Tag Archives: philosophy

Light the blue touch paper 2016

cartwheel2016 has brought us Brexit and President elect Trump and a feeling that the wheel of fortune is turning; the world is changing. Already the Infosphere* is awash with explanations, ideas and remedies for these perceived disasters. I say perceived because we don’t yet know the actual trajectory events will take and where we will end up as a result of these votes. An energy of discontent and disillusionment has been building not just since the Bankers plunged the world into turmoil in 2008 but since the philosophy (if one can call it that) of an unrestrained free market capitalism skewed in favour of the rich took hold. The stored potential energy for change that has been building in the system discharged in 2016, converted into the kinetic energy of motion. The ball has started bouncing. Eventually it will run out of energy but the question is what will have happened in the interim?

So we wait like small children on bonfire night full of anticipation and trepidation as the blue touch paper slowly ignites. Hope and fear curling round each other in a finely balanced state of gleeful apprehension. Will the rocket take off and reward us with a glittering spectacle or will it topple over and screech across the garden sending us shrieking and running for safety (and kind of enjoying the danger and excitement of this out of control moment).

Like everyone else who takes even a passing interest in the affairs of the world quite a lot of articles about the how and why of Trump’s victory. I’ve listed a few at the bottom of this blog if anyone wants to go and check them out. I found there to be thoughtful and insightful analysis both from those on the left and right of the political spectrum about the events of 2016. The more I read, however, the more I realised that in my opinion they all missed one small but vital point. The ability of humans to tell stories. Each of these articles represent one person’s story about the events. We make stories because that is how we make sense of the world.

Humans are compulsive story tellers. It is our greatest strength and also our greatest weakness. I think that is the single most important genetic quirk that set us on the path to being different. My dog, clever and sagacious as he is, does not come home from his wander round the village and regale me with the story of his morning. We have been doing it for countless millennia. Our ability to tell stories is inseparably linked to the asking of questions like ‘what if’ and ‘why not’? Science is at its root the story of ‘what if’ questions and history well the name tells us what that is. We make our own individual story as we go through life, we map the world and experience into narrative and we speculate about the future through what if and why. So it is no surprise that all these commentators tell their story. Each of us has a story about 2016. Why we voted or didn’t vote, who we voted for, what we had for breakfast that day, the row with our neighbour over the dustbin, the happy feeling from someone complimenting us etc., etc. Gradually this narrative will solidify and become the history of 2016.

At the moment we’re all trying to guess what will happen and there are some scary scenarios that ty-newydd-etc-118acould well come to pass and justify any amount of anxiety. We are all ‘What iffing’ like mad. The future is uncertain because it is unknown and unknowable but that has always been the case – modern life merely gives us an illusion of security. We know this in our subconscious but our conscious mind wants a plan, wants a map through uncertain geographies. So we ‘normalise’ and therein lies our biggest threat to our species. We try to explain away or rationalise but with some things we mustn’t do that. It happened with fascism in the thirties and ended up in the second world war. We do not live in the thirties the challenges the world faces are very different and though the name fascist is applied to many on the far right this is not fascism as practised by Hitler or Mussolini or Franco. This is something different, less definite. It is born out of a system that is collapsing round our ears.

This desire to rationalise away the uncomfortable is why nothing will be done about the over exploitation of resources until disaster has occurred. Why people hope Trump will turn out to be a reasonable and enlightened President. Why Boris Johnson can say if we don’t sell arms to the Saudis someone else will. Why the Sun, Daily Mail and Express voice ever more vile sentiments about immigration and about the rule of law while politicians make feeble comments about the freedom of the press. It is why the far right deftly use the Overton principle to move humanity along the conveyor belt to the shredder.

ty-newydd-etc-120aOne of the constant questions I hear from my friends and kindred spirits is ‘how could the left have lost the hearts and minds of the dispossessed and disadvantaged to the point where they would support the very people and system that has brought them such misery. My answer? The story told by the left was complicated confusing and boring. Like one of those books where you have to keep going back to check who is who because the plot is unclear. The right on the other hand tell a rattling yarn.’Once upon a time our country was great…’ and so on and people remember the story. Well now we have to invent o new story. One that doesn’t normalise the worst aspects of the human psyche. One that celebrates co-operation and compassion as values to be cherished. Not politics not left or right but just people getting along and living together on a very small planet.

