Alan Kirker

Sermon

August 21st, 2020 by

My father, Reverend Dr. E. A. Kirker (1926 – 2004) was a United Church of Canada minister. One particular sermon of his originally delivered in August 1995 on the topic of bitterness may provide a balm or salve when assailed by this emotion’s corrosive effects, as it has for me. I have transcribed it below, and if it resonates with you, please share it, or whatever part of it, and credit my Dad, as I have titled him in boldface in the picture link at the start of this paragraph.

My Dad was born in a royal port. In his case Annapolis Royal, or Port Royal, as it was once known, while I came out the shute as the little black-haired asian-looking “wild man from Borneo” as he had put it, perhaps redirected in the Bardo from Tibet to our more needy parts of the world, up there on the slope of the Royal Mountain, or Montreal, at the Montreal General Hospital.

My Dad’s passion was flight, and  WW2 provided the opportunity for him to earn his wings at CFB Greenwood as the co-pilot of a “flying boat”, the PBY Canso (so named in Canada, after the Strait of, but was the same aircraft as a PBY Catalina). His aircraft was tasked with coastal patrol around the Bay of Fundy, looking for German U-Boats. Persistent memories I have are the times we enjoyed together as members of the Montreal Soaring Council in Hawkesbury, Ontario, where we would often drive to from downtown Montreal for summer weekends during the sixties and seventies and where we had a trailer parked.

Often, because my Dad was a certified glider pilot instructor, his otherwise peaceful sermon-inspiring flights that he so looked forward to would be preempted by line-ups of Saturday students begging him for a half-hour instruction flight that they could proudly record in their logbooks. These times, I took the role of flight control officer – actually more of a timekeeper with a stopwatch in the club trailer parked by the field – and logged the days’ flights; glider name-number, tow-plane name-number, pilot name, tow-plane pilot name, passenger (if any) name, take-off and landing times, that sort of thing. If there weren’t enough hands on the field, I would also help “run wings”. This important task was often assigned to trained, safety-conscious teenagers who could run like the wind and first hold up the glider’s wing as the tow-plane taxied, then signaled to the tow-plane pilot that the tow-rope was taught and he would juice it, and then run alongside the glider, grasping the wingtip until ground-speed was sufficient to keep it up on its single-wheel landing gear by itself, while the tow-plane, either a Piper Cub or a Cessna L-19, roared, pulling it down the grassy runway. On some occasions, I would ride with him, in his favourite two-seat glider, the Czechoslovakian work of beautiful flush-riveted aluminum art, the Blanik.

He passed from our space-time back in late 2004, but keeps in regular, often hunourous contact. Here are screen captures from a serendipitous and un-retouched (apart from overall brightness and gamma adjustments)  10-minute infrared video panorama recorded in September 2017, where he sky-writes himself as a projected, grinning voxelated image, aged a few years but unmistakably him, in the clouds from the great beyond. Watch the entire raw footage of the Conestogo Bridge 360 degree infrared pan.

Dealing with Bitterness

If you have traveled to the east coast during this or an earlier holiday season you may have noticed something unusual about the trees along the ocean shoreline. Gnarled and weather-beaten from constant battling with the elements, often stunted from lack of sustenance in the rocky or sandy soil, these trees seem to lean landward. Yet they are tough, resilient, durable, resisting all that storms do. Why? Or how? I’m told it’s because they have developed their deepest roots on their windward side.

How deep are your roots? So long as the sun is shining and the breeze is gentle, all is well, but when the storm clouds gather and the harsh winds blow, and hopes are deferred and dreams shattered, those without deep roots on the windward side simply collapse in bitterness.

Few emotions can affect one’s physical and mental well-being as readily as bitterness., Leslie Weatherhead, the English preacher and psychologist, told a young woman whose parents objected to her proposed marriage. After an engagement lasting ten years, her fiance was killed in a car accident. With hopes and dreams shattered she became deeply embittered. Physical symptoms appeared. She was unable to see except by holding up one of her eyelids.

Dr. Weatherhead, whom she sought out for counseling, helped her to understand that there was nothing organically wrong; the closed eye was simply an indication of her unwillingness or inability to face her situation. It was as if her mind was saying to her body, “You must bear this bitterness for me”.

Bitterness is also contagious. Someone feels wronged and soon family and friends take up the resentment. The other person retaliates in word or deed and quickly two widening circles of people are involved. The seriousness of the alleged offense grows in everyone’s mind until it is grossly distorted and exaggerated.

I remember how two families in one of my earlier congregations were in dispute involving their children. Eventually I was able to help them resolve the problem only to find that one the mothers remained bitter, and no reminder of the harm she was doing to herself and others would placate her. It turned out that she was suffering from deep resentment toward her husband, one which the dispute with the other family simply brought to the surface. But once recognized, accepted and talked out, the bitterness gave way to a new relationship.

