Category Archives: Science

Excerpt: Awe and Presence

Another preview taken out of context from The Constellation of Man, a work of literature planned for three volumes. All selections written by me since 2010. All remain in development, subject to change.

Most excerpts so far were not particularly representative of main themes, so as not to spoil their discovery. Today I make an exception, and present Part 3 (of 8) from Book I of Vol. I, a Book which introduces themes seminal for many Books to come. —CPB


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artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

Our “reality” is habitually pared-down, less complex, less awe-inducing, less exciting, as an acclimation. We require experiences to open our eyes to the world around us and within us.

The experiences can always be found. In fact there are too many for our attention. But we must cease to be dead to our senses and our callings.

On one occasion we have reason to doubt. On another, we have reason to marvel. From one time to the other, it is, most significantly, we that have become different, whatever else has changed around us.

banksy_no_future_2

artwork by Banksy, photo by Steve Cotton

It is not unusual that one who encounters pain or tedium lives through what seems like too much to bear, and closes. Another can observe this hardened attitude and see nothing but immaturity. They see a stuck, troubled, thoughtless child, crying “I am jaded, and there is nothing left to amaze and delight me.”

It is common to encounter hardening or dulling experiences that strip away the innocence of youth. It is rare to learn what to take from harsh or deficient experience—how to meet experiences, and not only receive them; how to remain sensitive through what could deaden, how to sublimate what could scar, and how to remain open instead of closing.

Disciplined learning about the world yields some resilience, though not the same that comes with practice. At least, learning can supply alternatives to a single way of seeing and experiencing things, or too few.

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Nelumbo nucifera, sacred lotus; umbilical symbol of creation, rebirth, unfolding enlightenment, purity, and more; seat of gods and goddesses, buddhas and bodhisattvas; iconic in myths of Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi; identified with Buddha. In “On the Love of the Lotus,” Chinese sage Zhou Dun Yi observed in poetic allegory that the lotus, both open and straight, grows out of mud, but remains unsullied.

It is necessary to gather perspectives on our own experiences from the breadth and depth of other experiences across time and place. All our lives are local and limited. Greatness can blossom from opening up to just a little more.

Transcending our place to see more, and awakening to the transcendent in us is one purpose of religious mythology.

Scientific knowledge can act as myth just the same; if a child is told the story of how she is made of star-stuff, she learns that her own atoms were once forged within the nuclear cores of stars bright eons before the sun, and by vaster stars that exploded. She learns that life-giving atoms in her and all people were star-sown. The truth of that legend is both incidental to its transcendental power and majesty, and no detraction.

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Light from the edge of a blast wave from a star that exploded approximately 6000 BC, during Neolithic civilization on Earth. The visible supernova remnant is now called the Veil Nebula. This mosaic of Hubble telescope images shows a small section of the distant Nebula, with false colors assigned to emissions from hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur.

An expansive revelation about our place, and our connections to some mystery we have to struggle to imagine, fills us with awe. Awe is a kind of restorative experience. Awe knocks ennui aside without a thought for the tedium that formerly seemed to pervade life.

In awe, one forgets doubts, and ever feeling that life is insignificant, unimportant, pointless—or miserable, consigned to suffering, or to guilt. One forgets feeling that life itself could be subjected to doubts. Awe induces doubt that life could be known, could be encompassed by our smaller experience.

Simple novelty of experience promotes a modest openness. To pursue novelty is certainly easier and much more common than an awesome, transcendent revelation. Even if novel experiences do not teach, they can achieve some restoration of feeling.

Otherwise, our familiar world seems too small and too usual. That familiar domain occludes the unseen remainder of the world. Life, too familiar, obstructs our participation in all else, diverse as we cannot imagine. Life seems cramped, repetitive, even hopeless. This is our feeling, unfairly attributed to other life without our constraint and beyond our limitations. Our impression of life portrays a distortion of life, conditioned or contained. Escape from noticing life only seems the credible alternative to neurosis and depression.

A routine travesty of living appears ridiculous in the face of further experiences discovered by spontaneity, or created by improvisation. Moments in which we experience different things—or even familiar things, differently—can then become extraordinary to us. These moments deliver us.

