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

Climate

April 30th, 2022 by

Our culture of individuated, managed climates and our desire for absolute control over personal comfort, only recently exacerbated by pandemic circumstances, has us sequestered in homes, cars, and workplaces, even creating artificial worlds within these, and in which our children grow ever more content.

In his exploration of the effects of refrigerants, air-conditioning, and our growing need for constant comfort in his book, “After Cooling” (2021), author Eric Dean Wilson observes that the production of world-altering chlorofluorocarbon and hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants encouraged environments of “constant work, constant comfort, and individual safety within a small, enclosed space, an unwavering investment in personal, individual choice at the expense of the long-term comfort and safety of the general public” (2021, p. 293).

Apart from the greenhouse gases created by the outlawed CFC and newer HFC refrigerant variants, with “a global warming potential 1300 times that of carbon dioxide” (2021, p. 291), Wilson states our air-conditioned lifestyles mirror more deeply a corresponding social upheaval from communal street neighbourhoods and front porch socializing to withdrawn self-pursuit and privacy. Does this in turn spell a waning concern for Nature; seeing her either as some fearsome, fickle, unpredictable other, or, as akin to our closed spaces themselves, capable of easy technological adjustment ?

Climate “inactivists” according to climate scientist Michael Mann in his book, “The New Climate Wars” (2021), tout “reassuring, plausible-sounding alternative solutions that do not pose a threat to the fossil fuel juggernaut” (2021 p. 146). These include “clean coal”, “bridge fuels”, and “geoengineering”. One example of the latter; injecting sulfates into the stratosphere to induce restorative climate change, despite its promises, according to proponent David Keith in his book, “A Case for Climate Engineering” (2013), will nonetheless “contribute to air pollution”, “likely increase damage to the ozone layer”, and even in the best case “will make some regions worse off, perhaps by increasing drought” (p. 10, 11). Given the recent increase in extreme weather associated with climate change, does such an approach not carry even greater risk, given what we are now learning about the implications of perturbing vast, complex natural systems?

In terms of meaningful action on climate change, Mann argues that both individual efforts as well as top-down regulation and policy are needed. However, he states that we should not think “our duty is done when you recycle your bottles or ride your bike to work. We cannot solve this problem without deep, systemic change” (2021, p. 97):

“Personal actions, from going vegan to avoiding flying, are increasingly touted as the primary solution to the climate crisis. Though these actions are worth taking, a fixation on voluntary action alone takes the pressure off the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters responsible. In fact, one recent study suggests that an emphasis on small personal actions can actually undermine support for the substantive climate policies needed” (2021, p. 3).


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

Wilson, E. D. (2021) After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort. New York, United States: Simon & Schuster

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

Autonomy

February 19th, 2022 by

West Berlin Wall, 1987

“In developmental psychology and moral, political, and bioethical philosophy, autonomy is the capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision” (Wikipedia, retrieved Febrary 2022).

Can we use experiences of anomalous physical sensations to consider a thought experiment: How might an authoritarian regime use technology, perhaps in a so-called ‘smart home’, to punish, behaviour-modify, or “re-educate” its citizens? Is it worthwhile to consider advanced technological capability within the broader context of a shifting geopolitical landscape of social unrest, and the sorts of uses to which it might be applied, if only to speculate as to what to be on the look-out for? How might a government or a security organization control people under such dark scenarios?

Author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes Soviet prisoners, or “zeks”, having to create their own re-education encampments, or Gulags, in his book “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962):

“Shukhov remembered that this morning his fate hung in the balance: they wanted to shift the 104th from the building-shops to a new site, the ‘Socialist Way of Life’ settlement. It lay in open country covered with snow-drifts, and before anything else could be done there they would have to dig pits and put up posts and attach barbed wire to them. Wire themselves in, so they wouldn’t run away” (p. 9).

In the closing pages of his book, Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir, author Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky questions the notion of the gulag more generally:

“Why? For what? Could it really be for the sake of speeding up the building of a “new socialist society” for future generations, at the cost of many lives and the suffering of the present population? But if it were that, then this is a barbarity that has nothing to do with socialism at all!” (2011, p. 172).

