INDEX OF TITLES (0181 -
0204 February 2008)
(NOTE: keywords which appear in the title are not repeated)
0181 - My schedule [childhood, discipline, the Ed, organization, play, time]
0182 - "The Magic Flute" redux [film, production, review, theatre]
0183 - Spirit stuff [angels, dark matter, Eden, extraterrestrials, knowledge, loneliness, maturity, not-knowing, universe]
0184 - My life as an inactivist [action, analysis, choice, commitment, the Ed, faith, flegm, hope, humors, not-knowing, patience, rationality]
0185 - Science and happiness [balance, dynamic, enjoyment, illusion, language, measurement, pain, satisfaction, static, stress, subjectivity, trouble]
0186 - System failure [computer, convenience, dependence, frustration, power, technology, VR]
0187 - Is hate necessary? [attention, commitment, competition, deprivation, desire, economy, evolution, extremes, fear, fighting, honor, hostility, insecurity, love, powerlessness, sex, sociopathy, status, terrorism, weakness]
0188 - Yet another theological salad [apotheosis, attention, balance, chaos, choice, evil, God, intention, omnipotence, omniscience, order, purpose, suffering]
0189 - The greatest invention [computation, computer, economy, electricity, electronics, energy, new, power, resources, size, speed]
0190 - Choosing our shape [boundaries, change, haiku, limits, meaning, personality, structure]
0191 - Grooving in [community, co-operation, crowd, empathy, integration, love, music, organism, relationship, resonance, solidarity, team, whole]
0192 - The reality behind the illusion [acting, actors, Don Quixote, film, ideas, novel, spectacle, theatre]
0193 - Hedgehog Dialogs [appreciation, character, duty, Prickles, relationship]
0194 - Is the world real? [consciousness, consistency, control, error, experience, "I", illusion, knowledge, pattern, predictability, repetition, source]
0195 - The mystery of experience [attention, control, expectation, feelings, intensity, intention, perspective, placebo, qualia, relativity, sensation, subjectivity, uncertainty]
0196 - The Art of mere reproduction [art, copying, craft, evocation, identity, illustration, impressionism, medium, photography, reality]
0197 - Reality check [appreciation, belief, choice, decision, error, experience, faith, habit, intentionality, knowledge, wisdom]
0198 - Camera and I [history, photography, technology]
0199 - Irrational hope [education, faith, fear, greed, homo sapiens, progress, rationality, religion, thinking, trust]
0200 - The paragon of animals [creation, destiny, humanity, potential, universe, wonder]
0201 - The music of the spheres [glory, perception, physics, poetry, universe]
0202 - How to go out of your mind [categorization, drugs, ego, enlightment, habit, imagination, judgement, perception, psychedelic, semantics]
0203 - Sense of wonder [attention, enjoyment, fear, grace, imagination, play, psychedelic, style]
0204 - Does altruism exist? [attention, benefit, capitalism, comunism, co-operation, desire, faith, feeling, good, heroism, individuality, love, memory, reason, reward, rightness]
02/29/08 (#0204) Does altruism exist?
Hey Paul, enjoying your nutty, oops, pardon me, your Nutshells. (Re: TN#203) One of my fav aphorisms to share with you: "Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing" (Camille Pissaro). The sense of Wonder in the ordinary keeps one's cup of life full (and even overflowing!) and, hopefully, keeps one thankful . - cassandra
Wherever we look, if we look and see, we cannot help but be filled with wonder. So we're all potentially blessed but not all of us think it worthwhile to pause long enough to receive the blessing. Some of us have no time for this nonsense. I believe those who do take the time are also filled with appreciation. Blessed are the artists...- the Ed
Theory of evolution says not actually but human experience suggests otherwise. However, it's only a suggestion.
Let's start with a definition. Altruism is an intentional action to benefit another person without any benefit to oneself. The italicized part is crucial. If it's merely a quid pro quo, that is, if we stand to benefit ourselves by benefitting others, that is not altruism. On the other hand, if we act to benefit others at a real cost or disadvantage to ourselves that's super-altruism a.k.a. heroism.
Evidence of apparent altruism among humans abound. But is it real or merely apparent? Theory of evolution insists on the latter. It points out that co-operative groups in which at least some members act altruistically (think teams ) have better chances of survival than individuals alone or relatively uncooperative groups. So joining a team and being a good team-mate makes evolutionary sense, ergo, it's not really altruism, there is a reward. This merely replaces individuals with groups acting as individuals. (In fact, each one of us is already a cooperative and closely linked group of individual cells).
The question arises, just how big a group can we be members of? Is there a practical limit to the size of a cooperative group? How about all of humanity? Then there would be no competitive advantage to altruism within the group it being the only group. But perhaps we would be better off, evolutionarily speaking, as a bunch of smaller competing groups (such as, in fact, we are ) than as a cooperative super-group embracing all of humanity? Capitalism says yes. Communism says no.
How about altruism between lovers? In most cases the quid pro quo is obvious and explicitly stated (I'll be yours if you'll be mine). There are, however, less obvious cases where one or both parties seem genuinely selfless in giving their love, for example, a partner taking care of a disabled one (this doesn't count if done unwillingly or grudgingly). That sure looks like genuine altruism. But is it?
Evolution shmevolution, whatever. I say all altruism is apparent. There is no such thing. Here's why: what do we want, really? We want to feel good. That is the fundamental desire driving everything we do. The only question is, what makes us feel good? How do we need to act to feel good? The answer is not immediately obvious. Some apparently obvious answers can bring us to the exact opposite - depression, sickness and despair.
The Nutshell has already suggested the answer on a previous occasion: what makes us feel good is being right. Telling right from wrong at any given time is a matter of attention, memory (personal and communal), reason (including imagination) and faith. That is all we have to base our choices on and it is enough.
02/28/08 (#0203) Sense of wonder
(Re: TN #202) Hmm. Speaking solely for myself, I have yet to meet anyone who seems to me - at least to MY satisfaction - that he/she has "had all [his/hers] beliefs and notions and habits of thought utterly destroyed and then restored", and who, as a consequence, doesn't "take [him/herself] and his/her beliefs too seriously." - Ardeshir
Well, it may not be apparent. Sudden expansion of one's frame of reference does not lead to instant personality change - that is a longstanding habit not easily shaken off. Besides, unless one makes the effort to remember and apply the experience one soon forgets (since it is totally unlike the habitual experience of self) and after a while it fades to nothing more than a strange and distant dream. - the Ed
Of all the sensations that make up our experience of being, the second most significant is the sense of wonder. (The first is the sense of joy/appreciation).