Fears discussed and addressed dissipate like mist when the sun breaks through. Fears closeted and suppressed canker and grow and are fed by those with their own agenda. Brexit happens, Trump happens Shit happens, etc., etc. We need to talk to each other. To admit that we all have a shadow line inside us even though we don’t like to admit it. It is there, those knee jerk reactions, the synaptic pathways laid down in our brains by repeated use. We need to make an effort not to normalise. To stand up against injustice even in the small everyday compass of our lives. Be open, be friendly why not? When a system is collapsing all bets are off and there is a chance this could lead to a much better future for humanity. There is a chance it could lead to another dark era for humanity. No sleepwalking allowed in interesting times otherwise in the words of Tom Leherer

“And we will all go together when we go.
What a comforting fact that is to know.
Universal bereavement,
An inspiring achievement,
Yes, we all will go together when we go.”

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

*Infosphere = the place where all communication happens – whether media, social media or just talking to each other.

These are some articles that resonated with me so no surprises that they are from the liberal left wing area of the Infosphere. There are several from the Guardian which these days is a toothless old dog but one of the few bits of the mainstream media that I still read.

http://charleseisenstein.net/hategriefandanewstory/

http://theconversation.com/trump-victory-comes-with-a-silver-lining-for-the-worlds-progressives-68523 (Yanis Varoufakis)

http://paulkingsnorth.net/2016/11/07/the-revolutionary-moment/

https://agentofhistory.com/ send your love to Donald Trump

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/commentisfree

Aditya Chakrabortty – Rust-belt romantics don’t get it: the middle class is being wiped out too

Owen Jones – A win for Trump was a win for bigotry. Here’s how we resist him

George Monbiot –Neoliberalism: the deep story that lies beneath Donald Trump’s triumph

Jaqueline Rose – Donald Trump’s victory is a disaster for modern masculinity

Suzanne Moore – So much has been broken by this election, but we can’t collapse in on ourselves

 

Making and Becoming

My last post was about going to Carnac as relief from the general feeling of doom and gloom that was pervading our household over the current state of the world and where it seemed to be taking 2016-10-08-12-40-22us. I didn’t mention that while eating our picnic near one of the sets of alignments I spotted an interestingly shaped bit of wood lying on the ground.  Both David and I were the sort of children who collected interesting things (feathers, stones, bits of bone, wood etc) neither of us have out grown the habit and with his 2016-10-08-12-40-09enthusiastic endorsement of it as ‘that’s fantastic looks like waves’. I tucked it under my arm and brought it home.

I photographed it on the tarmac outside the house when I got back so that I’d have a record of it in the state in which I found it. The piece of wood was pretty dirty and definitely not far off crumbling completely.

Found Art is one of my enthusiasms but ‘Found’ is one thing usually the ‘Art’ requires a little more effort. So I set to work cleaning, treating, sanding, oiling, polishing. A continuation of my Antidote to Doom and Gloom. The physical act of working on a piece of art is wonderfully absorbing. To begin with I had to pay close attention because it was extremely fragile and the last thing I wanted was for it to break into pieces but by the time it reached the stage of beeswax and polishing it had achieved its final form and the whole process became a meditation. Sitting in the October sun rubbing a piece of cloth backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards slowly bringing out the colours and the patina. While I was doing this I found myself pondering about the idea of making and the idea of becoming (in the sense of beginning to be). Making contains both the meaning of process of creating and the essential qualities needed for something. Michelangelo’s statement that ‘Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the sculptor’s task to discover it’ encompasses both meanings. But in the found art piece it seemed to me the wood itself played an active part. It transformed and emerged and the finished piece had its own identity. It Became. 

