Alan Kirker

Eternity

July 26th, 2021 by

Eternity means infinite time that never ends” (Wikiepdia, retrieved July 2021).

Catholic theologian Hans Kung explores several perspectives on the notion of eternal life in his book, Eternal Life? Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem (1984). In one, Kung describes eternal life not as life continuing in a linear temporal fashion as either blissful or suffering damnation, but rather instead as states of mind, and crossing into or out of them as potentially radical transformations into new states of being in the world. However, he cautions against the absolutizing of life in the here and now; “the craving for a quick seizure and a rapid living out of life’s opportunities… the consequence of which is an ideology of thoughtless enjoyment of life, consumerism as the ideology of unrestrained availability of consumer goods” (1984, p. 189).

Kung summons philosopher Emmanuel Kant to elucidate the image of an eternal life through spiritual immortality as a precondition for ethical behavior, where “without a balance between virtue and destiny the whole moral order of the world would be called into question” (1984, p. 78). This theme of a perpetuating soul arises in Hinduism and Jainism, and, according to author Alan Wallace, in Tibetan Buddhism “your psyche emerged sometime while you were in your mother’s womb. Its continuing to evolve and eventually its going to implode back into the substrate, carry on as a disembodied continuum of consciousness and then reincarnate” (2010, p. 155).

Does consciousness reside in the physical self? Can there be scientific truth to eastern doctrines of rebirth? What happens to the electrical and chemical activity which forms the state-space of our conscious selves and all its corresponding information when we die? Does it evaporate and dissipate, or transmigrate?

Theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, pioneer in the study of quantum mechanics, states we need to think more subtly about how we cleave the universe into its subjective and objective parts, as for example, “In the astronomical universe, the earth is merely a tiny spec of dust in one of the innumerable galaxies, but, for us, it is the center of the universe”. Science philosopher Karl Popper sees an upside of such epistemological juxtaposition in that “purely metaphysical ideas – and therefore philosophical ideas – have been of the greatest importance to cosmology” itself a scientific study rooted in evidentiary observation and measurement.

Physicist Lee Smolin, in describing David Bohm’s Pilot wave theory, sees the quantum mechanical wave function as spawning “multiple branches that flow to where their particles or configurations are not” despite the particle only being able to follow one of them. The potential of the other empty branches can be ignored: “We are real only once and live that life on that one occupied branch. We need care about and be responsible for only what the real version of each of us does” (2019, p. 127). This sentiment is echoed by Kung in another view of eternal life as dissolving oneself into a unity where “what matters is to work together with others who are living with us – out of hope for an eternal life and in commitment for a better human world – for a practical life at the present time” (1984, p. 222).

We may not have different lives in some sense of the word, but do such speculations point to an eternal life nonetheless? Whether through the reverberations of our actions – be they good or bad – in this lifetime, or through the wave function itself, carrying some state of us forward even after we die?

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Jainism:
“Indifferent to worldly objects, a man should wander about treating all creatures in the world as he himself would be treated” (1946, p. 309).


Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946), A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions, in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 309-310). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Kung, H. (1984) Eternal Life? Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem, translated by Edward Quinn. Garden City, United States: Doubleday & Company Inc.

Smolin, L. (2019) Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum. Toronto, Canada: Alfred A. Knopf – Penguin Random House

Wallace, A. (2010), in Paulson, S. (ed.) Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (pp. 145-157). New York, United States: Oxford University Press

Time

July 25th, 2021 by

“Intense pleasure sweeps time out of mind. In rare moments – when the sun sinks into the sea, when thoughts couple to form a metaphor, when lovers come together – all awareness focuses on the here and now. When we are absorbed in thought or action, consciousness advances gracefully along the retreating edge of the present moment and we feel spontaneous and integrated” (Keen, S., & Valley-Fox, A., 1973, p. 7).

Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke describes this state of ‘being in the moment’ as “flow“, of being dynamically integrated with the particular environment or context in question; “characterized by a dynamic cascade of insight, coupled with enhanced implicit learning” (Ferraro, Herrera-Bennett, & Vervaeke, April 2018).

Philosopher Chris Eliasmith states cognition does not “rely on ‘clock ticks’ or on the completion of a particular task, rather it is captured by a continual evolution of interacting system parts which are always reacting to, and interacting with the environment and each other” (1998, p. 307). This echoes Henri Berson’s observation that “automatism and repetition, which prevail everywhere except in man, should warn us that living forms are not only halts: This work of marking time is not the forward movement of life” (1920, p. 31).

“We humans exist in time; we act in time, and we cognize in time – real time. Therefore, dynamical systems theory, which has been applied successfully in other fields to predict complex temporal behaviors, should be applied to the complex temporal behavior of cognitive agents… natural cognition is indeed inherently temporal in nature” (Eliasmith, 1998, p. 310).

What would it mean to live forever, or to somehow renew oneself? If we speculate that we are someday able to capture a snapshot of the vastly complex dynamical state-space of our cognitive and biological processes, and all of their information, could we, as with our computers, reload or revert to a previous version? Could this see us then grow back into a younger, healthier version of ourselves, effectively sidestepping senescence?

Noted biologist E.O. Wilson suggests such notions of eternal life, whether as speculated, or through uploading some instantiation of our consciousness into a machine or onto a different substrate, could in fact wind up being more of an eternal hell than any notion of a sweet hereafter:

“You will exist in a state of bliss – whatever that is – forever. And those who didn’t make it are going to be consigned to darkness or hell. Now think a trillion times a trillion years. Enough time for universes like this to be born, explode, form countless star systems and planets, then fade away to entropy. You will sit there watching this happen millions and millions of times and that will just be the beginning of an eternity that you’ve been consigned to bliss in this existence”,
unless, as Wilson states, “we were able to evolve into something else…
But we are not something else” (2010, p. 29).


Bergson, H. (1920), Creation; The Goal in Life, in Mind-Energy, translated by H. Wildon Carr (pp. 29-35). New York, United States: Henry Holt and Co.

Eliasmith, C. (1998), The Third Contender: A Critical Examination of the Dynamicist Theory of Cognition, in Thagard, P. (ed.) Mind Readings: Introductory Selections on Cognitive Science (pp. 303-333). Cambridge, United States: The MIT Press

Ferraro, L., Herrera-Bennett,, A., & Vervaeke, J. (April 2018) Flow as Spontaneous Thought: Insight and Implicit Learning, in The Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-Wandering, Creativity, and Dreaming [PDF document]. Retrieved July 2021. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190464745.013.8

Keen, S., & Valley-Fox, A. (1973), The Present: It’s a Long Way to Here and Now, in Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life through Writing and Storytelling. Los Angeles, United States: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., (1989 ed.)

