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All posts for the month March, 2009

Not had chance to read and digest this yet, but I suspect it will prove interesting. The word has been “meta” (in information management) since just before the turn of the millenium. Metametaphysics.

As well as the obvious move in the meta direction towards abstraction as generalization as the basis for … whatever … I can’t help thinking Hostader’s “Tabletop” arms race for ever more creative metaphors will be at the root of this. There is of course a Chalmers / Hofstadter historical connection too.

Twice on one day. The Tabletop came to mind when I was reading (previous post) about the failure of models to “represent” reality, whilst modelling is clearly “part of the process of” reality. A new way of thinking. The way of reality? Sorry, just thinking out loud.

(And another interesting post from Chalmers on the extended mind.)

A new series of three essays and one poem from Alan Rayner, each describing his transfigural, inclusional “new way of thinking” … one which emphasizes neighbourhood over self & other, natural inclusion over natural selection, co-creation over winning & losing, love over conflict … using many of Alan’s established metaphors and quotations.

This quote from Wordsworth recurs “in Nature everything is distinct, yet nothing defined into absolute, independent, singleness.” I often use “we murder to dissect” from Table’s Turn’d, but Alan’s quote is from this Wordsworth passage:

Having had the good fortune to be born and reared in a mountainous Country, from my very childhood I have felt the falsehood that pervades the volumes imposed upon the World under the name of Ossian. From what I saw with my own eyes, I knew that the imagery was spurious. In nature every thing is distinct, yet nothing defined into absolute independent singleness. In Macpherson’s work it is exactly the reverse; every thing (that is not stolen) is in this manner defined, insulated, dislocated, deadened–yet nothing distinct. It will always be so when words are substituted for things.

When words are substituted for things. Every word is a gravestone.

I mentioned  starting to read Gibbon only a few weeks ago, a “couple of years” after picking it up from the bookshelf at my parent’s home, and just noticed it was more like 4 years ago I first posted this.

Anyway still reading it slowly, to and from work mainly. It is indeed the language that makes it so readable, and the antiquity that means there is no need to hurry … we already know how it all ends.

Anyway, in the latest installment (Ch 22 & 23) our subject is the emperor Julian (351 to 353 AD), a wise head on young shoulders who sounds like he’d be right at home in the recent fundamentalist God vs Science debates, a direct reaction to the original Constantine / Constantius / Constans formal Roman adoption and enforcement of Christian theism.

A devout and sincere attachment for the gods of Athens and Rome constituted the ruling passion of Julian; the powers of an enlightened understanding were betrayed and corrupted by the influence of superstitious prejudice; and the phantoms which existed only in the mind of the emperor had a real and pernicious effect on the government of the empire. 

The crowd of sophists, who were attracted by the taste and liberality of their royal pupil, had formed a strict alliance between the learning and the religion of Greece; and the poems of Homer, instead of being admired as the original productions of human genius, were seriously ascribed to the heavenly inspiration of Apollo and the muses. The deities of Olympus, as they are painted by the immortal bard, imprint themselves on the minds which are the least addicted to superstitious credulity. Our familiar knowledge of their names and characters, their forms and attributes, seems to bestow on those airy beings a real and substantial existence; and the pleasing enchantment produces an imperfect and momentary assent of the imagination to those fables, which are the most repugnant to our reason and experience. In the age of Julian, every circumstance contributed to prolong and fortify the illusion; the magnificent temples of Greece and Asia; the works of those artists who had expressed, in painting or in sculpture, the divine conceptions of the poet; the pomp of festivals and sacrifices; the successful arts of divination; the popular traditions of oracles and prodigies; and the ancient practice of two thousand years. The weakness of polytheism was, in some measure, excused by the moderation of its claims; and the devotion of the Pagans was not incompatible with the most licentious scepticism. Instead of an indivisible and regular system, which occupies the whole extent of the believing mind, the mythology of the Greeks was composed of a thousand loose and flexible parts, and the servant of the gods was at liberty to define the degree and measure of his religious faith. The creed which Julian adopted for his own use was of the largest dimensions; and, by strange contradiction, he disdained the salutary yoke of the gospel, whilst he made a voluntary offering of his reason on the altars of Jupiter and Apollo. One of the orations of Julian is consecrated to the honor of Cybele, the mother of the gods, who required from her effeminate priests the bloody sacrifice, so rashly performed by the madness of the Phrygian boy. The pious emperor condescends to relate, without a blush, and without a smile, the voyage of the goddess from the shores of Pergamus to the mouth of the Tyber, and the stupendous miracle, which convinced the senate and people of Rome that the lump of clay, which their ambassadors had transported over the seas, was endowed with life, and sentiment, and divine power. For the truth of this prodigy he appeals to the public monuments of the city; and censures, with some acrimony, the sickly and affected taste of those men, who impertinently derided the sacred traditions of their ancestors.

