09/28/07 (#0082) Found in translation
in the midst of a theological inquiry prompted by my current reading of Dante's
"Comedy" ("Divine" was added later, by Bocaccio). You gotta
Roman Catholic theology when reading the "Comedy" (among a lot of other things)
to make sense of it. While I'm at it I'm trying to translate it (the theology,
that is) from the biblical/church language into a language that I can understand
and work with.
Christianity has developed a dictionary-full of
specialized terminology that people (Christians and non-Christians
alike) generally take for granted as if everybody understood perfectly
what all these words mean simply because they have been around forever. For
example words like "good" and "evil" ("good" = "what I like", "evil" = "what I
don't like") are not usually given a second thought. And how many
Christians have a deep understanding of the meaning of "baptism", "church",
"damnation", "eternal", "faith", "glory", "grace", "heaven", "hell",
"holy", "love", "peace", "prayer", "redemption", "salvation", "sin", "will" - to
pick a few of the favorites. These words are typically bandied about as if
their meaning was self-evident. Even, or perhaps especially, words like "Jesus"
and "Christ" and "God" are passed around like dollar bills - without anybody
even looking at them.
That is not to say you can't practice Christian
charity without understanding Christian theology. But you can't read Dante
without it. Apart from that, I am trying to sort out the meaning of Christianity
for myself - in my own terms. It is my vocation in life to rebel against all
synthetic semantic structures and religion provides a prime target for semantic
deconstruction. I may be tilting at wind mills but there it is - my duty and my
glory as the knight errant in the world of words, righting wrongs and aiding
Paul W.09/27/07 (#0081) The ways of human being
usually through four stages of life: childhood, adolescence, maturity
and old age. Many men skip the maturity stage and go directly from
adolescence to old age.
Women have more complicated lives. They usually
go through five stages of life: childhood, nymphhood, motherhood, matronhood and
old age. Some women skip motherhood and many try for perpetual nymphhood
but nobody skips the old age (except by dying young).
In general, women
get wiser with age. This is less common among men. Nevertheless, there is the
myth of the "wise old man" and there may actually be a few of
them somewhere in the world. On the other hand, many old women are
wise, something men and younger women tend to resent. In the old days they
used to express their resentment by burning old women at stake (occasionally
they would toss a younger woman into the fire if she got too smart
alecky). However, those were the bad old days. Nowadays we just tell
mother-in-law jokes and as for the smart alecky younger women, well, there's
just no way that a young woman can get too smart alecky -
There is yet a third kind of human being among
us, which, incidentally, has nothing to do with gender identification. It
is a human multiple, bonded into a couplehood or familyhood or teamhood or
neighborhood or villagehood or, sometimes, nationhood. It's a genuinely
different way of being human from that of an individual human life. At the
elementary level of couplehood the two partners have profound, life
changing influence on each other. But even at the other end of the
spectrum, truly belonging to a nation has major perspective changing effects on
Now if only we could experience ourselves as one
being belonging to the world...
W.09/26/07 (#0080) In praise of
obscurity: the joys of not knowing
Art is never explicit. The
maker of the Art object herself may not be sure what she means by
it or may deliberately refrain from expressing her
intent explicitly. If the message is perfectly clear, it is not Art, it's a
billboard. What makes Art worth looking at is that we are not quite sure what it
is we're seeing. There's room for speculation, for wondering, for projection of
our own feelings and ideas into the piece, for mind play and creative
Art imitates life. Life is never explicit, its
unfolding never perfectly predictable. What makes life worth living is that
we're never sure what will happen next. There's room for speculation,
anticipation, wondering, projecting our feelings and ideas into the
unformed future, for mind play, adventure, and creative solutions.
The joy of Art and the joy of life are exactly the same. Of course, life
is more dynamic, more variegated and more intense than Art. We are
direct participants in it - both artists and experiencers. What Art does
for us, though, is to bring us to different kinds of experiences which we
might not encounter in the normal course of our life. It can broaden our scope,
make us aware that the world is larger than our little niche in it. It may
inspire us, give us new ideas, enlarge us and increase our potential for
enjoyment of life.