It is not too difficult to make extraordinary moments, for those who know they must seek them out. Ordinary moments are not ordinary at all to those who know how to transform them, with observance, into informal rituals. Sense phenomena that others take for granted can attain a phenomenal attention, a spiritual attention, suitable for sacrament.

[To feel] spiritual presence means and requires that you are present. All that becomes banal—an urban skyline view, an alcoholic high, a walk in the woods, rhythm or melody, a sexual touch, an idea written long ago—can be refreshed with spirit.

Spiritual experiences are restorative, as well as extraordinary experiences. They feel special, and make us feel special about ourselves or about living—eternal objects of human desire, taking infinite guises.

Feeling special about ourselves is indistinct from the impression of having purpose, or life having significance or meaning. A “relationship with God” communicates that one is special, that one has purpose, and life has meaning. But this is the same thing that people want most from romantic relationships with other people: the opportunity to feel special about themselves through a sense of connection-to-other. They want transcendence not only from changes in perspective, but manifested in experience made special—spiritual—through renewed attention to the senses, and ensuing intensification. The bond becomes sacred; the sexual rite becomes holy. A deep relationship with one’s work or calling can likewise become sanctified by devotion, attention, and presence.

A sacred or holy experience is not derived from a thing, place, or action called sacred or holy. We must supply preparation for a sense of the sacred or holy, which can be found in almost anything; it is the person who charges the encounter, not whatever seems sacred or holy.

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Lotus Temple, Bahá’í House of Worship, New Delhi

It is a great mystical, esoteric, and at times heretical teaching that the high experiences of religion are open to you. They are allowed. They are already implicit in the living human body, though not well-realized without practice. You can learn to recognize doors and need not depend on formal rituals to unlock them. You need not borrow a set of keys that dogma approves and intercessors must provide.

Even the grandest senses of divinity do not depend upon being seized by powers outside ourselves. The power to have transcendent experiences in the world unfolds from living, open to transcendent experiences.

You must ask yourself if you allow a sense of awe before the majesty of the world, intricate beyond your knowledge, beyond your time.

Can you hear, can you say: “Awake, awake! The world is new from this moment!” This feeling can begin a creation story for a new life.

 

Awe and other concepts that sound religious describe experiences to be realized in actual life. Grace and blessedness, transcendence and revelation, love, joy, passion, ecstasy and rapture are also called religious experiences, but they refer to real experiences of feeling nonetheless.

When religion is made regular, named, and organized, these experiences are exceedingly likely to remain concepts, drafted into rituals or doctrines that may be practiced and followed without those feelings; religion without spirit; religion left with dead metaphors, antique distractions; dogma now without corpus.

Life without the set of spiritual experiences is limited to a subset without sensations of “meaning.”

All the religious concepts—or rather, spiritual feelings behind religious concepts—can be naturalized, made part of our clearer understanding of natural, human life rooted in the body’s nervous system and the dispositions and needs of the mind. Spiritual experiences are special neural experiences, not supernatural or otherworldly experiences. The numinous can be integrated into natural life, and not cast out to the supernatural—nor dismissed along with superstition by the secular-minded.

Awe has become rarer than ever before. That few wonder at the rarity of the experience called awe could almost explain its rarity. The near absence of awe in adulthood seems to go virtually unnoticed and unremarked, though the experience is extraordinary. Awe has become an empty word out of fashion to modern people who cannot relate. Many identify awe with religious devotion, no longer valued, or practiced only as custom. But devotion is a road to awe, to pervasive holiness, to reverence and resonance, and if these things must be lost with secular deliverance from superstition, we should have cause to question whether that is deliverance at all. By all those numb and jaded, awe is missed, and the unshaken soul perceived, if not by words, then deep down instead.

But it is not necessary to lose awe without religion, just as it is not necessary to abandon spirit. Awe before God, or gods, represents awe before the epic of life in the world. It is simply that the origin of mighty experiences was mistaken to be might outside oneself.

Love, also, wells up and flows out from within, not to the credit of objects of fixation: idealized figures of divinity, or erotic attraction. We have in our brains the means for intense alterations of perception and participation. In a sense, as long as we are thus prepared, the triggers are almost incidental, if we know better than to attribute our electrified chemistry to them. We misbelieve in our dependency on others, and outside forces.