I don't mean wonder in the sense of "seeking information" as in "I wonder how much this costs?". The wonder I'm referring to is not an inquiry but a state of mind - awe, amazement, astonishment, the feeling expressed by the idiom "blown away". Or "far out, man" as the hippies used to say.
Wonder is a natural psychedelic. It is the exact opposite of "taking for granted", the state of mind in which we give no attention to the object or phenomenon in question. As a consequence we learn nothing of or about it. Wonder, on the other hand, focuses attention and opens our minds to the full potential of that which is beheld. We drink it in, make it intentionally (though not always eagerly) part of ourselves.
Wonder leads either to enjoyment or to fear. All things wonderful (and I can't think of one that is not) are worth our attention but they are not all beautiful, useful or harmless. Some are terrifying and dangerous.
The sense of wonder is not just an aspect of experiencing. We can and do use it creatively in play and work by imagining wonderful scenarios to enact, whether for pure enjoyment, or to deal with the needs of the moment, or to give direction and shape to the rest of our life. Indeed, whatever we do must be inspired with wonder if it is to have style and grace, i.e. if it is to be worth doing.
As somebody said, it's a wonderful life. Or, at least, it can be.
02/27/08 (#0202) How to go out of your mind
(Re TN #201) Pennies for thoughts have found some magic in the Nutshell today. Very much enjoyed the dance of rhyme and rhythm across the universe. - Tabs
I can't dance
myself so I get my kicks from making my words dance. Especially since it's
hard to find these days poetry that dances. - the Ed
Once upon a time people used to experiment with drugs not just for entertainment (as they do in these vulgar days) but for spiritual enlightment. Somewhere along the way spiritual enlightment got discredited. Oh, there are still a few people here and there who seek it in mescaline, psilocybin or LSD, but they are a rarity. The drugs of choice are cocaine, meth, crack. A different trip.
Well, I can see why. To begin with, those who expected to be handed free spiritual enlightment by the psychedelic ("soul-expanding") drugs were sorely disappointed, and some had bad trips. Most of them had no clue what they were doing. At best they got a halucinatory Alice in Wonderland experience, at worst they went psycho. So people gave up on the psychedelics.
Medicine could not figure out how these drugs could be used for the benefit of mankind. Some limited applications for treatment of certain mental conditions were found but the side effects were often out of proportion to the desired result. So they have been discarded as medically useless. And since the side effects can be dangerous, even life threatening, they have been placed on controlled substances list. And there it stands.
Except that certain Indian tribes are officially allowed to use mescaline (actually peyote, the natural source of mescaline) in their traditional religious services. And, curiously, the Indians are not suffering any mental disorders as a consequence.
The fact is that psychedelics can be used to expand the soul - or at least the mind - in controlled circumstances, under supervision of a qualified guide. The psychedelic experience can be profoundly eye-opening and transforming - in a positive way. However, without proper preparation the experience can be disorienting and terrifying, especially to those with well established egos and set ways.
Essentially, what the drug does is break down established perceptory apparatus and open up wide the normally controlled access links among various brain functions. The result is that one sees as an infant might see, without automatically categorizing and interpreting the incoming sensory data. However, the fully developed brain is there with all its memories and associating like, er.. crazy. Judgement is suspended - everything is equally significant. Ideas come in a chaotic rush.
What it is is a semantic rebirth. One returns to normality after having had all one's beliefs and notions and habits of thought utterly destroyed and then restored but with full memory of what that was like. After such a shattering experience it's impossible to take oneself and one's beliefs too seriously. One's imagination has been expanded by orders of magnitude and one is freshly aware of the vast numbers of alternative possibilities. I can think of a lot of people who would benefit from such an experience...
02/16/08 (#0201) The music of the spheres.
And now for something completely different. Actually not. It just looks, reads and sounds different.
Black is the radiant ocean,
Black to the earthbound eye;
But I have seen the glory
Of the blazing, seething sky.
No lonely empty stretches
Divide galactic spins,
But hurricanes of cosmic rays
And torrents of wild nucleons.
No silent isolation,
No desert stark and bare,
But hungry gravitation
I heard the songs of atoms
And stellar symphonies
Swell a trillion cubic light years
With a vast cacophony.
Silent the roaring radiance,
Silent to earthbound ears;
But I have heard the glory
Of the music of the spheres.
Perpetrated long ago but I find I still subscribe to the sentiments.
Not that it matters a ha'epenny's worth. But it saves having to compose a whole new Nutshell...
02/25/08 (#0200) The paragon of animals
In the stoned (but melodious) musical "Hair" there is a reverent and quite beautiful anthem which goes like this:
"What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals."
Couldn't have said it better myself.
The thespians and the literati among the Nutshell readers will recognize this as an out of context quotation from Hamlet's artful speech to Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern (act II, scene 2). In the same speech Hamlet also says "...this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire - why, it appeareth no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours." And he follows his rhapsodic description of man with " - and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me - no, nor woman neither". The joker is, Hamlet, mad though he may be, in this speech is intentionally faking madness (as is usual with Hamlet, there's method in it). In view of this, his rhapsodies take on an ironic cast.
But it's true, it's true! In its abstract potential the human being is the most wonderful thing in the known universe. Indeed, Man, as I see it, is the justification for the universe, all of it, from the Big Bang to Right Now. It took all of that to produce Man. Billions of galaxies of stars and planets had to form, explode, collide and collapse so that somewhere in the universe the right conditions would prevail long enough to allow Man to arise - literally out of the star dust. Nothing less would have done the job.
And yet, it's sometimes hard to take delight in your average, typical human being. Most of us lead an existence so wide of the mark set by our potential that we cannot recognize ourselves in Hamlet's vision of man. Yet we instinctively believe in it. Yes, it's what we could be! It's what we're destined to be! In the meantime, we screw up. Still, we do have our media and sports stars, our supermodels, our celebrities, not forgetting a few truly great minds and spirits scattered among us, and, above all, our children, to keep reminding us what a piece of work is Man.
