Alan Kirker

Schism

August 31st, 2022 by

“A schism is a division between people, usually belonging to an organization, movement, or religious denomination” (Wikipedia, retrieved August 2022).

A central theme arising from the Indigenous critique of Western culture during the time of North American colonization was their assessment of European notions of hierarchy, ownership, and property. Indigenous Wendat statesman Kondiaronk argued:

I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of ‘mine’ and ‘thine’. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils; the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living… In the light of all this, tell me that we Wendat are not right in refusing to touch, or so much as to look at silver?” (2021, p. 54).

Ruling classes are those which have organized society so they can extract the most of accumulated surpluses, displayed in apparent societal transitions from hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture. David Graeber and David Wengrow, in their thought-provoking book “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” (2021), share new evidence that points to such trajectories as being anything but historically linear, and that there were instead cyclical transitions and fluid movement between both modes of society:

They shifted back and forth between alternative social arrangements, building monuments and then closing them down again, allowing the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of the year then dismantling them – all, it would seem, on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable” (2021, p. 111).

Hovering in and out of farming is something our species has done successfully for a significant part of its past, according to Graeber and Wengrow. An “ecology of freedom” may have involved alluvial soils which when flooded became temporary agricultural habitats, and wherein science was not one of ordering and classification, but of coaxing and bending the forces of nature to increase the potential for a favourable outcome. This “schismogenesis” was amplified not only in a moving into and out of farming, but in certain clear cases, between “lowland” and “upland” people, exemplified in the cultures that emerged from the Middle East Fertile Crescent. “The more that uplanders came to organize their artistic and ceremonial lives around the theme of predatory male violence, the more lowlanders tended to organize theirs around female knowledge and symbolism – and vice versa” (2021, p. 245).

Schismogenesis underscored anthropologist Emile Durkheim’s noting of the Polynesian term “Tabu”, whose rough translation of “not to be touched” had particular religious overtones, and highlighted a “profound similarity between the notion of private property and the notion of the sacred” which more generally rippled through the stratification of societies, the subordination of women, and the sacrifice of basic freedoms (2021, p. 159, 432). What does this reveal about current interpretations of hierarchy, property, and the sacred? In his essay titled “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Between Men” (1754), Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau suggests:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying, This is mine, and found peoples simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes… you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody” (1754, p. 245).


Graeber, D. & Wengrow, D. (2021) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Toronto, Canada: Signal – McClelland & Stewart – Penguin Random House Canada

Rousseau, J. J. (1754), Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men; The Social Contract and Discourses, in Everyman’s Library (1913), (pp. 177 – 246). New York, United States: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., excerpted and reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (1946), (pp. 242 – 256). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.).

Story

August 31st, 2022 by

According to anthropologist David Graeber and archeologist David Wengrow in their book “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” (2021), Indigenous North Americans were known for their powers of eloquence and rhetoric as observed by the Jesuit and European settlers who, in spite of their genocidal campaigns, could be “reduced to tears” by the Natives’ persuasiveness, logical argumentation, and appeals to sentiment using metaphor, myth, and humour. Rational and skeptical conversational approaches formed the basis of an “indigenous critique” of European culture that viewed these settlers as “continually squabbling for advantage” with corresponding disorders observed “as being occasioned by money” and which, the authors propose, then informed much discourse of the concurrent European Enlightenment. Graeber and Wengrow further suggest that the guidance provided by the Indigenous critics, including Wendat statesman Kondiaronk, today helps enable a tracing much further back in time to see what initially made the emergence of kings, priests, and overseers possible, and thus provides a new lens through which to interpret historical evidence (2021, p. 52, 76).

It was largely the speakers of Iroquoian languages such as the Wendat, or the five Haudenosaunee nations to their south, who appear to have placed such weight on reasoned debate – even finding it a form of pleasurable entertainment in its own right. This fact alone had major historical repercussions. Because it appears to have been exactly this form of debate – rational, skeptical, empirical, conversational in tone – which came to be identified with the European Enlightenment as well. And, like the Jesuits, Enlightenment thinkers and democratic revolutionaries saw it as intrinsically connected with the rejection of arbitrary authority, particularly which had long been assumed by the clergy” (2021, p. 46).

In an essay titled “Strangers in a Not So Strange Land” (2021), Indigenous playwright and author Drew Hayden Taylor suggests Native storytelling, rich with metaphor and insight and comprising much new writing in the evocative science fiction genre, can help elucidate their struggles. Modern Indigenous science fiction has become popular, according to Taylor, as it enables us to envision not what is, but what could be, while also often portraying us “as survivors, regardless of what’s happening”. “It’s only recently that we’ve put our storytelling moccasins on again and are carving out our place around the campfire” (2021, p. 152).

In humorous irony, Taylor recalls being a youngster watching the Star Trek television episode “The Paradise Syndrome” where the Enterprise crew arrives on a doomed planet populated by Native North Americans: “Threatened by an approaching asteroid, they do what all Indians did at that time: they waited for a white saviour to rescue them. And this time, his name was Kirk” (2021, p. 154).

Everybody loves a good metaphor. And let’s face it, what people in North America have a better understanding of a strange, exotic race suddenly showing up out of nowhere with different technology and basically taking everything over? I have it on good authority that it’s happened before” (2021, p. 153).

Beneath storytelling is often interesting social science. In her book, “Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist” (1966), Hortense Powdermaker states:

To understand a strange society, the anthropologist has traditionally immersed himself in it, learning, as far as possible, to think, see, feel, and sometimes act as a member of its culture and at the same time as a trained anthropologist from another culture. This is the heart of the participant observation method – involvement and detachment… Involvement is necessary to understand the psychological realities of a culture, that is, its meanings for the indigenous members” (1966, p. 9).

Could we flip the narrative and consider that many hundreds or thousands of years ago, our Native brothers and sisters were perhaps themselves commissioned as anthropologists from some distant star and given the task of “participant observation” in this planet’s unfolding civilizations? What might their analyses indicate about our history and current state of affairs?


Graeber, D. & Wengrow, D. (2021) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Toronto, Canada: Signal – McClelland & Stewart – Penguin Random House Canada

Powdermaker, H. (1966) Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist. New York, United States: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

Taylor, D. H. (2021), Strangers in a Not So Strange Land, in Me Tomorrow: Indigenous Views on the Future, Taylor, D. H., ed., (2021) (pp. 149 – 166). Madeira Park, Canada: Douglas and McIntyre (2013) Ltd.