It must be said, however, that some people seem to enjoy their bitterness – or at least find satisfaction in it. Perhaps it is the pride that comes of feeling that as victims they are somehow special. You know the type: men or women who think that everything bad happens to them. This “dirty deal complex”, as psychologists term it, results in such folk gaining attention which becomes a way of restoring their self-esteem.

The fact is, however, the world closes in on bitter persons. Friends who are “turned off” soon turn away until, unable to find anyone to listen to their complaints and grievances, embittered people grow sour on life itself.

This surely is the most difficult kind of bitterness to deal with: to turn against life, thinking that you have been singled out for harsh treatment by God.

Yet even scripture records stories of people who felt they were victims of divine retribution. Naomi, for instance, who saw both her husband and son die. So sure was she that the Almighty had inflicted those tragedies she told her friends to friends to call her Naomi no longer but Mara, a name which means “the Lord has dealt bitterly with me”.

So with King Hezekiah. In our First Reading we heard him recall his feelings in a time of illness. “In the noontide of my days I felt I must depart… Like a weaver I have rolled up my life… All my sleep has fled because of the bitterness of my soul”. Then the mood changes, for he survives and begins to see things from a different perspective: “Lo, it was for my welfare that I had such great bitterness. But thou, Lord, has held back my soul from the pit of destruction”. Or as this might be translated, “You have loved me out of the pit of bitterness”.

So it was for Job. Afflicted in body and soul he asks the age-old question, “Why? What have I done to deserve this?” In the end he comes to understand that God is greater than any personal misfortune. His sufferings fall into the background, and his struggles cease. Because Job has experienced the divine presence and heard the voice of God, his bitterness of soul dissolves.

Then there’s the apostle Paul. Paul knew from personal experience how people have a way of nursing their resentments, brooding over the insults and injuries they feel are directed at them. So at the top of a list of things which must go from the life of a Christian Paul put “pikria”, the Greek word for “long-standing resentment”. Thus we hear him saying to the Esphesians in our Second Lesson: “Get rid of bitterness” (Good News Bible)… Instead be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and forgive one another as God has forgiven you through Christ.”

Yes, consider Christ. Throughout his short life Jesus encountered situations which evoked the whole range of emotions: anger, fear, despair, loneliness. But bitterness? Never, even when the world seemed set against him and his disciples deserted him. Why? Surely it was because his life was so deeply rooted on the windward side, so completely lived in the full awareness of God’s presence and power, that he was able to draw on the deepest well-springs of spiritual strength.

Friends, we, too, need roots that run deep on the windward side of life, for the storms can be severe, the testing-times intense. Who has not had some experience that has not left a taste of bitterness?

“Bitterness paralyses life; love gives it power”, wrote Harry Emerson Fosdick. “Bitterness imprisons life; love releases it. Bitterness sours life; love makes it sweet again. Bitterness sickens life; love heals it. Bitterness blinds life; love annoints its eyes.” God grant that our eyes may be open to perceive this truth, and our souls to receive it.

E. A. Kirker, August 1995.

Intention

July 30th, 2020 by

According to Wiktionary, intention is derived from the latin verb intendo, meaning to “stretch out, to turn one’s attention to”. Wikipedia defines an intentional action as “a function to accomplish a desired goal and is based on the belief that the course of action will satisfy a desire”, and collective intentionality describes that which occurs when “two or more individuals undertake a task together” (retrieved July 2020).

Islam, despite its key tenet of divine predestination (al-qadā wa’l-qadar), acknowledges that we are nonetheless capable of forming intention insofar as “man possesses free will in that he or she has the faculty to choose between right and wrong, and is thus responsible for his actions”. Buddhism provides an interface through which to view intention as the “sum of one’s actions” or karma. Although there is no set linear relationship between a particular action and its results, as much depends on context, the key message of the doctrine on karma is to recognize the urgent need to break the cycle of suffering that arises from our desires, fears, and ignorance about the contingent, impermanent nature of existence. According to author Stephen Batchelor;

“Each time something contingent and impermanent is raised to the status of something necessary and permanent, a devil is created. Whether it be an ego, a nation-state, or a religious belief, the result is the same. This distortion severs such things from their embeddedness in the complexities, fluidities, and ambiguities of the world and makes them appear as simple, fixed, and unambiguous entities with the power to condemn or save us. Far from being consciously chosen by individuals, such perceptions seem wired into the structure of our psychological, social, religious, and biological makeup” (p.35).

The notion of contingency, whose meaning derives from the latin com- (“together”) + tangere (“to touch”), more broadly infers human connection to one another, our nature as social beings and how we are mutually dependent. Despite insights and an otherwise peaceful state of mind derived from independent self-reflection, prayer, or meditation, does solitude, whether deliberate or imposed, naturally inhibit other facets of intention and contingency such as that of sangha or congregation?

