Tuesday, July 17, 2007


A GLORIOUS ACCIDENT: Understanding Our Piece in the Cosmic Puzzle. The opinions of Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel C. Dennett, Freeman Dyson, Rupert Sheldrake, and Stephen Toulmin who were interviewed separately and then brought together as a panel. The book, a transcript of the events, was the idea and project of Wim Kayzer. My used copy came from a public library in the Denver area, a place quick to take up new ideas and then quick to discard them for newer ones.

The original idea was to see to what degree these six edgy thinkers could come up with agreement about our current understanding of reality: civilization, religion, the human animal, and so on. Some of them are far out, others are very popular, and the only one I know, Stephen Toulmin, verges on the inscrutable. I took a class from him but had to drop out because all I could see was the nightsky glow from his light just over the horizon. Gould turned out to be cranky. If I could have dinner with one of them, I would choose Sacks. I knew Dennett the least and steered clear of Sheldrake the most. I kept wondering what Pinker thought.

As “idea beaters” in the underbrush of the intellectual world, they started a lot of rabbits but neither killed nor bagged much of anything. Still, it was fun while it lasted and it provides a kind of summary that many will find useful in trying to understand the gap between the wisdom received in school in the Sixties and the progress of ideas now. To change the metaphor, for we oldsters there is a serious gap between the station platform and the moving train. Indecision can be fatal. Hesitation can make you miss the train. But what happens if you join the journey?


Reality is moving, fluid bits which we assemble according to our experience. If they stop fitting together, our sense of reality changes. (See Thomas Kuhn)

Progress is an illusion (this is where my generation parts company with previous ones). Change is compelled, but whether it is “better” is subjective. How much it can be controlled is problematic, as well as the problem of what to change reality “to” and how to do it.

Objects and named processes are useful and operative in our worlds -- therefore they seem “real.” Once they are "unreal" they can't be revived, despite the Pope.

A biological being (including humans) is embedded in reality by consciousness: the ability to receive and organize information. The ability to monitor the PROCESS of consciousness makes us human.

Morality, including sin and evil, is ONLY human and judged by human standards vulnerable to whatever culture seems “real.”

God, if one MUST have God and if one MUST define the concept classically, is best defined as that than which nothing can be greater (i.e. more inclusive, not more admired), therefore God includes EVERYTHING, even non-God and Tillich’s Ground of Being, and cannot be escaped or opposed because that too becomes part of God. Therefore the ultimate human morality is to act in a way that “improves” God from the point of view of the person acting, which might also include denial or destruction of God. The culture helps or hinders.

The “better” morality protects the “better” humans, however the culture defines them.

There are kinds and gradations of consciousness, greater and lesser degrees of ability to monitor process, which come and go.

What we call “identity” is the inner feeling of consciousness and self-monitoring. It does not stay the same and those whose “identity” is challenged or a little out of control are often labeled as having “borderline personality problems.” Therefore, artists flirt with this problem.

Aesthetics -- harmony and beauty -- are a direct, conscious phenomeon which are then subjected to reflection. It can be a kind of morality -- the most beautiful is the most worthy.

A major moral question is what do we owe others and why? What others? What does the culture say? (Most cultures say that we owe our children, because they are the future.)

Physiologically, the intestines or “guts” come from the same original blastosphere part (there are three, but I forget their names) as the brain and operate on the same molecular flows and switches. Eating and thinking are directly related. Therefore, it is not surprising that so many people are not just “obese” but also “fat-headed.” I’m very much aware of how much controlling my blood glucose also affects both my brain and my guts, both my ability to process and monitor process and my ability to feel subtle emotion and aesthetics. Surprisingly, my sense of smell, which is performed by a protuberance of the brain into the middle of the face.

Where does this leave me? I think I’m much better able to withstand the anxiety of the current political predicament which is full-throttle into tragedy with George W. Bush at the wheel. It also gives me a strong premonition that our real destroyer will be something subtle like bird flu or a worldwide plague afflicting bacteria or fungus, on which the pyramid of life rests. That is, we need the little small critters but they could destroy us while we were paying attention to our own affairs, which seem so much more important.

This premonition presses on me the necessity of accepting my own aging and death, the lack of any direct biological descendants (which I accepted long ago) and the silliness of expecting fine writing to redeem me -- while going right ahead with the project. (Hello, Tim!) In short, nothing to lose except my income and safety in this little village for the time being. Just over the horizon (I can see the glow) is whatever will happen when my biography of Bob comes out. This book is supposed to replace the buildings, collections, and coherent estate that have been ripped apart by profiteers. I’ll be very curious to see whether it does and how that changes the process that is me, still living -- so far.

P.S. I got to thinking of my favorite ministerial colleague in the Denver area, Sylvia Falconer. She was a pastor, therapist and story-teller who disappeared from sight. Now I read that she has developed “essential tremor,” the same thing Katharine Hepburn had, and has woven that into her portfolio, which is process-based to say the least! It works.


Whisky Prajer said...

I suppose I could look it up, but what's the publication date on this book?

prairie mary said...