But the devout philosopher, who sincerely embraced, and warmly encouraged, the superstition of the people, reserved for himself the privilege of a liberal interpretation; and silently withdrew from the foot of the altars into the sanctuary of the temple. The extravagance of the Grecian mythology proclaimed, with a clear and audible voice, that the pious inquirer, instead of being scandalized or satisfied with the literal sense, should diligently explore the occult wisdom, which had been disguised, by the prudence of antiquity, under the mask of folly and of fable. The philosophers of the Platonic school, Plotinus, Porphyry, and the divine Iamblichus, were admired as the most skilful masters of this allegorical science, which labored to soften and harmonize the deformed features of Paganism. Julian himself, who was directed in the mysterious pursuit by Ædesius, the venerable successor of Iamblichus, aspired to the possession of a treasure, which he esteemed, if we may credit his solemn asseverations, far above the empire of the world. It was indeed a treasure, which derived its value only from opinion; and every artist who flattered himself that he had extracted the precious ore from the surrounding dross, claimed an equal right of stamping the name and figure the most agreeable to his peculiar fancy. The fable of Atys and Cybele had been already explained by Porphyry; but his labors served only to animate the pious industry of Julian, who invented and published his own allegory of that ancient and mystic tale. This freedom of interpretation, which might gratify the pride of the Platonists, exposed the vanity of their art. Without a tedious detail, the modern reader could not form a just idea of the strange allusions, the forced etymologies, the solemn trifling, and the impenetrable obscurity of these sages, who professed to reveal the system of the universe. As the traditions of Pagan mythology were variously related, the sacred interpreters were at liberty to select the most convenient circumstances; and as they translated an arbitrary cipher, they could extract from any fable any sense which was adapted to their favorite system of religion and philosophy. 

The theological system of Julian appears to have contained the sublime and important principles of natural religion. The invariable order of the sun, moon, and stars, was hastily admitted by Julian, as a proof of their eternal duration; and their eternity was a sufficient evidence that they were the workmanship, not of an inferior deity, but of the Omnipotent King. In the system of Platonists, the visible was a type of the invisible world. The celestial bodies, as they were informed by a divine spirit, might be considered as the objects the most worthy of religious worship. The Sun, whose genial influence pervades and sustains the universe, justly claimed the adoration of mankind, as the bright representative of the Logos, the lively, the rational, the beneficent image of the intellectual Father.

In every age, the absence of genuine inspiration is supplied by the strong illusions of enthusiasm, and the mimic arts of imposture. If, in the time of Julian, these arts had been practised only by the pagan priests, for the support of an expiring cause, some indulgence might perhaps be allowed to the interest and habits of the sacerdotal character. But it may appear a subject of surprise and scandal, that the philosophers themselves should have contributed to abuse the superstitious credulity of mankind, and that the Grecian mysteries should have been supported by the magic or theurgy of the modern Platonists. They arrogantly pretended to control the order of nature, to explore the secrets of futurity, to command the service of the inferior dæmons, to enjoy the view and conversation of the superior gods, and by disengaging the soul from her material bands, to reunite that immortal particle with the Infinite and Divine Spirit.