02/23/08 (#0199) An irrational hope
No doubt about it, under the dominion of homo sapiens, the world is a mess. Functional, though, sort of, in parts, which is actually amazing considering how much bigger and more complex it has become in just last hundred years. Can it go on like this for another hundred?
All right, maybe at my age audacious hope is harder to come by than at, say, twenty or thirty or forty. Or fifty or sixty. Nevertheless, I am a congenital optimist. I can't help it.
The reasons the human world is a mess are same as ever: greed, fear and irrational thinking. That gives me hope because none of those three are in any way absolutely necessary or inevitable. We don't have to be their victims. In most cases they arise from ignorance. For those cases there is an effective cure: good education.
First and foremost people need to be taught when and how to think. Unnecessary thinking (especially of the irrational variety) is bad for us. Yet we can't avoid thinking and most of us are untrained and unprepared for the task. The results are out there for anyone to see. A royal screw up.
Religion at its best offers a different cure: commitment to a moral code on pure faith. The advantage of this approach is that it is much faster than education and it works even for those unwilling or unable to learn. There is a problem with multiplicity of sometimes conflicting moral codes, but such conflicts are superficial, if occasionally fatal. Ultimately, every moral code aims to be an expression of the best of human nature, what we like to call our "humanity".
As an optimist I fundamentally trust human nature. Call me naive, but there it is. The alternative is despair. Our ignorance may drive us into desperate situations but I believe that when push comes to shove, when we have reached the nadir of our folly, in most (but not all) cases we do find it within ourselves to see things clearly enough to bootstrap ourselves out of the disaster. In the process, if we survive, we can't help but become wiser.
This has worked for us so far - the mess we have on our hands actually represents progress. Things have been worse. We now have better tools to deal with the disasters we precipitate. On the other hand, things are happening much faster now. We have much less time to come to our senses before it's too late. Can we keep up? As I said, I'm an optimist.
02/22/08 (#0198) The camera and I
When I was a kid, back in Poland, probably my second greatest desire was to [someday] own a camera. This was, of course, like wishing for figs on a thorn tree. It was wartime and we were just scraping by. Prospects for owning a camera were zero. Even if I had one, where would I get film for it? It was hard enough just to find some bread.
But I was just a kid, not yet ten, and my desire would not be denied. So I made myself a camera out of cardboard. Just to have one. Of course it was non-functional (I hadn't yet heard about pinhole cameras which can be made of cardboard and are functional). But it was a joy to have this relatively complex aparatus to play with even if I could not actually take pictures with it. It had all sorts of knobs and adjustments, just like the real thing.
I didn't get my first camera until I was fourteen - it was a little plastic Kodak which cost, if I remember correctly, $3.94, for me, then, a major expense. It was all I could afford. It was actually much simpler than my cardboard camera, but it had a real lens and took pictures. Since then I have owned more cameras than I can remember - dozens. I experimented with various types from subminiatures about the size of a cigarette lighter to large format which used 8"x10" sheet film and weighed twenty pounds (without the tripod). I once owned a Leica M4 which, believe it or not, I traded for Dr. Land's incredible SX-70 foldable Polaroid camera. That was absolutely the most beatiful, elegant and ingenious camera ever made by man. Too bad it took lousy pictures. (The Leica took great pictures - I wish I still had it).
Currently I own two cameras (not counting an old 35 mm SLR gathering dust on the top shelf of my closet). One of them, the Sony R-1, enjoyed a brief - like about one year - fame as the dernier cri of advanced digital imaging technology, which is I why I got it. Obsolete though it may be (it has now been discontinued) it is still a pretty decent camera, with capabilities undreamed of a mere decade or so ago. I have hardly used it yet - maybe a couple thousand exposures. The problem with R-1 is that it is a large, heavy camera and when you add the weight of the two massive auxilliary lenses (tele and wide) it's more than I want to shlep around. It is also conspicuous and expensive looking - a target for thieves and difficult to handle discreetly in social situations.
On the sage advice of my No.1 I acquired a second camera specifically for travel photography - a Cannon S3-IS. It is less than half the weight of R-1, less than half the size, and less than half the price, but perhaps somewhat more than half the camera (technology had not stood still). It's a good camera. But I'm still not happy. I want the capability of R-1 (and more) in a box size of a pack of cards. As I write this, no such camera exists, yet. But it is just around the corner - I expect to see one in stores by this fall. I'm poised to pounce.
02/21/08 (#0197) Reality Check
"Reality is that which, after you've stopped believing in it, doesn't go away" - Philip K. Dick
Faith, belief, knowledge and experience: the four pillars of our intentional choices. The Nutshell has looked at them before under various rubrics but not quite from this point of view.
A quick review: "Faith" - the assumption of the truth of an unproveable (and undisproveable) thesis; "belief" - a conviction that a thesis is true without testing for logical or experiential consistency; "knowledge" - the categorized and organized memories of past experiences (facts); and "experience" - what is actually observed. All our fully conscious decisions are based on applying these four to the present moment. (Note: most of our decisions are either only partly conscious or entirely habitual and automatic).
The only unnecessary yet inevitable item on this list is belief. Why inevitable? For several reasons: 1) we're too lazy, too busy or plain unwilling to check our alleged "facts"; 2) we actually want to believe some things; 3) we have been hypnotized, enchanted or bamboozled into accepting something as a fact; or, most commonly, 4) we have arrived at our "facts" using faulty logic and/or from faulty observation - i.e. we're mistaken.
Wisdom consists in the recognition that some of our facts are mere beliefs. The value of wisdom is less shock to the system when our decisions prove to be wrong, always having a plan B, and, best of all, instead of being upset over being wrong, appreciating the reality check.
02/20/08 (#0196) The Art of mere reproduction
Dear Nutshell: (Re TN#195) A second round is definitely out of order. It is one thing to assume the role of a thoughtful Greek shepherd engrossed in insightful but unanchored thoughts about perceptions. The notion of sense data or sensation itself is really a part of a scientific theory of perception, not a philosophical theory. . . Philosophers often have to [NOT!] rush in where behaviorists fear to tread. A study of modern Cognitive Neuroscience could be helpful in clarifying the concept of sensations, which are the big puzzle in a linguistically based theory of mind, but should be more comprehensible in a neurologically based one. - the Nut.