In Art and in life, the joy comes from the challenge
and the opportunity of the incompletely formed. In both there is the
possibility for creative interaction with the ever new world to
influence the yet undetermined future to yield a present that is closer to
our heart's desire.
Wishing you success, until tomorrow,
W.09/25/07 (#0079) Rational action vs.
What does it mean to have a free will? When we act
on basis of facts before us, are we exercising our free
will? To act rationally we have no choice but to follow the rules of reason to
the logical conclusion and act accordingly. The facts and reason force
our action. The only choice we have is whether to act rationally or not: we
choose to ignore the logical conclusion and do something else,
in which case we would
be exercising our free will, probably to our
Actually it's not as simple as that. In real
facts before us are not absolutely clear, nor do we have access to all
the facts of the case. We always have to work with imprecise and incomplete
data. Applying rules of reason does not lead to a unique logical
conclusion. The uncertainties and gaps in our knowledge of facts lead
to a number of possible scenarios whose relative likelihood we can only
What is happening here is that every real
situation hands us an opportunity to exercise our free will. Reason takes
us only so far, then we have to decide among the alternatives without the
benefit of knowing how our decision will play out. In this situation we must
find another way at arriving at a decision. We could
flip a coin or
roll a die, and in some simple situations, that may be adequate. But when the
results of our decision really matter, we need to bring something more to
the process, something that, if nothing else, will provide a basis
for consistency of action as the events unfold. We need to use our
imagination to fill the gaps in our understanding with some
construction of our own invention and place our faith in it.
guide we have in this is what we believe to be the case based on our
established system of beliefs about the world and ourselves. So, in the
end, our free choice is based on what we believe
. The rational
choices we make based on what we actually know
they are determined by the situation (to the extent that we understand it).
Paul W.09/24/07 (#0078) The harmony of science and religion
science and religion both are dedicated to truth how can they be in conflict?
Here's the problem: in science, which is founded in logic, two contradictory
statements cannot be simultaneously true (except, apparently, in quantum
mechanics, but that's another story). Religion flatly rejects logic. Claiming to
have a more trustworthy source of knowledge than science, one not
subject to logical analysis, any logical contradictions in its teachings are
simply presented as "mysteries of faith" about which nothing further can be
The integrity and the predictive power of science lies in
its commitment not to leave any apparent paradoxes unexplained.
Science cannot be science if it accepts anything on faith or limits in any
way intellectual inquiry into all phenomena of experience. Note that
science is not
in the business of discovering the Truth. It is in the
business of inventing logical explanations for the observed phenomena,
explanations which can be tested in practice.
The objective of
religion is to provide human life with purpose
and meaning. This science cannot do. Science has nothing to do
with purposes, it is only interest being in what
is the case, not
it is the case. In addition, science admits and
accepts the incompleteness of its understanding of the world of experience.
It can offer practical advice on how
to accomplish what
we want to accomplish but when it comes to choosing
our objectives we have to look elsewhere for guidance.
offers that guidance, arguing that since there is no reliable human
authority and no consensus on what the purpose and meaning of our
lives may be, the truth about this can only come from a
higher source, the postulated Source of all being, the origin of all that
exists. Religion (from Latin re-ligare
, to rejoin) derives its
authority from the direct experience of that Source - that is, from
It would help the cause of religion if there were only
one consistent revelation. The existence of numerous religions
with conflicting teachings is an embarassment. Serious religions pretty
to claim sole legitimacy or give up their authority. We have
yet to sort this out. Be that as it may, religion, in one form or
another, plays a crucial role in people's lives, whether they realize it or
not. But there is no reason for a "true" religion to be in direct conflict
with the scientific view of the world, at least not in any irreconcilable way.
