Monday, November 17, 2014

Science Is ...

The ecological complexities of existence overwhelm the human mind, even though some of that richness is an integral part of man’s own nature. It is only by isolating some part of that existence for a short time that it can be momentarily grasped: we learn only from samples. By separating primary from secondary qualities, by making mathematical description the test of truth, by utilizing only a part of the human self to explore only a part of its environment, the new science successfully turned the most significant attributes of life into purely secondary phenomena, ticketed for replacement by the machine. Thus living organisms, in their most typical functions and purposes, became superfluous.
Lewis Mumford, 1970, p.68.

“The interesting thing for us”, continues Pumphrey [talking about the Vocorder], “is the effect of this process on the character of speech, for in discarding or blurring the detailed structure, it has effected a completely mechanical separation of the emotive and informative functions of speech. The output of this infernal machine is perfectly intelligible and perfectly impersonal. No trace of anger or love, pity or terror, irony or sincerity, can get through it. The age or sex of the speaker cannot be guessed. No dog would recognise his master’s voice. In fact, it does not sound as if a human agent was responsible for the message. But the intelligence is unimpaired.”
Ibid, p69 (emphasis added).

Initially people didn’t trust what they were hearing on the telephone because they couldn’t put a face to it. The word “phony” emerged at the time to describe the experience of not believing the voice at the other end of the phone line.
Jeremy Rifkin, 2009, p.376.
Science is a many splendid thing.

Q: What is the role of Scientism (science as religion) if objective truth is an impossibility?
A: To ensure predictability of outcome, to ‘control’ nature, to tame the wild.

Q: What is its power?
A: To manufacture machines, enable mass production, design and build giant cities, create an increasingly machine-like society, etc. (the value of this product spectrum is of course in the eye of the beholder), but also, rooted deep in the humble origins of Scientism, i.e. as part of what we might call science proper, to encourage humility in the pursuit of increasing or deepening wisdom regarding how universe and its infinitely interdependent systems work.

The bright appeal of the mechanical utopia Scientism promises arises from the immature ego’s ‘congenital’ need for control, reflexively fearful as it is of disorder, the unknown, the unpredictable. It is this fear that has turned science proper into a new iteration of ancient sun worship: centralisation, mega-projects, power obsession, institutionalised hierarchy, the mighty state, mechanised armies of human automatons as one with their machinery, etc. This almost lifeless technotopia is an inhumane expression of the ego’s power- and control-urge newly equipped with ‘objective’ science, a paradigm that concerns itself solely with the measurable. But Scientism’s prudish expulsion of subjectivity from its crystal-clear domain, the domain of what it thinks of as real, blinds it to the fact that emotional and wholly subjective human beings must remain firmly ensconced in the picture to first conceive and then wield science (or be wielded by it). This subtle but significant blind spot has made a religion of science, broadly speaking.

This doesn’t mean the 'dispassionate' recording of observable phenomena and the consequent humble positing of falsifiable theories – a process that improves wisdom and understanding, piece by cumulative piece (however fitfully) – somehow dooms us to destruction or is without merit. The humility the scientific method requires of us is, in my eyes, a beautiful thing, a wonderful cultural achievement. However, it is very, very far from specific to Western Civilisation, or to civilisation generally. The challenge is in not falling prey to our fear-based need for control, and also recognising that all methods of apprehending and explaining reality are limited. The challenge is to not erect totalitarian absolutes we must orbit as vassals, i.e. Sun King, divine king, president, market, money, nation state, The Truth, etc. As Lewis Mumford puts it, “Man cannot be trusted with absolutes.

How do we stay humble and aware of this creeping tendency while allowing space for invention and curious inquiry? I believe the answer lies in Scientism’s opposite, or twin: faith. Obviously, there is a deep paradox here, and this is what I try to resolve, or make fruitful, in this article.