Speech

July 31st, 2022 by

In his book “Free Speech; A History from Socrates to Social Media” (2022), Jacob Mchangama observes that while drafting the landmark UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, many countries, notably the US, considered it dangerous to include a provision to limit hate speech for fear such justifications “would encourage governments to punish all criticism under the guise of protecting against religious or national hostility” (2022, p. 384). American wartime paranoia that seeped into the post-war anti-communist inquisitions of McCarthyism, “proved in practice the American Civil Liberties Union’s point about the need to defend even Nazi rights” (2022, p. 297). Russian Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov stated that only the “trinity” of distribution, debate, and freedom from persecution, “can keep an infection of people by mass myths in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues [from being] transformed into bloody dictatorship” (2022, p. 308). Mchangama adds:

Once the immune system of free speech is compromised, more encroachments are sure to follow. This ancient pattern is repeating itself in the twenty-first century, during which free speech has systematically eroded in Hungary, Turkey, Poland, Serbia, Brazil, and India – the six countries that have suffered the worst autocratization in the past decade” (2022, p. 328).

As technology led to the spread of ideas via the printing press, so too was this effect multiplied with the advent of computing, the internet, and social media, which, according to Mchangama, could have made speech invincible but have instead created a free speech recession (2022, p. 348). Apart from social media’s apparent threat to democracy, there is a “silver lining” for authoritarian regimes who use it to further delineate their peoples’ speech with centralized platforms which themselves can ultimately wind up “serving as the private enforcers of government censorship, entirely inverting the digital promise of egalitarian and unmediated free speech” (2022, p. 359). Sophisticated Chinese online policing sponsors “strategic distraction” wherein millions of social media comments drown out dissent with “progovernment cheerleading”, and “hypernationalist trolling”, which coupled with blocking, filtering, and draconian punishments, become efficient tools to limit free speech. Also worrying is the withholding of critical data from the World Health Organization in the early phases of the covid pandemic, perhaps not unlike the Russian response to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, and where a “lack of freedom of speech helps to turn potential disasters into real ones and national tragedies into international cataclysms” (2022, p. 334).

In a paper titled, “How Rights Change: Freedom of Speech in the Digital Era” (2004), legal scholar Jack Balkin states that technology mediates and reconstructs our relationship to other people; it empowers us with respect to others while conversely making us vulnerable in new ways. Underlying this is a conflict between the creativity, innovation, and democratising access to audiences, and the “increasing importance of information as commodity to be bought and sold” (2004, p. 6). According to professor Stuart Minor Benjamin, the transmission of “bits of data”, whether text, images, or other media, leave it open as to what actually falls within a definition of speech. More generally, evaluations of content are often dependent on subjective interpretations which cannot deliver a “conclusion normally reached by a series of falsifiable steps” (2011, p. 1676).

Mchangama states further that global social media users are being subjected to moderation without representation, and develop a corresponding habituation to community standards which might be significantly less protective than what follows under constitutional or human rights law. Often, seemingly incoherent and chaotic approaches to content moderation are in fact ad-hoc damage control resulting from “poorly conceptualized rules and practices that spawn a host of unintended consequences when applied generally and outside the specific context of pressure and outrage under which they were adopted” (2022, p. 368).

Is there a danger that ambiguous online standards could ultimately wind up influencing interpretations of human rights law, as opposed to the other way around? Kitsuron Sangsuvan (Spring 2014), citing the UN declaration’s “prohibition of indirect methods of restricting expression”, states “international human rights law cannot be used to control social media or enforce other countries to censor online speech or content”, and instead sees some potential in an updating of internet governance rules (2014, p. 703, 712). Internet founder Tim Berners-Lee states the solution is to decentralize the web altogether, and “take back power from the forces what have profited from centralizing it” (2022, p. 381).

Beyond reorganizing the rules or bits, Taiwanese activist Audrey Tang stresses that “immunizing democracies against disinformation from below requires a nation to trust its citizens and civil society, rather than viewing them as a fickle mob ready to believe whatever outrageous rumours are being spread by the enemies of democracy” (2022, p. 379).


Balkin, J. M. (2004), How Rights Change: Freedom of Speech in the Digital Era, in the Sydney Law Review. Volume 26, (pp. 1 – 11). [PDF document] retrieved July 2022 from https://openyls.law.yale.edu/bitstream/handle/20.500.13051/1734/How_Rights_Change_Freedom_of_Speech_in_the_Digital_Era.pdf?sequence=2

Benjamin, S. M. (May 2011), Transmitting, Editing, and Communicating: Determining what ‘Freedom of Speech’ Encompasses, in the Duke Law Journal, Volume 60, Number 8, (pp. 1673 – 1713). [PDF document] retrieved July 2022 from https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1503&context=dlj

Mchangama, J. (2022) Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. New York, United States: Basic Books – Hachette Book Group.

Sangsuvan (Spring 2014), Balancing Freedom of Speech on the Internet Under International Law, in the North Carolina Journal of International Law, Volume 39, Number 3, Article 2, (pp. 701 – 775). [PDF document] retrieved July 2022 from https://scholarship.law.unc.edu/ncilj/vol39/iss3/2

Freedom

July 31st, 2022 by

In “Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media” (2022), author Jacob Mchangama traces its roots from ancient Greek Athenian notions of Isegoria, public or civic speech; and Parrhesia, the frank and uninhibited language of everyday interaction. These became the “egalitarian foundations and participatory principles” of democratic systems of government, and from which the ability to criticise one’s own government is still democracy’s key litmus test (2022, p. 13, 14).

Around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press that enabled the wide spread of ideas, many of which called into question the very assumptions on which the social order of Europe was founded. Subsequent beheadings, burnings, and hand-lopping resulted from religious crimes of blasphemy and heresy, often seen as “joined at the hip” with political crimes including sedition and treason. Censorship was based on an underlying concept that “words and actions are indistinguishable, and that the former can be every bit as harmful as the latter” (2022, p. 75, 78). Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the practice of censorship passed from church to state, and when Europe’s coffeehouses hosted patrons based not on wallet or bloodline, but on the intellect that was brought to the table, free speech was ultimately declared “the great bulwark of liberty”, only soon to become the rallying cry of revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic (2022, p. 119, 129).