In the essay titled “Autonomy and Authority – The Solution of Democracy” (1982), Philosopher Carl Cohen clarifies that democratic systems enable populations to “impose legislative restraints upon themselves” (1982, p. 470), to avoid having their people literally “wire themselves in”, gulag-style. This artist’s concept hints at how a modern-day re-education room, or “buzz-box”, might function, albeit unbeknownst to those living in it.


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.

Mochulsky, F. V. (2011) Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir, edited and translated by Deborah Kaple. New York, United States: Oxford University Press.

Solzhenitsyn, A. (1962) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, translated by Ralph Parker. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books (2000 Edition).

Colour

January 28th, 2022 by

In his book, “Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern” (2021), author Adam Rogers looks to pioneering eighteenth century scientist Thomas Young who first began studying waves of sound in liquids and smoke, “then realized that waves could also account for the shimmering, coloured fringes that Newton had seen in the edges of a lens pressed against a glass, and in the iridescence of soap bubbles or oil on water” (p. 79). In “Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing” (1966), psychologist Richard Gregory has the author of electromagnetism’s elegant equations, mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, describing another of Young’s insights; “that colour is a sensation”:

It seems almost a truism to say that colour is a sensation; and yet Young, by honestly recognizing this elementary truth, established the first consistent theory of colour. So far as I know, Thomas Young was the first who, starting from the well-known fact that there are three primary colours, sought for the explanation of this fact, not in the nature of light, but in the constitution of man” (1966, p. 120).

Philosophers Arthur J. Minton and Thomas Shipka suggest further:

The colors of the peacock and the blazing reds of the setting sun are but subjective qualities produced in the perceiver by a special nervous system that responds selectively to lightwaves (themselves colorless) of varying frequencies. The real world, the world as described by physics, is a colorless, soundless, odorless matter” (1990, p. 129).

Statistician and professor Edward R. Tufte states that the colours of nature present opportune reference sources for background colours of information graphics, in his annotated and illustrated “Envisioning Information” (1990):

What palette of colors should we choose to represent and illuminate information. A grand strategy is to use colors found in nature, especially blues, yellows and grays of sky and shadow. Nature’s colors are familiar and coherent, possessing a widely accepted harmony to the human eye – and their source has a definitive authority. A palate of nature’s colors helps suppress production of garish and content-empty colorjunk” (p. 90).

Tufte uses this premise to highlight the notion of colour salience. “Local emphasis for data is then given by means of spot highlights of strong color woven through the serene background” (p. 90). Rogers elaborates, declaring people’s brains;

“are tuned to talk about and understand not the vast, overwhelming Rayleigh-scattered blue of sky or the roiling wine-dark sea, not the green of a forest, but the rainbow of bright, hot spikes that stand out from it all. That is what our minds care about… Greens and blues are typically things we don’t want to label. These are not ‘objects’… Warm things are the humans and other animals, the berries and the fruits, flowers and stuff” (2021, p. 158).

Rogers looks at current research on colour perception in the context of ultra high definition screen technology, and confirms Maxwell and Young’s truism that indeed “colour is a sensation” revealed in the work of neuroscientist Poppy Crum:

The phantom sensation of heat she was experiencing as a function of luminance alone would have to have a physical analog. “I realized we could track regions on people’s cheeks in response to the flame.. a screen could make people feel things as though they were real, with physiological responses” (2021, p. 209).


Gregory, R. L. (1966) Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing. World University Library, Third Edition (1977), Toronto, Canada: McGraw-Hill Book Company

Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (Eds.), (1990), Part 2, Knowledge: The Paradox of Appearances, in Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery, Third Edition, (pp. 129 – 130). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill

Rogers, A. (2021) Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern. New York, United States: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

Tufte, E. R. (1990) Envisioning Information. Cheshire, United States: Graphics Press LLC

Sound

January 27th, 2022 by

In his evocative science fiction novel Babel-17, author Samuel R. Delany has the protagonist, cosmic poetess and semanticist Rydra Wong, discerning various parts of the strange, synesthetic, song-like language, an erstwhile “menacing hum clogging up Alliance space communications” known as Babel-17, as she describes the room in which it overpowers her thought:

“She didn’t ‘look at the room’. She ‘something at the something’.