Wilson, E. O. (2010), in Paulson, S. (ed.) Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion & Science (pp 19-30). New York, United States: Oxford University Press.

Dream

June 18th, 2021 by

In an essay titled “The Power and Peril of Language”, philosopher Susanne K. Langer describes the fundamental nature of human thought:

“The tendency to manipulate ideas, to combine the abstract, mix and extend them by playing with symbols, is man’s outstanding characteristic. It seems to be what his brain most naturally and spontaneously does. Therefore, his primitive mental function is not just judging reality, but dreaming his desires” (1944, p. 52).

Where do our thoughts, emotions, and dreams come from? What role do the stimuli and symbols of our environments and contexts play in their arising? Psychiatrist Carl Jung observes:

“I have also realized that one must accept the thoughts that go on within oneself of their own accord as part of one’s reality. The categories of true and false are, of course, always present; but because they are not binding they take second place. The presence of thoughts is more important than our subjective judgment of them. But neither must these judgments be suppressed, for they also are existent thoughts which are part of our wholeness” (1961, p. 298).

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born” (Henry David Thoreau, 1854, Walden).

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Islam:
“No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself” (1946, p. 310).


Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946), A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions, in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp.309-310). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Jung, C. G. (1961) Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffe, translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston. New York, United States: Vintage Books – Random House Inc. (1965 ed.)

Langer, S. K. (January, 1944), The Power and Peril of Language, from “The Lord of Creation” in Fortune. New York, United States: Time Inc., reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 50-53). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Thoreau, H. D. (1854) Walden, Chapter 2, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” [HTML document]. Retrieved June 2021.

Alignment

June 18th, 2021 by

“In artificial intelligence (AI) and philosophy, the AI control problem is the issue of how to build a superintelligent agent that will aid its creators, and avoid inadvertently building a superintelligence that will harm its creators. Its study is motivated by the notion that humanity will have to solve the control problem before any superintelligence is created, as a poorly designed superintelligence might rationally decide to seize control over its environment and refuse to permit its creators to modify it after launch” (Wikipedia, retrieved June 2021).

In this realm, understanding how to reward machine learning behaviour so as to develop a “policy” that dictates how the “intelligent agents” do what we want them to, has been supplanted by looking instead at structuring the environments in which these agents will operate. In his book The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values (2020), author Brian Christian explains why, using the example of ourselves in nature:

“A programmed heuristic like, ‘Always eat as much sugar and fat as you can’ is optimal as long as there isn’t all that much sugar or fat in your environment and you aren’t especially good at getting it. Once that dynamic changes, a reward function that served you and your ancestors for tens of thousands of years suddenly leads you off the rails” (2020, p. 173).

Clues from evolution and child development are now useful to reward designers of robots and artificial intelligences. Beyond specific policies, Christian says “values” must be instilled in these agents using notions of parenting and pedagogy, and in a manner where not only will our actions be understandable to our creations, but so that they act in ways that are transparent to us. He cautions against relinquishing too much control, not to the agents and machines, but to the training models we use for these sorts of purposes, citing Hanna Arendt as to how easily evil can emerge from an ill-conceived but otherwise innocuous template, as the models themselves “might become true” (2020, p. 326).

Given their complex nature, should we wonder whether our intelligent machines might develop some equivalent of emotion? In an essay titled “In The Chinese Room, Do Computers Think?”, science author George Johnson suggests such anomalous behaviour could take the form of “qualities and quirks that arose through emergence, through the combination of millions of different processes. Emotions like these might seem as foreign to us as ours would to a machine. We might not even have a name for them” (1987, p. 169).

How might such artificial emotions arise and what might they be like? As science fiction author Philip K. Dick wonders, will our Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Do such speculations point to how our very own emotions and thoughts arise, and the factors in our bodies and environments which contribute to their arising?


Christian, B. (2020) The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values. New York, United States: Penguin Random House.

Dick, P. K. (1968) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York, United States: Penguin Random House – Doubleday.

Johnson, G. (1987), In The Chinese Room, Do Computers Think? in Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (eds.), Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery Third Edition (1990), (pp. 156-170). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill.

Pattern

May 30th, 2021 by

“A pattern is a regularity in the world, in human-made design, or in abstract ideas. As such, the elements of a pattern repeat in a predictable manner” (Wikipedia, retrieved May 2021). What role do engagement, habit, and addiction play in keeping us numb within our patterns of behaviour, “spinning our own fates, for good or evil, and never to be outdone” (1890, p. 127), as philosopher William James said?

As a society, do certain of our collective habits become our patterns, and thus our nature, leading mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to refer to them as the very symptoms of its failure? To mitigate against such, he states what is instead needed is a cultivation of sensitiveness to ideas, a curiosity, an interest in adventure, and a desire for change, and therefore civilization “survives on its merits, and is transformed by its power of recognizing its imperfections” (1935, p. 106).

Do we not periodically seek out patterns in the form of organization and tradition, so as to provide security from our erstwhile hostile selves? English botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward observes: “When change threatens, men rally to the support of the traditional… It is a phenomenon as elemental as the clustering of sheep in their fold when a thunderstorm threatens” (1940, p. 212).

Can there come a point in one’s life when paring things down to their barest simplicity, the entire nature of existence can be seen as a series of nodes, where certain facts become clear, and the otherwise complex, obfuscating nature of their origins enable them to stand up in sharp contrast against the background noise? Can these signals, when then assembled and read together in sum reveal a different narrative than what is often hidden by the patterns of habit and regularity? To this end, Whitehead echoes a reverence for,

“that power in virtue of which nature harbours ideal ends, and produces individual beings capable of conscious discrimination of such ends. This reverence is the foundation of the respect for man as man. It thereby secures that liberty of thought and action required for the upward adventure of life on this Earth” (1935, p. 109).

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Hinduism:
“This is the high religion which wise men esteem: the life-giving breaths of other creatures are as dear to them as the breaths of one’s own self. Men gifted with intelligence and purified souls should always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated” (1946, p. 309).


Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946), A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions, in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 309-310). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

James, W. (1890), Habit, in The Principles of Psychology, Volume I, Chapter IV, (pp. 122-127) [HTML document]. New York, United States: Henry Holt and Co.