After centuries of absolutism, Europe’s public had little experience with uninhibited discourse outside philosophical circles, whereas America’s “more vibrant public sphere” had early roots. Political tribalism meant a clash between egalitarian and elitist notions of free speech could lead reasonable and well-informed citizens to become rowdy and rebellious, often at alcohol-fuelled gatherings. Division arose between a Federalist desire for more restraints on speech versus a Republican concern over the danger in centralizing power. Thomas Jefferson struck a unifying tone, stating “reason must be left to combat errors of opinion” (2022, p. 202), so that free speech could become a vehicle for cohesion, not strife and treason.

Unfortunately, the US Bill of Rights did not extend to the member states, and thus to the cotton fields, although print enabled many women, including author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher, to join the battle for rights in a war which was normally the preserve of men. Social reformer and escaped slave Frederick Douglass called free speech a “moral renovator”, and later, activist and politician John Lewis acknowledged that without it, the US Civil Rights movement would have been a “bird without wings” (2022, p. 239, 241, 299).

In France, the 1814 press law required publications to obtain royal sanction. In Britain, speech crimes discriminated on the basis of class, with a government increasingly focused on threats to social order as opposed to dangerous ideas, while in the early twentieth-century colonies of Hong Kong, India, and Africa, discrimination was based on language, ethnicity, and race. The totalitarian methods George Orwell warned people about encouraging, as they could eventually be used against themselves, reveals a broader question of free speech’s slippery slope, leading Mchangama to wonder:

Should open societies be more afraid of totalitarian movements abusing free speech to destroy freedom itself, or of democratic governments abusing the limits on free speech and unwittingly forging the chains with which authoritarians may fetter all speech once in power?” (2022, p. 258).

Hitler’s propaganda tool of the Second World War, found to be most effective on the young and impressionable, was really the gradual erosion of the German language. Mchangama references German-Jewish linguist Victor Klemperer, who stated words can be “tiny doses of arsenic”:

Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed upon them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously… Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all” (2022, p. 285).

In 1948, following the Second World War and based upon Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, the first of which reads: “The First is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world” (1941, p. 304), then drawing largely from the input of his widow, Eleanor, the newly established United Nations drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 provides that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (2022, p. 289). Media law professor Eric Barendt reiterates further this article helps sustain “individual access to uninhibited public debate” and is thus an “integral aspect of each individual’s right to self-development and fulfillment” (2005, p. 2).


Barendt, E. (2005), Freedom of Speech, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, book review in the Integrated Journal of Law and Legal Jurisprudence Studies, (pp. 1 – 8). [PDF document] retrieved July 2022 from http://ijlljs.in/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/BOOK-REVIEW.pdf

Mchangama, J. (2022) Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. New York, United States: Basic Books – Hachette Book Group.

Roosevelt, F. D. (1941), The Four Freedoms, from his address to Congress, January 6, 1941, reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (p. 304). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

United Nations (1948), Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [PDF document] retrieved July 2022 from https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

Civility

June 30th, 2022 by

In a paper titled “Civicness and Civility: Their Meanings for Social Sciences” (September 2009), author Adalbert Evers defines civicness as the quality of institutions, organizations, and procedures that enable the cultivation of civility, where society is made up not only of debating citizens, but “third sector organizations” with social and economic purposes. He observes tensions arise between the respecting of individualism, diversity and non-engagement, with “active compliance with rules and norms which are confirmed by public authorities” (p. 242, 243).

In his comprehensive analysis, “Civility: A Cultural History” (2008), author Benet Davetian probes civility’s complex roots, and states we need to “guard against sociology’s tendency to avoid topics that it considers the proper domain of psychology or anthropology” and that civility is instead best understood through a deliberate study of human social psychology (2008, p. 344). An exclusively social-constructivist view, that denies the potential effects of stored bodily emotions which can make people prone to one narrative or moral position over another, produces “a further split between organic and social explanations of society”. Humiliation, anger, and a childhood ‘failure to grieve’ should therefore be viewed as intimately linked in both personal and political acts.

Sociologist Norbert Elias suggests society’s pleasure component is being suppressed in favour of the arousal of anxiety, that itself causes the suppression of emotions but which can then spring forth as displeasure, revulsion, and distaste, as customary feelings. Individuals locate within dynamic networks of “mutual relationism” that are continually shifting and being renegotiated, subject to patterns they are part of but do not control:

People stand before the outcome of their own actions like an apprentice magician before the spirits he has conjured up and which, once at large, are no longer is his power. They look with astonishment at the convolutions and formations of the historical flow which they themselves contribute but do not control” (2008, p. 347).

Davetian states that inter-civilizational conflict can arise when communal and individualistic societies meet. Seeking to find causes for their differences, people from different cultures may resort to demonizing the other’s customs and social values, and when détente is not achieved through conventional values-oriented avenues, common ground can often be found in their technical cultures, however such narratives rarely lead to authentic intercultural understanding. Displays of courtesy and discourtesy are often affected not only by the emotions of guilt, embarrassment, shame, and pride, “but also by the extent to which a culture allows forthright demonstrations of emotions” (2008, p. 369). In a system built from aristocracy or a national heritage, a certain role is played by a “cultural narcissism that tempers the need for private and isolated presentations of the self”, but rather confirms one’s membership in an accomplished culture. (2008, p. 376, 421).

Traditions of incivility may be bound up with peculiar forms of egalitarianism, according to lawyer James Whitman in his paper titled “Enforcing Civility and Respect: Three Societies” (2000). He observes that free speech on continental Europe is tuned to notions of honour and respect that have deep aristocratic roots, whereas incivility is “woven into the cloth of the America egalitarian tradition”, in which speech is not merely about the expression of opinion, but also about “the free and aggressive display of disrespect”. Studying different cultures in this context can provide a richer sense of what is at stake, including the prevalence of, or the potential for violence (2000, p. 1396, 1397).


Davetian, B. (2008) Civility: A Cultural History. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Evers, A. (September 2009), Civicness and Civility: Their Meanings for Social Services, in Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, Issue 20, (pp. 239 – 259). Baltimore, United States: International Society for Third Sector Research and The John’s Hopkins University.