There is a limit to how far logic can take us and that is where religion
properly takes up the story. But up to that point, I can't believe that any
direct revelation from the Source of the world of our experience would deny
what is demonstrably the case in that world.
W.09/22/07 (#0077) The case for rational
We cannot act with conscious intentionality unless
we are convinced (at least subconsciously) that we have an answer
to the ultimate "why?". Otherwise, we are either preprogrammed automatons
reacting mechanically to incoming stimuli, or else we are purposelessly adrift
and it doesn't matter what we do or not do.
There are schools of thought
that hold one or the other of these latter alternatives to be the case.
Firmly founded in reasonable argument, they are not moved by the mere fact of
the emotional dismality of these alternatives, and that's where they make
their mistake. Facts, after all, are facts and should not be ignored. And the
fact is that woman (or man) does not live by reason alone. Indeed, reason
is mere infrastructure, a tool we use to build a life for ourselves, but where
we actually live is in our feelings
The question is,
then, how do we optimize our feelings? One necessary condition is that we
are convinced of our free will, that we feel in control of our destiny, indeed,
that we are able to consciously choose our destiny. If this be a mere illusion,
then it is a necessary
illusion, a concept that I find irrational
and unnatural. We need to be in denial of the truth in order to be happy? It
doesn't ring true. Evolution is ruthlessly realistic - it has little tolerance
for illusions. On the other hand, evolution demands
intentional choices from conscious entities. Or else they get eaten.
feel intellectually safe believing that I can act intentionally to shape the
world's (and mine) future. But that brings us to the orignal existential
problem: the need for an answer to the ultimate "why?" to give us a direction in
life. Experience and reason do not provide it. They present us with facts with
no intrinsic value. We have to supply the value. We have to invent
or postulate an answer to the ultimate "why?", hopefully one that has the
potential for making us happy, and accept it as an article of faith.
Which suggests that the answer lies not in the stars but in
Paul W. 09/21/07
(#0076) Evolving our techno-shell
In astonishingly short time,
geologically speaking, we humans have evolved a complex technological shell
for ourselves outside of which we can no longer survive. This shell has
become an essential part of ourselves. It defines us, defends us and empowers
us. We are wholly dependent on it - our clothes, our homes, our transportation
and communication, our food supply, all require high levels of technology to
produce in quantity and quality we need and demand.
easily smashed as this shell may be, it is, nevertheless, our great
advantage over other species we share this planet with. The reason is that
we have built up this shell consciously
we are, at least potentially, in control of its structure and function.
Unlike a snail which is stuck with its shell for life, come hell or high water,
we can substantially modify
our shell to fit the changing
circumstances. In other words, we can evolve and adapt to change at a rate
many magnitudes faster than other animals of similar size and
complexity. We have the capacity to evolve as fast as fruit flies and
perhaps even viruses, although it's a close race with the viruses, one
which we may yet loose.
As we change our shell in response to
changing conditions, the shell changes us. It is, after all, an essential and
integral part of us. It may save us from extinction, at least in the near
term (or not), but it will also change us. We are already not quite the
same race that occupied earth a mere millenium ago and, like it or not, we
are changing faster than we were a millenium ago. We have
extinction is looming.
W.09/20/07 (#0075) The
Most of you, I'm sure, remember CDs - those
awkwardly large discs you had to carry about by the dozen and handle super
carefully so as not to scratch them. You had to keep changing them in a player
the size of a frisbee because they only held about 70 minutes of music. That was
in the bad old days before the wireless MP3 nano-players that let us now
carry our entire music library in a shirt pocket and to update it anytime
anywhere with a click of a button.
A few of you may remember the
LPs. "LP" stood for Long Playing even though these humongous two-sided disks
only played miserable 20 minutes of music per side. They were made
of plastic and melted in the sunshine. The players were the size of a
microwave oven - not exactly portable.