Kingdon-Ward, F. (1940), Freedom for Education, in Anshen, R. N. (Ed.) Freedom: Its Meaning (pp. 210-218) [PDF document]. New York, United States: Harcourt, Brace and Co., Inc.

Whitehead, A. N. (1935), From Force to Persuasion, in Adventures in Ideas (pp. 105-109). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company

Entanglement

May 25th, 2021 by

Quantum entanglement is a physical phenomenon that occurs when a group of particles is generated, interact, or share spatial proximity in a way such that the quantum state of each particle of the group cannot be described independently of the state of the others, including when the particles are separated by a large distance” (Wikipedia, retrieved April 2021).

From our personal and social interactions, do we not capture some of each other’s essence to carry with us, even after we separate? Do we not each embody some composite aspect of our collective relationships; our parents, siblings, partners, relatives, friends; all those who take up residence in our heads, so to speak, whether invited or not? Do such interactions inform the chemical and electrical activity going on in our bodies and minds and thus help shape our perceptions? Can looking at human consciousness from such a wider social perspective yield insights into individual intention and volition? And, what enables entanglement under such social circumstances and what are its implications in the context of larger groups? As philosopher William James writes:

“A social organism of any sort whatsoever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the cooperation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned” (1897 p. 388).

Historian and author Johan Norberg details how such cooperation and openness are necessary for civilizations to advance, in his book Open: The Story of Human Progress (2020): “When open minds, open exchange and open doors come together for a sustained period of time, the result is discoveries and achievements that facilitate new discoveries and achievements” (p. 167). He states further our perspective must look beyond notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ :

“We are not necessarily doomed to tribal warfare. The coalitions we pay attention to can and do change all the time. This is why recent immigrants are almost always seen as strange and threatening, whereas previous immigrants now seem like model citizens. They are no longer ‘them’, they are now ‘us’. The problem, of course, is that this new identity is often created and strengthened by contrasting ourselves with new outsiders” (2020, p. 235).

Nationalist trends including issues around immigration, borders, and dividing walls, point towards a growing tendency of segregation and division between people which runs counter to human nature. Referring to such behaviour as the very partitioning of our soul, an outright rejection of God, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. asked in a letter from the Birmingham, Alabama, County Jail : “Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?” (1963 p. 457).


James, W. (1896), The Will to Believe in Essays in Popular Philosophy [HTML document]. New York, United States: Longmans, Green and Co.

King, Jr., M. L. (1963), Letter From the Birmingham County Jail: Why We Can’t Wait in Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (eds.). Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery, Third Edition (1990), (pp. 456-461). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill.

Norberg, J. (2020) Open: The Story of Human Progress. London, United Kingdom: Atlantic Books.

Hope

April 29th, 2021 by

Hope is an optimistic state of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes with respect to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large” (Wikipedia, retrieved April 2021).

Speaking about the deteriorating state of pre-World War Two Europe in an essay titled “Be Reasonable”, eloquent Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang expressed concern not about the political ideologies of Communism and Totalitarianism themselves, but about their cobbled-together political expressions, and,

“of the fanatical spirit which imbues them and the method by which men push their theories doggedly to logical absurdities. The result is a confusion of values, a weird mixing-up of politics and anthropology, art with propaganda, patriotism with science, government with religion, and above all an entire upset of the proper relationship between the claims of the state and the claims of the individual” (Lin, 1937).

Author and scholar Thomas Homer-Dixon in his book Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril (2020), states we must rather imagine and communicate the important notion of our shared identity as humans, particularly in regards to the massive challenges posed by climate change, and which must override the “social facts” of tribal, national or ethnic identity. Moreover is the problem of those vested interests at play which keep the system in a state of stasis with entrenched power structures; the energy of whose reinforced worldviews, institutions, and technologies builds up only to be released in “devastating social earthquakes” (Homer-Dixon, 2020).

How can we thus make these cogs of our various, often conflicting, worldviews, institutions, and technologies synchronize and mesh, so all of civilization can run smoothly?

Homer-Dixon states we must first put ourselves in the shoes of others, as although worldviews may certainly be different, people often share similar values. From here, he proposes a scientific means to create and compare peoples’ state space models that map their worldviews using fifteen different outwardly-radiating axes. Each axis represents the relative strength of one’s valence; the identification with, ambivalence towards, or repulsion from a particular value or belief; and which together form a unique shape, isomorphic to the individual’s worldview.

Could the topographic energy landscapes comprising basins of attraction that result from such modelled shapes reveal otherwise invisible but perhaps insightful patterns about the complex nature of our real socioeconomic and geopolitical landscapes? Could the relative symmetry or asymmetry of such shapes, for example, reveal deeper insights about the nature of the corresponding beliefs and worldviews held? Homer-Dixon proposes that in order to best face the inevitable disruptions and catastrophes which lie ahead, such innovative approaches must help to inform,

“a core set of generally shared principlesthat link our common temperaments, moral institutions, and values to our species’ superordinate goals and a rough outline of a shared vision of our desired future –  so we can create together our own broad and deep basin” (2020, p. 345).

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Confucianism:
“Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all of one’s life?” The Master said, “Is Reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not to others” (1946, p. 310).


Homer-Dixon, T. (2020) Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril. Toronto, Canada: Alfred A. Knopf – Penguin Random House

Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946), A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions, in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 309-310). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Lin, Y. (1937), Be Reasonable, in The Importance of Living [HTML document]. New York, United States: The John Day Co. Inc.

Unity 3

March 26th, 2021 by

Valence, a term commonly used to describe the relative attraction of particles to one another in the atomic context, also finds use in describing the qualitative nature of our subjective conscious experience, whether its seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, or touching and feeling. The attraction to, or repulsion from these experiences, and whether they present a pleasant or unpleasant quality, appears to not only have biological, but also quantum-mechanical roots. Microbes and bacteria and their effects on our physical and mental well-being as they relate to our environments, our social interactions, our diets, and the air we breathe, capture this notion on one level. Do the very waves or particles and the fundamental nature of such sensory sources and our complex interactions with them, also play important roles in determining the qualitative character, or qualia, of our experience? Deeper, beneath this layer of analysis, what is the nature of the electrical and neuro-chemical activity in our brains while we have experiences more generally?

Scientists including Andrés Gómez Emilsson at the Qualia Research Institute, theorize that the neural activity in our brains form a particular geometric pattern as we have conscious experience. The shapes and characteristics of these patterns are said to be isomorphic to, or mirror in a representational manner, the nature of the experience itself. When these experiences are described as pleasant, the patterns are observed to manifest as geometrically symmetrical traces and shapes when imaged. Does this phenomenon describe why our experiences of symmetry, synchrony, harmony, and thus unity, are generally described as being pleasant ones? Does this activity in our brains created by our perceptions make the experiences pleasant, or does the “pleasantness” exist outside our brains, attached to the experience itself?