The first something was a tiny vocable that implied an immediate, but passive, perception that could be aural or olfactory as well as visual. The second something was three equally tiny phonemes that blended at different musical pitches: one, an indicator that fixed the size of the chamber at roughly twenty-five feet long and cubical, the second identifying the color and probable substance of the walls – some blue metal – while the third was a placeholder for particles that should denote the room’s function when she discovered it, and a sort of grammatical tag by which she could refer to the whole experience with only the one symbol for as long as she needed. All four sounds took less time on her tongue and in her mind than one clumsy diphthong in ‘room’. Babel-17, she had felt it before with other languages, the opening, the widening, the mind forced to sudden growth. But this was like the sudden focusing of a lens blurry for years” (1963, p. 90).

Do we strive to derive deeper meaning from our words? Perhaps not unlike patterns of written music, linguist Benjamin Whorf sought profound denotation in the symbolic “root signs” of Hebrew letters to prefigure the phoneme, the basic sound unit of language (Rogers, 2021). Does the flowing calligraphy of Arabic text, with its interlinked characters, speak more generally to language’s melodic origins and the widening of communication capable, beyond its overt symbology? As nineteenth-century parapsychologist Edmund Gurney suggests, some subjectivity of interpretation in turn enables a widening of appreciation, as with music, and demands that we be less biased in our preferences, as

“wide tolerance to such variety is not so much charitable as scientific; it being a matter of simple observation that, under similar conditions of love and knowledge of the art, persons may present remarkable differences as to the specimens which they respectively find exceptionally impressive” (1881, p. 39).

If a definition of language can be broadened to include the sounds and song of nature to which we often find ourselves drawn, what insights might we glean about our own social ensembles from this perspective? Soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause realized that discerning individual animal songs did not accurately represent them, as their acoustic habitats are marked rather by a deep intermingling of different sounds and signals, an ebb and flow from quiet moments to anthem-like choruses (July 2020). Can such music be an indicator of population health? From a community’s biophany, we listen to the “density and diversity and expression of the ways in which these sounds are communicated” and which allow us to compare its health over time (Interview with Bernie Krause, CBC Radio, January 14, 2022).

Computer scientists Janice Glasgow and Dimitris Papadias observe that perceptual mental imagery, regardless of sensory input, has both spatial and non-spatial characteristics. For example, objects and motion are spatial, while color is non-spatial (1998). What is the nature of sound under this distinction? According to music critic Paul Grabbe, it has both attributes, as displayed in impressionist composer DeBussy’s symphonic sketches of “La Mer”: “The Play of Waves pictures the sea now thoroughly awakened by the wind – its waves endlessly racing each other and tossing wet spray high in the air where it scatters in a thousand flakes of iridescent color” (1940, p. 75).


DeBussy, C. (1903) La Mer, Nocturnes – Prelude A L’Apres-Midi D’Un Faune, [Youtube audio] retrieved January 2022 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3o8uUP0lS9c

Delany, S. R. (1966) Babel-17. New York, United States: Ace Books, Inc.

Fischer, T. (July 2020), Everything Is Wrong: Bernie Krause’s Concept of ‘Biophony’, in The MIT Press Reader. Cambridge, United States: The MIT Press, retrieved January 2022 from https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/everything-is-wrong-bernie-krauses-concept-of-biophony/

Glasgow, J., & Papadias, D. (1998), Computational Imagery, in Thagard, P. (Ed.) Mind Readings: Introductory Selections on Cognitive Science (pp. 157-205). Cambridge, United States: The MIT Press

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

Gurney, E. (January 1881), The Power of Sound, in The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular, Vol. 22, No. 455, pp. 38-39, retrieved January 2022 from https://ia800708.us.archive.org/view_archive.php?archive=/22/items/crossref-pre-1909-scholarly-works/10.2307%252F3356039.zip&file=10.2307%252F3356593.pdf

Krause, B., & Armstrong, P., (January 14, 2022), Human-made Climate Change is Affecting the Sound of our Ecosystems, says Ecologist, on Day 6, CBC Radio, retrieved January 23, 2022 from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/human-made-climate-change-is-affecting-the-sound-of-our-ecosystems-says-ecologist-1.6314501

Rogers, A. (2021) Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern. New York, United States: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

Subliminal

December 27th, 2021 by

Beyond supraliminal presentations of symbols and tropes, however seductively disguised, professor Jane Caputi defines a subliminal advertisement as having “deliberately constructed split-level meanings”, replete with metaphor, and which have the effect of actively altering modern consciousness with new meanings “created by juxtaposition and synthesis”. She draws the analogy of using the fresh air and healthy, outdoor imagery of cigarette advertisements of the time, as “akin to the military using camouflage” (1987, p. 360). Designer and art historian Frank M. Young says “Camouflage could be called the art of visual deception… The best way for animals to stay alive is to look like what they are not or to convince their enemies they are not there” (1985, p. 44).

