.

Since no one reads this, I will likely use this forum to think aloud about how culture views of Bruno have changed since he was first widely reintroduced by Frances Yates, who was a brilliant scholar, but was almost certainly mistaken when she painted him as a magical thinker seeped in medieval tinged hermetics.  It took a number of years before Bruno's image was revised through the thorough new interpretations by Hilary Gatti, Ingrid Rowland and others.