Batchelor, S. (2004) Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil. New York, United States: Penguin Books

Attention

July 27th, 2020 by

In 1964 Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan made the prescient observation:

“Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media” (p.19).

Is our awareness being hijacked by the barks and ululations echoing through the streets and civic squares of McLuhan’s Global Village, a community whose digital tentacles reach out hypnotically pulling our attention this way and that? Do we willfully allow ourselves to be commandeered by every other stray notion that makes its way into our head through our various sense gates and technological interfaces?

Attention, according to Wikipedia, “is the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on a discrete aspect of information, whether considered subjective or objective, while ignoring other perceivable information. It is a state of arousal“.

While in design school, as many hours were spent coming up with clever, often humourous word-plays and visual double-entendres to get people’s attention, as were expended on the actual technical production of such pieces of commercial art. Creativity in this sense is valued for its ability to flesh out such hooks, to find the correct lure that invites a quick z-shaped scan of a print advertisement, having one’s focus perhaps then land on a brand logo, some call to action, or otherwise imploring the eventual opening of a wallet. A firm builds up its image through consistent public displays in digital, print, televised, and outdoor media. Many digital messages we now receive are targeted, sidestepping the need for creative appeals to our attention. Data says we’re already interested in this product, service, or idea, while technology says “click here” and skip directly to the wallet-opening or sign-me-up part.

Beyond the consumer sphere, can an increased efficacy in targeting and seizing our minds using technology more generally, even pushing them to action, have any positive effects? Is the arresting of our attention through something we’ve revealed, whether publicly or privately, ethical in certain contexts? If it is, should it still be mitigated, given the truth-bending ability of technology and bad actors? Are we capable of changing our stance on a topic or idea whilst being insidiously steered in a different direction? Moreover, must the scope of our critical thinking skills widen to include scrutiny beyond the appeals to our fear and ego, beyond the truth, whether distorted, to the intentions and motives underlying the images, messages, narratives, and actions we now encounter?

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York, United States: McGraw-Hill

Language

June 23rd, 2020 by

Language is a coded system of information transmission whose specific origins are a mystery, according to psychologist and professor Steven Pinker. It is a root example of representation, expressed both symbolically as various alphabets, as well as aurally via the myriad complex vocalizations used to similarly communicate ideas and emotions. Pinker colleague and noted linguist Noam Chomsky highlighted language’s important attribute of malleability, making it a creative tool of expression and understanding.

“Thought cannot go where the roads of language have not been built”, declared psychedelic philosopher and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, in one of his many insightful, wide-ranging rambles. In some abstract manner it must therefore form the bedrock of what we perceive as reality. Could this be part of the reason why we can have such a difficult time grasping complex ideas? Some of which, despite the descriptive latitude afforded by language and the visualization power of our imaginations, seem to simply escape understanding. In such cases, must conceptual understandings only exist in the realms of mathematics and binary code?

Language evolves not so much as a result of prescriptive top-down norms, but rather from the ground-up, often due to socio-cultural forces. What role does language play in the recent advent of the information age, where these coded systems of information transmission appear to be under some form of change, evolution, or as some argue, siege? How influential is the wider context of this rapidly shifting socio-cultural landscape in which we, or rather “for me”, are immersed on, “like, u know, r “ language and thought? To use his apt metaphors, philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett calls language “the software we run on our neck-top” and that “words are virtual machines designed by cultural natural selection”.

While presenting themselves with both transcendentally uniting and knowledge-sharing capabilities, as well as newly-evident narrowing and fracturing tendencies, have our new language and communication technologies leapt too quickly out of Pandora’s Box, before our being able to understand their full potentials? If this is the case, how can the negative potential be dampened, so the positive attributes can be fully realized? The issue is vast, and central to it is language, which Pinker asserts is itself at the very nexus of thought, biology, social relationships, and human evolution.

Our current socio-cultural landscape is further complicated by philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s significant notion that “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (p. 24).

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York, United States: McGraw-Hill

Metaphor and Myth

May 26th, 2020 by

Eloquent big thinker and scholar of comparative religion Joseph Campbell wrote and lectured extensively on the subjects of metaphor as myth, and myth as metaphor. According to Wikipedia, “Myth is a folklore genre consisting of narratives or stories that play a fundamental role in a society, such as foundational tales or origin myths”. Dr. Campbell spoke of the great value of having a myth, not only from the perspective of a group, but also from the perspective of an individual.

Having a mythological story, hero, or heroine to identify with can provide a narrative seen to run nearly parallel, at least in certain regards, to one’s personal experience. Such stories thus provide a sort of sounding board and the requisite psychological balm for the current cause of one’s suffering or state of mental anxiety, or for example, the cognitive dissonance felt when several misaligned views are firmly held on to.

