Alan Kirker

Agency

September 22nd, 2021 by

In an essay titled “Life Functions in a Resisting Medium” (1934), philosopher L. P. Jacks sees the agency manifest in nature as life “working in a resisting medium”… utilizing it “as the fulcrum of creative action” (1934, p. 36).

“Every living thing is an example of this. The bird needs the resisting medium of the air to fly; the fish of the water to swim; and man when he stands upright is resisting a tendency to fall, though he may be unconscious of it. Standing upright might be defined as successful resistance to the force of gravitation” (1934, p. 36).

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli explores the notion of agency more deeply in a paper titled “Agency in Physics” (July 2020). Beyond resisting media, an agent is simply that which ignores some of the physical links to its environment, whether in the case of the wind pushing an air mass down a slope, a sprout breaking through soil, or a person deciding to take some action. These macroscopic examples of independent agency can ultimately trace back to many microscopic roots, as basic as a difference in temperature between systems of whatever size, all the way down to the random agency of quantum indeterminacy arising from “unaccounted degrees of freedom” (2020, p. 6), as in the microphysics of brain activity.

Temperature differences, or thermodynamic gradients, cause a change in entropy such as the heat dissipation of cooling. Such fundamental activity can drive macroscopic independent agency as temporally-irreversible change, when the realizing of possible system evolutions is observed, and which Rovelli equates with the agent having made a choice. This change leaves a memory, that consequently creates information, which in turn can fuel further agency and lead to an openness with “ample space for subtle, high level processes to influence the macroscopic future… Memory and agency can thus be viewed as mechanisms that convert free energy into information. This may well be the primary source of the information the biosphere, the brain, and culture, deal with” (2020, p. 1, 6).

Does placing a metaphysical frame over this view see it accord with Buddhist notions of dependent origination where every thought or action carries some agency, and nothing is without a cause? If so, does this thus translate that thoughts, words, and actions are themselves agents creating information, and leaving traces to affect other agents? And, what is the nature of the asymmetry; thermodynamic, perspectival, or otherwise, underlying agency and which appears to impel systems in this manner more generally?


Jacks, L. P. (1934), Life Functions in a Resisting Medium in The Revolt against Mechanism (pp. 19-24), reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946) Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 35-38). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Rovelli, C. (July 2020), Agency in Physics (pp. 1-7). DOI: arXiv:2007.05300v2 [PDF document] retrieved September 2021 from https://arxiv.org/abs/2007.05300

Causality

August 28th, 2021 by

Causality (also referred to as causation, or cause and effect) is influence by which one event, process, state or object (a cause) contributes to the production of another event, process, state or object (an effect) where the cause is partly responsible for the effect, and the effect is partly dependent on the cause. In general, a process has many causes, which are also said to be causal factors for it, and all lie in its past. An effect can in turn be a cause of, or causal factor for, many other effects, which all lie in its future. Some writers have held that causality is metaphysically prior to notions of time and space” (Wikipedia, retrieved August 2021).

What do we really see when we look up to the stars at night? What has caused this “jeweled canopy” to appear so beautiful to our eyes and telescopes, as though its sole purpose was to inspire awe? References to a design underlying nature are found throughout religious scriptures. For example, from Al-Rhaman The Merciful, in the Quran; “The sun and the moon move according to a fixed reckoning; the stars and the trees bend in prostration. He raised the heavens and set up the measure, so that you should not transgress the measure.” (The Quran, Al-Rahman The Merciful, chapter 55, verses 5 through 8).

Astrophysicist Nidhal Guesshoum, an observant Muslim, believes that there is an underlying design to our universe, referencing colleague Paul Davies“cosmic blueprint” :

“Was there any underlying principle that produced this cosmic blueprint?” We can always take the explanation one step deeper. I also believe there is some meaning to existence and to this universe. It’s not an accident that intelligence, consciousness, and life exist. But can we ever determine what the purpose really is? I’m not sure. It may be a question that’s way beyond us” (2010, p. 224)

In his book, “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum” (2019), theoretical physicist Lee Smolin begins building a case for unifying relativity and quantum theory. He extends the notion of mathematician Gottfried Leibniz that the universe is a unified, background-independent whole, comprised of different “causal events”. Smolin proposes that time is fundamental in this relational model and space is an emergent appearance that reveals “causal views” which are formed by its “causal structure” (Smolin, 2019, p. 256). The quantum phenomenon of non-locality, questioned by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”, is now similarly an emergent phenomenon, and this approach explains how entangled particles can exist separately across the various, sometimes vast, causal views of our spacetime.

In a paper titled “The Quantum Mechanics of the Present” (2021), Smolin and colleague Clelia Verde go further by proposing a new ontology for looking at time itself. “Causality is represented by the present moment coordinates which build the current previous moments on the previous ones. This is the true action of dynamics in quantum physics” (2021, p. 10). At what point do a system’s attributes change from behaving quantum-mechanically to behaving classically, or vice versa? Smolin and Verde posit that what differentiates elements within a system is their “definiteness”, their concrescence. Broadly, events that exist in the past, relative to the observer, are no longer indefinite and probabilistic, but definite, concrete, and measurable. Whereas future events, right up to their cresting in the present moment, are indefinite and uncertain, and therefore quantum-mechanical in nature.

Similar to how an inertial observer may feel no motion, an observer in the present sits stationary while the future rushes towards them, as “isn’t that how it often feels?” (2021, p. 11). Smolin and Verde wonder what would it be like if we didn’t have clocks at all, and the present was “always NOW”. The times of probabilistic future events would thus always be counting down to the present moment, when they would “happen” and emerge from indefinite into definite.

Does such a perspective support a teleology, a design, to nature and the universe? Theologian and author C. S. Lewis asks, could it be “God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching an infinite speed…? (1947, p. 114).

Beyond religious or metaphysical speculation, and of our being mere observers, what role do causal agents play under such a regime? Are we not each a causal agent in our various contexts? Does this view infer an even greater potential to letting go of the past, and instead acting in the present to influence the future?

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Judaism:
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (1946, p. 309).