Religious experiences can be summoned up from within oneself. This is the “heresy” of personal divinity, that because I can summon up divine feelings, I am God—another untrue metaphor to express a truth.

 

Excerpt: excuses and criticisms for electing inferiors

Sometimes I accidentally write political science, in the context of trying to write more compelling literature. I say that only half-flippantly. Experience tires of what it knows too familiarly, you see. Besides, politics skips over many things I consider essential preliminaries, in order to arrive at loud, thoughtless disagreement that much more efficiently.

NB: Not written about current events specifically, but germane, and therefore I am posting it. I do not write about current events, per se. Current events tend to come back to the same things, again and again. I do write about those things.

Without further ado, an excerpt from work in progress:

When it became fairly apparent (to others) that in time, manifest inferiors would rule democratic republics instead of the best men (in any usual sense, moral or able)—as so often happens in present day, in the calculus of voting machines, mass media, party and political machines—they made excuses. Rationalizations, critiques, and theories proliferated, and they have ever since. Most have blamed technicalities of constitutional procedure, or electoral process, for these “wrong” results. Many have blamed an uneducated citizenry. Partisans blame opponents.

All these critiques come from ideological agreement, from those convinced of the rightness of democracy, or at least taking it for granted (a tenet without alternative), often from insiders in the political class.

They would never conclude, for instance, that corrupt bargains for influence promoting oligarchs and plutocrats among the political class describes an equilibrium of theoretical popular governance, no matter its design.

Insiders in particular would never interpret lack of intellectual competence among bureaucrats and politicians of the state as [suitable] avoidance of misspent, frustrated careers by competent people who have other ambitions and serve other masters. And the more enormous the bureaucracy, the more immune its unelected mediocrity to change by election of very few supervising officials, and their direct appointees.

An unusual critique from outside the consensus lamented a perversion of the natural order by the weakening effect of misguided egalitarian doctrines, from democratic, Judeo-Christian, and socialist origins, promoted with the effect, if not also the intention, that diminutive, weak men could overcome their superiors. Men had become sheeplike, or overly tamed.

This critique happened to agree with neo-aristocrats, oligarchs, and republicans alike that the many, especially the uneducated mob, were not to be trusted with the reins of government. Inferior men could climb up on their backs, to loud applause. Voting was a godsend to the ambitious political creatures whose talents lay in demagoguery, empty promises, fear-mongering, and other unscrupulous means.

But to the traditional mistrust of demagogues, this critique added the [interesting] charge that the potential quality of men had been corrupted, not only by lacking education but also by excess of rote, mass education in uniformity, agreement, and passivity—in the name of equality and good citizens, instead of serving the more venerable, selective educational goal of cultivating a remarkable elite.

Other outsiders critiqued democratic principle not for its foundation upon the many, but for sanctioning and legalizing the might of the many—called mob rule in its informal guise—as though numbers excused or ennobled the exercise of power, and in this case alone, might makes right.

They saw no reason for surprise whenever democratic republics failed. For democratic institutions remained systems for assigning compulsory powers, not fundamentally unlike any ancient state for having devised representation, imagined “good government,” and forgotten the origins of governance in oppression by conquerors, caste, or class.

They summarized that history has always reflected a generally conflicted (if not inverse) relationship between attracting the best men and offering them power. Power to enforce one’s will instead, unsurprisingly, attracts those who cannot exercise any consistent restraint, or corrupts those who have power, including those born into it. Exercise of power for aggrandizement is rarely tempered, with difficulty, only temporarily, and somewhat against the natural tendency.

In fact the founders of modern constitutional republics were not unaware of this critique. Among them, skeptics of democracy as a positive good admitted they could not answer it, and feared it would prove correct. They were not naive enough to believe that men who acquired might would somehow cease to crown themselves right. They hoped that individual rights could find protection for a time, despite tyrants, oligarchs, mobs and demagogues.

Now, the context for generating this digression was: writing about right and might (the famous debate in Thucydides over the fate of the poor island of Melos crops up) as an unusual, applied way of writing about a distinction between the “neutral” descriptive function of idealized science, and the prescriptive, normative, or persuasive functions of value-driven fields such as ethics, or applied science (medicine, psychiatry, engineering), arts, or religion. In a nutshell, saying what happens is importantly, quite different from saying what should happen.