Well I never: “… the occult wisdom, which had been disguised, by the prudence of antiquity, under the mask of folly and of fable”. Dear prudence. (All other emphasis in Gibbon’s original.)

When Zizek writes like this his sense and “wisdom” is easy to see. When he writes like this, it is harder to see because he makes so many statements against others … creating strawmen in the mouths of others, in order to disagree with them … but he is right on the topic of debate. This is rhetoric.

We are witnessing today [2006] the struggle for intellectual hegemony – for who will occupy the universal place of ‘public intellectual’ – between the postmodern-deconstructionist cultural studies and the popularizers of ‘hard’ sciences, that is, the proponents of the so-called ‘third culture’.

Prompted to read the latter by Chris Locke’s quote from it in a recent post comment.

Hadn’t really thought about it before but “hegemony” is the ultimate memplex. Domination by socio-political-cultural influence – the power of communication – rather than by either power of rational argument or physical force. Interesting, given that Dennett is one of those to whom Zizek appears to take exception. Sokal is cited as the point where rhetoric brought the foggie-froggie PoMos up against hard science.  He also appears to take exception to the whole John Brockman Edge / Third Culture venture explicitly (and presumably TED ?); so many of the popular science and culture media people whose work he cites are part of that “wave”. I say “appears” because with his rhetoric you can always tell what he’s talking about, but not always what he is trying to say.

One reason it is hard to be sure is that his reading of them seems caricatured and based on (strawmen based on) old writings – Fritjof Capra’s “Tao of Physics” for example. He writes like he’s the only person to have learned anything about wisdom in the last 30 years – the only person to have grown 30 years older and wiser. Don’t know where to start to react to what Zizek has wrong, because he mostly has the right topics – I’m guessing his mistaken view on the reductionist / determinist Dennett would be good place to start, since Dennett is neither, in the absence-of-human-free-will sense that Zizek implies. (I may be some time – I have another “wisdom” book review to write first.)

As for my debate with Chris, well yes there is a great deal of cynical hypocritical merchandise trading on that 30/40 year old fashionable fascination with the eastern, mystical, holistic err … new age “crap”. But being “hyper-critical” calling it crap is missing the point. It only looks like a fashionable wave, but people have always peddled crap, 90% of everything is (always has been) crap.

Saw Eagles of Death Metal at Oslo Rockefeller on Monday evening.

Jesse Hughes and the boys sure have fun engaging with their audience, and a little more at the after show party and no doubt after that too. No Josh Homme touring, but Joey Castillo pounding the skins along with Dave Catching on lead and Brian O’Connor on bass – the latter vaguely familiar (must check). Theatrical and entertaining for a full 90 minute set. What rock’n’roll was invented for.

(Supporting were Black Box Revelation … unusual, just drums and guitar format, from Belgium … seriously loud but basic blues rock.)

Literally. Performance is always the issue with these more sophisticated plug-ins … most of my WordPress 2.8 priorities were performance and database related.

Also checking out Scribu … as part of a let’s get organized campaign … though that seems to have gone dead ? Oh well.

I regularly review site hits, as in almost daily, and just occasionally I record summaries here.

Last time I did this a few months ago, the stats were plagued by a number of (new) web crawlers generating loads of indexing hits, which is great, but it was skewing / disguising the real human traffic. Recently there is a much greater % of quality hits, humans hitting what they are looking for and clicking around other links for many minutes. There are always regular – mainly Pirsig related – visitors I can see from their IP’s or mail clients (thanks folks) but increasingly there are regulars who are subscribing to the feed and following up the links (thanks again to you too).

Here is the RSS FEED Subscription Link.
(Currently none too prominent, low down the right hand panel … must fix that.)