Guesshoum, N. (2010), in Paulson, S. (ed.) Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (pp. 215-228). 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.)

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

The Quran (2009) translated by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan and Farida Khanam. Noida, India: Goodword Books (2015 ed.)

Smolin, L. & Verde, C. (April 2021) The Quantum Mechanics of the Present (pp. 1-14). DOI: arxiv.org:2104.09945v1 [PDF document] retrieved August 2021 from https://arxiv.org/pdf/2104.09945.pdf

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

Cosmic Orphans?

August 21st, 2021 by

The following is a transcription of one of my father – Reverend Dr. E. A. Kirker’s – sermons, originally delivered in August 1979.

One verse in the 147th Psalm which we read earlier, contains two basic affirmations about God: “He heals the broken-hearted; he tells the number of the stars”. The first is about God’s relationship with people, the second with His creation. Let’s reverse the order and begin with the second affirmation: “He tells the number of the stars” or, as the Hebrew may be rendered “He determines the number of stars. He gives to all of them their names”.

Have you tried naming the stars? A young girl crippled by an accident asked that her bed be moved near a window so that she might study the sky at night. Sometime later she told a visitor that she had a name for every star. What, he asked, do you call them? “Well, this bright one is Mom and that one is Dad, and those are my brothers and sisters, and my relations and friends, and the rest are the doctors and nurses who are good to me. Do you know, she added, there are not enough stars to go around?” The minister who told this story concluded with these words to his congregation: “Go home, you thankless people, and count the stars.”

Perhaps you have sat out some evening this summer and studied the sky, watching for a meteor shower or a satellite or SkyLab, or simply to restore your perspective. Around you stretched the universe in all directions: the rest of our solar system, its galaxy and the countless galaxies beyond. Here is no jewelled canopy but endless space with millions of heavenly bodies, each moving in a predetermined path with such dependability that eclipses and other phenomena can be predicted precisely.

For centuries the faith of many people has been found in its strongest basis in God’s revelation through nature. Pointing not only to the heavens above, but to the world of nature around us, in all its wonder and beauty, such folk concluded that because of this evidence of a plan, there must be a Planner. If a design, then a Designer.

This ‘argument from design’ as it has been called, has a long and honourable history. And it has the support of many, if not most, scientists. Writes one, the British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle:

“It is my view that man’s misguided imagination could never have chanced upon such structure as one finds in the universe. No literary genius could possibly have invented a story one-hundredth part as fantastic as the sober facts which have been unearthed by astronomical science.”

But then he adds: “Here we are with scarcely a clue as to whether our existence has any real significance”. When anyone contemplates the immensity of space and realizes that we are dwellers on a tiny planet among incredible billions of stars, one can’t help wondering if we are any more than infinitesimal pieces of futile insignificance. Could we be, as the anthropologist Loren Eiseley suggested in a recent essay, simply “cosmic orphans”?

Now both he and Fred Hoyle are brilliant and highly respected scientists, at the top of their respective fields. But one would have to say to them “You are wrong, expecting that mathematics, physics, or astronomy should explain the universe or our existence. That would be like trying to understand a Mozart quintet by analyzing the vibrations of which the universe is made up”.

The scientist is entitled to reply “Perhaps”, he might say, “but your beloved ‘argument from design’ has its limitations too. For one thing, there is too much of the universe to be packaged in a single design, and it goes on far too long to be explained by a single argument.” Moreover, adds Professor Hoyle,

“You Christians speak as if this was a cabbage-patch world and you had God in your pocket and know all about Him. The universe is not only vaster than you can imagine; it is expanding further all the time.”

So the conversation between science and religion continues. At one time it was bitter and acrimonious, but now a new phase has begun, as witness the recent conference of scientists and theologians at M.I.T. The old categories of mind versus matter have broken apart completely. Hit hard by recent breakthroughs in physics and biology, scientists, says botanist Edmund Sinnott, “are not as cocksure as we used to be”. The old laws, far from absolute, are now known to apply more and more to special cases. In this 100th anniversary year of Einstein’s birth, aspects of his theory of relativity are questioned. There is even uncertainty about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

Science has also come under heavy attack because of the damage resulting from uncontrolled application of its technology. There is a new concern for the future of this planet, about the values by which we live, and about the destiny of the human species. In a word, the shift has been from an emphasis on the “How?” to the “Why?” of creation. It has become apparent that belief in God requires more than simply looking at the design of the universe. What is needed is evidence that we are made for a purpose greater than ourselves.

And this is precisely what religion seeks to do. Its scriptures are the stories of people with no knowledge of science worth speaking of. What little understanding of the physical universe they possessed was often gained from more scientifically advanced neighbours such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians. But our spiritual forebears, through their views of the universe, however limited this now appears to be, came to the unshakeable conviction that behind everything was the Mind of God, that in the beginning He created the universe, that He watches over it, that He alone Knows the number and the name of the stars.

But they possessed something more; an unsurpassed experience of life. Their history was one of homelessness and wandering, a constant struggle for survival, a little nation among giant neighbours, beset by enemies they could not stop with the affirmation of a Creative Intelligence behind all things. They came to believe as well that at the heart of the universe is that which is more like a father’s heart than anything else we know. Gazing at the immensities of space they were convinced that behind these tiny pin points of light is a Love which embraces all things. This God, they said, not only tells the number of the stars; He also heals the broken-hearted.

As if to confirm forever this great revelation of the nature of God, out of his very heart came One who confirmed that the supreme reality of the universe is not gigantic suns whirling through space but human personality, and a Person who is like a shepherd searching the hillsides for one lost sheep, like a woman turning her house upside down to find one lost coin, like a Father longing for the return of the Prodigal, a Father who marks even the flight of the sparrow, numbers of hairs on our head, gives us our daily bread, and loves each of his children as though he had but one child to love. This God who heals the broken in heart has been given face and form in Jesus the Christ.

One of the best-loved padres of the first World War was Col. Frederick George Scott of the Canadian Chaplain Corps. Always, he was to be found wherever his men needed him. He was also a poet who some years before the war penned these lines:

I arose at midnight and beheld the sky
Sown thick with stars like grains of golden sand,
Which God had scattered from his hand
Upon the floorways of his home on high.