The ‘finished’ piece, and I use finished only in the sense that I stopped working on it, has its own definite character and energy. My hands picking at a bit here, sanding off a rough bit there and polishing it for hours merely allowed this creature to be caught in the moment of its transformation from one thing to another. Certainly not the waves we both saw when I picked up the bit of wood but an ancient and powerful beast. 

It seems to me that making and becoming are inseparable not just in the artistic process but in everything. If we make something without allowing it also to emerge than we have a flawed end result. Maybe that is most of what is wrong with the world at the moment too much making and not enough becoming.

Footnote to self – drink cider after and not before proof reading your article that way you won’t have the embarrasment of re-editing after you’ve posted.

Where next for Europe?

greece gets stomped

What we have watched unfold over the last five months goes far beyond the petty inadequacies of European politicians and poses a fundamental question to all of us.

What type of society do we want to live in – what type of world view do we want our children to inherit?

The Greeks have been subject to a harsh lesson. Freedom exists only in so far as you do not test its limits. Stay within the prescribed limits and you can have the illusion that you are free. Attempt to step over the boundary and feel the sting of the lash.

Society is one of those BIG words (as Cameron abused it) but basically society is a structural and functional arrangement that reflects the norms, values and mores of the individuals within it. Democratic society governs this arrangement by way of the will of the majority – imperfect but better than the alternatives. That is why the shifting of values of individuals within the population is of such fundamental importance to those who wish to change the nature of the society in which we live. The triumph of neo-liberal ideology is that it has mastered the art of shifting the baseline of popular opinion so much better than those of us who are merely ineffectually liberal minded and tolerant.

Worms of the world unite and turn.” Maybe lacks something as a rallying cry but it is where we’re at. Further more worms are good, honest and useful creatures.

perception and reality – the mind and consciousness

Roger Penrose’s book ‘Shadows of the Mind’ was published some twenty years ago.  When it first came out I immediately added it to my reading list but one thing and another intervened including a career change and relocation from London to Mid Wales and it slipped down the agenda and wandered off into the infinite labyrinth of my mind.   My Glia’s, however, are equipped with roller skates and a sense of mischief.   Left to themselves they hunt about for interesting stuff and present it for my inspection and approval in the same way as Dog presents his latest wastepaper basket installation art piece to me, that is to say, hopeful but not certain of approval.   Anyway recently they tracked down this particular ‘to do’ somewhere between the mid-Palaeolithic and teatime and dragged it back up to the surface.  So after a shamefully long flash to bang time I am finally reading it.

Penrose, who is a mathematician, sets out to explore what modern physics has to tell us about the mind and to examine what we mean when we talk of ‘awareness’, ‘understanding’,  ‘consciousness’ and ‘intelligence’.   These questions go to the root of what it is to be human and also whether digital computers (in the sense of Turing Machines) can achieve conscious awareness.  In the intervening period I read Iain Mcgilchrist’s book ‘The Master and The Emissary’ which examines the same concepts but from the point of a neuroscientist.

Penrose takes the view that appropriate physical action of the brain evokes ‘awareness’ but this physical action cannot be properly simulated computationally (he argues against the argument that all thinking is purely computational and feelings of ‘awareness’ are evoked by the carrying out of appropriate computations – a position that, if correct would mean that a computer controlled robot which convincingly behaves as though it possesses consciousness must be considered actually to have a conscious mind).  His book is largely an exploration and argument in support of the proposition that we perform non-computational feats when we consciously understand.   The distinction between the two viewpoints has profound implications for questions of free will, determinism and what it means to be human.

Iain Mcgilchrist’s book examines the way in which the division of our brain into two hemispheres is essential to human existence making possible incompatible versions of the world with quite different priorities and values.  He doesn’t expound the old left-brain-right-brain divide but looks at the functioning of the hemispheres as related to the type of attention we pay to the world.   My mind placed Penrose and McGilchrist’s ideas alongside each other and came up with a synthesis or at least the idea that the type of attention paid by the right hemisphere is the non-computational element of Penrose’s proposition.   The bit of our brain that allows us to understand intuitively that if Abraham Lincoln’s left foot is in Washington his right foot will also be there, or to gain from an early age an understanding of the concept of three from three oranges or dogs or whatever and from there to go on to understand the infinite sequence of whole numbers.   The left hemisphere’s attention more closely resembles that of a Turing machine and performs in a way that can be explained in entirely digital computational terms.  The right hemisphere, however, operates in a manner that is non-computational other than possibly on a quantum level.