Such conceptions describe a broader range of human consciousness from the perspective of chemical interactions in our bodies to the electrical activity occurring within our minds as they interface with the very molecular or subatomic nature of the environments and contexts in which we are enmeshed. Can such speculation point to even more fascinating revelations about the nature of consciousness and of reality itself?

According to philosopher Nick Bostrom, given statistical probabilities, chances are high that we are all really avatars in an extremely complex simulation. If this is the case and science proves that there is thus solid evidence for some higher order of being or intelligence, perhaps even outside our idea of space and time, would this not unite science and religion? Importantly, how might such revelation impact how we choose to live, and whether we even have choice in the matter?

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Christianity:
“All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law of the prophets” (1946, p. 310).  [Matthew 7:12]


Bostrum, N., & Fridman, L. (2020, March 25). Simulation and Superintelligence. Lex Fridman Podcast [Youtube interview] retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfKiTGj-zeQ

Gómez-Emilsson, A., & Nelson, A. D. (2020, August 7). Consciousness, Psychedelics, and Panpsychism. Waking Cosmos [sound-only Youtube interview] retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2CV-LUrlC7k

Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946), A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions, in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 309-310). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Johnson, M. E. (N.D.) Principia Qualia: Blueprint for a New Science (pp. 1-84) [pdf document]. Qualia Institute. Retrieved March 2021.

Unity 2

March 26th, 2021 by

Throughout history humans have sought meaning in the skies. The planets, stars, and constellations were signposts, talismans, and pictures forming the heavens above that carried significant meaning for life down on earth; after which they became our final, unifying destination.

According to science author Jo Marchant in her book The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars (2020), ancient Egyptians worshipping the rising and falling of the sun saw its movement as symbolic of the departure and subsequent return each night of the Pharoah’s soul, underscoring their connection to the heavens. Alexander the Great’s tutor Aristotle formalized such a merging by describing the heavens as a set of nested, concentric shells, each representing the orbit of one of the several prominent celestial bodies; while Constantine united the Christians and Pagans in worship on Sunday through similarly recognizing the divine nature of Sol. Mathematician and astronomer Ptolmey with his Geographica, by drawing lines of latitude and longitude which mirrored our conception of the skies onto the planet, moved our cosmological understanding from one of myth and lore to one of science and measurement.

Our quest for unity in the heavens was also given to prayer; its sky-marked timing both on the calendar and throughout the day. Moreover, unity was echoed in the chant and song itself; synchronized, harmonious, and pleasing to the ear. Worship and communion with the spiritual thus became associated with sound, and the marking of time:

“That duty revolved around the daily cycle of collective prayer, which was marked by the sound of bells. It was crucial to be on time, to avoid cutting short the worship and to ensure that everyone’s prayers could be synchronized; chanting and loud, together, was thought to make the efforts more powerful. Good timekeeping, then, was more important than even life and death. The spiritual salvation of humanity depended on it” (2020, p. 100).

If sound is so critical to our spiritual salvation or psychological well-being, does it not follow that the nature of the sound itself is important? Harmonious sound transcends the very capability of language, as composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote:

“It is exactly at the moment when language is unable to voice the expression of the soul that the vocation of music is opened to us; if all that passes in us were capable of expression in words, I should write no more music” (1940, p. 72).

The notions of melody, harmony, synchrony, symmetry; the unity of our being drawn to pleasant sensory experiences more generally, according to recent research, plays out in fascinating ways as electrical and chemical activity within our bodies and minds.


Grabbe, P. (1940) The Story of One Hundred Symphonic Favorites. New York, United States: Grosset & Dunlap

Marchant, J. (2020) The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars. New York, United States: Dutton, Penguin Random House

Unity 1

February 24th, 2021 by

While studying primates as they conducted a dramatic, ritualistic splashing at one particular eighty-foot high waterfall, eminent primatologist Jane Goodall translated their awe: “What is this strange substance which is always coming and always going and always here?” As an ethnographer in this context she then adds: “You can’t help feeling that if they had a language like ours, they could discuss whatever feeling it was that led them to these dramatic displays, which would turn into some kind of animistic religion” (2010, p. 294).

Noted physician and geneticist Francis Collins makes a similar observation of his own experience of awe in unity at a frozen waterfall: “Actually a waterfall that had three parts to it – also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me” (2010, p. 33).

In an essay titled “The Unity of Religions”, Hindu mystic and saint Ramakrishna, when replying to the question of why, if there is only one God, does this God appear differently to each religion, answers:

“As one can ascend to the top of a house by means of a ladder or a bamboo staircase or a rope, so diverse are the ways and means to approach God, and every religion in the world shows one of these ways. Different creeds are but different paths to reach the Almighty. Various are the ways that lead to the house of the Lord. Every religion is but one of the paths that lead to God. A truly religious man should think that other religions also are paths leading to truth” (1903, p. 12).

Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman argues that we need a shared space which can lead us to coalesce around notions of the sacred, a global ethic “beyond just the love of family, a sense of fairness, and a belief in democracy and free markets” (2010, p. 279). He asks whether we can find such transcendence through letting go of traditional concepts of a judgmental, omnipotent notion of “God” and instead find reverence in the ceaseless creativity of an unfolding nature. Author and lay theologian C. S. Lewis further wonders whether such quest for unity in nature is itself ultimately a human need:

“I know that the hankering for a universe which is all of a piece, and in which everything is the same sort of thing as everything else – a continuity, a seamless web, a democratic universe – is very deep seated in the modern heart; in mine, no less than in yours. But have we any real assurance that things are like that? Are we mistaking for an intrinsic probability what is really a human desire for tidiness and unity?” (1947, p. 35).

Does this appeal of “tidiness and unity” perhaps point to some more general desire for spiritual or philosophical fulfillment, which itself may have deeper cosmological, biological, or even quantum-mechanical roots? Is it worthwhile to consider whether such speculations can inform the foundations of our religious and philosophical ideals, and vice versa?

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Buddhism:
“In five ways should a clansman minister to his friends and familiars: by generosity, courtesy, and benevolence, by treating them as he treats himself, and by being as good as his word” (1946, p. 309).