Et tu, Brute! As it happens, there is no scientific theory of sensation. Let us clearly distinguish between sensation and perception. We know all (well, almost all) about perception of light of various wavelengths. We know nothing about why color red looks red. Nor can we describe "redness" in any language, formal or informal. It has no definition and therefore is not subject to scientific inquiry. A spectrophotometer can perceive light of the 600 nm wavelength but it cannot see red. Science deals only with the spectrophotometer's kind of perception and is as blind as a spectrophotometer to the consciousness of redness (which, incidentally, does not even require perception). It is precisely where science fears to tread that we, Greek shepherds, must bridge the gap. - the Ed
When Art with capital A was invented sometime in the XIX-th century a distiction was drawn between Art and craft (or art with a small a). Trapped in the fuzzy boundary between the two were, among others, photographers and illustrators. In the enlightened, post-post-modern XXI-st century, I am happy to say that photographers and illustrators are no longer looked down upon as an inferior sort of Artists, if Artists at all.
However, a certain snootiness persists with respect to "mere reproduction". I respectfully submit that "mere reproduction" is impossible. There is no such thing.
For one, no two things are identical. Some things (e.g. bronze casts, printed images) can be made to look identical to the unaided eye though close inspection readily reveals differences. But I'm not talking about copying - I'm talking about reproduction. Copying is a purely mechanical process which can be accomplished automatically. Reproduction is a re-creation of an experience. Which, as I posited, is impossible. However, capturing some kind of an evocation of some aspect of the original experience is certainly within the realm of possibility.
I am guessing that probably a huge majority of artists, pros and amateurs, are devoted to [mere] reproduction. These good people, instead of trying to come up with something completely original and new under the sun, merely try to reproduce something that impressed them. They are impressionists at heart. So they set out to reproduce that sunset or that waterfall or those sunflowers or perhaps that remarkable girl or boy or some slice of life that caught their aesthetic attention. But of course they can't. The more accurately and precisely they try to reproduce the scene before them the phonier it looks. The medium inexorably imposes itself between the reality and the reproduction.
If they are good artists they catch on. When they give up on the accurate reproduction and concetrate on making an image that has a certain feeling to it, never mind whether it actually resembles the original scene (though it might), that's when they start creating Art with capital A.
(02/19/08 (#0195) The mystery of experience
Dearest Paul: Taking a moment from the slings and arrows of outrageous studio to thank you for all the laughs.(Would like to hear more from Hedgehog tales). Thanks also for the consternation (would that I knew what of the world is real). I should have entered the chat about “The Magic Flute”. Which mixed media where is a question for our age. Loved the thoughts about haiku. As a meandering student I started scattered rhythms in corners of math assignments or French verb charts or across the map of Canada. They were impressionistic and time and attention challenged. I called them “pums”. When I learned about haiku I tried my hand for the discipline of a set structure and implied theme (nature). In Japan there are, as you know many schools of thought about haiku. Some are traditional and some very modern, breaking with the set number of syllables. Many explore themes with no suggestion of season. Although I love to write poetry, I can’t resist the sketch book approach so l play with my “pums” to honour my own ridiculousness. Useful for making much of paper placemats at cheap eats places. - TABS
Can't think of a more admirable use of accidental paper than "pums" (creative doodling perhaps comes close). A friend of mine, an occasional poet, indulges in "pomes", possibly a related literary form. Myself, being metaphorically challenged, I stick with the micro-essay as the instrument of celebration of my ridiculousness - come to think of it, haiku is sort of a nano-essay... I'll be back to the subject of mixing media, and perhaps other vignettes from life with Prickles. Thanks for the kind words and especially for faithful readership. - the Ed
This experience thing (TN# 194) deserves a second round. To begin with, what exactly is it? The senses and the memories send electric impulses to some part of the cortex where they are mixed, sorted, arranged and converted into sensations or feelings, i.e. the "experience". We know a sensation or a feeling when we experience one but as to what it is we have no clue. When we experience "red", for example, there is no red as such anywhere in the brain. The brain contains the data which bring about the sensation of "red" in form of electronic currents in specific parts of the brain which can be detected, located and measured but not the sensation itself. It's a mystery.
That's one interesting thing about experience - it's ineffable and physically unexplainable even though it has a physical cause. Another interesting thing about experience is that it is "subjective". In other words, similar sets of data sent in for perception and experience at different times may result in very different sensations/feelings. Part of it is due to the uncertainty inherent in the system which, like everything else in this world, is probabilistic. But the major part is due to the condition of the system at the time the data is sent and received. The condition of the system is variable and affected by many things like stress, diet, drugs, disease, etc., but also by the attentiveness and the intentions and expectations of the subject. Call it the placebo effect.
All experience is, it seems, to some degree "illusory". It inevitably fails to reflect with perfect fidelity the state of the larger world, the postulated source of the sensory data. Much of the time doesn't even come close. Add to this the fact that the larger world contains other minds some of which are bent on deceiving us (and succeeding) and we can safely assume we live an illusion with only rough resemblance to the larger world.
There's yet another variable affecting our experience, one we can consciously control to some extent. This is the "volume" or intensity of the experience. Some people react violently to trifles, some barely react to catastrophic events. Although this is associated with our physiological and psychological make up, it is within our power to turn up or turn down the volume. All we need to do is pay attention to what's happening inside and outside our minds and put it in perspective, something we practice less frequently than we think.
02/18/08 (#0194) Is the world real?
This should be obvious but apparently it isn't: all experience is real. The question is, is anything else real, or more bluntly, is there anything else?
Well, there is the matter of the source of experience. I don't seem to have much (if any) control over what I experience. If my experience is self-generated, then I don't know much about this self who is the author of my experience. The source is definitely not me, not the "me" I know and love.
Analyzing my experience I note consistent and repetitve patterns of events which I can categorize, relate to each other, and even predict. I can formulate a self-consistent theory about the source of my experience by postulating a larger world of which I am a part. The reality of this larger world is, of course, only theoretical, but since the theory seems to hold up pretty well in predicting my immediate next experience, and since I don't have any other theory, I'm willing to accept the larger world as real for all practical purposes.
In fact, based on analysis of my experience, I know quite a bit about this larger world and its properties. I can apply this knowledge intentionally to make changes in this world. To a certain extent I can control its future and so, ultimately, my experience. Since my experience is real, the effects of my intentional manipulation of the postulated world are clearly real. Evidently, there is something real, something that behaves like the larger world I have postulated, that I can act on to change my experience.