I find this extraordinarily fascinating.  To me it explains much about the way we function as a species as well as on an individual level.   Why for example we would need to invent language and why we consider that because our  cerebellum controls things such as motor skills that have become ‘automatic’ it does not have ‘conscious’ thought but acts unconsciously.    Surrealism as a movement explored the idea of the unconscious mind to reveal it and reconcile it with rational (conscious)  life but I think what we are dealing with here is a different kind of consciousness bearing the same relationship to what we now classify as ‘conscious’ thought as quantum theory has to the Newtonian world of classical physics.   One of the most bizarre premises of quantum theory is the idea that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality.   I think here we approach a convergence of quantum theory and the Buddhist and/or Daoist philosophy of ‘mindful attention’, the concept of interconnectedness and ‘being’ in the now.

I would argue that the type of attention we pay to the world changes what we find there (the glass half empty or the glass half full being a simplistic example) with important philosophical, societal and technical implications for the future.    How we respond to climate change, whether our thinking is governed by labels that discriminate and separate, whether we collaborate or compete these all shape the world not only that we inhabit now but also the one in which future generations will have to live.

The ability to look at things from a different perspective, to fail to conform to stereotypes and to value diversity and difference; in other words to squeeze ourselves through the eye of the needle and follow the Fool out across the rainbow are all in my view necessary prerequisites for a healthy future for our species.

 

Words and what they mean

shep quote copy

Shep quoting Lao Tsu and Sartre

It is an interesting hypothesis that once all humans spoke the same language.  Or that at least all languages derived from one prehistoric mother tongue.

Noam Chomsky’s theory is that language is so unique to humans that it must have arisen suddenly as the result of a single chance mutation occurred in one individual on the order of 100,000 years ago, instantaneously installing the language faculty.  Nice idea but I’m sure it is wrong.  It is not impossible that some individuals were ahead of the game in inventing language (as Leonardo was with submarines and helicopters) but there’s a lot of truth in the phrase ‘an idea whose time has come’.   Noam Chomsky I feel overlooked a fundamental fact about human nature and we haven’t really changed that much in the last hundred thousand years which after all is a mere blink of the eye in evolutionary terms.   I’m sure that if one evening round the fire an individual had suddenly announced ‘Hey listen up people I’ve invented this amazing thing called spoken language’ covert glances would have been exchanged, temples touched and he or she would have found themselves the recipient of the Palaeolithic  equivalent of care in the community.

Language emerged so far back in human prehistory that the relevant developments have left no direct historical traces but I tend to think it probably evolved in response to changes in our social structures.  Writing arose from symbols and I suspect language arose from signs and sounds in some way.  Plato believed that language developed out of sheer practical necessity and like a lot of his ideas it has some merit!  The theory I like best is what is called the lying hypothesis.  E. H. Sturtevant argued that, since all real intentions or emotions get involuntarily expressed by gesture, look or sound, voluntary communication must have been invented for the purpose of lying or deceiving.  He proposed that the need to deceive and lie–to use language in contrast to reality for selfish ends– was the social prompting that got language started.  It also very neatly explains why human communication is so fundamentally different from that of other species.  Bees don’t tend to lie about where the pollen is then piss themselves laughing as half the hive shoots of in the wrong direction.