Today at last, I had a chance to watch Ant McWatt’s second documentary on the life and work of Robert Pirsig, “On the Road with Robert Pirsig“. (The first installment “Arrive Without Travelling” I reviewed when it came out around a  year ago, and it was a little difficult to disguise my disappointment, though relatively easy to blame that on the ordeal of watching my own excruciating contribution as well as the distracting psychedelic overlays in a rookie production effort.)

This second chapter is a great improvement over the first. It stands on its own as a documentary of Pirsig’s “project” in writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. There is less “on the road” than the title might suggest, and there is still that theme of 60’s Beatles & Beach Boys psychedelia in the links, but the production and editing is an order of magnitude higher quality than the first effort. The majority of the film is in fact a previously unpublished 2005 interview by Karen Whiteside, ranging from the relaxed and jovial to the intense and emotional, interspersed with contributions from John Sutherland and Ron DiSanto and clips from the Pirsig family archive.

One of several highlights for me personally is seeing Bob recall with much affection the contribution of “Sarah”, the seed crystal that worked its effect on Bob over several months beyond the single remark in the book. Bob should as he does receive the plaudits as the inspired writer of an inspiring rhetorical novel, but his feet are firmly on the ground when it comes to acknowledging the evolution of ideas through the minds of others.

I suspect the first documentary may remain a collectors item for hardcore “MoQ Fans” wishing to remember the first conference on the “Metaphysics of Quality” in Liverpool in 2005. This second On the Road with Robert Pirsig is however an eminently watchable documentary that should be considered a must for anyone with either an existing interest in Pirsig’s highly original Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or simply looking for a brief introduction – from the horse’s mouth – what all the fuss was about back in 1974.

[Post Note : Previous comment on this film. Updated the news on the Pirsig Page.]

I was posting a more prominent link to the TED talk by Sherwin Nuland (related to the ECT Meme thread) when I noticed this interesting piece from Jill Bolte Taylor. A brain scientist who got to study her own brain and glimpsed the euphoric mystical “now” … and like Sherwin saw this mystical revelation as part of their “resurrection” to life after near terminal experience.

Quite different, but highly connected – like our brain hemispheres ?

And in connection with the unity (some unifying metaphysics) behind physics in Nick Maxwell’s agenda … Murray Gell-Mann talking about elegance in truth and beauty behind physics. And even more connected with Nick’s agenda, Barry Schwarz on the loss of wisdom, and appeal to virtue. And so close to James Willis too … a sense in which it is obvious, and yet … literally “demoralising”. And even better “The Paradox of Choice” joining up a few dots around the official dogma of western economies … and clinical depression is the result. Finally for now … how osyter mushrooms will save the planet.

This is a (near) verbatim copy of a MOQ Discuss forum post of mine from a month or so ago.

I caused some offence last year when I dissed Zeitgeist (2007) without having seen this Zeitgeist Addendum (2008). I have since seen this version too. It is pretty comprehensive and on the money ;-) as you say.

I still have my usual “non-conspiracy / cock-up theory” take on this.

The facts are facts and they’re not new – as old as economic empire building itself – just that the world has shrunk to a village. When your (national) industries are backed by (national) governments, backed by clandestine organizations and military might (which otherwise have good “security” – static-latch – reasons to exist). ie this process is a natural outcome of two myths (memes, as I call them).

(1) the myth that progress depends on competition (only) – too simplistic a (Newtonian action / reaction) view of causation.
(2) the myth that the value of progress is measurable with numbers (like money) – too objective a view of value.

The conspiracy is in those myths, and in the ignorance of the fact that they are memes we take for granted. Two kinds of ignorance – one called skilled-incompetence in management, a kind of plausible-deniability, and another simply convenience of the individual, a pragmatism based on the wrong “calculations”. Most of us wage slaves do value the benefits too, and we have to rationalize – look-away from – the cognitive dissonance inherent in that.