However, not all my experiences fit this theory. This is a problem. In order to preserve the theory which is not merely useful but actually indispensable for a meaningful life, I have to place experiences which are inconsistent with the theory into a special category of "illusions". This does not deny their reality, merely their usefulness in terms of the working theory of the larger world.
Most illusions are actually readily explained as errors in perception or analysis. These are not the problem. The problem illusions are those whose apparent origin does not lie in the postulated world - the literally otherworldly experiences. These seem to be creations of the mind, but the nature of the experiencing mind (consciousness) remains unclear - is it itself a part of the larger world? Or its creator?
02/16/08 (#0193) Hedgehog dialogs
I own a hedgehog named Prickles. Or possibly Prickles owns me. The situation is unclear.
Prickles wears 14 ct. gold hoops and a permanently worried look. She is always worried because she passionately cares about her duties which are few but Enormously Important. To Prickles, anyway. One of her duties is to keep track of the small stuff I tend to mislay. Actually, I don't know what I would do without Prickles. She guards my wallet, my keys, my hearing aids, my lists. I know that when I leave them with Prickles I have absolute assurance they will not get lost. Prickles will guard them with her life.
She also occasionally gets to guard the car. Did I mention that Prickles is an attack hedgehog? A word to the wise: you don't want to tangle with Prickles.
Prickles' one other duty is to Appreciate Sunshine. Of course, she doesn't get to do this on overcast days, but if so much as a single ray of sunshine breaks through, she is at it with all the concentration and vehemence she can muster. Prickles takes her duties very seriously.
Although this is not one of her duties Prickles also takes it upon herself to berate me about the way I keep house. She is Felix to my Oscar. But I don't mind, laid back as I am, and open-minded. I'm afraid Prickles is more upset with me than I am with her (which is not at all).
Our conversations tend to go like this:
Me: "How you doing, Prickles?"
Prickles: " # " (Note: Hedgehogese is not translateable into any human language).
Me: "What did you do with the sunshine? It was here just a moment ago."
Prickles: " ###!! "
Me: "I was just pulling your leg."
Prickles: " ## ## ## ### "
Me: "I'm still working! Gimme a break! I'll clean up when I'm finished."
Prickles: " ###? "
Me: "Oh in a couple of weeks or so. Thanks for guarding these bills, by the way. Want to go with me to the post office?"
Prickles: " ##! ##! "
And so on. Prickles is a simple soul and easily distracted which is a Good Thing.
02/15/08 (#0192) The reality behind the illusion
As you know (or maybe you don't) as a rule I don't read novels to learn about life. I read novels very rarely and when I do it's usually for entertainment. Though there are no doubt great many entertaining novels out there I have no time or patience to seek them out. So it's only when I stumble across one accidentally that I may read it - if it captures my attention from page one and if I happen to have the time. Once in a rare while I come across a novel of ideas, credible ideas, that is. Those I take time to read. (And then there is "Don Quixote" which I'm rereading once again, this time in Spanish).
When it comes to movies, there's a whole nother dimension to consider. As with novels, I don't usually look to learn about life from the movies. I watch movies primarily for entertainment. But what I find fascinating and instructive about the movies is watching the actors act.
It happens quite often that a mediocre script is redeemed by great acting. (The reverse also happens - great story completely ruined by inadequate or inapropriate audio-visuals). Often I am more interested in the actors themselves than in their characters. Of course, really great actors become wholly the character and the actor becomes invisible. But then the character becomes interesting enough to be worth watching on its own merits. However you slice it, I get an eyeful. It's the theatrical spectacle (I don't necessarily mean special effects) and the fact that I am watching reality - real people really pretending to be someone other than themselves. The actual reality of the movie.
Naturally, the truly great movies magically generate a compelling world of their own into which I am drawn irresistibly and become a part of. Then I ignore the movie's reality willingly and let its illusion have its way with me. It would be perfectly silly to resist.
02/14/08 (#0191) Grooving in
In a true love relationship there occurs, at least occasionally, a kind of psychic resonance when the two lovers know exactly how the other one feels. This is not a matter of inference or of rational analysis but of true empathy. It's a direct, immediate knowledge without any apparent medium of transmission. Somehow, for the moment, the two are perfectly tuned into each other's state of mind and feeling as one.
This phenomenon is actually very common. It occurs in virtually all stuations where two or more commit to total cooperation in service of a common cause. A smooth working sports team is an example. This is, in fact, a species of love relationship. (Love, contrary to popular opinion, is not necessarily romantic or erotic).
One of the most astonishing (and underappreciated) examples of instantaneous mind-to-mind resonance is a musical ensemble, the grandest form of which is the orchestra. There may be over a hundred individuals breathing and feeling as one to create in real time a complex work in sound that is one organic whole. Every member of the orchestra is experiencing simultaneously exactly the same musical feeling - a condition absolutely necessary to make possible co-creation by the entire orchestra of the one music.
It's not that everybody is on the same page of the score. The music is not on the page, it is in the mind. A jazz ensemble does not use sheet music at all yet they all groove in together, as one. Nor can the leader convey his or her musical idea precisely to every member of an orchestra. He or she can only help the orchestra to come spontaneously into resonance with it and each other. At some point, everyone begins to hear and feel the music in exactly the same way and suddenly there are no longer a hundred individuals - there is only one orchestra.
The same kind of resonance can be observed in actions of crowds and committees. And in the behavior of flocks of birds and schools of fish. If it's not exactly love, it's certainly a feeling of solidarity, of membership and of a common cause (for better or worse). These are all manifestations of a communal mind which is not merely the sum of all the individual minds but an integrated whole created by the resonance of the individual minds with one another.
02/13/08 (#0190) Choosing our shape
(Re: TN #188) "Wanted: murderers, rapists, sadists, psychopaths and other recognized allied professionals. Opportunity: do God's work." (It's a dirty job but somebody has got to do it...) - The Nut
Three points. Point one: not
wanted; suffered. Point two: the ad's a waste of
money; all you have to do is leave your door open. And point three: there's a
sweet spot in the balance between order and chaos where the effects of evil are
virtually neutralized (in Christian terms that's the "Kingdom of God").
