28 thoughts on “Biblical Vapour Trails”

  1. I remember your essay on Dawkins. I’m still working on the Dawkins book, only because of lack of read time.

    Just curious, Have you seen or heard of the movie “what the bleep do we know?” ?

  2. Only vaguely heard of it – but now I see the web site, [what the bleep] it looks interesting. I recognise a few of the books in the reading list – though Capra is the only one I’ve read.

  3. Ah, but I do recognise several of the people on the “scientists page”. Doesn’t actually say what they contributed to the film. Hameroff is the most relevant to my stuff – linked to him many times – but he’s also the guy whose stuff Sue Blackmore refers to as “about a smuch use as pixie dust” quoting the Churchlands.

    Interesting nevertheless.

  4. The scientist are all interviewed throughout the movie in between the telling of a story.

    I saw this movie maybe nine months ago. It had a very limited release. The reason I went is that I was telling a friend that I was falling down on the side of atheism. She said “well, you just have to see this movie.”

    It certainly didn’t convince me of anyhting, but was well done and thought provoking. The “scientists” gave only a little background to back up their assertions.And of course there was no one to refute any statements. (big clue in my mind) it inspired me to pick up a book on Quantum mechanics “six easy pieces” Ridiculous to do, since I’ve never even taken physics 101.

    my daughter called last night and said she had just seen it. And she is enthralled. The problem I have with any of this stuff is that it sounds good, it feels good and unless you are a person with a tremendous scientific background and a very sceptical mind you will not be capable of telling whether any of it is worthwhile.

    I fear that we Americans are pretty gullible.

    I’ll check out hameroff.

  5. Hi Alice – so two angles …
    American and Mystical

    The mystical vs scientific stuff – I think being open minded but sceptical is the only valid approach – science has no monopoly on truth. You asked me about spirituality the other day – well stuff like “the memory of water” is spiritual, whacky, and probably discredited on any wothrwhile grounds, but that doesn’t mean everything not yet supported by “mainstream science” is automatically wrong. ie The fact that it’s referred to as “pixie dust” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong – maybe just not understood – yet, but also maybe garbage.

    I have always (and still do) worked (30 years) for either American companies, or companies with important American customers,so I have to be careful. That said – I think Americans are not so much gullible as unsubtle (generally). This film would probably appeal to me if it had some good gags in it. That would suggest it had some serious message. Being directly serious merely suggests someone is just out for a fast buck or self-interest. But then maybe I’m the gullible one.

    But I will take a look.

  6. Unsubtle, is that why I don’t understand English humor?
    On our public stations on Saturday night they air at least three English comedies. I watch and the laugh track cues a response and I say Whaaaa?

    I have read one wonderfully funny book about the differences in culture “brit think-amerithink”.

    At one time I attended some “metaphysical” churches. they focused primarily on positive thinking. that your thoughts affect your life. Hell, my dad taught me that and gave me the book “the power of positive thinking”when I was a kid. But then they’d get wierd and bring in channelers and psychics. that’s when I had to say adios.

    I still every once in a while catch Wayne Dyer or Deepak Chopra. they are usually in a lecture setting and they show all these middle class americans taking notes so seriously. they talk about “intention”, “getting in touch with your source”, “creating your reality” It all sounds so good it makes me want to puke. these guys are making huge bucks selling frivolous feel good ideas to americans who have everything and still want more.

    I like Steven Pinker.

  7. PS I always think of just one more good line…
    I wish I had said that americans like their enlightenment in the form of three easy payments of $39.95.

    one line I remember from brithink-americathink
    “the british know death is inevitable, americans think it’s optional.”

    and as for subtlety: micheal leigh, the british filmmaker and Jane Austin.

  8. Some interesting paradoxes there …

    US v Brit humour – I can never quite work out – some crosses the Atlantic well (in both directions) – but some leaves the other cold. I guess that’s the danger of generalising from stereotypes.

    Selling feelgood “sprituality” – whatever the “science” behind any effects in play (or not) – I think the main issue here is in “selling”. This is the Barrett / James / Northrop quote I keep making. If you actively plan to achieve some things – you get the exact opposite. In this case “spirituality” is something you “find”, not something you can buy or sell I suspect – which brings us back to “subtley of approach”.