In a paper titled “The Power of the Subliminal: On Subliminal Persuasion and other Potential Applications” (2005), Dijksterhuis, Aarts, and Smith define subliminal stimulation scientifically as referring to stimuli that are presented such “that they cannot reach conscious awareness, even if attention is directed to them” (p. 8). Our senses can handle about 11 million bits of information input per second, and roughly 10 million of those bits are taken in by our visual system. To provide some context, only about 45 bits per second can be processed consciously as we read silently, while the remaining 9,999,955 are processed unconsciously (2005).

Despite the launching of mental representations, or priming, as being crucial for activating corresponding affective responses, including arousing emotions, it does not matter whether this priming occurs consciously or unconsciously. However, when the priming can be perceived, control strategies to counter its effect can be elicited that cannot otherwise be employed when these perceptions are made unconsciously. Importantly, unconscious priming from subliminal perception “can influence both social judgments and overt behavior” (2005, p. 15).

In a paper titled “The Effect of Subliminal Incentives on Goal-Directed Eye Movements” (November 10, 2021), Hinze, Uslu, Antono, Wilke, and Pooresmaeili observe that rapid side-to-side saccadic eye movements made while looking at a screen can be induced by subliminal reward stimulation which motivates subjects “to exert more effort” (November 10, 2021, p. 2014). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) “is a controversial form of psychotherapy in which the person being treated is asked to recall distressing images; the therapist then directs the patient in one type of bilateral stimulation, such as rapid side-to-side eye movement” (Wikipedia, retrieved December 2021). In a more recent paper titled “Inducing Amnesia for Unwanted Memories through Subliminal Reactivation” (November 28, 2021, preprint), Zhu, Anderson, and Wang propose that intentionally stopping memory retrieval through specific stimulation tasks that involve masking, suppresses hippocampal processing to induce an “amnesic shadow” within which traumatic events can be subliminally reactivated, then dissociated, and subsequently forgotten, without the subject having to be consciously re-exposed to them, as in EMDR. “Combining the amnesic shadow with subliminal reactivation may offer a new approach to forgetting trauma that bypasses the unpleasantness in conscious exposure to unwanted memories” (November 28, 2021, p. 8).

This research sounds promising. However, if such behaviour modification can be delivered or induced remotely where our screens and devices become modern tachistoscopes with dynamic subliminal capability, what are the implications of activating people in different ways, even en mass, without their informed consent? What other research is underway, perhaps involving subliminal auditory stimulation, or multi-modal stimulation, whose findings have not yet been published? How might the resulting affects be recognized and mitigated as subliminal stimulation occurs below the threshold of awareness? Are we not increasingly beholden to our mediated devices and virtual environments? What are we really giving permission for when we assent to the fine print while installing a new device, interface, or software application?

Are we headed towards techno-authoritarianism? Can technology become the leash and collar of societal control? Do we agree with Jane Caputi, in her referencing McLuhan’s more general notion of “technology made seductive” and the uses, virtuous and nefarious, to which it can be applied and unwittingly subscribed, “further signals the longed-for replacement of the elemental world by an indistinguishable, artificial substitute” (1987, p. 372) ?

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Zoroastrianism:
“Him who is less than thee consider as an equal, and an equal as a superior, and a greater than him as a chieftain” (1946, p. 309).


Caputi, J. (1987), Seeing Elephants: The Myths of Phallotechnology, in Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (Eds.), Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery Third Edition (1990), (pp. 354 – 381). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill.