And straight I pictured in my spirit's eye
The giant worlds, their course by Wisdom planned:
The weary wastes, the gulf no sight hath spanned,
And endless time forever passing by.

Then filled with wonder and a secret dread
I crept to where my child lay fast asleep
With chubby arms beneath his golden head.
What cared I then for all the stars above?

One little face shut out the boundless deep,
One little heart revealed the heart of love.

Tell me, where did love like that originate? From an accidental collocation of atoms in a cold, blind, mechanical universe? Or is love like that born in human hearts because it first existed at the heart of the universe?

Oh, the cynic may say, that’s nice poetry, but there may come a day when that little curly head is snatched from its pillow and nothing is left but precious memories and a broken heart. Yes, that may happen: in fact it happened to the man who wrote that poem. That little son, grown to manhood, became a soldier and also went to France and fought and fell.

Padre Scott tells in his autobiography about the night he journeyed across a battlefield freshly ploughed with shrapnel, and by the light of stars found the body of his son. Tenderly they bore him to a military cemetery where Padre Scott himself conducted the burial ceremonies. As he read the glorious words “I am the resurrection and the life, sayeth the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever believeth in me shall never die” there came over him the sense of a divine companionship, of a Father who had also given a Son. And in the hour of this Cavalry, Padre Scott learned anew the meaning of the Psalmist’s words “He heals the broken in heart”.

Life is not easy for many of you. The road is rough and steep, steeper and higher than our own friends realize. Bitter disappointments, secret sorrows, complex family problems, job frustration, loneliness: these dog the footsteps of many people.

To you I bring, not the philosophy of an accidental, purposeless universe in which we live out our little day as cosmic orphans before vanishing into nothingness, but the Good News of a living God who is not lost even among the stars, and who comes to His children in the midst of life and its challenges and says “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age”.

What more can we ask than that?

Reverend Dr. E. A. Kirker
August 26, 1979

Eternity

July 26th, 2021 by

Catholic theologian Hans Küng 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, Küng describes eternal life not continuing in a linear temporal fashion as either blissful or suffering damnation, but rather as states of mind, and crossing into or out of them as potentially radical transformation 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).

Küng summons philosopher Immanuel Kant to elucidate the image of an eternal life through spiritual immortality as a precondition for ethical behaviour, 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 all three Abrahamic traditions as well as 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 notions of a spiritual hereafter or 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?

Science philosopher Karl Popper sees upsides of epistemological juxtaposition in that purely metaphysical ideas, and therefore philosophical ideas, have “furthered the advance of science throughout its history” (1935, p. 16). Theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, pioneer in the study of quantum mechanics, states we need to instead think more subtly about how we cleave the universe into its subjective and objective parts, as Küng quotes him, “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” (1984, p. 209).

Physicist Lee Smolin, in describing David Bohm’s Pilot wave theory, sees the quantum mechanical wave function as sprouting “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 Küng 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 we have 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).


Heisenberg, W. (1973), “Naturwissenschaftliche und religiose Wahrheit”, in Küng, 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.

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.)

Küng, 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.

Popper, K. (1935) The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London, United Kingdom: Routledge Classics (2002 ed.) [PDF document] retrieved July 2021.

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 the state of ‘being in the moment’ or ‘flow‘ as 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 Bergson’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 (pp. 1-31) [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 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 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.

Separation

April 28th, 2021 by

The following story, insofar as I can recollect, is true. It is clear, in my estimate, for the reason of the poignancy the whole episode and its repercussions had on me. It deals with a difficult topic – that of mental health – and my own experience with it. The names of the people and of the organizations referred to herein have been altered. The reference to the organization’s name itself has been altered also to reflect its personal effect on my life.

I did not at any point throughout this ordeal exhibit any inclination towards violence or self-harm which may have otherwise warranted the initial intervention. I suggest that perhaps due to my living on my own, there was concern expressed that such risks might arise if I am alone thinking deluded thoughts, and they’ve got these two big projects at stake.

I hold no ill will towards this organization, I have never signed any non-disclosure agreements about the episode with them, nor have I ever sought financial remuneration or compensation from them for any of the effects this had on my life and work during this time. The work projects undertaken were all completed successfully for this client due to my hiring an outside contractor.

The whole experience provided fascinating insight into the nature of mind, and influenced my view of the world in interesting ways. 

It was the spring of 1998 and my business was thriving. I was doing graphic design for a number of my own public sector clients, including school boards and health care organizations.

From my apartment, this work was done using an early colour Mac, monitor, scanner, and laser printer; all of which I had dropped nearly fifteen thousand dollars on. Like many of my designer friends, work was plentiful for self-starters who had some studio or agency experience, and valuable new “computer skills”. Our design school class had graduated some years earlier at the start of this revolution, and these skills enabled the execution of complex design, illustration, photo-retouching, and layout tasks, as well as the ability to output files with software including Quark Xpress, Photoshop, and Illustrator, instead of markers, coloured pencils, tech pens, airbrushes, Letraset, artboards, typesetting, repro cameras, colour separations, and film-stripping, and thus had been disrupting the entire publishing, and print advertising industries at the time. 

“Bullshit!” barked Bob, cutting me off mid-sentence into my design proposal presentation for a comprehensive behaviour modification program paired with prescribed nicotine patches for smokers wanting to quit. It was a large partnership between the addictions education outreach branch for my client, a large mental health facility with whom I was also currently engaged in the production of their annual report, and a large pharmaceutical firm who manufactured the nicotine patches.

My design for this project, to be applied across manuals and marketing collateral, was an illustration of a fractured cigarette atop a swirl, meant to represent the breaking of addiction’s spiraling vortex. 

“It’s all just marketing, after all” he continued. Bob was the director of this addictions education outreach department.

“Yes, it’s all just marketing” I replied, flustered, biting my tongue as the meeting drew to a close; my face turning that Pantone Warm Red, same as the spot colour on the design I was showing, same too as that of the bright, bold, package of my own brand.