    There is something in here waiting to get out.

    You’ll have to explain the leigh and austin references.

  9. subtle:
    Fine or delicate in meaning or intent, difficult to perceive or understand.

    requiring mental acuteness,penetration or discernment.

    When I wrote the line about Michael Leigh and Jane Austen I thought you would know exactly what I meant.(silly) I see now that it does require explanation. When you said Americans are unsubtle, I thought about how brash Americans tend to be. Of course, it is dangerous and impossible to generalize in any meaningful way about an entire country. But brash is a word which could be used? Obtuse is another one which comes to mind. And I think both of those words could be said to be the opposite of subtle.

    So then I went about trying to figure what subtle means in real terms and I thought about Michael Leigh who makes wonderful films about life, particularly British life. In his latest film, Vera Drake, he tells about a woman who is a great wife and mother, a lovely and caring neighbor and oh, by the way, gives abortions on the side.

    But it’s the way he makes the films that is unique. He just presents the lives for your consideration. There is little or no agenda except to make it seem like you are catching a glimpse of real life. And the way he does it makes the whole thing fascinating and satisfying. I call that subtle.

    And then there is lovely Ms. Austen who cast an intelligent eye around her eighteenth century world and with great humor told stories of her imaginary neighborhoods. The people who lived in her novels were flawed with the usual assortment of human weaknesses, and while she revealed these things, she avoided endorsing any particular behavior, satisfying herself and the reader with an enlightening revelation of the human condition.

    This is what I call subtle, because instead of hitting the moviegoer or reader over the head with “the point?, it honors his intelligence.

  10. I agree – artists who’ve produced subtle work. I guess I was looking for something more subtle in your point 🙂

    Austen – I would agree subtle commentary on real human life, but for me ultimately unsatisfying because of the (apparent) absence of original message of her own – though I’m in danger of over generalising through ignorance.

    By a spooky coincidence, the Michael Anderson I was referring to in Cambridge made a remark about getting his English student to move on from Austen, the evening he met me reading Melville with Pirsig in my bag.

    Had you read those posts before mentioning Austen ?

  11. I’m beginning to see that you are most interested in coincidence.

    And in some kind of spirituality.

    When I first read you (can’t say met you, can I?) you were saying that religion doesn’t fix the quality of the explanation. And I assumed that you were non-religious and non- believing in the spiritual.(and I think you assumed I was religious) I see now that I must be mistaken.

    Just having returned from my journeys into the worlds of religion (a long one, since birth), I assumed that was that with that, but you seem to be exploring things which may be outside of religious framework.

    I tend to stay away from giving coincidences any significance independent of the fact that I see a connection. I think I know enough to say that the way our minds work, in a combinatorial way, makes it only natural for us to see patterns and “coincidences”.
    Does there need to be a further explanation?

  12. The objective engineer in me would tend to agree with your last point if it weren’t for the fact that just about everything we “know” is about assigning significance, attaching value and metaphors, to patterns we experience.

    The open mind in me says that some of the “supernatural” may point to some as yet unexplained or widely accepted “physical” effects. Physics or not it is inescapable that most of “life: is about why humans do things, and how they “rationalise” their reasons, rather than black and white “facts” and inductive objective logic. Evolutionary psychology.

    Just remarking and suspending disbelief in synchronicity, rather than positively endorsing it.

  13. I just talked to my daughter and she is delighted with your stand of “suspending disbelief”. She is twenty two and I am fifty something. I have only just found “evolutionary psychology” and it fully fits with what I have experienced heretofore. As I have expressed, I am not educated, in the classic sense of the words. But those who are, probably had that education when they were in their twenties and have probably forgotten or gone past it..family, kids, aging parents, the stuff of life.

    So i think I am educated in the sense that I am vitally interested in the experience I am having as a living, breathing human being. I am just tired of the bullshit.

    If something comes to me and makes sense such as the writing of Steven Pinker or my college level geology classes, I embrace it. that is why i go to the Grand Canyon metaphor. why can’t we just accept our rightful place as a blip on the screen of this amazing thing called life? Isn’t there something truly wonderful and satisfying about that?