And only historians have even
heard of 78 rpm records. They weighed a ton, were breakable like glass,
spun at 78 rpm in massive machines and held less than five minutes of
music per side. They sounded like someone playing music over the phone while
Be that as it may, I have just invested in a brand new,
professional quality, 78 rpm record player. Yes, they still make them, specially
for the nutty old audiophiles and collectors with nostalgia for the early
twentieth century. I am not one of them. I have in my possession one
single 78 rpm record and I am not likely to add to this collection of one.
So what possessed me? The record happens to be the only existing copy of the
only recording of my mother singing (she was a professional artist - a
lyric soprano in bel canto
style). It surfaced recently after decades
of having been lost. I needed the player to be able to digitally remaster
and transfer the recording to a suitable modern medium for distribution to
the family & friends.
W.09/19/07 (#0074) Peace and
if I didn't watch TV, I'd find the commercials fun also. - The Nut
Yeah, after the 50th time they become a major pain. Yet another
reason I don't watch TV... - The Ed
Peace: everybody wants it but why? For most people
peace means relief from stress or suffering. Generally, peace
is taken to mean freedom from troubles, freedom from threats to our well-being,
freedom to be "ourselves" without fear. It does not mean "nothing
happening", "absolute quiet" or "total rest". However attractive these
concepts may seem to a stressed out city dweller, that kind of peace grows
old quickly and does not last. To be durable and enjoyable, peace must be
dynamic and eventful, with potential for change, wonder and
surprise. Such peace starts with "p"and that rhymes with "t" and that
stands for "trouble"...
Fact: absolute peace is found only in
death. As long as we are alive our peace can only be relative. When we say
we want peace what we really mean is we want a more balanced
existence, better situated between order and chaos and therefore less stressful
and more enjoyable. Ultimately, what we want is joy - peace is only a
means toward increasing our joy.
And what is joy? To begin with, it is a
conscious experience. Specifically, it is an experience of rightness and
goodness and beauty of one's own being as it is happening. An experience of
the glory of it. Whence comes this sensation? Release of
serotonin and endorphins in the brain may explain the chemical mechanics behind
the sensation but it does not explain the sensation itself. The brain
chemistry is affected by our conscious choices and actions as well as vice
versa. It is not always clear which is the chicken and which the egg. We do
know, from observation, that purely chemical joy leaves us empty and unbalanced.
It is unearned, stolen joy which eventually must be paid for. On
the other hand, the joy that comes from our conscious choices and actions
builds, sustains and guides us.
09/18/07 (#0073) If you knew Dante
like I know Dante...
I am in the process of discovering Dante
Alighieri and his famous (and universally unread) epic Poem, "The Divine
The first thing you need to know is that it isn't actually a
comedy. But never mind. Another thing you need to know (and that accounts
for why hardly anybody actually reads the Poem) is that to have any clue as to
what it is all about you need to get to know Dante personally, his life,
his times, his friends and enemies, his mind. Also you need to have read Homer's
"Illiad" and "Odyssey" and especially Virgil's "Aeneid". It would also help
to be thoroughly familiar with Greek and Roman mythology, ancient and
medieaval history, Aristotle's writings, the Christian Bible and the writings of
Thomas Aquinas and other church fathers. Thus equipped, and with some additional
help by a qualified Dantologist, you should be in a position to properly
appreciate and enjoy the Poem, provided you read Italian fluently. (The
Poem is essentially untranslateable into English in a form that does justice to
Dante's terza rima).
That said, it is possible, especially for
the readers of Italian, to thoroughly enjoy certain poetic and dramatic passages
throughout the Poem without any preparation at all. Often the language just
carries you away (the most recent English translation by Hollander is
best). And that's how most people read the Poem.
But there's much more
to it. It is nothing less than a visionary political, social,
philosophical and religious manifesto intended, in all seriousness, to
change the world. Dante wanted to bring about a global government of law and
order, rational but informed by faith, in which universal peace would be
possible and the highest human destiny could be attained. He lived in a world of
discord, corruption, and personal ambition. He felt he knew what had
gone wrong and how to fix it. He was a man of considerable status in his
world - he would be listened to. And that's why he wrote the "Commedia", to put
art, beauty and reason in the service of addressing what he saw as
disastrous social disintegration.