A myth may also provide a path forward for a person. One of Campbell’s popular mythological themes was that of the Hero’s Journey. Poignantly illustrated in Star Wars’ opening scenes when we find the conflicted young Luke Skywalker struggling to choose between a life of filial piety on a prisoner planet, or a life of mystery and intrigue abroad, finally choosing the latter. Apart from classic displays of good versus evil myths in Star Wars, this particular variety becomes a narrative with which we can each identify at separate points in our lives; having to move to another place, change jobs, or depart on an adventure. The aim is to ease suffering yes, but through making a choice, making a change, or embarking on a journey and accepting its risks in the interest of searching for, or finding meaning. The journey may only be in one’s own mind, and it may simply involve breaking a bad habit and charting a new course in life. As Joseph Campbell frequently underscored, we each choose our own spot along the dark forest edge through which to enter.

Myths can span cultures, however, certain cultures exhibit their own specific and particular myths. According to Campbell, aboriginal cultures, whose nature-bound traditions are broadly regarded as precursors to more modern tribal rituals, place less emphasis on heroic figures and their journeys. Rather, in a manner holier in the truest sense of the word; their beliefs…

“… while unexceptionally ethnocentric, do not anywhere exhibit such an exclusive fascination with the people themselves; for every feature of the landscape, the whole world of nature and everything around them, is encompassed in their regard” (p.33).

Campbell, J. (1986) The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. New York, United States: Harper & Row

Symbol and Representation

May 12th, 2020 by

Elemental to art are notions of symbol and representation. “Representation is the use of signs that stand in for and take the place of something else. It is through representation that people organize the world and reality through the act of naming its elements” (Wikipedia, retrieved May 2020).

Symbols such as images can often be simplifications of broader concepts, and as author of An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J. C. Cooper states, “constitute an international language transcending normal limits of communication” (p. 7). In a graphic arts example of deep design, a symbol or logo that is created to represent an organization may seek to embody some key emblematic aspect and become its recognized brand. Perhaps its presentation echos values that accord with what is socio-culturally relevant to the organization’s self-perception. Straight lines, and bold, sans-serif typefaces tend to project a sense of cleanliness, order, and stability. Lower-case, or upper-and-lower case typesetting can tend to soften and humanize a name. Often, these sorts of decisions are made with great thought; not only applied to what is being represented, but at to whom it is aimed. Layers of meaning are thus distilled into, and projected by otherwise simple symbols. Some treatments have benefited from creative and serendipitous design: The bold, right-pointing arrow formed in the negative space of the FedEx logo, even if not consciously perceived, works to reinforce an image of movement, direction, and when coupled with the bold, colourful, sans-serif type, projects the logistics company with an air of modern, unbridled efficiency.

Certain symbols become so recognized, so popular, so important as to practically supersede in some deep manner that which they represent. Consider in this light the many traditional symbols that form the broad pantheon of religious iconography. Or more recent graphic design examples in the case of the Nike “swoosh” and Michael Jordan logos; two popular symbols that on a practical level became more valuable than the products they represent. While in design school, there circulated a cautionary tale on the topic of attaching maximal value to the creation of these important little symbols. Evidently, the designer who created the Nike swoosh only got paid several hundred dollars for his work; at the time neither he nor his client could have foreseen it coming to represent a multi-billion dollar company.

One spoken or written representational equivalent of the symbol is referred to as a metaphor;a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning another”. Noted author and scholar of comparative religion credited with inspiring George Lucas to create the movie Star Wars, Joseph Campbell, wrote and spoke at great length about the importance of symbol, metaphor, and myth across both time and culture. He declared that God is not some entity or being, but rather a metaphor for the mystery of life that transcends all human cogitation. If we are to try and update his definition with more contemporary language, could it read; God is a metaphor for the serendipitous, synchronous, and otherwise inexplicable but somehow intrinsically relevant phenomena, which emerge from complexity and complex systems? Or, does updating an interpretation in such a manner leave out important aspects of what is being represented? As J. C. Cooper, states, “A symbol can never be a mere form, as is the sign, nor can it be understood except in the context of its religious, cultural, or metaphysical background, the soil from which it grew. The symbol is a key to a realm greater than itself” (p.7).

Hallucination 2

April 23rd, 2020 by

There are many different types of hallucinations relating to our senses and perceptions that can provide interesting insights into how the mind works.

Auditory hallucinations are the most common form. Two main types exist; elementary, such as persistent sounds in the case of tinnitus, and complex. This latter group further divides into two subcategories. The first encompasses hallucinations that include the auditory equivalent of Charles Bonnet syndrome known as Musical Ear syndrome, where fragments of music manifest without any external source. The second involves the hearing of goading or malicious voices and is most often correlated with diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia.

Apart from hallucinations that owe their appearance to natural causes such as illness or neurochemical misfiring, some arise as a result of physical injury or amputation. Phantom Limb syndrome hallucinations can include sensations, sometimes painful, that are felt as though real despite no longer having a physical location in the body.