Mumford’s The Pentagon of Power, which inspires this article, laments the decimation of the rich “polytechnics” of the high middle ages – a period responsible for a host of wonderful inventions and ingenious inventiveness. This almost anarchic richness did not survive the filtering or distillation of that richness by the likes of Galileo, Kepler, Descartes and even Bacon, unwitting fathers of what Mumford calls the “Monotechnics” that characterises our age. They created the lexis and syntax for the objectivism in which only the measurable matters, in which only the measurable is real. But it is not the case that the oddity of this position, its patriarchal obsession with control and regimentation, its fascination with the fully manipulable domain of machines, was lost on other thinkers of that time. For example:
Descartes’ contemporary Gassendi saw the weakness of his position. “You will say”, he wrote Descartes, “I am mind alone … But let us talk in earnest, and tell me frankly, do you not derive from the very sound you utter in so saying from the society in which you have lived? And, since the sounds you utter are derived from intercourse with other men, are not the meanings of the sounds derived from the same source?”
Mumford, 1970, p.82
It is self-evident that we are inextricably embedded in and products of our environment. See if you can extract yourself from universe to get a better view of it. Or, try and grow up from scratch again without learning anything until such time that you can make ‘intelligent’ choices about what you choose to learn. We cannot have thoughts in a mother-tongue language without first acquiring that language while unaware we are acquiring it and all the ideas that flow in with it. What possible objective appraisal of the process of socialisation that occurs in our early years can we carry out on ourselves? How can we check it, police it, sort the wheat from the chaff as we drink it all in? Descartes’ separation of mind from matter – where mind is spirit/intelligence capable of manipulating and perfecting a machine universe to fulfil humanity’s destiny to become nature’s “lords and masters” – either ignores or cannot accommodate this obvious truth.

And yet despite this, despite Goethe pointing out over two centuries ago that we cannot take one step deeper into nature nor one step out of it, despite relentless philosophical challenge, Scientism was born and rose to create and dominate Western Civilisation. As if destined. As if it has a lesson to teach us.

So, to repeat: how do we stay humble and avoid absolutism in the face of this grand destiny, in opposition to the weight of history? We yield. We let go. We give in. We act on faith, fearlessly, not knowing the outcome of our daring. But only we, as ‘individuals’, can decide which path to tread to bring this about, to open us up to our richer unfolding. To use the old cliché, we must be courageous enough to follow our hearts. (Believe me, if it doesn’t hurt like hell, you’ve either been following your heart fearlessly for years, or haven’t leapt courageously enough.)

Parallel with our descent into Scientism, we have become too cerebral. We live in our heads, are stuck in our minds, in Descartes’ prison, steered from within by unexamined fears that rule despotically from our cultural and psychological shadows. Rationality, objectivity, truth as distinct facts to be learned by rote, The News, entertainment, schools, consumerism, in fact the whole spectacle of modern life distracts us into mind, shepherds us into isolated pens of mental separation. This dynamic drives, sustains and is driven by the same fear that spawns it.

And yet we know, do we not, that mind is not everything. Surely we know by now that no one thing can be everything. Perhaps we can even say that there can be no distinct thing at all…

As one of many direct consequences of having had the courage to follow my heart and quit my old job towards the end of 2011, I recently fell deeply in love. It went badly wrong, and caused much suffering. The experience shocked me, broke me, cracked me open like an egg. I lost control and was forced to yield, to collapse into apparently endless pain. The turbulence this set in motion tossed me around like a rag doll. No logic, no rationality, no mind-based intelligence was of any use. I was lost at sea. In some ways, I lost my mind.

But the whole experience was (and remains) deeply spiritual. The love I felt, the depth of connection, was unlike anything I have ever known. I now liken it to a Near Death Experience (NDE). People who have gone through an NDE report being immersed in and experiencing that they are ‘made of’ unconditional love, and being fully aware in an infinity rich with creative force. They experience this as their true home, their true self. This is the description that is closest to what I felt. But there is no science that can confirm the 'reality' of such experiences, and unless you are touched by and touch that realm, that state, that soulscape, you cannot know it. If you hear it described, you cannot know what it is like so your mind recoils, throws up suspicions and objections. If you do happen upon it for whatever reason, you cannot measure it. You cannot record it on film or tape. You cannot reproduce it for others. You cannot ‘prove’ it.

You talk in riddles, and hope…

Yet I know it was real. I know I did not ‘dream’ it. The soulscape I became is more real than the ‘physical’ world we call real. I was wide awake, wholly alive.

I suspect what happened to me, and has happened to millions of others for different reasons, is a microcosm of what is happening to modernity, to the civilisational project as a whole, to its latest vanguard Scientism. We are broken by an extreme event, and are changed. Then comes the challenge of what to do with the new knowing.

In this case, it is an extreme of subjectivity. Extremes upset our apple carts. They take us out of mind. If we come back, we know something new. We are renewed. But the message we might want to share cannot be appreciated by mind. Only something like faith can accept it, whereupon we are free to use that faith as impetus for our own, unique development, our leap into the dark. Sadly, Scientism scorns faith, its blind spot, its shadow, despite faith being, I believe, fundamental to human experience. Scientism cannot handle this, cannot process it, cannot apprehend it , does not know where to begin. These rich, experiential phenomena must stay outside its remit.