Collins, F. (2010) in Paulson, S. (ed.) Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (pp. 31-43). New York, United States: Oxford University Press

Goodall, J. (2010) in Paulson, S. (ed.) Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (pp. 285-299). New York, United States: Oxford University Press

Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946), A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions, in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 309-310). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Kauffman, S. (2010) in Paulson, S. (ed.) Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (pp. 273-283). New York, United States: Oxford University Press

Lewis, C. S. (1947) Miracles. London, United Kingdom: Geoffrey Bles

Ramakrishna (1903) The Unity of Religions, from Swami Abhedananda; The Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna (pp. 10–12). New York, United States: Vedanta Society

Ideal

February 23rd, 2021 by

Studying science, art, and religion through the respective lenses of logic, aesthetics, and ethics, helps us to develop corresponding concepts of their ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness; collectively referred to as the Transcendentals. Philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey states the power of such ideals depends upon some prior complete embodiment of them, that there already exists a divine realm “where criminals are treated humanely, where all facts and truths have been discovered, and all beauty is displayed in actualized form” (1936, p. 42).

Do current concepts of our ideals, whatever or wherever they are, provide an adequate roadmap to enable movement towards a more peaceful, equitable, and just society? Do they need refinement or update, and for us to reorient ourselves accordingly? Key to marshalling society to be in alignment with any higher ideal, according to philosopher William James, is a redirection of martial, or war-like, virtues towards constructive civic enterprises: “It is only a question of blowing on the spark until the whole population gets incandescent, and on the ruins of the old morals of military honor, a stable system of morals of civic honor builds itself up” (1911, p.288). What forms today’s martial virtues, and their corresponding antidotes of constructive civic enterprises?

Orienting towards a civilizational ideal is the thrust beneath Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novel series, Foundation. Generations of “psychohistorians” and “encyclopedists” use the tools of psychology coupled with projecting historical patterns in order to predict and guide the course of humanity many millennia into the future of an already galaxy-sprawling human civilization. The group must create a new order; “the Foundation, dedicated to art, science, and technology as the beginnings of a new empire”.

In an essay titled “Creation; The Goal in Life”, French philosopher Henri Bergson also speaks of approaching ideals through acts of creation, and looking for their key indicator, joy, which “always announces that life has succeeded, gained ground, conquered. All great joy has a triumphant note”. Taking this indication into account and following the facts, according to Bergson, leads one to find that wherever there is joy, there is creation, and moreover, the richer the joy, the richer the creation:

“A mother beholding the joy of their child, the merchant developing his business, the manufacturer seeing his industry prosper each provide examples. Riches and social position bring much, yes, but it is pleasure rather than joy that is their gift. True joy, here, is exemplified in the starting of an enterprise which grows, of having brought something to life” (1920, p. 29).

Along such a pragmatic thread, Dewey states that the word “God” means the “ideal ends” at a particular space-time juncture “where one’s authority over their volition and emotion, and the values to which they are devoted, become unified”.


Asimov, I. (1951) Foundation. New York, United States: Avon Books (1966 ed.)

Bergson, H. (1920) Creation; The Goal in Life, in Mind-Energy, translated by H. Wildon Carr (pp. 29-35). New York, United States: Henry Holt and Co.

Dewey, J. (1936) Humanism: A Modern Religion, in A Common Faith (pp. 42-57). New Haven, United States: Yale University Press

James, W. (1911) The Moral Equivalent of War, in Memories and Studies (pp. 286-295) [HTML document]. New York, United States: Longmans, Green and Co.

Truth

January 29th, 2021 by

Truth is the property of being in accord with fact or reality (Wikipedia, retrieved January 2021). It can often be difficult to separate truth from fiction, for a variety of reasons. How might we approach such a challenge? In one of a series of discourses titled The Idea of a University delivered to the Catholics of Dublin” in 1852, English theologian and priest Cardinal John Henry Newman recognized an appropriate tool in the form of a healthy intellect,

which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another.”

while

Those, on the other hand, who have no object or principle whatever to hold by, lose their way, every step they take. They are thrown out, and do not know what to think or say, at every fresh juncture; they have no view of persons, occurrences, or facts, which come suddenly upon them, and they hang upon the opinion of others, for want of internal resources” (1852, p. 165).

Does our current socio-technological landscape tend to favour this latter demographic? Are recent chaotic effects indicative of the nature of a new evolutionary trajectory brought on by our technological extensions? If so, how might we proceed? Should we all not want to be stakeholders in this, our own evolution, if that is what it is, rather than completely hand it off to those who have no interest but in our wallets, in keeping us glued to our screens, or monitored in some Orwellian nightmare come to life? As Ron Deibert wonders in his comprehensive, revealing book Reset (2020): “What harbinger is it for the future when one of the principal means we have to communicate with each other is so heavily distorted in ways that propel confusion and chaos?” (2020, p. 89).

In the public sphere, complementary to any notion of truth are the issue of freedom of speech and the important question of how to approach it in our new and ever-evolving media ecosystems. How might action be taken, or regulation shaped, so we can still reap tech’s abundant benefits, and move towards a more sustainable ideal? Moreover, can we reach a point so as to be assured, as American newspaper editor William Allen White asserted in 1924, that so long as there is freedom, folly will die on its own:

You tell me that law is above freedom of utterance. And I reply you can have no wise laws nor free enforcement of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people – and, alas, their folly with it. But if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and wisdom will survive” (1924, p. 349).

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Baháʼí Faith:
“If thou lookest toward justice, choose thou for others what thou choosest for thyself. Blessed is he who prefers his brother before himself” (1946, p. 310).


Deibert, R. J. (2020) Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. Toronto, Canada: House of Anansi Press

Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946) A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions, in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 309-310). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Newman, J. H. (1852) The Delights of Knowledge, in The Idea of a University, Discourse 6, Section 6, (pp. 164–166) [PDF document]. New York, United States: Longmans, Green and Co. (1902 ed.)

White, W. A. (1924) The Importance of Free Speech, in The Editor and His People: Editorials by William Allen White, selected by Helen Ogden Mahim (pp. 348-349). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company

Purpose

January 28th, 2021 by

Author and Roman Catholic theologian John Haught states that science, as a method, does not ask questions of purpose. However, when one assesses the overall gains of scientific discovery from a theological perspective, this growing part of our world does suggest some purpose, some intention, and moreover one that needs to be integrated with modern religious worldviews. Importantly, Haught asks, does the cumulative impact of such discovery not reveal some deeper agency, some movement driving the whole initiative of nature forward, in anything but purposeless fashion? Nature’s purpose, according to Haught, “seems to be, from the very beginning, the intensification of consciousness” (2010, p. 92).