The remarkable thing is that his
arguments, so elegantly presented, are as cogent and applicable today as they
were in his times. Dante was the first modern poet/politician/philosopher. He
saw the problems of his day (no different in essence from ours today) very
clearly. His envisioned solutions, allowing for certain biases and
ignorance of facts, are rational, practical, and, given sufficient good
will, doable. He believed in separation of church and state but believed in
their mutual cooperation and equality of their role in people's lives, each in
it's own sphere. A third element of the unified world government, in his
view, must be reason and science, playing their own role in people's
lives. All three elements - law, reason and faith - would be mutually infomed by
each other forming a solid basis for prosperity for the human race. Sounds about
right to me.
09/17/07 (#0072) The frantic flash-by
I don't watch TV
for a number of reasons: a) I don't get any TV signal down here in Possum
Hollow, b) on the odd occasions when I did spend some time watching TV (somebody
else's) I rarely saw anything worth watching (except the commercials -
they're fun), c) I get all the entertainment I can handle from other
sources that suit me better; and there are several other reasons besides. One of
them, the subject of today's dissertation, is the frantic pace and the split
second duration of events presented on the TV screen.
been alleged that nobody ever lost money underestimating the
average intelectual powers of the TV audience. Judging from the display
time of particular sound & sight bites and the rate at which the
audience is bombarded (or, rather, machine gunned) with such ultra-brief
audio-visual clips, the producers and directors of most of the TV
shows must be estimating the attention span and the capacity for
comprehension of the TV audience to be about that of a three year old.
Except in the case of the talking heads, no time at all is
allowed for the absorption of and the reflection on what has been seen. Indeed,
it's hard to tell what has been seen. However, since it
is usually some stereotypical/iconic image referring to a
culturally embedded pre-digested idea, it doesn't matter if you did
not see it in detail as long as you caught the general idea. Moving
right along to What's Next, no thinking is required, indeed, no thinking is
allowed. Knee-jerk reaction is all that is expected.
It appears much of
TV programming consists of subliminal messages aimed at the primitive
subconscious. Presence of analytical reasoning is not presumed, and,
frankly, not desired. (It tends to interfere with the unbridled consumerism
which drives the TV industry). As a born and bred rationalist, I can't deal with
these rapid fire images flashing by me before I can begin to
critically grasp them with my mind. It is extremely frustrating. And
that's one of the reasons I don't watch TV.
09/15/07 (#0072) 600,000 words
is not enough
Empower. Embrace. Embezzle. Engrave. Enfeeble.
Enchant. All of them transitive verbs indicating action by the subject on
the object. Not so "enjoy". To enjoy something does not involve acting on
the object. It is a curious case, going against its etymology which would
suggest that to enjoy something should mean "to imbue something
with joy". As in "to enjoy oneself", the only instance where "enjoy" is
used in its expected sense.
I think the English language would
be enriched if the verb "to enjoy" were available for use in
its etymologically natural sense. To enjoy the world would mean to
fill the world with joy. On the other hand, the current vernacular use is
also useful and I would not want to loose it. But having one word do
double duty could be confusing so I propose a new word, "injoy", for the
properly transitive sense of "enjoy". Thus, grandparents could both enjoy
and injoy their grandkids.
With "injoy" in the vocabulary, we
can formulate a life philosophy such as "injoy others as you would enjoy
(injoy) yourself" or make such observations as "it is easier to injoy
others if one also enjoys them". We could dispense with the overused
and vague word "love" in many instances where the accurate
thing to say is that one is injoying someone. In general, it would make
clear thinking about relationships easier.
"Injoy" is only the second new English word I have
proposed so far. My first one was "sinefine", a noun, meaning "an endless task",
like that of Sisyphus, e.g. the war in Iraq.