Talking about how those two purposes can either corrupt, or assist each other, is very important to the philosophy of science, to argumentation, to psychology, and to pretty much any subject that people have positions about, or try to understand. Half of political discourse is really about trying to blur the two. (The Athenians certainly do in Thucydides.)

So actually, this is a representative selection in a sense, not for its specific subject material, but because it came about from the larger goal of teaching and reconsidering fundamentals through novel illustrations. In this case, philosophy of science through the lens of political science, in particular, all the thinking surrounding right and might, might makes right, etc. I went off on the tangent above (it happens), broke off that piece, and here you are.

A meaningful loss to my research bookmarks: The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

My attempted email to the Stephen Jay Gould Archive bounced, so I reproduce it here.

Hello, I noticed that the website is down. In case there are no plans to continue on with the site I wanted to say that I have found it to be a valuable resource and a wonderful gateway to a very important thinker. A lot of my thinking/writing has drawn on evolution and I’ve increasingly relied on Gould’s clarity on the subject, and I’ve been thankful to have the archive handy on the internet. Thanks for providing it as long as you have. I hope it will return. I note in the meantime that some pages are archived on web.archive.org, fortunately.

thank you,
Colin P. Barth

PS. The Wayback Machine/Internet Archive link I mentioned above: https://web.archive.org/web/20120915010723/http://www.stephenjaygould.org/

Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities

[via Open Culture on Facebook] Was amused by responses to an essay by Steven Pinker (“precious and facile as always,” as one put it) called “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” that misses its opportunity for the descriptive subtitle: “Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities” (among which he seems to include “soft,” humanized, or subjective social sciences and psychologies).

“Pinker is a a bildungsphilister and this is one of the most vulgar and foolish essays ever published in a leading magazine. A masterpiece of middlebrow kitsch, nearly all of it is wrong, and in a risible, contemptible way.”

So upon reading it, I must say I too am impressed. Pinker doesn’t just set up a straw man. He has an entire straw debate going on there. It’s remarkable because most of what is correct in it has nothing to do with any real argument that intelligent people would present. But Pinker still has a lecture! Err, that’s nice Pinker—tell us some of the neat things “science” has done (not scientists – monolithic “science”) and *do tell* how it banished superstition (yes, you’ve heard this one before). Why not put on a whole performance of “Inherit the Wind”? We’ll wait.

But then, maybe go look into some things you don’t already know, like what the term “scientism” properly means when intelligent people use it, instead of pretending it has no meaning, a move worthy of Daniel Dennett’s argumentative tactics. My favorite ignorance is found in the paragraph accusing others of being “historically illiterate” while demonstrating his own in the very next sentence.

He makes evident that his grasp of a great many diverse subjects (including those grouped under political science, arts, history, anthropology and economics) is sometimes no more sophisticated than the preliminary biases, cliches, naivete, and prejudices of the average college-level intellect obtained from an undergraduate class or (more likely) casual reading.

Such an unprepared debater has all the moral authority of a man with no pants. Those well-versed in “the humanities” will simply wonder why he blundered in, so to speak, seemingly determined to pick a daftly-collective argument.

Pinker couldn’t have supported Gould’s assertion of two spheres appropriate to humanities and science (reflecting the classic distinction between “is” and “ought”) any better if he’d argued for it, instead of against it. I don’t incidentally draw lines between subjects like academic specialists too often do, but one has to be clear about the differences between describing the way things work, and prescribing what to do about it—as well as differences in preparation, methods and mentalities each properly require.

The fact that public intellectuals no better than this have taken charge of current philosophy of mind (via cognitive science in most cases, although not exclusively—some from traditional philosophy) does inspire me to correct their many deficiencies, though. There are still tremendous opportunities to write great books about human nature, evolution, psychology, the brain and the mind that are not mostly farfetched, beside the point, silly, or parochial in outlook. And it’s the last point that may be the most important strike against these academics’ stabs at writing definitive books to unravel the enigma of Man. Whether it’s Steven Pinker or John Searle or whoever, the most important thing about human beings will always be: “the field I’ve studied” or “the focus of my background.”