The accidental discovery of LSD by Albert Hofmann in 1943, and subsequent counter-cultural exposition of psychedelic drugs beginning in the 1960s that continues to this day has brought the notion of hallucination more generally into the collective awareness. Psychedelic drugs, both naturally-occurring and laboratory-synthesized, are a means by which human consciousness can be perturbed at will through ingesting a substance, often with unpredictable, hallucinatory results. The book Poisoner in Chief by Stephen Kinzer reveals how the US government conducted its notorious CIA mind control research program, MK-ULTRA, under Sydney Gottleib, which administered LSD to many unwitting subjects. In popular culture, people who read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception became entranced by his vivid elucidations of hallucinations, notably the perception of colour, and sought to similarly explore the numinous realms he described. Consider his mescalin-induced observations of the books on his bookshelf:

“Like flowers, they glowed, when I looked at them, with brighter colors, a profounder significance. Red books, like rubies; emerald books; books bound in white jade; books of agate; of aquamarine; of yellow topaz; lapis lazuli books whose color was so intense, so instrinsically meaningful, that they seemed on the point of leaving the shelves to thrust themselves more insistently on my attention” (p. 19).

It should be no wonder too, that with the help of ebullient characters including Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and his “Band of Merry Pranksters”, not to mention use by countless artists and musicians, why LSD and its psychedelic counterparts were instrumental in the 1960s counter-cultural revolution.

In addition to enabling the perception of colour as hyper-saturated, sometimes even with meaning, facets of the psychedelic experience commonly include changes to how time and space are felt. For instance, three-dimensional reality can have the appearance of being reduced down to flat, two-dimensional planes. In cases where sufficient quantity of a drug, for example psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – is ingested, one may even feel part of a projection of the physical surroundings oneself, or sense the presence of some other entity. Popular psychonaut and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, who described encounters with extraterrestrial  “machine elves” after ingesting a “heroic dose” of five dried grams of psilocybe cubensis in silent darkness, argued that the discovery of this hallucinogen by our ancestors on the African savanna was antecedent to the development of advanced human consciousness.

With magic mushrooms and other psychedelic drugs such as DMT, the experimenter can experience being transported to celestial worlds, encounter alien and animistic life forms, or arrive at colossal, transcendental insights about life and the universe, far beyond ordinary imagination. Often, experiences in this vein leave people feeling irrevocably changed for the better; suddenly at peace with themselves and the world. Under recent medically well-documented circumstances, psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin have been used in controlled settings to help treat the symptoms of trauma, and issues along the anxiety spectrum. In some cases, people have garnered keen insight into the ultimate effects of their behaviour, and have wound up completely changing course in life, or miraculously recovering from a substance addiction. Psychedelic experiences can, however, be frightening for some, and in a very few cases permanent psychiatric damage has been reported, perhaps as a result of not paying important attention to “set” and “setting” when taking the drug.

The experiences of hallucinations, from the extreme mind-boggling, never-seen-before imagery and landscapes, to ones caused by injury, disease, or neurological misfiring, all point to the fact that the human mind is a truly complex organ. An antennae-like perceptual device itself that is charged with managing the sense gate data of its several constituent inputs and making it all cohere for us. The signals are many and come from deep within as well as out beyond. Like dreams, hallucinations force us to suspend beliefs about the mind as an isolated, independently-operating black box. If we can expand our definition of its throughput to include all of the data crossing its sense thresholds, beyond even what can be consciously perceived, is it that far a stretch to suggest that our minds themselves extend well beyond their apparent cranial capacities?

Huxley, A. (1954) The Doors of Perception. New York, United States: HarperCollins

Hallucination 1

April 10th, 2020 by

“A hallucination is a perception in the absence of external stimulus that has qualities of real perception” (Wikipedia, retrieved April 2020). Not unlike using a different tool or perspective through which to derive information enfolded in a visual scene, studying the anomalous nature of hallucinations can similarly provide insight into how human perception and cognition work. Neurologist Oliver Sacks spent many years closely observing his patients and how they lived with their various neurological afflictions, a number of whom experienced hallucinations. His approach was one of complete immersion, fostered by a driving curiosity and compassion: He wanted to live in their shoes. This level of engagement led to helping many of them see what had been initially diagnosed as a deficit worthy of nothing but social shame, as rather a unique and extraordinary ability.

In patients with Charles Bonnet syndrome, the onset of blindness through macular degeneration can lead to the sudden and unpredictable appearance of visual hallucinations. From a neurological perspective, Sacks believed this form of hallucination was caused by damage to the perceptual system resulting in a misfiring or miscommunication between the lower order region of the visual cortext, the fusiform gyrus, associated with recognition, and the higher order region of the inferotemporal cortex, believed to be associated with emotion and memory. Under normal circumstances this latter area is said to attenuate or dampen the lower order region’s activity. Hallucinations originating in this manner manifest as completely unrecognizable people or cartoon-like faces with exaggerated eyes and mouths. Random visual apparitions that have sometimes led the unfortunate souls experiencing them to believe they were losing their minds, and despite being completely sane, wind up feeling ashamed of their experiences.