Whitman, J. Q. (2000), Enforcing Civility and Respect: Three Societies, in The Yale Law Journal, Volume 109, (pp. 1279 – 1398). [PDF document] retrieved June 2022 from https://openyls.law.yale.edu/handle/20.500.13051/5035. New Haven, United States: The Yale Law Journal Company, Inc.

Common

June 30th, 2022 by

“In economic science, the tragedy of the commons is a situation in which individual users, who have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action” (Wikipedia, retrieved June 2022).

In a paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later” (1990), authors Feeny, Berkes, McCay, and Acheson, review ecologist Garrett Hardin’s 1968 prediction that ecological degradation on a variety of geographic scales is inevitable if the common resources are not managed either through private enterprise or government control. Feeny et. al. suggest instead that various combinations of four categories of property rights; unregulated open access, exclusionary private property, communally-held property, and state-regulated property, can mitigate against a tragic divergence between individual and collective rationality. There is “ample evidence of the ability of groups of users and communities to organize and manage local resources effectively”, and a recent resurgence of interest in grass-roots democracy, public participation, and local-level planning, coupled with global agreements and treaties, in turn calls for a more comprehensive theory of common property resources that is “capable of accommodating user self-organization or the lack of it” (p. 13, 14).

Beyond valuing short-term self-interest, it is difficult to solve environmental problems by appealing solely to individual goodwill, according to biologists Rankin, Bargnum, and Kokko, in their paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons in Evolutionary Biology” (2007). They observe through looking at populations of flora and fauna, that organisms “are frequently able to resolve the tragedy with little or no cognitive or communicative abilities”. The energy expenditure of territorial conflict might leave a resource intact, with costs incurred only to the participants, as illustrated in the plant competition for light (p. 644 – 647).

Resolving tragedies of the commons in the natural world may be achieved through a variety of mechanisms. The voluntary ‘look-out’ sentinel behaviour of meerkats is individually optimal with direct benefits, and in other species, population and kin structure selection may help align individual interests with those of the group while discouraging local competition. The “policing” behaviour of social insect colonies provides examples of sophisticated coercion and punishment, while overall diminishing returns and ecological feedback often reduce the benefits gained from selfish behaviour, as in the quorum sensing of bacteria which decrease their production of bacteriocine when population densities are low (2007, p. 649).

When applied to human societies, do analogies from natural communities offer any insight in light of growing environmental concerns and other tragedies of the commons? Or, do they fall short given the complex nature of our public goods problems?

In an essay titled, “In Search of The Common Good” (June 2022), author Win McCormack suggests modern education systems, collectively owned through civil and open negotiation, are seeing a shift from their original purpose to “inculcate in students the desire and the ability to seek the common good for society as a whole”, to that of competitive market places with business-based performance and teaching focused on individualistic and competitive market ideologies. This results in growing inequalities and a diminishing of the lower and middle classes, as McCormack acknowledges, “markets are by their nature non-egalitarian” (2022, p. 68). What does this foreshadow for civil society as a whole?


Feeny, D., Berkes, F., McCay, B. J., & Acheson, J. M. (March 1990), The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later, in Human Ecology, Volume 18, Number 1, (pp. 1 – 19). DOI: 10.1007/BF00889070

McCormack, W. (June 2022), In Search of The Common Good, in The New Republic, (p. 68). Tomasky, M. (Ed.), Gillis, K. (Pub.), [HTML document] retrieved June 2022 from https://newrepublic.com/article/166371/search-common-good. New York, United States: Lake Avenue Publishing.

Rankin, D. J., Bargnum, K., & Kokko, H. (November 2007), The Tragedy of the Commons in Evolutionary Biology, in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Volume 22, Number 12, (pp. 643 – 651). [PDF document] retrieved June 2022 from https://helda.helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/1975/7498/Rankin_Bargum_Kokko_2007.pdf

Conserve

May 31st, 2022 by

“The conservation movement, also known as nature conservation, is a political, environmental, and social movement that seeks to manage and protect natural resources, including animal, fungus, and plant species as well as their habitat for the future. Conservationists are concerned with leaving the environment in a better state than the condition they found it in” (Wikipedia, retrieved May 2022).

Given current consumption, pollution, and global warming trajectories, how does “leaving the environment in a better state” mesh with popular notions of sustainable development, that economic growth can continue unabated? Author and professor Anders Hayden suggests deeper systemic change is needed:

“The watered-down mainstream interpretation of sustainable development suggests that environmental considerations can be integrated into economic decision-making without any fundamental change in social values and structures, and without questioning the vision of endless growth. Proponents of this perspective often speak of “sustainable growth” or, even more ominously, “sustained growth”. In other words, “We can eat our development cake and have the environment too” (1999, p. 17).

Philosopher Joseph Heath explores the notion of assigning value to the conservation of natural resources in his book, “The Machinery of Government” (2020). Instrumental value, anything that is “valuable only to the extent that they are means or instruments which serve human beings”, is often set against an intrinsic “existence value”, illustrated in a cost-benefit example of what would someone be willing to pay to preserve a ravine ecosystem facing urban development, whether they use it or not. Heath states that in order for people to claim its destruction affects their personal welfare, even if they never have an inkling to use it, “is an abusive concept” of social welfare, as it introduces a preference “no one would be willing to accept in other areas of decision-making”. Environmentalists have countered this view by referring to the existence value of a natural resource as an “option value”, which accounts for the “knowledge that it is there, and that they can make use of it if they wish” (p. 236, 238).

Heath states that modes of “human valuation” can fail to account for even more intrinsic values that are often ascribed to biodiversity, ecosystem services, and natural capital, and which may not provide any immediate or tangible benefit to people. The issue is further fraught by a subjectivity, wherein “even among environmental ethicists there is deep disagreement over whether individual animals have intrinsic value, or whether value lies in animal populations, or species, or, rather, entire ecosystems” (2020, p. 239).

The precautionary principle, employed in all manner of strategic thinking, is the notion that “if there is some possibility of harm from an action and yet some uncertainty as to whether this harm will materialize, the burden of proof should fall upon the proponents of the action to show that the harm will not materialize”. Heath states that some tiny probability of harm can thus wind up “gridlocking decision-making, or else arbitrarily privileging the status quo” (2020, p. 241).