I can recall walking home from elementary school watching for motorists tossing still-burning butts out their window as they drove past. If still burning and there was sufficient cigarette left, I would sometimes take a pull on one, just to see what all the fuss was about. The smell was certainly more pleasant than the taste, perhaps reminding me of the sweet scent of the pipe tobacco my Dad smoked in his study at home, and which I always seemed to enjoy being in the midst of. No doubt too, there was the influence of that famous cowboy’s image that was plastered all over, as were those of many elegant and sophisticated adults who appeared in the adverts selling these things. Being only for adults, of course, just fired one’s curiosity up even more.

After I received a fax that used an entire roll of such paper to belch forth a book’s worth of changes and amendments to the project, now well underway, late one Friday, after many delays, for a Monday turnaround, I snapped. I got really angry.  When the anger subsided, I felt unusually calm and open. I dined that night with a friend, Carol, and later recall asking her if they too felt that one particular item on the plate at the restaurant was in fact a peyote button. No, it certainly was not, was the reply. This lovely interdimensional lady-friend of mine handed me a small toy plastic figurine of an alien on the way home that evening, whereupon I asked “Why this?”

“Look at him closely”, Carol replied, and I saw this figure – the typical little grey being with the large bulbous eyes – was wearing a sash draped across the shoulder. “The sash is because he’s a diplomat”.

One could develop a squint eastwood brow furrow staring endlessly into a large colour monitor from inches away for hours upon hours; fiddling with bezier handles in vector drawing programs, matching colours to print output, and exploring a multitude of different options for each design, quickly and effortlessly, and which almost gave the whole exercise itself an addictive quality. Hunched up, crunched up, in a swivel chair behind a massive nineteen-fifties Steelcase desk on whose tabletop was my entire rig, apart from phone and fax which were over by the sofa, was how I spent most days and nights, when I wasn’t also running around engaged in wearing all of the hats that a small business entails. There too, atop that desk on its leftover space was often a small forest of upright-standing cigarette butts, their tiny ash stacks sometimes an inch tall, leaning precariously. I was so engaged in the screen that I often couldn’t even be bothered to find or empty an ashtray. So busy with work too, that there often wasn’t much time to sleep.

If you have ever experienced a third-eye-opening, albeit a pharmacologically botched one, or as what in common parlance might be referred to by some more elegant phraseology according to that big diagnostic manual, that one that’s kept with the locked-up drugs meant to treat this type of phenomenon, it certainly is a surreal experience, even for someone who may have some very limited familiarity with psychedelic drugs and all of that.

After arriving home that evening, thoughts about the project swirled back, I had the distinct physiological sensation of an electrical buzzing or sizzling that began just beneath one side of my forehead and travelled across to the other. As the initial shock of the sensation itself wore off, suddenly, everything seemed incoming and alive; as though the receptionist up there in the forebrain had walked off for lunch and decided not to come back.

I experienced serendipitous synchronicities; such as knowing that I was about to receive a phone call and from whom, several seconds prior to the phone even ringing. I got a knock on my rarely-used front door from a somewhat alarmed native friend of mine, Linda, on Saturday, in a terrible state, and in some oblique prescient foretelling of what was about to transpire, warned me about the “cops” in this town. Sunday, I arranged to meet my friend Pete out by a large shopping complex on the west side of town. As I drove out, I felt my anxiety rise when I turned the radio on and it was blaring the strangest and most effusive bursts of electronic squeaks and beeps, and that were on every station across the FM band. When I arrived in the large empty parking lot, he sensed my unease but could not offer any explanation. As my anxiety continued to rise, a row of cumulus clouds began bubbling up on the perfectly clear blue eastern horizon in that sped-up time-lapse manner. “Take it easy, Al!” he exclaimed.

On Monday morning, after no sleep at all over the weekend, I looked out the front window and noticed a pair of cars with tinted windows and telltale signs leading me to think they were unmarked law enforcement, or worse, and that they were likely there keeping an eye on my progress with the project. I thus sent an email to my annual report contact at the firm, Penny, whom I felt was better connected with regards to the organization, and asked if these cars were in fact sent by Bob, the contact on the other project.

Feeling something wasn’t right, she called her colleague Dick, who in turn must have spoken to Bob, and who urged that he and Jane, the contracted psychologist and educator for the smoking cessation program,  go over to see me.

Dick and Jane came down from Housefires, Canada’s century-old leading mental health care facility over in the adjacent town, set on a sprawling pastoral country estate right within the urban community. A lovely campus and an institution of high repute, I concur wholeheartedly, for sometimes it is just the ill-conceived. if not well-intended actions of a few people that cause small things to cascade.  

“Alan, we’re worried: You seem really agitated… We’d like you to come back down Highway 7 with us so we could do an assessment.”

I did not know what to do or say or think, as both Dick and Jane looked at me, worried. Feeling really paranoid now, I nonetheless agreed: “Ok. But only if I can bring my stereo receiver with me”…. to which the receiver got disconnected and put in a large plastic garbage bag, and loaded into the trunk. I can distinctly recall thinking: “What exactly is going on?.. Why is this happening?… Why am I being taken away?…

I next recall waking up on a bed in a small room. I felt completely disoriented and slow. When I tried to move, it took concerted effort, and I was aware of my movements as occurring in a sort of delayed fashion. When the nurse entered and told me I was in the Trillium 1 intake wing of Housefires, and asked how I was feeling, my speech seemed similarly delayed and slow, as though my mouth couldn’t properly vocalize; “I – I – I –  am -m -m -m  n- n- not sh- sh- sh- sure.”..

(to be continued…)

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 the sacred 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

Value

December 9th, 2020 by

Despite backwards and otherwise misinformed views on eugenics and corporal punishment, nineteenth century author and Congregationalist pastor Newell Dwight Hillis acknowledged the very human fears of the Industrial Revolution in his 1896 book “A Man’s Value to Society“:

“Recently the test exhibition of a machine was successful, and those present gave the inventor heartiest congratulations. But one man was present whose face was drawn with pain, and whose eyes were wet with tears. Explaining his emotion to a questioner he said, “One hour ago I entered this room a skilled workman; this machine sends me out the door a common laborer. For years I have been earning five dollars a day as an expert machinist. By economy I hoped to educate my children to a higher sphere, but now my every hope is ruined.” (1896, p. 64).