Dijksterhuis, A., Aarts, H., & Smith, P. K. (2005), The Power of the Subliminal: On Subliminal Persuasion and Other Potential Applications, in Hassin, R. Uleman, J. S., & Bargh, J. A. (Eds.), The New Unconscious, (preprint, pp. 1 – 51). New York, United States: Oxford University Press, [PDF document] retrieved December 2021 from http://j.b.legal.free.fr/Blog/share/M1/Biblio%20s%E9minaire%20M1/Subliminal%20perception%20final.pdf

Hinze, V. K., Uslu, O., Antono, J. E., Wilke, M., & Pooresmaeili, A. (November 10, 2021), The Effects of Subliminal Incentives on Goal-directed Eye Movements, in Journal of Neurophysiology; 126 (pp. 2014 – 2026), doi: 10.1152/jn.00414.2021 [PDF document] retrieved December 2021 from https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/jn.00414.2021

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.)

Young, F. M. (1985) Visual Studies: A Foundation for Artists and Designers. Englewood Cliffs, United States: Prentice – Hall Inc.

Zhu, Z., Anderson, M. C., & Wang, Y. (November 28, 2021), Inducing Amnesia for Unwanted Memories through Subliminal Reactivation, (preprint v 1.1, pp. 1 – 14), [PDF document] retrieved December 2021 from https://psyarxiv.com/rmvn9/

Supraliminal

December 23rd, 2021 by

Philosopher of art Helen Huss Parkhurst observes our aspirational ideals are mirrored back in the sounds, symbols, and artifacts of popular culture which “we experience as a miraculous counterpart, visible or audible, of our very selves” (1930, p. 69). Carl Jung contemporary in the realm of art and symbol, psychologist Aniela Jaffé, suggests “that everything can assume symbolic significance… In fact, the whole cosmos is a potential symbol” (1964, p. 257).

In an essay titled “Seeing Elephants: The Myths of Phallotechnology” (1987), author and professor Jane Caputi takes a critical view of the images and symbols presented in popular culture, suggesting that in addition to what is delivered as product, entertainment, or idea, is often also accompanied by additional messages, both supraliminal and surreptitious, with the express intention of manipulating thought or behaviour.

Caputi sees one of the most mythic movies made, Star Wars, whose “patriarchal” tropes including lone female actress Carrie Fisher’s portrayal of Leia, the quintessential princess in distress, to be nothing less than a “gang-rape” in the cinematic sense, and whose intent is to reinforce such values (1987, p. 361). On a different level, she draws our attention to the film’s fortuitous, coincident and corresponding co-opting of its title by the United States Strategic Defence Initiative via popular culture. Now the U.S. can deliver a holy war from space to rival the narrative on the big screen:

“the movie Star Wars is fundamentally about nuclear war, its counterpart, “Star Wars” is fundamentally a fantasy, a political symbol produced for the purpose of manipulating emotions, perceptions, and behaviors. As one analyst observed, “The MX missile, whatever its military usefulness may be, is often seen as a weapon whose importance is largely symbolic, more a tool for manipulating perceptions, than for fulfilling a real military need” … and that its “actual meaning is to set new economic, military, and technological priorities” (1987, p. 364).

Author Wilson Bryan Key explores the surreptitious on an even more suggestive level in his book “Subliminal Seduction” (1973), where he sees various body parts “subliminally” implanted in many of the print advertising and editorial images of the time. Many of Key’s analyses of popular culture imagery, including the phalli and screaming skulls he has us see in the 1960’s and 70’s liquor advertisement ice-cubes of “Subliminal Seduction”, have been questioned. In his more recent book chapter essay “Subliminal Sexuality: The Fountainhead for America’s Obsession” (1999), his flawed analysis of the imagery in a Kanøn men’s cologne ad, perhaps primed by the product name, has a sliver of carved wood mistaken for a thumbnail, and thus its thumb for a phallus of “prodigious proportions” (1999, p. 200). His identifying these images, however apparent, including the “dead beagle with a chisel through its head” in the lower right corner of the same ad (1999, p. 201), suffer from being a posteriori ‘looks like …’ interpretations.

Although popular culture is rife with clever, cheeky, and coy advertising campaigns and images, sometimes bordering near the perceptually or suggestively liminal, as perhaps hinted in these three adverts from the August 1990 issue of British fashion and pop culture monthly “i-D Magazine”, should we approach the images and symbols we encounter nowadays with more skepticism and critical thought as to their intentions, however underlying?