From a broader perspective, what are the implications of valuations when, as author Tatiana Schlossberg points out, they can often fail to account for the complex and interconnected nature of environmental issues more generally? In the case of the global south, “The countries and communities that have contributed least to climate change and pollution will be the most affected” (2019, p. 236). Economist William Nordhaus proposes a path forward in that national policies to slow global warming need to be harmonized internationally, where every firm will set its marginal costs of abatement equal to an agreed-upon price of carbon emissions, and where enforcement mechanisms are linked to international trade, and take the form of tariffs (2013, p. 255).

What are the implications of growing tendencies towards nationalism in the context of international harmonization? In an essay titled “Moral Principles of a World Society” (1941), Catholic scholar Charles O’Donnell states that the false separation between public and private morality has been the source of innumerable misguided political doctrines. “For one thing it has misled some men into thinking that the moral character of an association of nations differs essentially from the morality of separate nations and of the individuals constituting the citizenship of these communities” (1941, p. 412).


Hayden, A. (1999) Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet: Work Time, Consumption, and Ecology. Toronto, Canada: Between the Lines

Heath, J. (2020) The Machinery of Government: Public Administration and the Liberal State. New York, United States: Oxford University Press

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

O’Donnell, C. (1941), Moral Principles of a World Society, from The World Society. Washington, United States: Catholic Association for International Peace, reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 412 – 415). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Schlossberg, T. (2019) Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have. New York, United States: Grand Central Publishing – Hachette Book Group

Consume

May 31st, 2022 by

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone” (Henry David Thoreau, 1854).

Author Anders Hayden notes the recent historical shift from society’s economic growth for the acquisition of essential goods and services, towards one of an obsession with income and material consumption:

“Consumerism has continued to thrive largely due to the increasing symbolic importance of goods. It is no longer so much a question of what goods do, but what they say. Products no longer primarily serve the struggle for survival, but increasingly the struggle for experience and the expression of personal identity” (1999, p. 96).

In her book, “Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have” (2019), author Tatiana Schlossberg sees this expression in the production of expensive “athleisure” garments for outdoor-minded people, some of whose manufacture has even included making fleece from new plastic bottles purchased solely so the textiles can be called “recycled”. “Now, that plastic is getting back into the environment in the form of micro-plastic fibers” (2019, p. 147). Schlossberg suggests similarly that the production of cheaply manufactured clothes or “fast fashion” is anything but environmentally-friendly:

“When we’re buying fast fashion (which we don’t have to), we actually have to buy more, because the clothes aren’t made well. They’re made cheaply and quickly, so they don’t last as long. We get rid of about 60 percent of the clothing we buy within a year of its being made; we used to keep our clothing at least twice as long” (2019, p. 152).

What are the environmental implications of such low-cost approaches? “Half of the growth in emissions in China since 1990 comes from the offshoring and globalization of manufacturing industries… Effectively, we’ve outsourced our emissions to China’s factories, patting ourselves on the back as they become the world’s biggest emitter” (2019, p. 212).

Beneath our throw-away culture is the broader notion of “planned obsolescence”, that “death dating” products, and cheap manufacturing generally, drives consumption and perpetuates production. Does this not speak to a certain fragile economic foundation that also does the environment no good service? Are quality goods that last now a thing of the past?

In the case of hardware and electronic products, some manufacturers have begun subscribing to the “Right to Repair” movement, where consumers and independent repair shops are granted access to tools, manuals, software, and services necessary to repair and prolong product life. In a hopeful gesture, “starting this year, Apple will let customers access parts, tools, and manuals to make common repairs to the iPhone 12 and 13, including to the battery, camera, and screen” (March 2022, p. 47).

Climate scientist Michael Mann states further, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. Alone it won’t solve this problem. But drawing upon it we will” (2021, p. 267).


Dickinson, E. E. (March 2022), Your Own Devices: The Right to Repair Movement Gains Ground (Annotation), in Harper’s Magazine (pp. 46 – 47), New York, United States: Harper’s Magazine Foundation.

Hayden, A. (1999) Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet: Work Time, Consumption, and Ecology. Toronto, Canada: Between the Lines

Mann, M. (2021) The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back the Planet. New York, United States: PublicAffairs – Hachette Book Group

Schlossberg, T. (2019) Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have. New York, United States: Grand Central Publishing – Hachette Book Group

Thoreau, H. D. (1854) Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” [HTML document]. Retrieved June 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/205/205-h/205-h.htm#chap03

Change

April 30th, 2022 by

In the first of his four maxims on habit, philosopher William James writes that “in the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible” (1890). Climate scientist Michael Mann suggests such an approach should be applied more broadly :

“Climate action requires a fundamental transition in our new global economy and massive new infrastructure, but there is no reason to think we can’t accomplish it – and accomplish it rapidly – with the right market incentives… [that] must involve both supply-side and demand-side measures” (2021, p. 120).

Mann cautions that clear messaging is critical to climate action. Referencing activist and author Naomi Klein’s more inclusive approach, that “climate change can’t be separated from other pressing social problems, each a symptom of neoliberalism; income inequality, corporate surveillance, misogyny and white supremacy”, Mann suggests “such framing fans the flames of the conservative fever swamps, reinforcing the right-wing trope that environmentalists are ‘watermelons’ (green on the outside, red on the inside) who secretly want to use environmental sustainability as an excuse for overthrowing capitalism and ending economic growth” (2021, p. 95).

Whether cutting emissions or considering riskier geoengineering approaches in climate action, the critical factor is consensus, according to physicist David Keith, and such decision-making

“demands an extension of our moral compass to include beings distant from our day-to-day world: future generations, the distant poor, and the natural world. No basket of technical fixes will solve the carbon-climate problem if humanity cannot reach some rough social consensus about shared values that drive action” (2013, p. 173).

In building consensus, are we to agree with author of the counter-cultural “Whole Earth Catalogue” (1968), Stewart Brand, who states that climate change is everyone’s problem, “because it was brought about by damn near everyone, and unintentionally”? (2009, p. 293). What of the systems underlying carbon emissions and how do they square with climate action if, as activist Clive Hamilton claims, “the root cause of environmental ills is over-consumption driven by industrial capitalism”? Do solutions demand “fundamental social reforms, not new technologies that merely buy us more breathing space”? (2013, p. 127).