As we enter the age of Artificial intelligence (AI), do the skilled nineteenth-century workman’s fearful words find resonance once again? Or, such as back then, are there other factors not presently being considered?

Economist and author Daniel Susskind states in his book “A World Without Work” (2020), that the rapid rate at which AI and automation supplant occupations over the coming years could eventually outstrip the amount of work left available for people to do, potentially leaving many unemployed.

Considering a Universal Basic Income (UBI), Susskind argues that such an approach could still leave people in an existential vacuum and exposed to other risks. One proposed solution is a Conditional Basic Income (CBI), which could provide a guaranteed level of economic security and see people compensated based upon things they enjoy doing, or that are nonetheless essential. These might encompass creative pursuits, education, recreation, providing care-giving services to family members, neighbours, or contributing in some way to community and society.

Another approach Susskind explores is a sharing of state capital which could see people each having their own stock of it, as traditional capital, like an endowment (2020, p. 189).

What other innovative approaches could similarly aim to help narrow economic divisions in society and how might they be realized? Can “Big Tech” play a role? Based on current evidence, Susskind suggests perhaps not, as “software engineers, after all, are not hired for the clarity and sophistication of their ethical reasoning” (2020, p. 210). Further along this idea of trust is the question of should we not also be wary of leaving it up to the “Big State” to look after, given the example of China’s new surveillance-driven “social credit system” where citizens are scored and ranked based on everyday conduct (2020, p. 211). Moreover, does looking at potentially new social landscapes from a purely economic angle not limit our perspective overall? As Susskind writes,

“We have tended to turn to economists, the engineers of contemporary life, to tell us how to relentlessly grow the pie. In a world with less work we will need to revisit the fundamental ends once again. The problem is not simply how to live, but how to live well. We will be forced to consider what it really means to live a meaningful life” (2020, p. 236).


Dwight Hillis, N. (1896) A Man’s Value to Society: Studies in Self-Culture and Character [HTML document]. New York, United States: Fleming H. Revell Company

Susskind, D. (2020) A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond. New York, United States: Metropolitan Books

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

Efficiency

October 30th, 2020 by

One definition of efficiency is that it “comprises the capability of a specific application of effort to produce a specific outcome with a minimum amount or quantity of waste, expense, or unnecessary effort”, while productivity describes “various measures of the efficiency of production” and is usually expressed as inputs in relation to outputs (Wikipedia, retrieved October 2020).

Does efficiency, when excessive, pose challenges in terms of larger, more complex systems? Business academic Roger Martin (2020) observes that since the mid nineteen-seventies when things reached an inflection point, it has exhibited negative effects. The “excessive, obsessive pursuit of economic efficiency” has broadly placed undue stress on economic systems in the interest of maximizing short term benefits such as higher profits, stock valuation, or lower wage costs, these being only proxies for actual value or efficiency, over the longer term viability of the operation and its marketspace. Optimizing systems solely for efficiency and productivity exposes them to a wider array of risk, not the least of which is the often unforeseen impact of negative externalities, evident in many complex contexts.

In economics, an externality is “the cost or benefit that affects a third party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit” (Wikipedia, retrieved October 2020). Unless a manufacturer is appropriately taxed or discouraged, the air pollution its operation creates places the resulting health and clean up costs on the whole of society. Similarly, when certain technologies wind up affecting us on a broad scale, such impacts can often be seen as sitting external to the core interactions and the intention of the technology itself. Is there something in the design, in the efficacy or efficiency of these tools which lends them to creating such unforeseeable results? Even if we elect not to participate in them, do we not all bear the effects of their resulting externalities, whether positive or negative?

Modern supply chains whose just-in-time warehousing and logistics can similarly create risk exposure when sudden increased demand reveals their fragility. No stockpiles or idle inventories make for a very efficient, cost-effective system so long as everything is operating nominally. According to Martin (2020), increasingly optimized supply chains and logistics which have grown substantially since the mid seventies, can lack what is regarded in economic terms as the opposite attribute, the resilience necessary to respond appropriately and effectively when disruption occurs, often external and unforeseen, such as the shortages of personal protective equipment at the start of the Covid pandemic. Does relegating logistical tasks to just several large monopolistic firms also place these systems at risk?

Martin implies that systems which optimize for efficiency and have a short term profit-oriented outlook can be prone to increased risk and lack the foundational characteristics enabling sustainability.


Martin, R., & Young, N. (2020, October 9). Efficiency. Spark @ CBC Radio [mp3 audio interview] retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/spark/we-need-to-stop-our-obsession-with-efficiency-to-address-wealth-disparity-says-management-expert-1.5755820

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.

Congregation

August 15th, 2020 by

A congregation is a large gathering of people, often for the purpose of worship, and a church is a religious organization or congregation or community that meets in a particular location.

The HAMC conduct monthly club meetings, coyly referred to as “church”, not for religious reasons, but for the gathering, congregating aspect and which are said to occur on regular Sundays. I had the pleasure of knowing and becoming a friend of one such member, a fine gentleman, while their club at the time was a local chapter of the precursor Satan’s Choice. He worked with me in a slaughterhouse where I spent three consecutive summers in order to finance my freewheeling party lifestyle in university residence. This experience taught me alot about human character, how to grow a thick skin, and to recognize and deal with the absolute best and worst individuals. Moreover, how one’s intention can really, well, drive things in a good or bad way. The setting was exactly 98% male – thus very low % ppm ambient atmospheric oxytocin – and everyone walked around with an 8- or 10-inch long boning knife, drawn, and several more on a scabbard over a rubber apron, for eight hours and sixteen-hundred hogs each day.

For the following, I will slide right into colloquial, and so fair warning; this narrative deals with scenes of a graphic and disturbing nature. Please do not read on if you are offended by images of gore, or of animals being harmed.