  14. Your “why can’t we just accept …” is wonderfully ambiguous rhetoric.

    If it’s a plea to “just accept” then I’d have to say I wouldn’t find that at all satisfying.

    If (as I suspect) it’s a genuinely open question “why ?” then what is satisfying is the awesome scope of possible answers that open up when you really stop and look (eg at the grand canyon).

    (Excuse me whilst I vomit into this sick-bag 🙂 )

    Anyway – one of the threads I’m following (after Pirsig) is the point you make about “the writing” of Pinker. You mention his writing, not specific facts or ideas of his, because as a fellow human you recognise quality when you read (or otherwise experience) it. And if you really ask yourself why – you’d be pushed to articulate an answer. That has more to do with our evolved culture, than your education. (As Pinker would agree in fact.)

  15. what the hell are you talking about? sick bag? are my ideas so prosaic?

    I have not read Pirsig, but if you pushed me I could articulate what I have read in Pinkers’s writing.

    I don’t like having my closely held beliefs characterized as rhetoric. It is incumbent upon each human being in our day and age to be able to articulate their take on the problem of human existence. I have considered the problem. I am not in a philosophy class where I have to write a paper articulating my beliefs. and truly, no one I know cares a whit what I believe about what it means to be alive as a human. So where do i go to make my statement?

  16. The sick bag was following my own grandiose statements, not yours 🙂 Chill.

    Interesting, rhetoric is much maligned, you took it as a negative comment. Absolutely not intended. I was genuinely not sure whether you were making a statement or asking an open question. And now I’m even less sure in fact.

    You could indeed articulate “things you have read” in Pinkers writing (as I have and can) – I was not commenting on your “capability”. What you (or any human) would have trouble doing is articulating “why you like his writing” (not specific facts or ideas) – the quality of his writing – that’s the Pirsig reference – and is the link to my earlier “quality of explanation” hobby-horse. Quality is not wholly objective.

    Philosophy class ? Me neither.
    No one cares ? I care.
    Where ? Anywhere you like.

  17. “why can’t we just accept our rightful place as a blip on the screen of this amazing thing called life?”

    Ok it’s a rhetorical question. I did look up rhetoric and it does have some negative meanings so I wasn’t completely off the mark.Sorry I was so sensitive (i’m a girl you know).

    I continue to try to comprehend your point of view.

    You say that I like Pinker because of the “quality” of his writing and that is so. You seem to be saying that there is significance in the fact that I like his writing. And that I may not be fully conscious of why that is. Subliminal? Intuitive?

    But prior to this, on EC’s blog, you said religion did not have the “quality” of the explanation and I countered with “for you”. What I was trying to say that it depends on the person who is doing the thinking whether the quality is there. Which I think is what you have said to me above.

    It sounds like I need to check out this pirsig fellow. My reading list is getting longer by the minute.

  18. OK to recap …

    I’ve said not wholly objective, so yes, at least partly “subjective”. I think I’ve previously agreed something like intuitive / spiritual, knowing without (apparently ?) experiencing specifically. Almost heresy for a scientist or engineer to contemplate, no ?

    I’m trying hard not to force Pirsig on you, but he fits here for two reasons – firstly his starting point, coincidentally (as an English teacher) was about writing and rhetoric (in the positive sense, good writing, using language to get your message across) – secondly his philosophy, or “metaphysics” as he couches it, is a reaction against “subject-object dualism”, replacing the interaction between the two with “quality”. Something you know intuitively – and he makes it the rest of his life’s work to formalise this into something less woolly. (It’s largely about western vs eastern cultural outlooks, hence Zen, a more holistic “oneness” with the world, rather than distinct subject and object – shall I get the sick bags out again ?)

    Seriously though, I actually buy his world-view as a good model of how things really are – even though I don’t buy metaphysics. The point is he’s a pretty inspiring read, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance first, then Lila only if ZMM inspires you, cos it’s tougher. ZMM is a book of it’s time, spanning hippy flower power era and Kerouac, but what he says “rings true” (there’s a clue in that expression). I wouldn’t worry about the formal philosophy side of it unless it creates the interest (There are in fact plenty of philosphical schools of thought that already address Pirsig’s issues with subject-object dualism, but that doesn’t change the quality or originality of what he wrote.)