Addendum:
I want to note, on the positive side, that Pinker’s stated desire for collaboration and synthesis towards the end of the piece points to a laudable project (one which I wrote about at great length in my essay Rising in Walls), though the way he has written this piece, and comports himself, makes a productive “truce” impossible. And, to parallel Dennett’s distinction between good and bad reductionism, there is good synthesis and there is bad. The examples of cross-fertilization Pinker gives are pretty bad, having for example not enough of the humility before the unknown and uncertain, or  appreciation for qualitative subtlety, that the best humanists in science or the humanities will call for. It would be wonderful for scientific techniques and rigorous epistemology to inform more of the subjective theory written about life on Earth, and vice versa. Pinker just doesn’t have a handle on what that would look like, because he is not enough of a generalist, either.

Addendum Two:
With an essay this bad, it would take more time than I have to unpack everything. Here’s a brief, eviscerating praeteritio that covers  points that I did not go through—including, that Pinker obviously ignores and doesn’t consider worthy of mention a number of aspects one would normally consider quite essential to “the humanities.” Some criticisms may be less obvious though, and perhaps it’s worth the exercise of going through them. In the above post, I took for granted that, meeting Pinker halfway, we were going to talk about the humanities as functional—focusing on purposes and purposeful thinking, which is certainly not the only way to look at things. But this is the teleology you have to expect from scientism; it doesn’t have time for a lot of meandering around and reading poetry so to speak but rather wants to talk about what poetry does for the human race. In short, I took some deficiencies for granted, and arrogance—this is Pinker, after all, the man who went up against Stephen Jay Gould on evolution, though to this day, he casually misunderstands (or misrepresents?) the basic Darwinian argument.

Be your own skeptic; if you can’t become an expert, learn to think like a scientist

We’re in an age of big, politicized science, dirtied by the knowledge that almost everyone will “trust the experts,” and buy 90% of whatever the press publishes as a false consensus in their name, or whatever “scientific” bombshell tickles their fancy. People believe whatever best plays to preconceptions, or their paranoia, fear, contrariness, obedience, need to be reassured, or need to be entertained, and this is well known by those who prepare press releases, agitate for political causes, and collect money for their scientific credentials.

In this age, everyone needs to be a scientific skeptic and stop uncritically trusting claims from sources (big and small, independent and professional) on any contentious issue: evolution, GMO, fracking, climate change & its causation, HIV/AIDS, vaccine risks, you name it.

Some of these many claims will be bourn out by repetitive investigations in time, and some will shown to be fabrications and frauds, many shameful, many politicized, many embarrassing for anyone to believe in hindsight. Some will be designed to bring about a result through fear and even panic—sometimes a result so against the grain that few would otherwise accept it.

That doesn’t make facts, and it’s not proper science.

Proper science isn’t just technical procedure, or institutional respect in academia, or “scientistic” presentation. Science is a way of thinking. Science demands skepticism, above all.

Just one thing to add: how many people who were afraid of Y2K bug scenarios at the time will admit they were wrong to believe as much as they did, and overreact out of fear? (raises hand) I’ve tried to learn from that experience (and others like it that testified to gullibility). I’ve tried to learn how to develop more healthy skepticism, and an understanding of what makes for reliable scientific evidence, substantive argument (true or not), and substantiated information. I highly recommend you do the same.

Aim higher, atheists

Modern people can be so weirdly literal. And by no means are they all fundamentalist religious types.

I have known many atheists and I have come across a great many atheists. The first rule of atheism is: talk about religion. The second rule: dispute the Bible. The third (possibly the second, actually): tease and argue with fundamentalists, mostly in absentia, especially they most objectionable and uncouth ones.

Yes, now that they don’t have to worry themselves anymore about the literal truths of the Bible that all the fundamentalists believe in—phew—I get the impression many self-congratulatory atheists like to spend a whole lot of their intellectual time insisting the Bible isn’t literally true and is in fact full of falsehoods and absurdities (and in doing this, feeling intelligent and perceptive).

Well, first of all: no kidding, the Bible is not literally true. Have you ever tried to read other mythology literally? Ovid makes a poor science or history textbook, but that’s a similarly insipid point.

We can rest assured that whoever refuses to accept such a painfully obtrusive lesson must have a personal attachment at stake, or simply won’t because a contrary painfully-obtrusive lesson was hammered into them already by their parents and church, and brainwashing works the first time.