Applying Haught’s hypothesis to one’s own experience of nature leads us to generally agree. Our question now becomes, where to next? Are there deeper, perhaps invisible physiological changes already taking place within us as we continue to evolve? Should we expect such developments, or are they by traditional views of natural selection the sort that transpire over many millennia? As Haught alludes to, are philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s technological extensions – our gadgets and software – this evidence itself; are these very rapidly evolving appendages indicative of such a transformation, which by all accounts is well underway?

Should such potential evolution not pay special attention to our fundamental contingent, interdependent selves, and echo what already appears to be manifesting as the wholeness of nature and the universe? After all, it’s particles to molecules, molecules to cells, cells to organisms, organisms to vertebrates with a complex nervous system, all the way up the ladder; an evolution of consciousness in all its wonder that attracted physicist Albert Einstein:

It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature” (1931, p. 6).

Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described this unfolding; life, nature, the universe, as a movement; a symphony of perpetually becoming more, revealing correspondingly more complexity. Twentieth century author Harold H. Titus sees such a purposeful growth of human consciousness through learning as an “unceasing search for truth, which is the quest for coherence, for the connectedness of the universe, for unity and for that which can be continually lived” (1936, p. 439).


Einstein, A. (1931) Our Debt to Other Men; The Lure of the Mysterious, in Living Philosophies (pp. 3-7) [PDF document]. New York, United States: Simon and Schuster

Haught, J. (2010) in Paulson, S. (ed.) Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (pp. 83-98). New York, United States: Oxford University Press

Titus, H. H. (1936) Some Principles for Living, in Ethics for Today (pp. 431-440). New York, United States: American Book Company

Meaning

December 30th, 2020 by

Meaning can refer to the representing of a concept, such as through language, and it can refer to the broader philosophical and psychological questions surrounding the existential nature of what it is to be human. Holocaust survivor, psychologist and philosopher Viktor Frankl, whose book “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1946), saw that “the search for a meaning in life is identified as the primary motivational force in human beings” (Wikipedia, retrieved December 2020, after Frankl, 1946).

The ending of the Second World War ushered in a new era. The meaning of human civilization itself had a poignancy as massive population and economic growth stood in sharp juxtaposition to the sudden new ominous potential of “mutual assured destruction” brought about by the atomic bomb and the start of the Cold War.

In 1947 my father attended the World Council of Churches youth conference in Olso, Norway as a Canadian delegate. As part of this trip he traveled to the city of Bergen and, where standing on the threshold shore, described a similar juxtaposition: Around and across the water lay a splendid mountain vista rising up from the placid waters in display of the utter beauty of creation in nature, while directly behind him stood in sharp contrast the shattered and bombed-out remnants of post-war Bergen, eerily symbolic of humanity’s most destructive potential. One of his books titled “The Shaking of the Foundations” (1948), a collection of sermons by philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich published around that time, has passages which continue to be meaningful:

“At the beginning of our period we decided for freedom. It was a right decision; it created something new and great in history. But in that decision we excluded the security, social and spiritual, without which man cannot live and grow. And now, in the old age of our period, the quest to sacrifice freedom for security splits every nation and the whole world with really daemonic power. We have decided for means to control nature and society. We have created them, and we have brought about something new and great in the history of all mankind. But we have excluded ends. We have never been ready to answer the question, “For what?”

And now, when we approach old age, the means claim to be the ends; our tools have become our masters, and the most powerful of them have become a threat to our very existence. We have decided for reason against outgrown traditions and honored superstitions. That was a great and courageous decision, and gave a new dignity to man. But we have, in that decision, excluded the soul, the ground and power of life. We have cut off our mind from our soul, and have suppressed and misrepresented the soul within us, in other men, and in nature” (1948, p. 179-180).

This past year, despite its challenges, has provided a useful opportunity to continue and deepen my own quest for meaning, and I am looking forward to carrying it on into 2021. To end 2020 on a positive note, I will share another quote from one of my father’s books, titled “The Clown and the Crocodile” (1970), by a friend and colleague of his named Joseph C. McLelland:

“Because of life’s contradictions; because man experiences both darkness and light; because the contest is a dance and the dance a glory… therefore celebration is always in order. The truly human life is an act of celebration” (1970, p. 152).


Frankl, V. (1946) Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, United States: Beacon Press (2014 ed.)

McLelland, J. C. (1970) The Clown and the Crocodile. Richmond, United States: John Knox Press

Tillich, P. (1948) The Shaking of the Foundations. New York, United States: Charles Scribner’s Sons

Stakeholder

November 30th, 2020 by

The definition of a stakeholder in the corporate sense is “a member of groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020, after Freeman, 1980). In this realm, stakeholders can include owners, managers, employees, trade unions, customers, shareholders, supply chains, and the communities related to or surrounding such structures, among others. If we extend such a perspective across society, it sees individuals, regardless of specific affiliation, as having a vested interest and the agency to act in many different aspects of their day-to-day lives. Communities, unions, school districts, religious and volunteer organizations, sports and athletic clubs, local and national politics, and the many other networks radiating out from each of these provide examples of different pools of stakeholders.

Does the concept of “citizen” in the political sense adequately embody our collective societal roles? Does something about the term “stakeholder” imply a responsibility, reciprocity, or an exchange of some sort of value? Stakeholder Theory looks at this notion from a wider, ethical perspective: “It addresses morals and values in managing an organization, such as those related to corporate social responsibility, market economy, and social contract theory” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020). Stakeholder engagement “is the process by which an organization involves people who may be affected by the decisions it makes or can influence the implementation of its decisions. They may support or oppose the decisions, be influential in the organization or within the community in which it operates, hold relevant official positions or be affected in the long term” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020).

Could a stakeholder perspective be adopted by different facets of society? How might people become engaged in the larger social spheres, beyond the ballot or suggestion box? In the business world, academic Michael Porter proposes moving beyond social responsibility to the idea of Creating Shared Value whose central premise “is that the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are mutually dependent (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020).

“The principle of shared value creation cuts across the traditional divide between the responsibilities of business and those of government or civil society. From society’s perspective, it does not matter what types of organizations created the value. What matters is that benefits are delivered by those organizations – or combinations of organizations – that are best positioned to achieve the most impact for the least cost”, and thus create “a positive cycle of company and community prosperity” (2011, p. 12).