    Know what you mean about reading lists – I’ve started Don Quixote – and the rest are just piling up in a backlog.

  19. I haven’t read your answer, but I will. What i want to say is that I have found the “zen of motorcycle maintenance” on line and am reading it. my first reaction is “yes!”. i grew up in the seventies and traveled the roads from my home in chicago into wisconsin where I had the sense that this was “real life”.

    My husband and I are moving from the suburban life of southern california (beautiful before it became suburbia) and moving to a very remote spot in northern california near yosemite. It is the most active place geologically in my country. It is on the eastern side where the rocks are exposed and you really get the sense of “the earth” in all its silent wonder. (sick bag?)

    we are building our own place. It’s been four years in the making and this is the final push to get it done. have you checked out my website? i am a woodworker and my husband is an electro-mechanical engineer. everything we do is with our hands.I feel that we are connected to life in a very intimate way. that is how i have lived my life. i haven’t made a lot of money in the dot-com sense of the word, but i have always known who i am. I got my inspiration to do the work i am doing from the book “the art of loving” by eric fromme.

    i’ll get back to reading and let you know what i come up with.

    ps. i like not having to deal with capitals since i’m not a very good typist.

    pps. i was disappointed to see you use “begs the question” incorrectly, i thought with your background in philosophy you’d know better. the meaning of the term is being changed and i don’t like it, damn it!

  20. So that’s one vote for dropping the capitalisation.

    You’re right about “beg’s the question” – I was being sloppy / colloquial, though not being a philosopher, I’m not absolutely sure of its correct technical usage anyway 🙂

    That’s language for you.

  21. Alice – I had in fact not noticed you had a web-site until you mentioned it. Doh!

    In a way, I’m glad I didn’t look until now, because I’ve already formed a view of you only from the correspondence. What is interesting, now having seen it is that your values will almost certainly gel with Pirsig’s. Shall I say it again ? Spooky.

    That looks like quality work. I shall have to browse more thoroughly.

    (PS, just for the record, I am typing with conventional capitatlisation, just in case I ever switch presentation styles in the blog)

  22. “I am typing with conventional capitatlisation, just in case I ever switch presentation styles in the blog)”

    oh, no then my stuff will look pretty crappy!

    I am loving the book. I am with him 100%. when i used to smoke marijuana, i thought i was pretty psychic, or rather intuitive about what people were thinking. the problem was of course that no one wants someone to pry into their thoughts.

    “Begs the question”. (now i can teach you something)
    petitio principii: in attempting to establish the truth of a proposition, if one assumes as a premise for his argument the very conclusion he intends to prove, the fallacy he commits is that of petitio principii.

    an example would be that one may argue that shakespeare is a greater writer than shaw because people with good taste in literature prefer shakespeare. if asked how one tells who has good taste in literature if the answer is that such persons are identified by their preferring shakespeare to shaw then that is a circular argument known as begging the question.

    I know this is picking nits ( pinker would agree, have you read “the language instinct”? but i think a term which is so rich in meaning should not be co-opted for a more convenient (and inaccurate) meaning.

  23. You know, I haven’t actually read The Language Instinct – just picked up quotes and references to it, by himself and others. I’ve picked it up and skimmed on bookshop shelves often enough too. I guess I really should read it.

    (PS I don’t actually believe it’s possible to read every relevant influential book you “should”, but hey.)

    Incidentally – I believe the colloquial use of begging the question is really the same thing (only better). Bear with me …

    The strict logical circularity of question actually depending on the answer is clear enough – but it’s actually simple “objective logic” – trivial and rarely useful in “real” life questions.

    The colloquial use of saying the answer to one question begs another question, is really implying, “because I suspect your first question was dependent on one of these answers, and there’s a circularity / invalidity that I can’t yet express, so let’s go round the loop again”. Much vaguer and messier, like real life in fact. (I’ll use “scare quotes” next time I misuse it.)