According to Sacks, in patients with Charles Bonnet syndrome, the numerous pieces and figments of perceptual information that litter their lower cortical regions can materialize inexplicably and unexpectedly in awareness as hallucinations, free from the apparent filtering of the inferotemporal cortex. The mind confabulates an image from such fragments, believed to be parts of the subconscious recipes for memory and imagination. Under ordinary circumstances, could these be the visual recognition impressions referred to by Manzotti in his Spread Mind theory of consciousness which, as a form of template, are used to match live sensory experience?

Hallucinations may more broadly be related to hyper-stimulated brain activity and behaviour on the manic-seizure side of things, such as that associated with Tourette’s syndrome. In such scenarios, the lower order regions of the brain appear to operate in a way that the higher processing levels and sense gates simply cannot keep up with. Sacks himself experienced visual hallucinations, similar to Charles Bonnet syndrome, but of a geometric variety that accompany a slightly different diagnosis. Interestingly, in his hallucinations he recognized what he felt were simple archetypical designs, described as similar to motifs from prehistoric cave paintings.

Illusion

March 28th, 2020 by

From afar a coastline might look as though it is smooth and inviting, whereas a closer-up, higher resolution view might reveal a rocky, forbidding shore. Similarly, standing directly beside a large circle painted on the asphalt might make it appear elliptical or oblong-shaped, as compared to looking at it from directly overhead. Even with adequate context, appearances can still sometimes be misleading. What we perceive as the truth is often just an emergent phenomenon and perhaps only a partial picture of the whole. Notions of scale, context, as well as the abilities and limits of our own perceptual systems, all play a role in interpreting how things look, sound, smell, and feel.

In stereophotogrammetry, photographs of a particular region, purposefully taken seconds apart from an aircraft flying high above, might initially appear identical. A closer look reveals minute changes, such as shadows shifted due to the slight difference in perspective. Nowadays this type of imaging data can be fed into complex algorithms, and in some instances combined with range-finding laser data (LiDAR) to generate accurate three-dimensional views of the landscape.

In days gone by, viewing such a stereoscopic pair of photographs, or stereogram, required a contraption called a stereoscope. You may recall the more recent plastic View-Master with its shutter-like lever that came with round disks of tiny, paired images, or 3D glasses based on the same principle, that are still in use today. These technologies present just the left perspective image to the left eye, and the right perspective image to the right eye, from a set distance. When the nearly twin images are viewed in this manner, the resulting three dimensional illusion does not appear on the glass of the device, or as on the page or screen of an artist’s drawn visual perspective, but rather materializes with realistic clarity directly in the viewer’s mind. Viewing an air-photo stereo pair would have hills and mountains rise up from the erstwhile flat land, while the valleys and lowlands receded. A rich gestalt sense of an area could be derived from such a  three-dimensional portrayal, not otherwise apprehensible from an individual air or satellite photo. Convincing appearances thus need not necessarily exist in just the physical world, and are sometimes purely figments of the perceptual system, or even of the imagination.

More broadly, beyond our hacking of binocular vision, nature has conferred on us the intrinsic ability to illude; to imagine what is and isn’t there. The world around us is perpetually being crafted as we perceive, as though we’re each an artist interacting with it, conjuring illusions and interpretations of what’s in front of us, and what lies beyond the range of our perceptions. Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks remarked that, “each act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination”.

Deep Design

March 10th, 2020 by

From the perspective of an artist or designer, deep design can have several, similarly-aligned meanings. Successful pieces of art, to use one of many subjective metrics to define success in this context, are popular, and often so because the audience sees in them some common, underlying aesthetic or informational aspect which is pleasing. Perhaps this is a result of mathematical symmetry or asymmetry, or that the piece in question somehow resonates in a particular way with their emotions, or their perception of reality.

An artwork may even go so far as to solve or reify some belief because viewing, reading, hearing, or participating in it evokes a particular memory or feeling. In Tim Parks’ book, Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness, he describes Manzotti’s spread mind theory of consciousness, wherein images, and other sense gate throughput, don’t get stored in the brain, but instead create an impression upon initial exposure, which thereafter gets called up and compared with the subject’s live sensory experience, as a key trying to fit a lock. There are no vast libraries of images, sounds, or smells filed away up there, nor are there images or other sense data being found in any meaningful neurological sense in the grey matter, apart from correlated flashes of neural activity. Does such a view support the case of an artwork whose idiosyncratic qualities elicit a particular response, often among many people, and perhaps in a manner similar to Jung’s patients identifying common archetypes in their recounted dreams? Does deep design in this sense become a question of intention on the part of the artist, or does it have to do with perception, on the part of the viewer?