Our language centre sits in the left hemisphere of the brain, the one that categorises and orders and language also creates false separations and objectifications through its symbolizing power.   Modern languages, for example, employ the word “mind” to describe a thing dwelling independently in our bodies, as compared with the Sanskrit word, which means “working within,” involving an active embrace of sensation, perception, and cognition.  Words and the way we use them subtly shape our entire way of life, including the way we think.   The language we speak limits us to the modes of perception already inherent in that language.  The fact that language is only form and yet moulds everything goes to the core of what ideology is.  The use of words to shift perceptions, to induce a change of attitude has been exploited by politicians and advertisers probably since the Neolithic because it works on our dependence on language.  Once the door to language opened it became impossible to imagine what we were like without it.

I come back to the subject of chaos thinking and the fundamental difference between knowledge by description not knowledge by acquaintance.  The former is a function of our left brain, knowledge that is mediated, inferential and categorised, the latter a function of direct unmediated experience of the world.  This direct unmediated knowledge is an important part of our ability to question and to innovate both as individuals and as a species.

On Friendship and Difference

winter iris final

i.m. A.H. – Frost Ferns and Winter Iris.

My intention this week was to write about language or more specifically the origins of it.  A subject in my mind not completely divorced from my musings last week on the way in which we categorise the world and the need to encourage ‘chaos thinking’.   Life, however, as it has a habit of doing, intervened.   This week my friend lost her battle with Motor Neurone disease.   A battle which she had no hope of winning but which she nevertheless embarked on with determination and humour.

By the hand of fate and the even more inscrutable workings of the college authorities she and I met on our first day at university.   We were allocated rooms next to each other on the same stair.   We had nothing in common.   Freshers are valence electrons in the atomic structure of college and in their excited state they make multiple collisions for a short period of time before losing energy and settling into their ground state.    I was no exception; I pinged about the University looking for my orbital.  Of the people I bumped up against in those first few weeks I remember nothing at all except that they were the gateways to the people with whom I settled into real friendship over the course of the next few years.  The exception was my neighbour on the stair; everything that I was not – an abstemious non-smoker even as a student, politically a conservative, a devout Christian with rigidly orthodox views on  sex, sexuality and gender,  not given to experimentation of any kind not even hypnosis let alone mind altering substances.   She regarded my hobby of rock climbing as proof of lunacy and she made the worst coffee in the history of the universe.

After University our lives followed very different trajectories and since in those dark days there was no such thing as Facebook, we exchanged occasional postcards and even more occasional letters and the odd phone call.   We met up at intervals, sometimes with years between them but unlike some people from University with whom I had perhaps more in common our friendship never dwindled to the point where we ceased to be in touch.   Whenever we did meet we simply picked up from where we’d left off as though we’d seen each other only yesterday.    That is the litmus test of a comfortable and enduring friendship.   I saw her a few weeks ago and we sat in her garden talking about this and that and she started making plans that we should visit our old college next year to celebrate fifty years since we met.   One of our many differences, she was a great one for college reunions whereas I tend to avoid them like the plague.   My feeling about them being that the sort of people who turn up for them are the ones you spent your time avoiding while you were an undergraduate so why inflict on yourself the pain of standing in a room pretending that it’s absolutely great to see them again and they haven’t changed a bit even though they have become rich and successful, lost their waistline, hair or teeth and are wearing garments made of crimplene with elasticated waists – (my partner has made a living will asking to be taken to the vets and put out of his misery if ever he starts wearing garments of this nature; but I digress)   My friend obviously reading all this in my carefully neutral expression hastened to say that she didn’t mean an official reunion, just a day out.   So we sat there having fun planning what we could do and see, despite the fact that both of us knew that if she was still alive the chances were that she would be too ill to go.

Well this all set me pondering on the reason why our friendship stuck.   To begin with it clearly came into the class of ‘friendship by circumstance’ of the sort you make with people such as work colleagues or in our case proximity and a shared kettle.   These friendships are genuine but rarely survive the change in circumstances.  Changing jobs or moving away, loosens the glue that holds them together and they gradually dwindle and fade.  That didn’t happen to us; despite our many differences we had a deep and abiding respect and liking for each other.  I realise that we shared one thing and that one thing was sufficient to overcome the multiplicity of things we didn’t have in common.  We shared the quality of tolerance, an acceptance or patience with the beliefs, opinions or practices of others;   a readiness to allow and embrace difference as a necessary part of being human.   Which I realise brings me by circuitous routes back to the idea explored in last week’s blog about labels and the bigger picture.   If we’d stuck to labels then we would never have become friends.