God's work is to find and maintain that sweet spot. Some people seem
to have found it but humanity as a whole obviously ain't there yet and
hiring scum ain't gonna help us get there either... - the Ed.
(Re: TN #189) Could we have electricity without the wheel? - Ardeshir
Good question. I believe the answer is yes. The original method of generating electricity (rubbing amber with silk) required no wheel. No wheels are involved in fuel cells or solar cells. But steam driven rotary generators are convenient and cheap to operate (and polluting). - the Ed.
"All the world's beauty to appreciate and enjoy! Thank God, here's a wall."
The haiku (an example above) is a poem of exactly seventeen syllables reflecting on human experience. Why seventeen? Why not? It's as good a number as any and better than some (it's a prime). Not too large and not too small. Anyway, I didn't pick it, Japanese did. Ask them.
The point is, we must have limits, boundaries, if for no other reason than to define our own shape. Our skin is one such, but everything we think, say and do must be delimited to have any meaning. We can't think, say or do it all - we have to choose chunks of possibility we can chew. What we choose to think, say or do and what we leave unthought, unsaid and undone is what gives us our shape and direction as a person. Each of us is a haiku, though generally with more than seventeen syllables (some of us have more syllables than others, but that's another story...).
As an artist, I can't paint the world. But I can paint a canvas. I can't do a Nutshell "All about everything" but I can do one on any one of an infinity of possible topics. I can't deal with all the information (and misinformation) on the Web, but I can pick and choose what I need here and now, in my little limited world where I know what I'm doing and why and one I can fully appreciate.
Of course, in settling for a meaningful shape we give up all else that we could become. But in order to be able to do anything we must abandon hope of doing everything. We must fit ourselves into the seventeen sylables. It's not much but it's something. The alternative is a great big nothing.
Here's the good news: it doesn't have to be the same seventeen syllables forever. To the extent that we are consciously self-limited we can change our limitations - we can change shape.
02/12/08 (#0189) The greatest invention
In the Nutshell's view, the computer is the greatest invention to date. Our beloved niece begs to differ. She recently wrote an essay arguing that the greatest invention to date is electricity. (She meant, of course, the technology of generation, storage and distribution of electricity - electricity itself did not need inventing). She may have a point. Take away the electric outlet and the computer is just so much metal and plastic. The computer's life is inherently electrical and it was our ability to harness electromagnetic phenomena to do our work for us that made its invention possible.
Actually, automated computation was invented long before the general electrification of the world, by Mr. Babbage, around 1834. And in 1937, Mr. Turing invented the universal computing machine - universal because it could do every possible kind of computation. Mr. Babbage's computer was mechanical and did not specifically require electricity to operate, though it could be powered by electrical motors (or a steam engine, or a windmill, or a pair of oxen on a treadmill). Mr. Turing's computer could be made out of just about anything - it could be electrical but it could just as well be mechanical, chemical or biological. Even a bunch of first graders with pencils and paper would do. At least in principle.
In principle, a computer does not have to be electronic. But in practice, what makes the computer the fantastic invention that it is is the mind-boggling speed at which it computes. Computation, automatic or otherwise, is nothing new. But computation at the rates of teraflops per second is something totally new under this sun. And these speeds can only be achieved by reducing the size of the entire computer to the size of a chocolate wafer and letting individual electrons do the computation work.
So yes, the computerization of the world is wholly dependent on the electrification of the world. And, of course, the electrification of the world is dependent on availability of natural sources of energy - coal, gas, oil, fissile uranium, earth's internal heat, tidal forces, wind, and sun, directly or indirectly. The technology for economic conversion of these energy resouces into electrical power without making the planet uninhabitable may be the most important invention yet to be invented.
02/11/08 (#0188) Yet another theological salad
The technical term escapes me at the moment but, like like the last minute add-on's sneaked into bills under consideration by Congress, unwarranted statements are sometimes offhandedly tossed into the salad [the Nutshell? - the Ed] together with the more substantial ingredients of a thesis. One such appeared this morning (TN #187): "Love is the spirit of cooperation for the benefit of all, the root (if not always the branches) of all major religions, and the glue that holds civilized society together." I'll restrict my challenge to the middle component of that statement. I don't believe there exists hard evidence for that sweeping declaration. "If you wish upon a star ..." was Walt Disney's dream, not an eternal truth. - Charles
I believe the technical term is "earmarks". If you're
implying that Disneyism is a major religion, that's not a good example because
old Walt was a loving if misguided soul. I think the problem is that I
did not make clear what I consider to be a "religion". But I will not try to weasel out of it. You
caught me. - the Ed.
Chaos and order. The two absolutely necessary and absolutely inseparable ingredients of creation, God's or man's. You cannot have one without the other, they are the two ends of the same stick. In this simple logical truth lies the simple answer to the question that has tormented theologians for millenia and filled libraries with their attempts at an answer.
The question, as formulated by the theologians, is: why does a loving and omnipotent God allow suffering and evil to exist? The vast quantity of thought devoted to this question assures that some pretty good, if incomplete, answers have been proposed. One of the best, inspired by Job's apparently senseless ordeal, is this: the object of suffering (other than self-inflicted) is to test us and refine us, it is part of the process of spiritual evolution. What makes this answer good is that it is empirically true. However, the premises on which the question as formulated by the theologians is based (God is loving and omnipotent) make nonsense of it. That is because the premises themselves are self-contradictory.
There's God and there is the idea or concept of God. In our thinking, we deal exclusively with the latter (the experience of God is another matter). As the Old Man (Lao Tse) said: "what people call God is not God" - or words to that effect. The notions of omnipotence and omniscience (terms we have coined and use without understanding their meaning or implications) have been attached to the idea of God by the theologians. Yet, understood in the simplest way, omnipotence and omniscience would actually deny God the power of creation. Where there is creation there is necessarily chaos as well as order, and where there is chaos, even if the intent is clear, the outcome is not and cannot be. Continuing creative attention and intention are necessary to keep the universe, balanced as it is between order and chaos, on the most probable path toward the desired future.
The unavoidable casualties on the way are not merely unavoidable - they are as necessary as the chaos in the creative evolution of the universe toward its apotheosis. They serve a purpose, such as exemplified by the Job case, and at the same time they are an intrinsic and necessary aspect of the mechanics of creation. In other words, there is no other way to do it. God had no choice.