Artists and designers often approach a creative undertaking as a problem that demands a solution or some form of reconciliation. On one level, a designer might identify such a problem as finding an appropriate “look and feel”, however socio-culturally defined, which will help achieve the aim of attracting attention, clarifying information, educating someone, or marketing a product or service. Design in such cases might not only seek to achieve such an aesthetic benchmark, but also to convey messages beyond the overt. For example, Google is noted for their various interfaces’ clean, uncluttered design, and judicious use of white space to help steer and focus users’ attention. The hierarchies, menus, buttons, the geometry of the layout and other virtual affordances, all combine in a gestalt manner to enable information coherence. Not only does design support the key function of helping such data assimilation, it performs an additional, deeper function; embedding in the user’s mind the sense of an efficient, precise, perhaps even trustworthy organization. This is translated into, for example, the obtained service or commodity being perceived as pertinent and up-to-date. The simple, colourful treatment of Google’s wordmark brand performs a similar deep purpose; namely, conveying a sensation of broadly appealing approachability. One may even be moved to feel that this is an organization they want to interact with, despite it being merely an algorithm. Deep layers of meaning can therefore be embedded or projected in a variety of ways using design.

Physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek similarly states that the structure of reality is far richer than its surface appearances, and that this underlying order itself may be regarded as exemplary of deep design. He points to the analogy of using visual perspective in art, where it’s applied to create an illusion of space. A flat, two-dimensional portrayal springs to life in illusory three-dimensions with careful attention to drawn perspective. Using mathematics, such an approach can be applied even more deeply, as in the case of projective geometry, where specific math is applied to create the appearance of a measured reality. One example are the various mathematical formulae used to create geographic maps. As an artist or draftsperson uses perspective to reduce a scene’s three-dimensional appearance to two-dimensions, a cartographer would employ a map projection, created using geodetic datums, to reduce the three-dimensional nature of the earth’s surface down to an appearance in two-dimensions, and enable the precise transposition of different measures from a curved, irregular surface onto the projected two-dimensional plane. Math imparts a deep, meaningful design to the projection, and the resulting map.

Taking these ideas a step further, if the reality that we inhabit, or perhaps more appropriately, if the appearance of a reality that we experience is in fact a projected, unfolded space-time construction, what does the original source look like, or where does it exist? One of David Bohm’s thought experiments used to help illustrate his theory of the invisible, implicate order that underlies reality, involves inserting one hollow, clear plexiglass cylinder inside a similar, wider one. The space between them, wide enough to allow rotation, is filled with a viscous, translucent substance such as glycerine. A drop of black ink is inserted into this medium and the outer cylinder is then rotated against the inner one in a given direction so that the ink droplet stretches to become a thin line coiling around the inner cylinder with each successive turn. In theory, the cylinder could continue to be turned until the line winds up disappearing from sight, creating the illusion of having completely vanished, and becoming enfolded within the otherwise clear viscous medium between the nested cylinders. Due to this viscous nature, though, a careful rewinding of the outer cylinder back in the opposite direction causes the line to recompose and reconstitute as its original particle-like droplet. In such a manner, can some tangible aspect of our perceived reality be reverse distilled, its projection run backwards, and its higher-order essence revealed, or modeled in some way? 

Is the ultimate essence simply numbers and math? If artistic beauty, for example, can be boiled down to such a fundamental level, does it not still speak to the need for there to be some underlying impetus driving the whole affair? Does the framework of Panpsychism, where some form of consciousness, and thus intention, inhabits everything in the universe, offer a reasonable explanation? Does physicist Frank Wilczek’s phrase “nature’s deep design” evoke the notion of an artist, designer, or some other pre-ordained intentionality that’s currently beyond our grasp? Importantly, if we are part of a projection that has been created in a manner metaphorically similar to that of an artwork or a map, is this resulting construct which we have come to know as reality therefore completely illusory, in some grander context?

Implication

February 24th, 2020 by

How would one witness or experience the effects of Bohm’s underlying implicate order? If such a realm – invisible, underlying, but integral to that which we know as reality – really exists, and if it is as pervasive as he would like us to believe, should we not see or otherwise be more aware of it? Beyond analyses of subatomic particle behaviour, some imprint of the implicate order must be available to us in the explicate; in our manifest perception of reality. Or so one would think.

Because of how we perceive, there is a correspondingly incomplete recognition and defining of the substrate in which, as constituent beings, we are enmeshed. As humans, we certainly seem to be aware of, if not connected to, our physical surroundings, not to mention our connections to each other. We often experience inexplicable serendipitous, synchronous phenomena which underscore these relationships. Despite this, however, there can be a feeling of separation; a strong sense that we are distinct, autonomous entities scrabbling about on nature’s stage. Does our orientation, however conditioned, prevent us from truly recognizing the appearance of some underlying invisible source? And, if this is the case, how do we change our perspective?