Sorry. In the Netherlands 1995. In the USA 1997. ISBN 0-7167-3144-4.

It's old enough to be cheap and the thinking has gone on past this -- twelve years old, after all. BUT this is not a bad place to begin or review.

Prairie Mary

Steve Durbin said...

Deep thoughts inspired by deep thinkers. I agree with most, but it would be nice to argue some of them over a cool drink in the shade. I think it can happen that "our sense of reality changes," but Kuhn would say major paradigm shifts require a new generation. I'm pessimistic about change in the art establishment when your book comes out, but you rightly point out the changes in yourself as the more important ones. I suspect you're much more open to change than most.

prairie mary said...

I'd better take another look at Kuhn. In what sense do you think he requires a new generation for a paradigm shift? Twenty years later? The sons and daughters?

I thought it was just a matter of the evidence no longer fitting, and therefore the conclusion being questioned. Of course, some people will like the status quo enough to suppress new or unconsidered evidence.

Prairie Mary

Steve Durbin said...

Having been a scientist most of my career (and arguably even now), I know the mismatch between that endeavor and the comicbook version of "the scientific method." Things are always more complex than we might like, and there are no easy criteria. Kuhn is most remembered for emphasizing the major role played by not just individual experiments and data points, but by our whole world view or paradigm. The paradigm affects how we interpret the data. (Does this sound like Iraq? It's the same thing, though usually less value-laden. What Lakoff and others call a frame or set of frames is essentially a paradigm.)

Kuhn's less remembered conclusion is that paradigm shifts often don't happen within individuals, but across a population with shifting composition. Relatively few physicists changed from classical to quantum paradigms (Einstein being the best example of such resistance). Rather, the younger generation embraced and developed the new understanding, and it came to dominate as they came into the leading positions, e.g. at universities.

The political analogy is that Bush and company will never change their minds about Iraq and what it means, no matter what the evidence or how persuasively expressed other views might be. (Let's note that the opposite position can be just as strongly, even irrationally entrenched; it's just out of power at the moment.) Only a new set of leaders and politicians can accomplish a change. Political generations can be shorter than the canonical twenty years, but it's far from guaranteed.

Does this make sense, ring true from the perspective of your own life experience?

prairie mary said...

Many have complained that Kuhn's paradigm shift has been trivialized into being applied to something as simple as a person changing their mind. I don't agree with your political analogy. The whole country (plus at least England) took the Pearl Harbor paradigm (we were attacked!) to heart. The evidence against it began to pile up. (We were not attacked by a country, the attack was used as an excuse to do what Bush wanted to to anyway, Bush's attack on Iraq is ineffective and has instead increased danger -- and so on.) Almost one by one across the country people realized we were deceived and now the politicians have followed, even Republicans.

Better examples might be our understanding of planetary weather or even better might be the deep changes brought about by computer technology esp. in publishing, music, movies, and correspondence -- looking very much like destruction but in fact amounting to creation. Our attitudes have changed in ways we don't even understand yet.

Do you think the technical changes in photography (loss of the darkroom, enormous control over the image, huge reduction in cost of materials) have changed the nature of the art?

Prairie Mary

Steve Durbin said...

On the political analogy, I agree that individuals are changing their minds on specific questions, such as the wisdom of continuing the war in Iraq (and a good thing, in my opinion). But I'm not so sure there's been a general shift in the common paradigm, the worldview that has the US as a superpower with the ability and the right to act in its own (narrowly defined) interests. I do think we'll be slower to start a "pre-emptive" war next time, but I don't see the current set of "leaders" ready to adopt a different approach to the world. Hope I'm wrong...

Has digital photography changed the nature of the art? For me, no. Though I've changed technology from the conventional film and darkroom I used long ago to the digital camera, computer, and printer I use now, I don't feel that the essential of what I am trying to do is changed at all. Except in the usual sense that anyone's art evolves. Though my paradigm is holding firm, others have entered the field doing all kinds of different things that the new technology facilitates. I may not be so interested in it personally, but I wouldn't say it isn't art.

Now my throat is all dry. Where's that cool drink?

prairie mary said...

I don't think a paradigm shift happens all at once or to all social groups at once. For instance, photography may not have changed for professional photographers, but it is rather different for amateuar, if only because so many have gone to video.

As for the US giving up on seeing itself as great, all-powerful, and morally immaculate, the media has been pointing out the evidence to the contrary for quite a while now. But the WWII vets in Valier are untouched. The "Nam vets already barfed over that one. England is still back in Victorian times in many respects -- still thinking of the Empire.

But the edgey thinkers now are suggesting our future may go several ways:
1. Gary Snyder suggests we may be reverting to city-states, letting the nation wither.
2. Others have thought the states themselves and possibly all of North America ought to be reorganized into ecosystems.
3. Early predictions were that as soon as we could all work from home via the Internet, we'd all move to little villages. (Works for me!)
4. Pessimists believe we've already been covertly locked into international corporations who work beneath the national surface.

A war of paradigms!

Prairie Mary