The knowledge sponge – chaos and order and why does a banana have two ends?

For me, one of the best things about being human is having an enquiring mind.   I have the sort of brain that reacts to knowledge as a sponge does to water, that is to say it sucks it up with enthusiasm. Of course to get at it you need an extraction system and the brain doesn’t necessarily take kindly to being wrung out over a bucket.   I imagine the inside of my head as an infinite library system in which is stored all the knowledge I’ve come across in my lifetime (and maybe in several previous ones for all I know – consciousness as a quantum state?).  When I want to remember something I picture the librarian dispatching a functionary on roller skates into the labyrinthine caves of racked information to find the bit I want and bring it back.  It works for me!   I learnt about the central nervous system at school and the names of the two types of receptors stuck – nicotinic and muscarinic – classified by me as the tobacco and wine responses, at the time I learnt this stuff at school my extracurricular activities were focussed around experimenting with these particular substances (I told you it works for me I didn’t say it works normally).

So my brain is a complex dynamics system within which small perturbations (thoughts, ideas, experiences) cause changes in the sequence of iterated functions (firing up of neurons) resulting in a state of chaos resulting in unlikely connections being made.   We’re back looking through the other side of the eye of the needle.

I believe we need to cultivate this chaos, however, we also need to control and categorise the results in order to make sense of them; to reduce them to something useful.  No good leaping out of the bath shouting ‘Eureka’ if by the time you’ve got to your desk you’ve forgotten what it was that was so brilliant.   I once woke up in the night with the realisation that I had had the most profound insight and quickly scribbled a few words so that I would not forget it.  In the morning I picked up my notepad and read ‘a banana has two ends’.   I raised this with my friend as we cycled to work and he gave me the sort of look that is the preserve of those who have known you a very long time and still like you and simply said ‘what were you smoking last night?’  That was the point in my life when I realised I was not Nobel Prize material, more Cheech and Chong than Einstein or Archimedes, they’d have written it down and it would still have been brilliant at breakfast time (actually that also goes for Cheech and Chong it would just have been a different kind of brilliant).

Any way the perturbation that sparked off this random scribbling was reading an insightful blog by Frausto about being labelled as a ‘Latino’ how that label is used to define him and at the same time limit him.    It struck me that this sad and limiting not only for the person being labelled but also for those doing the labelling.  We all do it to some degree and it must arise from the function of the left hemisphere of our brain to categorise the world.  Now that is a necessary part of being human and if it doesn’t get in the way of the bigger picture it does no harm and potentially quite a lot of good.  Categorising is an essential part of understanding the world.  What is wrong here is that the labelling has got in the way of the bigger picture.

I worry that this seems to be an increasing phenomenon not only in respect of the idiocy of defining people simply by their ethnic origin (if it’s even that rational) but also by an increasing dominance of classification as the driver of our civilisation.  We are making the component bits more important than the whole; Latino or Anglo more important than human.   This has profound implications for all of us; already the acquisition of knowledge by experience is being downgraded in value in favour of knowledge by description.  Skills are broken down into a series of tasks and systems replace judgment, people are regarded as resources and society becomes more fragmented, social mobility slows and reverses and the gap between rich and poor steadily widens.  Somehow we are becoming unable to embrace the bigger picture.  To reduce the world to mere order is to lose something essential that makes us fully human.  A society where there is no room for chaos thinking or appreciation of the bigger picture will not help humanity.

So equip your Glia’s with roller skates and get them busy in your brain there’s at least a 1,000 terabytes of data storage in there (the US library of Congress has about 10 terabytes) – make random connections and don’t accept the world is anything other than a place of unlimited possibilities.  It doesn’t matter what the box is labelled, look inside – you don’t know what you might find.

Also why does a banana have two ends?