Either way, if “freethinker” atheists have the opportunities to think about and discuss anything they like, it seems dopey to spend time telling the fundamentalists that material which millions of people have already come to view as allegorical since the Middle Ages is—*gasp*—not literally true.

Whether they’ve rediscovered how to be as concerned with literal meaning as fundamentalists, or how to keep pace with fundamentalists, or how to keep having a ‘conversation’ with fundamentalists instead of moving on, I’m not sure that congratulations for “free thought” are in order quite yet.

You’re simply not past religion and done with it until you regard reading the Bible as no more threatening and offensive to your own mind than reading ancient Greek, Norse, or Chinese myths. In fact, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that quite a few intellectuals got past their own religious instruction and obstruction by reading mythology and literature more widely, as Jung did, and realizing that not only is belief subjective, but there is more depth to be found in religious interpretation than Christian theology has to offer. In the process of graduation to move beyond religious obsession, agnosticism with less to prove and more to learn seems the freest stage, not (as some atheists think) some weakly-resistant intermediate stage.

If instead the atheists’ concern and reason for so much adversarial attention is merely and truly over what fundamentalists will do with their dogmatic beliefs (as many atheists would claim) , they should be spending some time telling the hundreds of millions of Hindus that their authoritative texts aren’t true; they should logically also be dispelling the doctrines of fundamentalists of all kinds, in the orthodoxies of science and politics as well as religion, wherever free and open thought is denied and the consequences are great.

Instead, the trending atheism today is yet another species of missionary fundamentalism by a Chosen People who are zealous to prove they are not at all like the believers.

Reformations are needed; admitting we don’t understand ourselves is the beginning

Adapted from a comment I made in a discussion about reforming politics, philosophy, and psychology:

Our various and numerous failures constructed on the premises of understanding ourselves sufficiently will repeat until we admit the basic failure of presuming we understand ourselves (and others; humans) better than we do. This covers philosophy, politics, psychology, neuroscience, and much, much more.

Thus, reformations are needed to incorporate optimized knowledge of “human nature” (universals), and important human variations, from any quarter. So, not only complacency within fields of study is an issue, although it certainly is in many of the blasé treatments of fundamental assumptions, but isolated specialization of fields of study, as I argued in the essay Rising in Walls. For instance, even those involved in some of the best of politics, economics, or history retain the most simplistic knowledge and appreciation of what some of the best of psychology, mythology, evolutionary theory or cultural anthropology can tell them about people—and really see no particular relevance in exploring them.

Both problems come together, for example, in the sorts of neo-evolutionary fields Stephen Jay Gould used to criticize, in which it’s just assumed that complex systems like culture and mind are thoroughly analogous to computers or algorithms or Darwinian inheritance (or whatever the model may be) without nearly enough justification. When 1) nobody’s interested in what different approaches and perspectives can correct, and 2) they affirm their own theoretical models too readily, you get reductionism instead of elegance in your descriptions of humanity.

My focus has shifted considerably to projects explicitly re-examining and re-constructing fundamental assumptions about human beings through a cross-pollinated synthesis, because I can’t see that attempts to work around and with Man (as we must) can have any hope of success if serious errors in conceptualizing humanity are preserved.

In terms of those of us trying to change things, we’re all doing everything the hard way without a more robust synthesis to utilize and to promote, to replace lopsided ones with a wad of selective detail supplemented by a lot of hand-waving and folk notions (probably a more than fair description of what people or a person will typically “look like,” through our own eyes).

R.A. Wilson was one example of a thinker who made an attempt at a cross-pollinated model to slice through some of the nonsense clinging to our ideas about ourselves, but I didn’t consider it adequately informed or theoretically sound—particularly when it deviated from the overall spirit of naturalism inspired by his knowledge of ethology to become too speculative and teleological. There were many problems with it, as well as several advantages (which can be said of all the more interesting personality theories and typologies, and models of the mind I have studied for the past 17 years). He himself expected his models to be obsoleted, so… I think perhaps he would be pleased with what I’ve been working on.

In short, at whatever level of sophistication and complexity, we need a better set of stories to tell ourselves about ourselves—not only less selective, but less superficial, more refined and more intensely questioned, and better informed by descriptions, analogies and metaphors from across promising frontiers of knowledge.