Despite often overt, supraliminal presentation, insofar as the naughty bits are there if we look or have to analyze suggestively enough, Jane Caputi states these images are nonetheless intended to be perceived only subliminally: “Such messages are engineered so that they will be perceptible only to the subconscious mind. Thus, they bypass the critical faculty of the conscious, and the viewer is left unaware of even having received a message or suggestion”. She calls on adman and author Tony Schwartz who suggests such subconscious appeals are not simply subliminally seductive, as Key might want us to believe. Rather, Schwartz coined the concept “the resonance principle” to describe messages and symbols, however concocted by advertisers or perceived by audiences, as resonating in some effort to “evoke stored information out of them in a patterned way” (1987, p. 356).

Shall we agree with Caputi’s thesis and suspect plenty of surreptitious shenanigans, or take a different interpretation of her essay title in that the elephants of phallotechnology are themselves just myths in the non-existent sense of the word? Importantly, given logarithmic advances in technology coupled with knowledge of how our minds perceive and interpret, would it not make sense to consider the plethora of messages and symbols that we are now constantly bombarded with, some of which can be delivered in the truly scientifically subliminal sense, in ways that prime or shape our behaviour more broadly and perhaps even unbeknownst to us?


Caputi, J. (1987), Seeing Elephants: The Myths of Phallotechnology, in Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (Eds.), Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery Third Edition (1990), (pp. 354 – 381). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill.

Jaffé, A. (1964), Symbolism in the Visual Arts, in Jung, C. G. (Ed.), Man and His Symbols (pp. 255 – 322). New York, United States: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. (1983 ed.)

Jones, T. & Godfrey, T. (Eds.),(August 1990), i-D Magazine, Issue 83 (pp. 1 – 100). London, United Kingdom: Terry Jones & Tony Elliot.

Key, W. B. (1999), Subliminal Sexuality: The Fountainhead for America’s Obsession, in Lambiase, J. & Reichert, T. (Eds.), Sex in Advertising, chapter 11, (pp. 195 – 212). London, United Kingdom: Routledge. [PDF document] retrieved December 2021 from ndl.ethernet.edu.et/bitstream/123456789/50104/1/280.pdf#page=208

Parkhurst, H. H. (1930), Art as Man’s Image, in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 68 – 70). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Semantic

November 29th, 2021 by

Semantics is the study of meaning (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2021). According to linguist Stephen Ullmann in “The Principles of Semantics” (1951), the popular approach to semantic study based on the work of Swiss philologist Ferdinand de Saussure sees language as a “system of supra-individual synchronous symbols” where meaning derives from discrete differences across a “chess-board” network (1951, p. 2).

In a book titled “The Tyranny of Words” (1938), economist and social theorist Stuart Chase describes his choosing to study semantics: “I was looking for means to communicate ideas about correcting what seemed to me certain economic disorders, and I found that greater disorders were constantly arising from defective communication” (1938, p. 9). Chase states language’s ambiguous aspects are addressed by the semantic study, as “There is no perfect “truth”, “happiness”, “Heaven”, or “peace”. To rely upon them is to feel hopeful before being betrayed. Look to the context. Find the referent. What is true about this? What is useful about that?”

“What the semantic discipline does is to blow ghosts out of the picture and create a new picture as close to reality as one can get. One is no longer dogmatic, emotional, bursting with the rights and wrongs of it, but humble, careful, aware of the very considerable number of things he does not know. His new map may be wrong; his judgment may err. But the probability of better judgments is greatly improved, for he is now swayed more by happenings in the outside world than by the reverberations in his skull” (1938, p. 49).

Ullmann observes the nature of language; its historical mutations and broader problems of interpretation which are shared amongst overlapping spheres of logic, linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy; lead some to suggest the meaning of meaning itself is fraught (1951).

Beyond a “system of supra-individual synchronous symbols”, philosopher John Searle argues that the proper unit of semantic analysis should not be the individual word, nor what Ullmann refers to as the sememe; a “unit of discourse” (1951, p. 5). Rather, it has to be a whole sentence; a string of words that expresses a complete thought, as “only the sentence can give us truth conditions or other conditions of satisfaction” (2020, p. 54). Searle notes how much meaning can be embodied in a single-word sentence, while an infinitude of sentences may be used to describe a single symbol. “The sentential form allows for a vastly greater expressive power. You can say more things about subjects than you can with symbolic forms” (2020, p. 49).