Taking measurements of brain and other biological activity proves little in this area, as the assertion that the data recorded can be definitive about consciousness rests on an assumption: first matter, then consciousness. This assumption, or faith, cannot be proven, even if we manage to fabricate ‘artificial’ intelligence or other new life forms. That would be akin to building a radio capable of giving consciousness a new vehicle of expression, a new type of experience to learn from. It would not prove machinery can itself give rise to separated conscious experience, for it might also be that machinery can be an avatar for consciousness.

Scientism, like money and all other rigidly hierarchical institutions, must be demoted before our culture can become wiser and richer, more humane. My ego was demoted by my immersion in an experience and a place that were fully beyond all hope of control. I am richer and wiser for it, and more humble. The frustration for the rational among us is that this process is unprovable and unreproducible. But so what! So is something as mundane as a holiday, or rather the particular quality of a holiday. Indeed, what single thing that we have experienced can we reproduce, exactly, for ourselves or others? Which can we measure with numbers to understand better? Being unreproducible and unmeasurable, must we call all experiences unreal? Is there no such thing as experience? Is reality unreal? And if we cannot guarantee an identically wonderful holiday/romance/marriage/friendship/childhood/song/film by being rigorously objective and scientific in its planning, are we therefore doomed to misery?

Life is a complex and endless unfolding of unique and interdependent nows, not one of which will ever happen again, nor can any experience be replicated. That’s why life is so terribly wonderful, so achingly beautiful. Precisely because we cannot control it.

Universe (or All That Is, or God) is not an external machine to control, improve, perfect, domesticate, render unthreatening. It is alive with us, wild with us. We are alive because of it, in it, through it. Yielding to this fearful truth is the advent of lasting joy.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Her Blood-spattered Frock

Two jar by nature. Irresolvable opposition
is the seat of change, of perception.
Harmony in conflict. Peace in stress.
Instability in equilibrium.

I cannot extend the span of my empathy
and stay inside the fold, shielded
from the social winter that drives
the tough outsider on. See

how I change: empathy flows then cuts
me off. The two jar: isolated empathy,
empathic isolation. But it’s as natural as grass,
as Yin and Yang. Two jar by nature.

Opposition creates sense; sense
bubbles up from its well, this first position,
this deep fundament. One rises from two
to begin variety. Opposed hands shake,

one agreement is struck. Then endless
interpretation. Then no discernible one.
Impossible placebo, the mind’s eye
solid as chance, centred as awareness.

Suspended by left and right, top and bottom,
scaled between black and white,
right and wrong, poles are meaningless alone.
Empathy’s encircling warmth chills. I click:

a string of 0s and 1s blooms a two year old girl,
a father’s face caught in one moment,
mine quickly entangled, a dusty war zone,
a cart of heaped torsos and limbs

and the girl in mid-air, tossed to join them,
unabandoned by her father’s arm reaching out forever.
His fingers grasp mine across an ocean of noise
and seal the uselessness of my empathy.

My courage fails.
Opposition has me. I am tugged in two directions
going nowhere. Then this squeaks out
and I am miles from content.

I want to be more than the sum of this.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Don’t Feed the Beast II: Dissolving Face

(This post is my promised counter-position to my previous post. It does not represent my true and final position, but is rather a reflection of my desire to avoid too-stark binaries, too divisive either/or positions. See it instead as an alternative perspective that enriches and is enriched by its chronological predecessor.)

Charlie Kaufmann gave a beautiful speech a while ago, in which he implores himself, and by extension all of us, to be honest about our vulnerability, our shame, our prejudice, to somehow wear our souls on our sleeves, warts and all. In a sense, he uses his speech to put his social face on the line, to unmask himself. While listening, I loved both the man and the message. Why?

As I see it, sincere and courageous admissions of feelings of vulnerability, displays of humility in the sense of knowing It’s Not About You, indeed all displays of this sort, help dissolve face. They facilitate a kind of authentic intimacy, even if transmitted across time and distance. There is something about honest nakedness and sharing its attendant feelings of ugliness and unworthiness that deeply connects us with others. While this cannot have universal appeal nor apply to all situations and people, I suspect the broad hunger for authenticity most of us feel is assuaged by such displays, however temporarily. It can be very refreshing to get to know the human behind the face.