02/09/08 (#0187) Is hate necessary?
Love has been packed into the Nutshell on several occasions already. The time has come to do it to hate. After all, it's only fair.
The first thing to note about hate is that it is practically identical with love. True hate involves the same commitment and attention to its object as love. The difference is in the specifics of the intent: love intends to enrich and please the loved one, hate intends to impoverish and harm the hated one. The near identity of the two is the reason why love can turn to hate almost instantly (and, sometimes, vice versa).
The question is why would anyone hate anyone? After all, love is nicer than hate. The benefits of true love are impressive (see TN #128). The loved one benefits, the loving one also benefits, medically and psychologically, and if it's mutual, what could be better? Love is the spirit of cooperation for the benefit of all, the root (if not always the branches) of all major religions, and the glue that holds civilized society together. With all that good press on love's side, why hate?
I believe there are three answers to that question. The first one is economic. When there is a scarcity of necessary or desirable goods and services, competition for them may be a matter of life and death, or worse yet, of honor and status. Even where food and shelter are plentiful, there is always a scarcity of babes and hunks, of social status, of levers of power, etc. Competition can get fierce. It's a dog eat dog world out there. Your peers are your enemies and real threats to your potential for enjoyment of the good life. You can fight them more effectively if you hate their guts.
There is, as we know, an evolutionary utility to this - the fittest survive and get to the top of the heap, the weak fall by the side and are wasted. Thus humanity becomes more fit with passing generations, or at least stays fit. Or so the Republicans believe.
The second reason for hate is less utilitarian: it is rooted in a sense of insecurity, of inadequacy, real or imagined. This is the hate by the weak, the powerless and the deprived. Their insecurity makes them fearful, and their fear makes them hostile. They are the ones who usually get the short end of the stick. Their sense of injustice and their envy of the winners in the life's race fuels their hate. These are the terrorists.
And then there are those who crave violence and destruction for their own sake and seek extremes of sensation and behavior without any regard for anyone else on the planet. They are the sociopaths intent exclusively on maximum self-gratification through sense of power without any restraint. Their emotion toward their victims isn't really hate. Rather it's total disregard. All others are merely their playthings. However, their feelings may rise to the level of hate if they are thwarted in their rampage through the world.
We hate because we never have enough, because we feel inadequate, and because we desire to live as intensely as possible. So is hate really necessary? No, but unless and until we learn to share, trust and find fulfillment as a part of something larger than our individual self, it's inevitable.
P.S. firstname.lastname@example.org is back on line.
02/08/08 (#0186) System failure
Every day I spend several hours in front of this most marvelous of all inventions to date, the personal computer (that includes PDAs, pods, handhelds, and the do-everything cell phones). Forget the wheel, the press, this is far more revolutionary. Truly marvelous though it is, it could be the death of us, in more ways than one.
One obvious way would be a global system failure which would bring the world economy to a grinding halt. This, while not impossible, is unlikely. A less obvious and more insidious way is through the massive changes the computers are wreaking in our lives and our psyches. We have let the genie out of the bottle and where it is taking us we cannot even guess.
The benefits, of course, are huge. In face of the unprecedented convenience and immense power bestowed on us by the computers it is easy to forget that there may be some drawbacks or undesirable (and unexpected) side effects. Once in a while, though, we get a sharp reminder that the computerized world is not a perfect one. One such reminder came when we discovered that the stock markets could not keep up with computerized transactions and crashed. That's been fixed since then. Now we're experiencing a virtualization and digitization of reality itself - more and more of us are living in a digital dream which is sometimes destructive, even lethal, and may be addictive.
On a personal level, I was reminded of my computer dependence the other day when all my programs refused to start due to "system error". There are few things in life so frustrating as trying to restore a system after failure. The problem is that you have to input certain specific sequences of symbols into the machine to bring it back to life and if you don't click those buttons in the exactly right sequence, forget it. But often it is not clear what these sequences should be: the information about them may be confusing if not outright misleading, or hidden, or plain missing. It's like trying to crack a high security combination. Automated recovery software (at least the one I have) does not do the whole job leaving a lot of clean up and restoration to be done manually. Some of the last bits can take forever to get back to normal And in the end the system acquires new quirks it never had before, not all of them welcome.
At times like these it is easy to forget that a couple of days of intense frustration is a small price to pay for the thousands of hours of augmented intelligence, virtually instant global communications, and graphic capabilities beyond my wildest dreams.
02/06/07 (#0185) Science and happiness
Science, whose investigation of love has been commented on here recently (TN#176), has been marching on. Presently under the microscope: happiness. Now I don't recall if I have yet addressed the matter of happiness - I talk a lot about joy, probably one of the high frequency words in the Nutshell archives - but if not, what better time than Mardi Gras which is the day I am composing this Ash Wednesday Nutshell.
Here's what science discovered about happiness: The happiest people are not the ones who are the happiest. Excuse me? Evidently we have here another linguistic confusion. Happiness, like love, means many things to many people. Science came up with its own definition: "satisfaction with life". That's a pretty good definition. I'm willing to accept it for now. The paradoxical observation cited above is based on a graph plotting the scientifically measured satisfaction with life against the subject's own assessment of the degree of his or her happiness. The graph is not a straight line but a curve which peaks and drops off as the reported happiness continues to increase.
It makes sense. How much happiness can you take, anyway? After some point it gets to be too much of a good thing. It seems science made the remarkable discovery that we need a little trouble in life to be really happy. We're verging here dangerously close to the "no pain no gain" theory which I consider bogus. But we're not talking pain here, we're talking a degree of stress, just enough to make one feel fully alive. A totally stress-free life, on the other hand, can be a pain (and bad for your health). So can, of course, an excessively stressful one. It's the balance, stupid.
Couple more items to consider. As I said earlier, different people have different ideas of what is happiness. If you believe happiness is owning gold or goats, then the more gold or goats you have the happier you think you are. In other words, in many, if not most cases the perception of happiness is an illusion. Which brings up the question what is happiness really? What is "satisfaction with life"? Is it the real happiness?