The sentence form uses constraining, finite sets of building-block letters and words, that together with its attributes of compositionality, generativity, and discreteness, enable the creation and understanding of completely new thoughts and ideas. If a symbol or picture is worth a thousand words, can a sentence therefore be worth a thousand such pictures?

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Tenrikyo Shinto:
“Irrespective of their nationality, language, manners, and culture, men should give mutual aid, and enjoy reciprocal, peaceful pleasure, by showing in their conduct that they are brethren” (1946, p. 310).


Chase, S. (1938) The Tyranny of Words. London, United Kingdom: Metheun & Co. Ltd. [HTML document] retrieved November 2021 from https://archive.org/stream/B-001-003-912/The-Tyranny-of-Words_djvu.txt

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.)

Searle, J. R. (2020), Semiotics as a Theory of Representation, in Mimesis Journals, Volume 1, Number 20, 2020 (pp. 49-57), DOI: 10.7413/19705476017 [PDF document] retrieved November 2021 from https://www.mimesisjournals.com/ojs/index.php/tcrs/article/view/589

Ullmann, S. (1951) The Principles of Semantics. Oxford, United Kingdom: Basil Blackwell & Mott Ltd. (1957 ed.) [PDF document] retrieved November 2021 from http://ir.lucknowdigitallibrary.com:8080/xmlui/bitstream/handle/123456789/406/65640.pdf?sequence=1

Semiotic

November 27th, 2021 by

Semiotics (also called semiotic studies) is the study of sign processes (semiosis), which are any activity, conduct, or process that involves signs, where a sign is defined as anything that communicates a meaning that is not the sign itself to the sign’s interpreter” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2021).

Philosopher John Searle sees semiotics as the study of human intentionality expressed through signs and symbols including language (2020). In an essay titled “The Power and Peril of Language”, philosopher Suzanne Langer differentiates between sign and symbol:

“The difference between a sign and a symbol is, in brief, that a sign causes us to think or act in face of the thing signified, whereas a symbol causes us to think about the thing symbolized. A symbol does not announce the presence of an object, but merely brings this thing to mind” (1944, p. 52).

Symbols are immensely powerful even when spoken about in “mere sentences”, according to Searle. In a paper titled “Semiotics as a Theory of Representation” (2020), he states that when a symbol is accepted in its full meaning, as in the case of a crucifix or a swastika, one is committed to a certain set of values, and uses it as an expression of this commitment. Does the symbol presuppose other forms of communication to enunciate its shared understanding? Did language evolve from the inadequacies of using discrete symbols as tools of expression? Suzanne Langer calls its birth “the dawn of humanity” (1944, p. 53), while author and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker suggests it emerged synergistically with other human traits:

It is certainly one of the distinctive traits of Homo sapiens. But I don’t think language would have evolved if it was the only distinctive trait. It goes hand in hand with our ability to develop tools and technologies, and also with the fact that we cooperate with non-relatives. I think this triad – language, social cooperation, and technological know-how – is what makes humans unusual. And they probably evolved in tandem, each of them multiplying the value of the other two” (2010, p. 230).

The deriving of symbolic, representational meaning is a human-defining process of cognition, of conceiving and conveying an idea, according to Langer, who alludes to problems of interpretation:

“The process of symbolic transformation that all our experiences undergo is nothing more or less than the process of conception, which underlies the human faculties of abstraction and imagination, and in the course of manipulating symbols we inevitably distort the original experience” (1944, p. 53).


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.)

Pinker, S. (2010), in Paulson, S. (Ed.) Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (pp. 229-243). New York, United States: Oxford University Press

Searle, J. R. (2020), Semiotics as a Theory of Representation, in Mimesis Journals, Volume 1, Number 20, 2020 (pp. 49-57), DOI: 10.7413/19705476017 [PDF document] retrieved November 2021 from https://www.mimesisjournals.com/ojs/index.php/tcrs/article/view/589

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.