I could not eat my lunch for the first week, in large part because we, along with the guys from Beef Kill, had our own cafeteria, and which in order to get to from the kill floor one had to cross a catwalk-like pass over the “Pit”, the place down below where the hogs were introduced to St. Pete at those pearly white enamel then crimson tiles via the unholy trinity of stun, shackle, and stick. Thereupon the critters began their grim journey up a macabre ski-tow-like-lift dangling from a rear leg, bleeding out, their weakening bodies at first thrashing violently, then twitching, then slackening before reaching stillness at the top, up there in the clouds, where they’d have their single-leg shackles switched for a gam-hook and be queued on our “disassembly” line. I had no choice but to get used to this several-times-a-day traverse or else not eat or socialize with the boys. I had to hold my breath for several seconds to avoid inhaling the gagging, overpowering ammonia stench of the gallons and gallons of quickly decomposing blood, not to mention the hellscape scene, where, if one so wanted they could reach out and shake the cloven front hoofs of these poor creatures as they ascended to that big grocery-store-shelf in the sky, and say “sorry you’re having a bad day – we’ll meet again, next week for breakfast, maybe after church or something”.

After my first week and removing my big, knee-high, floppy-fitting, fluorescent-yellow, steel-toed billy-boots, as I would at the end of each day for many days yet to come up in the locker room, began noticing a sort of translucent, gelatinous mass ground into the bottom of one or the other of my thick work socks. Completely baffled. Until, I caught the chap doing the dirty deed. Dan (a pseudonym) worked on the “held rail” where he took apart carcasses side-lined with medical issues under the watchful eye of a veterinarian. As part of my initial job and to get oriented, a task was assigned that involved picking up tickets issued by these vets from a couple of stations across the floor, and sticking them into a canister to get vacuum-sucked up a tube into one such network running throughout the factory, as in the days before the interwebs, before the emails, even before the facts machine. This time though, Dan was caught red-handed. The bugger had just slipped a pair of hogs’ eyeballs down the back of my boots while I was talking to the vet at the held rail station, and in so doing revealed the source of that annoying gelatinous mass in my sock soles I was discovering at the end of each work day.

I thus resolved that as there was no sort of “crying to mommy” recourse available under such circumstances, I would need to fight back, and fight back I did. By the end of the summer I was called by my nickname, Macho, or Machoman, or simply Mauch, for short. One chap even making a custom-lettered standard-cotton-work-shirt with that emblazoned over top of my embroidered real first name and punch clock number.

This was an ironic nickname because I was a scrawny, one hundred and thirty-five pound twenty year old with pencil-thin arms and neck. Dan, the jolly easterner who had now become a friend and even a mentor in the black art of slaughterhouse horseplay, once suggested I visit the local funeral home, Ratz-Betchel, and get myself a deal on some muscles. I also had a terribly acne-spattered face for many years. A face which, however, had garnered the nick “china” from a foul-mouthed Aussie some years later outside a tour of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, to which the response was, thanks I will pass your feedback along to my lovely Irish Mum, and by the way did you know there’s nary a splinter nor a shard of Royal Doulton among the whole sorry lot of you crooks? To which he just blinked and I immediately felt awful. The “Macho” naming was in large part due to the  i. simply. could. not. give. one. flying. fuck. about. anything. reckless. attitude I had and that I could give back, sometimes far worse than I got. The specific reason for the Machoman nickname moreover had to do with when as I was just about to embark on a volley of horseplay, I would belt out the opening verse of that same song by the Village People. The guys got so used to it, that by the end of the summer, all I had to do was shout out the opening “Hey, Hey…. Hey-Hey-Hey…” and at least several of them on the floor would carry it from there.

August 19, 2020. Happy interlude: I was just gifted with a lovely sky-written emoji. Thank-you so much to the Pitts Special pilot, who, like my Dad the glider pilot / minister whom you will meet in the next post titled “sermon”, obviously knows the aircraft better than his own hand. And, thank-you to whomever paid for such a wonderful birthday gift, if in fact it was even for me…

Across town, and way, way, way, if you get my drift, downstairs within a motor hotel called the Coronet, as in corona, or crown, there was another place with a pit, a club where ladies danced and took off their clothes. This one was officially titled, yep, you guessed it: “The Pit”. It was there I discovered an altogether overwhelming interest in seeing very scantily-clad ladies wrestle very competitively in a ring they had set-up. I didn’t at all care for the mud or oil, but the sight of the ladies themselves tangled up was enough to force one to wriggle in this ladies’ wiggle-room and adjust one’s trousers several times over the course of the evening. A visit during frosh week with some chums from the uni included a rather extraordinary character who became a close friend during those days, and then in a swirling tidal pool of complexity going, well, we’re not sure exactly which way at this point, turns out was himself raised on a hog farm. He came from the west and went all the way up through uni, studying very hard and partying very little, all the way up to the very top of the world of online gambling, even to gracing the cover of Forbes magazine for all of his efforts. I also saw some crazy bands that summer too, up in the motel’s large and popular concert hall, including Blitz and Goddo, no less. The hall and the strip joint downstairs, were favourite watering holes for many members of the local motorcycle club, the Satan’s Choice.

Horst (a pseudonym) was about seven feet tall with a correspondingly healthy girth, blonde curly hair and was what only, and I do stress only, the ladies would call baby-faced cute.. Perhaps between twenty-five and thirty years of age at the time. We had seen each other on occasion at the other Pit, the one across town, where he had nodded to me. I wasn’t exactly sure if he was a full-patch member of the Choice at this point, but maybe by the end of this crazy canter, he would have been. His job on the kill-floor was at the end of the “head table”, an area of four or five people who carefully stripped each hog’s head of its skin. The head was then handed to Horst, who would first use a giant guillotine to split it lengthwise, then he’d pry it apart with both his massive clutch and gas paws. The brain, which got pulled out and put in one tub, made way for him to reach in and with a surgical precision which would have made my Dad’s friend, brain surgeon Wilder Penfield, green with both envy and indigestion, excise the creature’s pituitary gland with a tiny pair of tweezers. It was then carefully placed on a sheet of wax paper within a little stainless steel tray in a manner so as to have them all spaced out evenly and elegantly like hors d’oeuvres in preparation for a cocktail party. Once a summer or so, a small contingent of lab-coat wearing Asian scientists who were each about a third his size would watch him for a half hour or so and make copious notes on their clipboards.