Brand, S. (2009) Whole Earth Discipline. New York, United States: Penguin Books

James, W. (1890), Habit, in The Principles of Psychology, Volume I, Chapter IV, (pp. 122 – 127). New York, United States: Henry Holt and Co. [HTML document] retrieved April 2022 from https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/prin4.htm

Keith, D. (2013) A Case for Climate Engineering. Cambridge, United States: Boston Review – The MIT Press

Mann, M. (2021) The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back the Planet. New York, United States: PublicAffairs – Hachette Book Group

Culture

March 28th, 2022 by

If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably – after careful considerations of their relative merits – choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best” (Herodutus; c.480 – c.429 BCE).

Theologian Hans Küng, referencing sociologist Emile Durkheim, states primitive religions have a core of reality nested not in some divine power, but rather in the notion of kinship; both with nature, expressed through totems of animals, plants and natural phenomena; and with each other, expressed in the notion of clan. Early nature-bound traditions thus defined a template for moral behaviour in these contexts, and importantly, Küng adds, throughout the whole long history of humanity, “no people or tribe has been found without any traces of religion” (1984, p. 49).

Anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Benedict states culture evolves around a central mode of behaviour, which yields a set of “core values” (1934). Some of which, antithetical to what one’s own culture might consider rational, are instead the cornerstones of another’s societal structure, as in the case of magic practices on certain south east Asian islands, exemplified in one society,

“built on upon traits which we regard as beyond the border of paranoia. In (this) particular tribe the exogenic groups look upon each other as prime manipulators of black magic, so that one marries always into an enemy group which remains for life one’s deadly and unappeasable foes. They look upon a good garden crop as a confession of theft, for everyone is engaged in making magic to induce into his garden the productiveness of his neighbours …” (1934, p. 3).

Philosopher James Rachels explores the challenges of cultural relativism; that different cultures have different moral codes, where what is correct by one culture, can be seen as abhorrent by another, and vice versa. Such templates take the form of folkways and mores passed down through generations which contain the powerful “authority of ancestral ghosts”. The fundamental error of this view, according to Rachels, is that “right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture”, and which if we are to take seriously, would need to admit that waging war, taking slaves, or destroying an ethnic minority are rational, and that such behaviour can remain inoculated from criticism. Moreover, fundamental notions of moral progress, including basic rights and equality, could be called into doubt (1986).

Despite its shortcomings, the theory of cultural relativism has utility insofar as it warns us many of our moral standards are solely societal peculiarities, and we should not assume that all our preferences are based upon some absolute rational standard. Rachels suggests this view can thus lead us to be more understanding in our views towards others across the cultural divide:

“It is an attractive theory because it is based on a genuine insight – that many of the practices and attitudes we think so natural are really only cultural products. Moreover, keeping this insight firmly in view is important if we want to avoid arrogance and have open minds” (1986, p. 20).


Benedict, R. (1934), A Defense of Ethical Relativism, from Anthropology and the Abnormal, in The Journal of General Psychology, Issue 10, 1934, (pp. 1 – 8 ). [PDF document] Retrieved March 2022 from http://public.callutheran.edu/~chenxi/Phil315_031.pdf

Herodotus (N. D.), Herodotus the Moralist, Livius.org [HTML document] Retrieved March 2022 from https://www.livius.org/articles/person/herodotus/herodotus-7/

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.

Rachels, J. (1986), The Challenge of Cultural Relativism, in The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Ninth Edition (2019), (pp. 1 – 21). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. [PDF document] Retrieved March 2022 from https://sites.middlebury.edu/fyse1496/files/2020/08/Rachels-Challenge-of-CR.pdf

Morality

March 28th, 2022 by

Morality is the differentiation of intentions, decisions and actions between those that are distinguished as proper (right) and those that are improper (wrong)” (Wikipedia, retrieved March 2022). Philosopher Immanuel Kant defined this difference with the categorical imperative; the important notion that one should act only according to “that maxim which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”:

“Duty, then, consists in the obligation to act from pure reverence for moral law. To this motive all others must give way, for it is the condition of a will which is good in itself, and with which nothing else is comparable. There is, therefore, but one categorical imperative [a command which all who understand feel compelled to obey whether they do obey it or not], which may be stated: Act in the conformity with that maxim, and that maxim only, which you can at the same time will to be a universal law. This is a necessary law for all rational beings” (1901, p. 111).

Philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche looked to differences between societal classes as the origin of morals. He illustrated this with the example of how the “aristocracy” and in their relationships to the underclass, whether “slaves” or “herd men”, behave no better than beasts of prey let loose from “the enclosure and imprisonment in the peace of society” to “vent with impunity” and “bravado and moral equanimity, as though merely some wild student’s prank had been played…” in their mistreatment (1924, p. 129). Does such perspective deny the agency of any divine oversight, real or perceived?

Kai Nielsen suggests that morality without a belief in God, is indeed possible. Moreover, any notion of “good” must be logically prior to any understanding of, or belief in, a God. We could have no understanding of the truth of “God is good” or the concept “God’s will” unless we had an independent understanding of goodness:

“Indeed, with all our confusions and inadequacies, it is we human beings who finally must judge whether anything could possibly be so perfectly good or worthy of worship. If this be arrogance or Promethean hubris, it is inescapable, for such conceptual links are built into the logic of our language about God. We cannot base our morality on our conception of God. Rather our very ability to have the Jewish-Christian concept of God presupposes a reasonably sophisticated and independent moral understanding on our part” (1982, p. 342).

In an essay titled “Moral Freedom in a Determined World” (1961), philosopher Sidney Hook using the perspective of compatibilism, that free will is compatible with determinism, states we do have the ability to act freely within the determined nature of reality:

“And although what we are now is determined by what we were, what we will be is still determined also by what we do now. Human effort can within limits redetermine the direction of events even though it cannot determine the conditions which make human effort possible” (1961, p. 319).


Hook, S. (1961), Moral Freedom in a Determined World, in Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (Eds.), Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery, Third Edition (1990), (pp. 309 – 319). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.