Organizations of (mostly) moral men often make immoral decisions, because the decision-making process is immoral. Seeing the SOMist meme as the conspiracy is the key. The cock-up is that we really do know this and still allow it to dominate. The primary solutions for me are education towards this kind of individual enlightenment, and free, wise, open governance of all national and transnational institutions – which are after all generally comprised of such (moral) individuals.

What I distance myself from is the conspiracy theory agenda, when people point at long-standing cabals of evil people as the “cause” of the problem (reptiles in the boardroom, etc) – mercifully this film does not itself do that, but some of the hangers-on are that kind of whacko. We are all slaves to competition accounting – bigger numbers equals better – the tyranny of numbers – incentives we can count and compare quantitatively – we are slaves to SOMism. (Words like scam and fake don’t help matters for me, there are many levels of “illusion” in the reality we value.)

As the film says … the so-called human nature of competitive greed, is nothing more than a cultural meme driving behaviour – “received wisdom”, not real wisdom. The prevailing wisdom of economics is “autistic”, “neurotic” a “mental illness”. Also as the film says (as Pirsig said) – there is nothing evil about the applied science of technology, on the contrary its a tool we can use when we act on an understanding of “what is good”.

Probably the only contentious point for me is the idea of a class-less society – no elites of any kind. If we ever reach that vision as a static global state, then maybe. But, I can’t see how we can ever evolve to that state, without some conservative institutions and processes that defend and preserve real, enlightened, wisdom … otherwise the simplest memes simply continue to dominate … some “management” is necessary. Clearly we need checks and balances against institutions that exist on tradition alone – proper philosopher princes, not the Platonic kind – we must not be naive about what it will take.

But individual choices are easy to make if taken wisely, that’s the point. Like, it might not actually be wise if we all acted at once on all of the recommendations at the end … but the intent is in the right direction.

Thanks gav. I’m glad I watched that again.

OK so the Swiss “ProtosCar Lampo” is currently only a concept car showing at Geneva, but it is built on the same Wilmington-built GM / Opel / Saturn  GT / Sky platform as my current car. Strangely my previous GM (Opel Sportster/ Vauxhall VX220) Lotus-built aluminium & fibre-glass model was the platform for an award-winning GM diesel powered sports model too.

Busy converting the US electrics of my Sky to European road standards of the Opel GT for use on Norwegian roads. Trickier than it looks.

OK, so enough Zizek for one day … clearly a student of Jacques Lacan is about as “foggy froggie” / PoMo as one can get, but cheeky with it. Hard work, but valuable on balance.

Picked-up the Peter Sloterdijk link in my earlier reference to Zizek. Found this review of his “Critique of Cynical Reason” by Stefan Lorenz Sorgner entitled “In Search of Lost Cheekiness“. A good read.

The Cynic / Kynic distinction is between the Cynic (in the modern sense) who lives with the hypocrisy of working a system in which they do not actually believe, rationalizing the irrational, whereas the Kynic in the Diogenes sense who actually makes a statement out of living outside the system in which they do not believe, refusing to engage in the flawed system of argument. The hypocritical style of cynicism as a “necessary” part of institutional life in both business and science is not new here – Maxwell’s scientific empiricism neurosis, Brunsson & Argyris organizational hypocrisy.

Sloterdijk is more an observer than a philosopher. Clearly the hypocritical cynic is effectively living with a mental illness for life whereas the Kynic is truer to themselves, cheeky with positive intent, but as he also observes there can never be a “majority” outside society’s norms, so long as society as a whole has any norms. The situation can only exist temporarily and/or locally, in carnivals, universities and bohemia. Depressingly the majority must live with rationalizing the irrational, and Sloterdijk offers no alternative formula. Globalization of institutions is itself the problem – the memes win.

Does anybody actually have anything new to say ?

Wikipedia page on Zizek.