Horst never engaged in any horseplay. He never spoke to anyone. He was focused and did his job. I enjoyed sitting with him at the lunch table. When I had worked up enough courage I would ask a question or two, such as “What do you think of British bikes like Nortons, Triumphs, and BSAs?” I was interested in his thoughts because I had some crazy biker friends down in the Hamilton area who would rocket around on these sorts of machines and engage in all manner of shenanigans. He replied, after an Elon Musk-length introspective pause followed by an equally lengthy sigh in a very serious tone like an older brother advising his younger sibling “Well, I suppose… I suppose they are ok to learn on”.

I got quite reckless with my kill-floor antics and at one point after repeatedly splashing a chap with my workstation hose each time he’d turn around, he reacted. Badly. He was a nasty, brutish and all of about five and a half feet of solid Slovenian brick crap-house who approached me at my workstation, a drill-press affair I used to clean the excess hair and gunk from between the cloven and now amputated front hoofs of the unlucky animals. I thought he was going to repeat his usual expletive-filled tirade but to my face this time and then the next thing I knew there was a terrible ringing in my ear over top of the now muffled-sounding factory din and I was down looking at his boots only they and everything around were sideways. Fortunately, due to my light physical frame and the slippery hockey rink-like floor, I folded up pretty easily. When I got to my feet and collected my hard-hat as he returned to his station I realized he had drifted me with his mesh glove on, and so my face swelled right up for about a week. This didn’t really seem to have any effect whatsoever in terms of my overall horseplay initiatives, however.

As one might anticipate for such a brash student, I was often on the receiving end of many tirades and volleys to one point where I had to temporarily change my blood-curdling war-cry from “Machoman” by the Village People to “Don’t You Want Me Baby” by the Human League, with appropriately remixed lyrics. The Portuguese chaps never failed to butcher this one though, emphasizing that first syllable in “… ba-by?” as “… baaaaay-by?” which of course sounded utterly ridiculous. I would be soaked through to the underwear by eleven a.m. and regularly needed to change my white cotton shirt after being bulls-eyed by a lobbed softball of coagulated blood or some such projectile. At one point, to my utter surprise, Horst himself flanked by two others on each slide making a formidable phalanx of human ordnance, came marching down that alley past the furnace and beaters towards yours-truly’s spot in that back corner by the knife sharpening station with a look of grim intent. Upon arrival, members of this posse grabbed my shoulders, upending me, while Horst took me by the ankles and hoisted me way, way up, over top of the giant vat of water and pigs’ feet beside my drill press. I was about to be baptized by this fearsome preacher and his angry elder congregants. I played along though and gave a really good performance only because as this gang were upon me, Horst quickly smiled unbeknownst to the others, and so I knew it was all a show.

Things were really ramping up in the Hog Kill as far as all this horseplay stuff was concerned. I had received several warnings from the foreman. But the boys and myself were looking forward to the upcoming annual “Men’s Picnic” sponsored by the firm, the ladies of course having their own. An afternoon of fascinating variables; all the free beer one could drink, every testosterone-fueled interdepartmental team game you could think of, followed by a delicious full course buffet, all out in the blazing hot Saturday summer sun. Oh, yes, the venue; The Waterloo Rod and Gun Club. Spoiler alert: Horst would wind up needing to give a sermon to this assembled congregation of nine hundred -or so male colleagues.

Outlaw motorcycle clubs have a particular history in Waterloo Region, the details of which are scant due to my arriving here only in the late seventies. In one event the local police chief took extreme measures and raided a Satan’s Choice rival club’s clubhouse with German Shepherd dogs who attacked and bit its members. The story blew up in the press causing many in the community to side with outlaw motorcyclists generally and take the position the police had used unnecessary force as a form of intimidation and public relations which wound up backfiring. The popularity of these groups thus grew with large congregations of “wannabees” materializing around town over the ensuing years, with only rare sightings of the mythical men themselves. These gatherings were often in local coffee shop parking lots leading a friend to affectionately dub one such crowd “The Taster’s Choice”.

In a half-baked attempt to raise my social capital I approached Horst on the crest of a ridge in plain view of all the people gathering in the field at the men’s picnic. With another couple of students, I lit a joint and passed it to him, whereupon in a display of far greater adeptness at such social arts he took the proffered doob, inhaling it completely in two draws before walking off without so much as a nod or a thank-you, as though a linebacker on an NFL sideline just handed a bottle of Gatoraid by a bench-boy.

The afternoon was loads of fun after which everyone gathered to dine across a large array of picnic tables, with the Hog Kill department occupying several of them right in the center of things. In true horseplay form, a food-fight erupted at the table where both Horst and I sat when someone casually flipped their sausage onto someone else’s plate. Things quickly escalated and in under fifteen seconds there was full blown pitching and strafing of sausage, pig tail, wings, ribs, and all the fixings. People from other departments turned in their seats to take in the spectacle. Horst, however, was having none of it. He sat there stoically shoveling from his plate while chaos reigned all around, obviously upset at the childish behaviour of his colleagues. When I next looked at him there was a scoop-sized clot of potato salad perched over his right eye, completely occluding his vision on that side. Quickly, his sunburn began turning a deeper shade of red.

( to be continued …)

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

Wholeness

June 18th, 2020 by

According to Wiktionary, the first recorded uses of the word holy are a literal translation of “wholly”, as healthy and whole, in both Proto-Germanic, and Proto-Indo-European languages. This use predates more recent Old and Middle English ecclesiastical meanings of the word.