According to physicist Brian Greene, the main reason why we have such a difficult time wrapping our heads around any broader view of reality is due to our brains having evolved to think in an environment that necessitated, for example, the throwing of spears, in order to survive. As a species, we have adapted to thinking in the unfolded, cartesian space-time world of Newtonian physics, not in the enfolded pre-space realm of quantum mechanics, nor the enfolded pre-thought realm of the human mind. Even beyond such leaps of understanding, is the question of how do we reconcile this world that we are most familiar with an underlying implicate order, which for all intents and purposes remains invisible to us? Moreover, why even consider the existence of such an order?

Enfoldment

February 10th, 2020 by

Dr. Carl Jung, proponent of the concept of synchronicity which hints at some deeper, interconnected realm, recognized that much of what went on in the human subconscious was invisible to any form of direct observation; not only by outside observers, but often also invisible to the subjects themselves. Nowadays, imaging technology has changed some of this, and is opening all kinds of interesting scientific research doors.

Jung’s study of patients’ dream states demonstrated that a whole other world was perceived by them under certain conditions. It could be said that these dreams were buried or enfolded within their subconscious minds. Jung encouraged his patients to illustrate their visions through art and narrative. Often, strikingly common themes and motifs would emerge from such recollections, despite there being any rational, earthly connection to account for them. He called these recurrent phenomena archetypes and they could, for example, be roles assumed by the dreamer or actors within the dream such as that of a hero or heroine, or objects, such as totems or icons, which themselves became symbols for something metaphysically salient. When studied in this light, recurrent phenomena within stories from dreams become connecting threads of similarity across both time and space. These raise the potential for some deeper interconnecting fabric; invisible, but underlying and intrinsically woven with that which we know as reality.

Jung, despite the acclaim with which he and his work are now held, was perhaps regarded as being on the fringe of science by many of his contemporaries. Another favourite big thinker is David Bohm, who was similarly on the fringe during his time, and whom I will be continuing to write more about in future posts.

Dr. David Bohm was a theoretical physicist who became disillusioned and was eventually exiled as a result of McCarthyism during the U.S. postwar era following his work on the Manhattan project. Living abroad, he delved deeply into quantum mechanics; the study of the smallest particles and their fascinating behaviour. This began as an effort to reconcile some of the questions he felt had not been adequately addressed by his peers and colleagues, namely on the topic of the wave-particle duality. Particularly, how tiny photons, the constituents of light, behave as though they are particles under some conditions, while also behaving as though they are waves under other conditions. This apparent conundrum continues to lie at the heart of much of particle physics to this day. Bohm wanted to reconcile commonly held views by offering a new interpretation.

Bohm worked on developing a theory of an implicate, or enfolded order. Particles, and how we perceive them, may be regarded as an unfolding (an ongoing process), or an unfoldment and their attributes in the unfolded state are indicative of activity that is, or has taken place, on some deeper, enfolded level. To illustrate this notion in the simplest of fashions, he described folding a piece of paper up, taking a pair of scissors and making some arbitrary cuts in it, and then unfolding it to reveal the pattern created by the cuts. This revealed pattern is said to be enfolded; bound up, or implied within the higher implicate order of the folded-up piece of paper, and despite its invisibility to us whilst in the folded-up state, the pattern is nonetheless there. Thus, in reality, what we perceive through our various sense gates, and oftentimes instruments, is merely the explicate order (from ‘to explicate’, ‘explain’, reveal, unravel, etc.) or unfoldment that has derived from the invisible, enfolded, implicate one.

Bohm was not satisfied with the prevailing reductionist scientific approach to further develop his theory of the implicate order, and instead sought to apply his insights on a more tangible, macroscopic level. Rather than study individual particles, he wondered instead about the very nature of perception, reality, and consciousness itself. From this, he went on to develop a format of public dialogue which explored new approaches to communication in order to make the best use of both it and thought, particularly within interpersonal and group contexts. This was an effort aimed at helping lay the groundwork needed to address some of humankind’s most pressing challenges, at whose roots are often issues of incoherent thought and communication.

Interestingly, over just the past few years, David Bohm’s insights in the study of particle physics are seeing a resurgence of attention within the recent work of several of the world’s top physicists, including Lee Smolin, who references him in his book, Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution. Perhaps a renewal of interest in Bohm’s approaches overall will herald a more thorough re-examination and re-evaluation of this important thinker.

Pagina-extra's

About Alan Kirker

Introduction & artist statement.

Curriculum Vitae (pdf)

Employment & education highlights.

alankirkerantibotbit@gmail.com

Contact Alan with your questions.

Page top | Home | Work | Blog | © Alan Kirker