Shared value creation underscores the relevance of the third, social, balancing leg of sustainability practice. Given the increasing role that technology plays in our lives, has surveillance capitalism sidestepped all opportunity for social responsibility and shared value creation in treating us not as stakeholders in any grander social vision, but rather as taunted data points in some massive marketing miasma? Professor and Director of the Citizen Lab Ronald Deibert makes the case for a reset of the internet and a rethink from first principles (2020).

Does the notion of value more generally warrant scrutiny in light of the apparent increasingly and often unpredictably shifting nature of our present day socioeconomic landscape? Do the things we have come to attach value to, for instance social status and material wealth, really matter? Do they provide genuine happiness and peace? Moreover, how can we articulate and reconcile our values as a society, and as member nations of a planet, so that we can best face the challenges, both exciting and daunting, that undoubtedly lie ahead?


Ayed, N., & Deibert, R. (2020, November 16). Reset. Ideas @ CBC Radio [mp3 audio interview] retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/what-happened-to-the-promise-of-the-internet-it-s-time-for-a-reset-says-ron-deibert-1.5801268

Kramer, M., & Porter, M. (2011) Creating Shared Value. Harvard Business Review, January-February (pp. 1-18)

Sustainability

November 24th, 2020 by

The broadest definition of sustainability is “the ability to exist constantly”. Nowadays, despite its buzzword-popularity, “refers generally to the capacity for the biosphere and human civilization to co-exist” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020). One important notion regarding sustainability is that of the “commons” in the environmental sense; the air, the water, the lands that we all share or have access to and depend on, but by their nature as intrinsically essential often exist apart from our spatial and temporal boundaries, and tragically apart from our priorities.

In nineteen sixty-two biologist Rachel Carson’s landmark book “Silent Spring“, whose title alludes to a nature without the sounds of birds or insects, threw a spotlight on the effect of chemical pesticides upon the landscape and effectively launched the modern environmental movement. Carson ascribed the problem underlying our perilous course as a desire to “control nature”… “a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man” (1962, p. 297).

Formalizing this movement began several decades later with the publishing of Our Common Future: The United Nations Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Bruntland Report, in 1987. This document established a framework which defined sustainable development as that which“meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs” and thus sought to move environmental practices beyond the regulatory compliance of the seventies, the anticipatory cost-avoiding measures undertaken in the eighties, through proactive measures such as eco-efficiency and strategic environmental management in the nineties, to what is regarded as the mainstreaming and integration of sustainability practices overall into the new millennium. The report presents “not a detailed blueprint for action, but instead a pathway by which the peoples of the world may enlarge their spheres of cooperation” (1987, p. 11).

Despite strong public awareness about the topic of sustainability, some sectors within modern society have been accused of greenwashing, “a form of marketing spin in which green PR (green values) and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020). Increasingly, goals, frameworks, and standards are required to help shepherd sustainable development forward, insofar as these sorts of instruments are supported by policymakers. The key lever currently needed to effect meaningful environmental change, according to most scientists and economists, is for nations to broadly implement a carbon tax.  Thanks for this reminder, Elon 🙂  [JRE #1609]

Critical too in this broader context is the challenge of assigning a value to both finite and renewable resources which form the planet’s natural capital and that often also provide essential ecosystem services. Can technology and innovation play a role in the vast accounting necessary to adequately undertake such initiatives? Moreover, do large, governing bodies such as the United Nations not now have a more crucial role than ever in uniting the peoples of the world in order to face such global challenges?

Top-down regulation and guidelines must also serve to augment and incentivize necessary bottom-up approaches to a circular economy. Critical to sustainable developments themselves is an understanding the wider, often complex spheres into which they fit. For example, its possible that many millions of solar panels will reach the end of their lifespans over the coming years. Could industrial ecology and material efficiency strategies such as the industrial symbiosis of their manufacture and the “loop-closing” reverse logistics of their recycling, be factored in to their design, development, and deployment? Does manufacturing sufficiently capitalize on these and other progressive environmental practices? As echoed in Carson’s commentary about modern society, we live in an “era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits” (1962, p. 13).

Sustainable development as a practice applied to various broad sectors of society might be viewed as three legs supporting a table. An economic one relates to issues of growth, sufficiency, and stability; an environmental one includes issues of resilience, resource use, and pollution; and a third, social one, sees people as stakeholders; clients, employees, members of the local community, broader markets, supply chains, populations, to name but a few, and all of their related interactions. How must these three legs balance so society can truly progress sustainably?


Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring. New York, United States: Mariner Books – Houghton Mifflin (2002 ed).

Green Growth Knowledge Platform (N.D.) United Nations, Green Growth Knowledge Partnership [website]. Retrieved April 2021

One Planet Network (N.D.) United Nations, One Planet Network [website]. Retrieved April 2021

Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) [PDF document]. Retrieved from the United Nations website

United Nations Environment Programme (N.D.) United Nations [website]. Retrieved April 2021

Complexity

October 30th, 2020 by

Complexity characterises the behaviour of a system or model whose components interact in multiple ways and follow local rules, meaning there is no reasonable higher instruction to define the various possible interactions.” Can having a better sense of a system’s complexity yield insights into the relationship between its inputs and outputs? Systems Theory looks at a “system as a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts which can be natural or human-made” (Wikipedia, retrieved October 2020).

In the business realm, scholar and author Roger Martin proposes two broad approaches to help address complex challenges. One is design thinking which involves employing both analytical and intuitive reasoning in order to develop human-focused solutions to issues, and which can often reveal unique aspects of a problem not otherwise available through ordinary deductive analyses. “The most successful businesses in the years to come will balance analytical mastery and intuitive originality” (2009, p. 6). Business has much to learn from design where the service or product is first prototyped, then tried, and then improved upon in an iterative cycle. Brainstorming, moving an idea from a thumbnail sketch to a mock-up, critiquing, and user-testing, are all part of a “user-centered” approach that provides an entry into understanding the “fuzzy” nature of human behaviour. Usability expert Donald Norman describes one approach to accommodate a wide array of different needs, whether it be for designing a chair or an interface, as making things easily customized or having “everything adjustable” (1988, p. 162). Does such flexibility impart a resilience to products, services, and systems?

A second means of approaching complexity in this sphere is a form of integrative thinking which involves a balancing of opposing models and pulling elements from each in order to arrive at a creative, integrative solution, superior to what could be achieved through choosing one model over the other. Such a synergistic approach can also allow for the tailoring of solutions to specific and highly unique contexts.