Kant, I. (1901), The Metaphysics of Morality, in part, in Watson, J. (Ed.), The Philosophy of Kant, (pp. 225 – 246) reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), Duty and Ethics, in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (1946), (pp. 106 – 113). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Nielsen, K. (1982), God and the Basis for Morality, in The Journal of Religious Ethics, Volume 10, Number 2, (pp. 335 – 350). [PDF document] Retrieved March 2022 from http://www.kainielsen.org/uploads/1/1/9/0/119098149/nielsen_kai_-_god_and_the_basis_of_morality.pdf

Nietzsche, F. (1924), The Origin of Morals, in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (1946), (pp. 124 – 133). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Authority

February 19th, 2022 by

East Berlin Wall, 1987

We must resist any inclination to fall under authoritarianism’s spell during challenging times, and history’s tendency to pull us into its spiral. Nineteenth-century mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead states there must be clear limits to state control, in his essay titled “From Force to Persuasion” (1935):

“The compulsory dominion of man over man has a double significance. It has a benign effect so far as it secures the coordination of behavior necessary for social welfare. But it is fatal to extend this dominion beyond the barest limits necessary for this coordination” (1935, p. 289).

Adolf Hitler’s ill-conceived and reprehensible likening of different people’s ethnicity to distinguishing between different animal species underlay the rhetoric of his manifesto, “Mein Kampf” : “Every animal mates only with a representative of the same species. The titmouse seeks the titmouse, the finch the finch, the stork the stork, the wolf the wolf, etc.” (1939, p. 285). This outlook encouraged an authoritarian approach to treating people themselves as animals, perhaps not unlike the more recently cattle-prodded detainees in the Chinese prison system, as documented by reporter, author, and poet Liao Yiwu :

“I was left with the guard who touched me with his baton and pulled the trigger. Bright blue sparks stretched out into an arc. The electricity ground through my scalp as if it were pulling out all my nerves and battering my brain with a cudgel. Instinctively, I buried my head between my knees to cover my ears. The electric current surged from my neck to my feet, and my body trembled uncontrollably” (2013, p. 172).

“Officer Yu’s stun baton landed squarely on the back of his head and shoulders. His belly and legs convulsed violently. After officer Yu walked away, total silence descended upon the cell. Dead Chang’s face was purple. He sat down in a corner for quite a while, limp as a drunkard. He asked a cellmate to help him take off his sweat-soaked undershirt. “The jabbing is good treatment for my cold”, he murmured with a halfhearted laugh. The sinister groove between his eyebrows became more pronounced” (2013, p. 181).

In his novel “The Orphan Master’s Son” (2012), author Adam Johnson has new recruits to a North Korean police station consider its similar various nefarious implements: “And Q-kee took possession of a cattle prod by rapid-firing the trigger so fast that our room strobed blue” (2012, p. 233).

Philosopher Carl Cohen states that only one system of government can reconcile autonomy with authority:

“Democracy alone – of all possible systems of government – can reconcile the autonomy of the citizen with the authority of the state. No aristocracy or despotism, however benevolent, can effect that reconciliation. Every authoritarian system must and will deny the moral autonomy of its citizens” (1982, p. 470).


Cohen, C. (1982), Autonomy and Authority – The Solution of Democracy, in Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (Eds.), (1990) Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery, Third Edition, (pp. 467 -475). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.

Hitler, A. (1939), Nation and Race, from Mein Kampf, in part. Boston, United States: Houghton Mifflin Company, reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 285 – 286). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Johnson, A. (2012) The Orphan Master’s Son. New York, United States: Random House.

Liao, Y. (2013) For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison, translated from the Chinese by Wenguang Huang. Boston, United States: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.

Whitehead, A. N. (1935), From Force to Persuasion, in Adventures in Ideas, reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 287 – 289). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Convergence

October 26th, 2021 by

Theologian Hans Küng observes that natural phenomena emerge, diverge, and converge in “that all forms of sense life are radically connected and that this goes on in cycles of coming to be and passing away, of dying and coming to new life, without any possibility of establishing a beginning or perhaps even an end to the whole process” (1984, p. 59).

Convergent evolution is the independent evolution of similar features in species of different periods or epochs in time. Convergent evolution creates analogous structures that have similar form or function but were not present in the last common ancestor of those groups” (Wikipedia, retrieved October 2021).

Paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris suggests that evolution’s endpoints are far more constricted than is often supposed by Darwinian mechanisms, which can fall short when describing complex emergent microscopic and molecular self-organizing behaviour. He illustrates convergence in the example of how the “camera eye” has followed at least seven different evolutionary pathways here on Earth, and thus could be rationally speculated to evolve elsewhere in the universe (2010).

Conway Morris states that our religious instincts and doctrines “tell us something real about the world. They’re not simply fairy stories” and our poetic, intellectual, and moral capacities have an evolutionary basis (2010, p. 126). Did language emerge as a result of our needing to describe the ineffable, the numinous? Perhaps not unlike the building blocks of genetic code, author and graphic designer Ruedi Ruegg suggests the modularity of typographic letters themselves have an elegantly elemental yet creative quality in their converging, constraining character:

As the component parts of the alphabet, letters are the elements with which words, sentences and whole stories are constructed. In this sense, letters are the building blocks of speech made visible. Despite all the varieties of form in which they are supplied, these building blocks are prefabricated components which we do not alter in any manner or way” (1989, p. 22).

Do studies of convergence and emergence perhaps speak to a broader approach demanded of science, religion, and art to look at life and nature anew, in all its interconnected wonder? Do the patterns we observe echoing through organism, community, and system hint at an even wider wholeness throughout the entire universe? Can science and religion themselves converge on these grounds? As Simon Conway Morris suggests:

This world allows poets and scientists and mystics to co-exist. I think there’s a divide between what science is proclaiming and what faith is proclaiming because each side is unwilling to listen to the other. Believe it or not, they are involved in a common adventure” (2010, p. 129).

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Taoism:
“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and regard your neighbor’s loss as your own loss” (1946, p. 309).


Conway Morris, S. (2010), in Paulson, S. (Ed.), Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (pp. 115-129). New York, United States: Oxford University Press

Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), (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.

Ruegg, R. (1989) Basic Typography: Design with Letters. New York, United States: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Emergence

October 26th, 2021 by

“In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own, properties or behaviors which emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole” (Wikipedia, retrieved October 2021).