Physicist David Bohm points to scientific evidence for the wholeness of the universe as lying in two theoretical frameworks. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity whose key tenet that the universe is a continuous, dynamic space-time field, out of which particles emerge as singular, strong regions and whose stable pulses gradually merge with other particles, describes an underlying unity where space and time are themselves relative aspects of the whole. The second framework, Quantum Theory, describes three particular characteristics of wholeness. First, its processes, such as electricity and magnetism, are themselves whole and indivisible; second is the wave-particle duality which, dependent on the observational context, describes a wholeness from different perspectives; and third is the notion of non-locality, where particles exhibit properties of interconnection, hence wholeness, despite being physically apart.

These two broad frameworks run counter to classical Newtonian physics, if only in the sense that the latter highlights the study of the part, whereas Relativity and Quantum theory look instead at the primacy of the whole. Bohm illustrated this difference by equating a description of Newtonian physics to the apparent random behaviour of particle-like people at a busy downtown intersection, each moving under their individual directives; as compared to the fluid, quantum-mechanical motion of dancers in a ballet, where the whole is given salience, and thus points to pattern and process as integral to larger systems.

Philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Alfred North Whitehead, each a naturalist in their respective times, described a wholeness, a God, in nature, and vice versa in their Panpsychic worldviews. Big-thinking renegade biologist Rupert Sheldrake extends this notion all the way up to Space, arguing that celestial bodies and stars, including our own sun, possess a form of consciousness. Such speculation suggests large, self-organizing space-time systems as exemplary of an even greater unity, not unlike James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis of planet Earth as a large, self-regulating system.

Despite our best intentions in attempting to perceive things from broader Systems Theory perspectives, a tendency to fragment and compartmentalize can arise due to an incomplete recognition of the wholeness, which is often hidden beneath layers of complexity and interdependence. When complicated challenges such as anthropogenic climate change are faced, Nobel laureate economist William Nordhaus describes the vexing issue of comparing present and future costs and benefits of climate change mitigation strategies, and a tendency to discount “the benefits of the societal value of reduced damages in the future” (2013, p. 182). In key environmental spheres of thought, meaningful opportunities at climate change mitigation are said to be nearly lost, with some suggesting the most cost-effective approach at this point is one of societal adaptation to its effects.

Bohm believes that a central incoherence which arises from failing to properly recognize wholeness, in all of its forms, is due to communication. The nature of language, according to Bohm, is that it has been developed to emphasize the part over the whole. Regardless, language can be used differently, as in the case of poetry, not to mention all of the various potentials held by new communication technologies. If we then draw parallels between naturally occurring systems and larger, more complex ones, does Bohm’s random crowd versus ballet metaphor not have particular relevance today? As a society, are we exercising our potential to behave quantum-mechanically, as coordinated dancers in a ballet, or rather as objects in a Newtonian space; each on our own separate path?


Nordhaus, W. (2013) The Climate Casino. New Haven, United States: Yale University Press

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.

Synchronicity

January 28th, 2020 by

Serendipity may be considered an analogue of synchronicity, a term used by analytical psychologist Carl Jung, who described it as events that are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related to one another. If one is open to such concepts on a broader level, it is not a far stretch to then consider the possibility of some underlying fabric that provides a source from which all phenomena arise. Perhaps what sometimes appear to be unique phenomena are in fact snapshots from such a deeper, invisible realm. As an artist, part of the exercise must therefore be to turn oneself into an antenna of sorts, so that as much of this realm as possible can be apprehended.

Serendipity

January 25th, 2020 by

Serendipity is a phenomenon that reveals itself in both art and life. According to Wikipedia, “Serendipity is the occurrence of an unplanned fortunate discovery” (Wikipedia, retrieved January 2020).

This photograph of the Cadillac Motel sign on Victoria Street in Kitchener, Ontario, taken back in the mid-nineteen-nineties, reminds one of how much things have changed in a relatively short span of time. Not only is the content of the image itself emblematic of change; a fifties-era motel sign sitting abandoned in an empty field, but its recording using film and subsequent printing onto photographic paper are now processes reminiscent of a bygone era.

The photo, taken with Kodak high speed infrared film using my father’s appropriately-designated fifties-era rangefinder 35mm camera, required precise handling and developing in total darkness, as well as a degree of guesswork when it came to making the actual exposure. This latter fact was not only due to the camera’s tiny viewfinder which sat outside and parallel to the lens and necessitated intense squinting at the subject, but also because it was difficult to predict, unlike with the case of more modern imaging technology, how the finished photo would turn out. There was no “preview” mode other than what could be seen through the tiny viewer, and even this did not show what this particular film would ultimately reveal; the infrared light and heat radiating from a scene, similar to, but uniquely different from what would be imaged in the visible spectrum. Compounding this were the unpredictability and idiosyncrasies of this variety of film itself, where slight adjustments to the camera angle in relation to the subject, or exposure under subtly differing lighting conditions, could dramatically affect the result. The film’s interesting attributes included its ability to create dark, dramatic skies, and to capture green plants’ “chlorophyll effect” (greenery becoming white, often glowing, in black and white infrared recording) when the camera was appropriately oriented in relation to the subject and direction of the sunlight.

This uncertainty is very often prized by artists and photographers. Having an element of surprise in the production of an image or an artwork can enable the creation of magical, serendipitous “happy accidents”, where added beauty is revealed by a confluence of factors, often unforeseen and sitting outside the creator’s control. Elements within the frame can become unexpectedly highlighted, perhaps imbuing an otherwise plain image with a unique, vibrant appeal. Granted, this uncertainty would have contributed to a larger share of “not-so-happy accidents”; instances where the frame wound up being simply blown-out, drastically dark, some measure between, or perhaps another variable would intrude into the process and destroy any potential aesthetic value.

A state where events and outcomes can be predicted with increasing accuracy, often as a result of the influence of technology, is of obvious benefit to many aspects of modern life. Does a collection of data pointing to some future outcome mean it will necessarily happen? Do some predictions defy any margin of error? Is complexity guaranteed to play a role in confounding the results in some way? Despite our technological advancements, the ability to make accurate predictions often remains elusive. As in the case of creating art or a photographic image, are there places where serendipity can arise in forecasting within the complexity of the wider world to reveal new facets of a subject or topic when precision and prediction fail?

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