Can innovative business approaches be applied to societal systems even more broadly? Would visiting aspects such as the democratic process, education, or healthcare under such a lens be worthwhile? Complexity tells us that our systems must still function within larger contexts where outside influences have the potential to shape development in sometimes sudden, unforeseen, and unpredictable ways. Can such unknowns be prepared for in our fast-paced society where a premium is placed on notions of productivity and efficiency?


Martin, R. (2009) The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. Boston, United States: Harvard Business School Publishing

Norman, D. A. (1988) The Design of Everyday Things. New York, United States: Basic Books

Creativity

September 30th, 2020 by

An artist might view creativity as the satisfying of an urge to make something of beauty, something others may also find appealing or that will somehow resonate. What is its source and what enables its manifestation? Filmmaker David Lynch uses the analogy of fishing when approaching a creative endeavour through a Jungian plumbing of the collective unconscious. According to Lynch, an appropriate setting is helpful and can take a form such as meditation. This quieting one’s mind and a lowering of the line or net is followed by a corresponding patient waiting until the fish, or idea, bites. Ethnobotanist Terence McKenna states such riparian metaphors describe the creative forces flowing within nature and the imagination “which run like an endless river through all of us and are driven by the hydraulic momentum of the cataracts of chaos… These things are icons for the world that wants to be” (2001, p.49).

Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed” (Wikipedia, retrieved September 2020). Beyond this, many definitions of creativity exist that span popular understanding. In one example from an analytical perspective, it is

“a process of becoming sensitive to problems, deficiencies, gaps in knowledge, missing elements, disharmonies, and so on; identifying the difficulty; searching for solutions, making guesses, or formulating hypotheses about the deficiencies: testing and retesting these hypotheses and possibly modifying and retesting them; and finally communicating the results”, while “it is usually distinguished from innovation in particular, where the stress is on implementation” (Wikipedia, retrieved September 2020).

Creative Destruction is the idea posited by Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter of a business cycle of mutation. A process of continual renewal which can see completely new yet highly relevant opportunities emerge from what had been up until that point often viewed as entrenched, immovable means of conducting business, or society. Do present circumstances offer the chance for creative destruction and rebirth more generally in our vastly complex civilization?


Abraham, R., McKenna, T., Sheldrake, R. (2001) Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness. Rochester, United States: Park Street Press

Chaos

September 29th, 2020 by

Chaos derives from the Ancient Greek khaos, which means “vast chasm, void”, whereas figurative uses of the term as in confusion or disorder appear from the seventeenth century on. The scientific and mathematical meaning which first manifest in the nineteen sixties known as Chaos Theory looks at

“dynamical systems whose apparently random states of disorder and irregularities are often governed by deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions… and is an interdisciplinary theory stating that, within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, interconnectedness, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, and self-organization” (Wikipedia, retrieved September 2020).

A popular metaphor used to underscore this complexity is referred to as the butterfly effect where one flapping its wings can lead to the formation of a hurricane in a completely different part of the world. Does this level of connection speak to an underlying implicate or enfolded order beneath what is otherwise apparent chaos?

Chaos may be regarded as a transitional phase, the counterpoint of or antecedent to creativity. The ancient Nile River’s flood season was heralded by Arkanoah, the waters of change, symbolized by an ark, a boat- or sail-like crescent moon. According to historian J. C. Cooper in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols (1978), this symbol represented “the feminine principle, bearer of life, the womb, regeneration, the ship of destiny” (p. 14), as the floodplain would become enriched with the settling out of fresh, fertile sediments in advance of the growing season.

Mathematician Ralph Abraham implies that chaos on a more personal level can even be welcome, for the

“repression of chaos results in an inhibition of creativity and thus a resistance to imagination. The creative imagination, manifested most profoundly by people like Euler or Bach, should be functioning in everyone. People have a resistance to their own creative imagination” (2001, p. 40).


Abraham, R., McKenna, T., Sheldrake, R. (2001) Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness. Rochester, United States: Park Street Press

Cooper, J. C. (1978) An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London, United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson

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, 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 I sometimes wonder whether science permits instantiations of his image to make appearances in our space. Or rather, is my mind simply yearning to find remnants of him today in a world so drastically different from just a decade and a half ago? Here are screen captures from a serendipitous and un-retouched (apart from overall brightness and gamma adjustments) ten minute long infrared video panorama recorded in September 2017, where his likeness seems to appear in the clouds, grinning, perhaps projected 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” (Wikipedia, retrieved July 2020).

Buddhism provides us 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” (2004, 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 obtained 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” (1964, 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 us 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” (retrieved July 2020).

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 these 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” where “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 attenuated, 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” (1964, 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” (1986, 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 historian and author of An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J. C. Cooper states, “constitute an international language transcending normal limits of communication” (1978, 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 echoes 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 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” (Wikipedia, retrieved May 2020). 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 writes,

“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” (1978, p.7).


Cooper, J. C. (1978) An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London, United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson

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 intrinsically meaningful, that they seemed on the point of leaving the shelves to thrust themselves more insistently on my attention” (1954, 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 is ingested, for example psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, 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: Harper Collins

Kinzer, S. (2019) Poisoner in Chief. New York, United States: Henry Holt and Co.

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, 3D glasses, or Virtual Reality (VR) systems based on the same principle, that are in common 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”.


Sacks, O. (2007) Musicophilia. Toronto, Canada: Knopf

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. Author Tim Parks (2019) 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 a slight variation, rotate the cylinder just a quarter turn after inserting the first droplet, and insert a second droplet immediately adjacent along its axis to where the first had been inserted. Rotate it another quarter turn, insert a third droplet, and continue this pattern up and down its entire length. Now, as the cylinder is rotated, there appears a sole particle moving along it’s axis as each wave-like coil of ink briefly manifests its droplet in succession (1987, p. 172).

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 math and binary code? 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?


Bohm, D. (1980) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London, United Kingdom: Routledge

Bohm, D., & Peat, F. D. (1987) Science, Order, and Creativity. London, United Kingdom: Routledge

Parks, T. (2019) Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness. New York Review of Books: New York, United States

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 and educator Brian Greene, the main reason why we have such a difficult time wrapping our heads around any broader view of reality more generally is due to our brains having evolved to think in an environment that necessitated, for example, the throwing of spears in order to survive.

From Bohm’s perspective this could be interpreted as our species having adapted to thinking and behaving 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 a question of how do we reconcile the world that we are most familiar with such an implicate order, which for all intents and purposes remains invisible to us? Could this speak to some deeper design underlying that which we know as reality?

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, consciousness, and reality 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.

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