With varying degrees of success, futurists and inventors throughout the twentieth century, including Buckminster Fuller, Nikola Tesla, and Viktor Schauberger, sought to harness and modulate nature’s emergent synergy. Bucky Fuller’s patent lawyer, Donald W. Robertson, alluded to the structural tensegrity (tensile integrity) which emerges from the highly functional shapes of geodesic geometry:

“The mind of the viewer, more often than not, is distracted by the picture so that he is not piqued into asking, “Why geodesic, what does that mean?”. The more visual questions are, “How big is it?”, and “What is it made of?” Big enough to cover a football field or even a city. And a geodesic dome can be made of just about anything – steel, aluminum, plastics, wood, even paper. It has in fact been built of all these materials. But a more truly revealing answer, once explained, is that a geodesic dome is really made of “geometry” (1974, p. 16).

In a paper titled “Dynamical Independence: Discovering Emergent Macroscopic Processes in Complex Dynamical Systems” (August 2021), cognitive scientists Lionel Barnett and Anil Seth delve more deeply into the notion of emergence. They suggest that beyond its synergistic properties, there can also arise a dynamical independence, where a phenomenon can display a “life of its own”, having attributes which give the impression of some new behaviour, structure, or organism:

“When we observe a large murmuration of starlings twisting, stretching and wheeling in the dusk, it is hard to escape the impression that we are witnessing an individuated dynamical entity quite distinct from the thousands of individual birds which we know to constitute the flock” (2021, p. 1).

Emergent dynamical independence at macroscopic scales is observed to evolve over time by its own rules, distinct and apart from those operating at its sometimes invisible microscopic level, on which it nonetheless supervenes or derives from (Barnett & Seth, 2021). Could the perspectival aspect of emergence perhaps speak to its more pervasive and parsimonious properties which are not often otherwise observed? What other phenomena exhibit emergent dynamical independence? Does this remind us of nature’s vast, interconnected dynamism more generally? Philosopher David Hume wonders, as:

“Every individual is perpetually changing and every part of every individual, and yet the whole remains, in appearance, the same. May we not hope for such a position, or rather be assured of it, from the eternal revolutions of unguided matter, and may not this account for all the appearing wisdom and contrivance which is the universe?” (1779, p. 47).


Barnett, L. & Seth, A. K. (August 2021), Dynamical Independence: Discovering Emergent Macroscopic Processes in Complex Dynamical Systems (pp. 1- 40). [PDF document] retrieved October 2021 from arvix:2106.06511v2 [nlin.AO] 6 Aug 2021

Hume, D. (1779), Design and God from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, reprinted in Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (Eds.), Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery Third Edition (1990), (pp. 36-48). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill.

Robertson, D. W. (1974) The Mind’s Eye of Buckminster Fuller. New York, United States: St. Martin’s Press.

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” :

“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 or within systems of any size, all the way down to the random agency of quantum indeterminacy arising from unaccounted degrees of freedom, as in the microphysics of brain activity.

Temperature differences, or thermodynamic gradients, cause a change in entropy such as the heat dissipation associated with 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 system or agent as 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” (2020, p. 6).

“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).

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?

Moreover, what is the nature of the asymmetry; thermodynamic, perspectival, or otherwise, underlying agency and which seems to impel systems in this manner, perhaps by providing “the fulcrum of creative action” ?


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. (Eds.), (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‘ expression “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” (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. (Eds.), (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

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, titled :

“Cosmic Orphans?”

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. 75). 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. (Eds.), (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.)

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. (Eds.), (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. (Eds.), (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 50-53). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Thoreau, H. D. (1854) Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” [HTML document]. Retrieved June 2021 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/205/205-h/205-h.htm#chap03

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 intelligence. 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. (Eds.), (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). New York, United States: Henry Holt and Co. [HTML document] retrieved May 2021 from https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/prin4.htm

Kingdon-Ward, F. (1940), Freedom for Education, in Anshen, R. N. (Ed.) Freedom: Its Meaning (pp. 210 – 218), New York, United States: Harcourt, Brace and Co., Inc. [PDF document] retrieved May 2021 from https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.276029/page/n223/mode/2up

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.

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, pre-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 marshaling 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” (1951). 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” (1920), 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

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 Argha-Noah, the waters of change, symbolized by an ark, a boat- or sail-like crescent moon. According to historian J. C. Cooper in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols (1978), this symbol represented “the feminine principle, bearer of life, the womb, regeneration, the ship of destiny” (p. 14), as the floodplain would become enriched with the settling out of fresh, fertile sediments in advance of the growing season.

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

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


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

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

Sermon

August 21st, 2020 by

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

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

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

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

He passed from our space-time back in late 2004, but I sometimes wonder whether science permits instantiations of his image to make appearances in our space. Or rather, is my mind simply yearning to find remnants of him today in a world so drastically different from just a decade and a half ago? Here are screen captures from a serendipitous and un-retouched (apart from overall brightness and gamma adjustments) ten minute long infrared video panorama recorded in September 2017, where his likeness seems to appear in the clouds, grinning, perhaps projected from the great beyond. Watch the entire raw footage of the Conestogo Bridge 360 degree infrared pan.

Dealing with Bitterness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E. A. Kirker, August 1995.

Intention

July 30th, 2020 by

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

Islam, despite its key tenet of divine predestination (al-qadā wa’l-qadar), acknowledges that we are nonetheless capable of forming intention insofar as “man possesses free will in that he or she has the faculty to choose between right and wrong, and is thus responsible for his actions” (Wikipedia, retrieved July 2020).

Buddhism provides us an interface through which to view intention as the “sum of one’s actions” or karma. Although there is no set linear relationship between a particular action and its results, as much depends on context, the key message of the doctrine on karma is to recognize the urgent need to break the cycle of suffering that arises from our desires, fears, and ignorance about the contingent, impermanent nature of existence. According to author Stephen Batchelor;

“Each time something contingent and impermanent is raised to the status of something necessary and permanent, a devil is created. Whether it be an ego, a nation-state, or a religious belief, the result is the same. This distortion severs such things from their embeddedness in the complexities, fluidities, and ambiguities of the world and makes them appear as simple, fixed, and unambiguous entities with the power to condemn or save us. Far from being consciously chosen by individuals, such perceptions seem wired into the structure of our psychological, social, religious, and biological makeup” (2004, p.35).

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


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

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

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’sThe Doors of Perception (1954) 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.

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.


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

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.

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