Asymmetry

September 29th, 2021 by

“Asymmetry is the absence of, or a violation of, symmetry (the property of an object being invariant to a transformation, such as reflection). Symmetry is an important property of both physical and abstract systems and it may be displayed in precise terms or in more aesthetic terms. The absence of or violation of symmetry that are either expected or desired can have important consequences for a system” (Wikipedia, retrieved September 2021).

Graphic artist and author Allen Hurlburt observes our interest in design, symmetry, and perfection in nature:

“Just as mathematics began with the measurement of objects and space, design began with the arrangement of objects in harmonious relationship to each other and to the space they occupied. The linkage of mathematical systems and design can be traced to the earliest cultures and science and art have frequently found a common denominator in the search for perfect form throughout history” (1978, p. 9).

“The history of the universe is a succession of shapes, and these shapes and the relationships between them are what give us ‘duration’ and our sense of time”, states physicist Julian Barbour. This evolution can be viewed as increasing complexity from uniformly disordered origins, and revealed in the ratios, hence geometry, of these shapes and their spacetime structures (2020). The golden ratio portrayed by the golden rectangle presented an aesthetic perspective on the symmetry found in nature when author and art instructor Jay Hambidge visually connected it to the logarithmic spirals found in plants, seashells, and perhaps even galaxies, in his book “The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry” (1920) :

“Dynamic symmetry in nature is the type of orderly arrangement of members of an organism such as we find in a shell or the adjustment of leaves on a plant. There is a great difference between this and the static type. The dynamic is a symmetry suggestive of life and movement” (1920, p. 13).

Does nature’s dynamic symmetry, “suggestive of life and movement”, speak to something still deeper, perhaps as some imprint of time, or traces of agency, projected from its structure? In an essay titled “Imageless Beauty : An Inquiry into the Prosody of Meanings” (1925), philosopher and professor of art Helen Huss Parkhurst takes the broader view that dynamical symmetry extends beyond surface appearance or projection, and does itself have a generative, creative character:

“In the temporal arts, blended symmetry and a-symmetry of formal structure — masses, curves, colors, figures, echoing and re-echoing but generating always new and unanticipated departures from the norm of the invariable ; in the temporal arts, the regular qualified everywhere by the irregular — variation of beat, of interval, of rhyme, of harmony, breaking constantly in upon uniformities, and creating an ascending hierarchy of modulations” (1925, p. 94).

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Sikhism:
“As thou deemest thyself, so deem others; then shalt thou become a partner in heaven” (1946, p. 310).


Barbour, J. & Kuhn, R. L. (December 1, 2020), Time, the Universe, and Reality on Closer to Truth [Youtube video] retrieved September 2021 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOYio-_cmb4

Hambidge, J. (1920) The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry. New York, United States: Dover Publications Inc. [PDF document] retrieved September 2021 from https://aapor.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/elements_of_dynamic_symmetry_hambidge.pdf

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.)

Hurlburt, A. (1978) The Grid: A Modular System for the Design and Production of Newspapers, Magazines, and Books. New York, United States: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

Parkhurst, H. H. (1925) Imageless Beauty : An Inquiry into the Prosody of Meanings in The Open Court: Volume 1925: Issue 2, Article 3 (pp. 86 – 97). New York, United States: Harcourt, Brace & Co. [PDF document] retrieved September 2021 from https://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3789&context=ocj

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

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.

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 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

Stakeholder

November 30th, 2020 by

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sustainability

November 24th, 2020 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Efficiency

October 30th, 2020 by

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

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

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

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

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


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

Complexity

October 30th, 2020 by

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

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

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

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


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

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

Creativity

September 30th, 2020 by

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

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

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

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


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

Attention

July 27th, 2020 by

In 1964 Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan made the prescient observation:

“Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media” (1964, p.19).

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

Attention, according to Wikipedia, “is the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on a discrete aspect of information, whether considered subjective or objective, while ignoring other perceivable information. It is a state of arousal” (retrieved July 2020).

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

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


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

Language

June 23rd, 2020 by

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

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

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

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

Our current socio-cultural landscape is further complicated by philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s significant notion that “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (1964, p. 24).


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

Wholeness

June 18th, 2020 by

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Illusion

March 28th, 2020 by

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

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

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

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


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

Serendipity

January 25th, 2020 by

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

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

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

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

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

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