  24. I’ll have to think about whether the colloquial use of the term “begs the question” is near it’s original or “classic” meaning. To me it sounds like people are saying “this question is begging to be asked”. maybe there is a connection.

    it seems important to me that people speak and even more importantly write with logical thought. That is part of the “quality” of the writing of someone such as pinker. one recognizes when it’s there and notices when it’s not.

    And I have just finished “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” I read it on line which is not nearly as nice as holding a book in one’s hands, but it was short enough.

    It brought so many things to mind. One is that I am going to send it to my daughter. She might even read it.

    and it brought me back to the 70’s when i was just becoming aware of all this craziness.i felt quite inequiped in those days to do anything beyond ask what i felt were unanswerable questions. also i felt quite odd that i was asking them. no one seemed as interested as i was and so i assumed they had answers i didn’t have. I should have gone to college today, i feel much better, the benefit of advanced age.

    I want to know more about this guy and i’m sure there’s lots of information about him on the net.

    as I mentioned, my husband is an electro-mechanical engineer. as I also mentioned we are moving from this place, a place where he has lived for thirty years. It took me two days to pack all of his engineering books and paraphernalia…books with dates which range back to 1970. he won’t let go of any of them, even though i have pointed out to him that he rarely looks at them.

    also, lots of old electronic parts, and half gutted diagnostic equipment. he says those will be his source of entertainment when fishing season is over.

    maybe this is his source of inspiration, just as my books are to me, he being the classic type and I being the romantic (per pirsig)

  25. I’ve been thinking about the book a lot today.

    a couple of things…Phaedrus. In my dictionary it says he is a Roman teller of fables, not a philosopher as pirsig says he is.

    So it’s my guess that pirsig is Phaedrus.

    And then there is the lobotomy scene. Somehow he went from having a great week at work to a cocktail party to a mental institution. I know his work as an engineer was so analytical that it may have been driving him a bit crazy. Did pirsig actually have a lobotomy or is that a metaphor for personal synthesis?

    It’s easy to get thrown off because he says this is true story, but when I began to think about it, all of the characters actually represented something.

    I am thinking that his son is actually him (he?) as a young boy…with mental illness in his future.

    anyway…good book.

    I liked his passage about reading with his son. I think I could enjoy reading this with my husband.

  26. Your previous comment Alice – I don’t believe “quality” of thought and expression is confined to being logical only, to the exclusion of other qualities that might make it better or truer.

    One of the things I like about ZMM are some of the touching and painful personal stories, not just the explicit philosophy messages.

    There is a timeline of Pirsig’s “real” life on my web-site – see “Pirsig Pages, main page in the side-bar). There was no lobotomy – not in the book either. Just like I did, I suspect you are blurring visions of Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest into ZMM. In his real life there was ECT / EST therapy though.

    There is no doubt Phaedrus is Pirsig’s alter ego, though some doubt in passages of the book which character is speaking and acting at the time – something Pirsig acknowledges in his own reader notes to accompany the 25th anniversary edition.

    There is some confusion over the name Phaedrus and the allusions intended, partly because Pirsig himself made an error when his lecturer made the comparison – with one of the characters in Plato’s Phaedrus, not Phaedrus himself – a convenient “mistake” for Pirsig, because Phaedrus is “the one who shines brightly”.

    The book (and Lila) is mostly true as far as researches (and correspondence with Pirsig) can tell – one or two sequences are pastiches, and character identities disguised, but the essential events are true. Some of his life is of course confused by his mental breakdown, and almost certainly drug influenced states too. Obviously what Pirsig says of his own reasoning and motivations we can only corrobrate with our own experience, or take his word for it.

    I think he sees signs in his son of going the same way – and the guilt trip makes him think – the foggy clifftop scene is pivotal – but read the timeline for the even sadder real story.

  27. “He was dead. Destroyed by order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain. Approximately 800 mills of amperage at durations of 0.5 to 1.5 seconds had been applied on twenty-eight consecutive occasions, in a process known technologically as “Annihilation ECS.”

    Now I’m feeling quite stupid, for three reasons.

    1) I meant to say electric shock therapy.
    2) I only read part 1
    3) I thought i had read the whole thing.

  28. In that case, avoid reading the “Timeline” until you’ve read the complete book – or you will find spoilers.

    Hope you continue to enjoy it.

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