For Lacan and Žižek, every word is a gravestone, marking the absence or corpse of the thing it represents and standing in for it. It is partly in the light of this that Lacan is able to refashion Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” as “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I think not”.

This was precisely the point that struck me on completing Thoreau’s Walden.

The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of their residual statement. Their truth is instantly translated; its literal monument alone remains.

Authentic Radical Fundamentalism that is ? Still not sure, but I got one thing right with Zizek … taking things seriously and taking sides are absolutely not the same. In “The Empty Wheelbarrow” he says …

The ruling ideology appropriated the September 11 tragedy and used it to impose its basic message: it is time to stop playing around, you have to take sides – for or against. This, precisely, is the temptation to be resisted: in such moments of apparent clarity of choice, mystification is total. Today, more than ever, intellectuals need to step back. Are we aware that we are in the midst of a “soft revolution”, in the course of which the unwritten rules determining the most elementary international logic are changing ?

Two distinct points

(1) Step back from world-scale stark choices.
(2) In apparent clarity of choice, mystification is total.

I’ve just thoroughly read and re-read a piece by Slavoj Zizek in The Cabinet entitled “From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism“. Zizek is on my “must read” list for various reasons, so this was a good start, and I quoted briefly from this particuar piece in responding to Chris Locke’s reference to it in his blog header. Not always clear when Chris is piling on the irony, and dare I say sarcasm, exactly how many levels of irony you are dealing with, but I read Chris as approving of the sentiments Zizek expresses here. If that is the case, then I’m agreeing with both.

Zizek is pointing out the falacy, the fetish, in one group holding a view of another somehow distinctly “other” remote, distant, lost in time in possessing some superior wisdom, resulting in a kind of jealousy, both a wish for it and a negative reaction against it. Both equally irrational – a fetish. Zizek is a man after my own heart in his liberal use of “scare quotes” – “rational” being one of the words frequently couched that way.

Zizek is referring to the “West vs East” fetish in particular, and uses Tibet / Lhasa as a specific object illustration of this fetishism. But he also reminds us that this is as old as the Greeks revering the Egyptians, the Romans the Greeks, the classicisits the Romans & Greeks, the Westerners the Eastern, and so on. “Twas ever thus” I must have said a million times, and it’s been said for over 4000 years itself. Zizek’s actual target is the debate bewteen moral majority fundamentalists and tolerant multicuturalists.  He has two main points.

One is that the fetish and its symptoms are so close as to be almost interchangable, yet secondly the whole of both is concerned principally with the focus on otherness. This paradox is real and worth serious consideration. A pox on both their houses he says …

The conclusion to be drawn from this is a simple and radical one: Moral Majority fundamentalists and tolerant multiculturalists are two sides of the same coin: they both share a fascination with the Other. In the Moral Majority, this fascination displays the envious hatred of the Other’s excessive jouissance, while the multiculturalist tolerance of the Other’s Otherness is also more twisted than it may appear—it is sustained by a secret desire for the Other to remain “other,” not to become too much like us. In contrast to both these positions, the only truly tolerant attitude towards the Other is that of the authentic radical fundamentalist.

OK so again, the conclusion is that dichotomous choice is no choice, throwing out babies with the bathwater is an acknowledgement of the reality of babies. Rejecting eastern wisdom is an acknowledgement of the reality of eastern wisdom for example. Atheism is an acknowledgement of the reality of theism, Denial of global warming is an acknowledgement of global wearming as an issue, etc … pick your favourite world-scale (dichotomous) debate.

The fact that either side is making a living “marketing” its side of any such debate is a hypochrisy we all share so long as standing for something is seen as taking sides.

[Aside, interesting reading Gibbon, as I still am, is seeing that the persecution of Christians and their one supreme god was a primary motivator for their success.]

Question is what is “authentic radical fundamentalism” ?
(Sounds like neo-pragmatic / radical-empiricism maybe ?)
Need to read more Zizek. Marketing works ;-)