I propose "enjoyment of life" as a definition of real happiness. The problem with "satisfaction" is that it is static. After you have been satisfied, then what? "Enjoyment" is dynamic and ongoing like life itself. And though contemporary English usage confines it to the sense of "enjoying oneself", the verb "to enjoy" can actually be both transitive and intransitive - it can mean to en-joy (fill with joy) self or others. It is in this fuller sense that I use it in my definition of true happiness - "making life joyful for oneself and for others". (For definition of "joy" see TNs ##100, 80, 74).
02/05/08 (#0184) My life as an inactivist
Before psychology was invented people were classified psycho-somatically according to the proportions of the four humors (blood, phlegm, choler and bile) in their constitution. Under that system of classification I belong at the far end of the phlegmatic spectrum. Sorry, folks, but that's just the way it is. On the other hand, I have very little choler or bile in me which, as one of my doctors noted, makes me "a pleasant gentleman".
In the world of activism, merely being pleasant doesn't cut it. One needs considerable social grace and a persuasive personality (neither of which I possess) to lubricate one's progress against the reluctance of the masses and the direct opposition of the establishment. One needs physical energy and endurance (which I lack) to keep up the effort all the way to the tilting point. And above all, one must absolutely believe in and be whole-heartedly comitted to one's cause. Here my failing is the greatest.
My analytical approach to every cause leaves me, at best, with a rough estimate of the likelihood that its advancement will contribute to an increase in general enjoyment of life. And while, from that point of view, some causes are discernibly more worthwhile than others, all have drawbacks and potential side effects. The bottom line is that my comittment to any particular cause is less than whole-hearted. I have reservations.
Of course, in face of an imminent threat to general wellbeing one needs to do something, since one's own wellbeing and perhaps even continued existence may depend on it. One has to choose some course of action, make a leap of faith and hope it works out for the best. Then all that remains is to apply whatever resources and energy there may be at one's disposal toward accomplishing one's intent. Sometimes even a feeble effort, such as I might muster, may be the straw that breaks the camel's back. So no one, not even the least capable of us, has a good excuse for doing nothing if there is, in fact, something within his or her power to do that might help reduce or avert such a threat.
Unfortunately, too often we're faced with an overwhelming choice of options whose relative merits are unclear. We can't do it all, we have to choose, but how? All we can do is analyze the situation carefully to minimize the number of viable options then pick one at random. Here's where I may be of service because I am able look at events coolly and rationally, that is, phlegmatically. It's an easy job, but somebody has to do it. Those of the sanguine or choleric persuasion who are good at getting things done often have no patience for it.
02/04/08 (#0183) Spirit stuff
We're only beginning to get some idea (not sense, our sensibilities aren't up to it) of how unimaginably humongous the observable universe is. Yet for all the billions of galaxies and quadrillions of stars in it, how empty and how lonely. The chances of encountering other minds that are almost certainly out there somewhere are virtually zero. There is just too much space and too much time between us to make a connection remotely probable. Perhaps it's just as well. Our fond hope that these other minds might have learned much more of the ways of the universe than we have and therefore might save us the trouble of having to discover these deeper truths for ourselves is not only wholly unrealistic but perhaps immoral as well. There may be a reason for the space-time being as vast (and expanding) as it is: to save us from encountering such a shortcut to maturity. It could well prove fatal.
There are theories that just such an encounter with other minds in the universe occurred in the Garden of Eden, that eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was just such a short cut (the serpent was an extraterrestrial) and that it resulted in our trading simple bliss for civilization as we know it. "Odyssey 2001" plays with that idea in somewhat different context.
And then there are reports of angels who are surely extraterrestrials, but they may not come from the same space-time in which we are lost or may not be of the same matter that we are made of.
Speaking of which, science has recently brought to our attention that the directly observable universe, vast as it is, accounts for only 4% of the mass that we seem to be detecting out there. There are no observable electromagnetic, nuclear or "weak" force effects of any kind emanating from this invisible stuff which accounts for 96% of the mass of the universe. Only through its gravitational effects have we become aware of it. We can even map out its distribution throughout the universe (it's just as lumpy as the visible universe of stars and galaxies) but we can't see it, touch it or do anything with it. It is very like ghost or spirit stuff but with weight which is the only thing that's giving it away.
So, it turns out that in the cosmic soup of the universe the stuff we and the stars are made of is merely the seasoning. Actually, knowing that there is 24 times more stuff out there in space than we thought, even though we know nothing about it, or perhaps, because we know nothing about it, does make the universe seem just a little less lonely... and more interesting.
02/02/08 (#0182) "The Magic Flute" redux.
(Re #181) Hey Paulus, so when do you pray? Luv ya. Praying for you often. Cheers! - Cassandra With a Hug.
P.S. Glad to get your nutty chats.
According to the schedule, from approx. 7:00 AM to 2:00 AM. But, of course I don't follow the schedule, so the answer is: whenever I am fully conscious which is not as frequently as one might suppose. Mea culpa. - the Ed.
True, true, too true. Also, let's not forget the
original black box: the pre-Big Bang void out of
which somebody pulled out the universe... - the
Just before the end of last year I drew up a schedule to live by. The idea was that as the 2008 descended upon us I would hit the ground running with my schedule already firmly in place.
The reason for the schedule was straightforward: my life as a gentleman of leisure had thoroughly spoiled me. My days had become formless, a series of whims or idle fascinations, shaped by whatever chanced to come my way to be appreciated, played with and thought about deeply. In effect, I was back in the days of my childhood when, as somebody wrote "a boy's days are long long days and a boy's thoughts are long long thoughts". Delightful, but as the saying goes "all play and no work makes Jack a useless jerk". Hence the schedule. (I also bought a chiming clock for the mantelpiece to remind me of the passage of time),
Here is my schedule: 8:30 AM - Up, having listened to the news on the NPR. 9:00 AM - Breakfast, then diary while finishing my coffee. After breakfast until noon: Art Tasks (that could be anything; usually is). 12:30 PM - To the gym, or else work out at home. 2:00 PM - Lunch, then nap. After the nap back to the Art Tasks. 5:00 PM - Mail, bills, trash. 6:00 PM - Dinner. 7:00 PM - Clean up (general). 8:00 PM - Web stuff; the Nutshell. 10:00 PM - Entertainment: movies, reading, study, snack. 1:00 AM - Clean up, shower, in bed by 2:00 AM.
The first month of the 2008 is now by, and I can report that so far I have totally and happily ignored the schedule.