I should point out that sustained or permanent dissolution of social face is impossible; this is no call for 24/7 guts-out honesty. That would be too intense and would anyway generate face of a different flavour. Social face seems to be an unavoidable emergent phenomenon of particular social animals, entangled, I suspect, in the social value generated by personal contribution to the group. I was once walking our now deceased dog,  Hamish, across the Gloucestershire countryside  near our home. We took our normal route, part of which crossed a narrow plank of wood that bridged a deep brook. Hamish knew the route well by then, and leaped onto the plank from a distance as I was stepping onto it. He mistimed his effort and fell into the clear water. As he sank upside-down to the brook’s stony bed, our eyes met. His expression was the purest picture of shame and embarrassment I think I have ever seen, his very canine reaction to loss of face. He also hated to be picked up and coddled. And as parents we clearly see the slow emergence of face in children as they become increasingly self-conscious, increasingly aware of social expectations.

The question I am playing with in this post is the degree to which this unavoidable aspect of social life can be identified and sufficiently known with a view to handling it ever more wisely as time passes. In posing this question I presuppose a progress-like process of Universe that implies something like cumulative wisdom, however bumpy and irregular, one in no way limited to humans. In the absence of this, a Zen-like (or Zen-lite) shit happens philosophy is probably all you need, whereupon everything I do here becomes moot.

What I’m trying to bring into relief in these conjoined posts is what I see as an insoluble and inevitable organic link between, on the one hand, an anonymous and quasi-real beast that emerges via the social activity of all members of a society, and social face on the other. The nature of any particular beast depends on multiple and – very importantly – largely uncontrollable circumstances: environmental, biological, cultural etc. These factors co-create and continually recreate the particular society or organisation (though with change present as the only constant), within which face plays an important role, both positive (supportive) and negative (destructive).

Society, its organisations and institutions, and human beings alike are probably best thought of as web-like processes that are interdependent in both visible and invisible ways. One interface in this complex of interdependencies is face. Finally, whether or not a beast is perceived at any particular stage also depends on a mix of visible and invisible factors. And all of this is neither good nor bad per se, but does have positive and negative aspects, as just suggested.

So if there is a beast to be starved – in our own case one that has its roots in something like elitism and capitalism – it must be because some imbalance is in play, an imbalance that somehow renders to our perception as ‘evil’ a system (organisation, social mode, etc.) that was once relatively ‘unbeastly’. This is not to imply that perfect balance is possible; as with utopia, the pursuit of some pure perfection, some perfectly balanced system, heralds the beginning of totalitarianism, at whatever scale. To repeat, if there is a beast to be starved, it is because an imbalance is stressful enough to a sufficient proportion of people to render something to them as a beast. A scattered handful of malcontents cannot be enough to bring about meaningful change, even though meaningful change probably always starts with these folks, and starts out small.

I assert, therefore, that starving a beast with a view to allowing a different social system room to grow and settle in requires, in part, a mature and conscious relationship with social face, a wisdom which requires a humble sense of our own unique contribution to the beast’s continuing existence. Humility, as hinted at in the opening paragraph, is key, as is a keen awareness of face.

I have come to discern a beast in Perpetual Growth, primary driver of insatiable elitism, which is extractive and exploitative in its core dynamic. Rapid growth is as natural as steady state growth; a quick look at the rest of nature confirms this. Rapid growth becomes a beast to be dealt with once it has outlived its usefulness but continues anyway, with grand delusions of immortality. At the scale of civilisation, I believe we are now at a very difficult and precarious juncture: the transition from rapid to steady-state growth, a juncture no prior civilisation has survived. Because present institutions emerged from the paradigm of endless growth, they have become beasts incapable of perceiving and embracing this challenge. Their constitutions compel them to carry on as before. This is when face becomes destructive; admission of error is impossible. They are thus doing more harm than good. However, they are not separate objects ‘out there’ that can be starved as one might starve a prisoner in a cell. They are emergent phenomena of a larger process that we too constitute and consist of. They are parts of us and we are parts of them, as I have repeatedly asserted.

To create viable alternatives, then, we must first become people capable of establishing and sustaining them. Part of this is humble honesty about our relationships with our social face, our pride, our fear, etc., and awareness of our deep entanglement with the out-of-date paradigm we are trying to change. In part, this entails acquiring cultural wisdom regarding the enormity of the challenge, but primarily is about dissolving face. Now that this has haltingly begun in various areas, new ways forward will become clearer and clearer. Their viability will depend to a large degree on our collective ability to stay humble, honest and courageous: to dissolve face and keep it real.

We starve the beast by reducing our investment in its aspect of our own lives; we become the change we seek in the world. The beast we all constitute seeks to sustain unearned superiority and empty elitism, defensive pride and the ephemeral pleasure of material acquisition. Such fears and desires are in all of us. Not feeding them is part of understanding how to develop rounder, fuller and more meaningful modes of being, a very slow and awkward process. Not feeding them requires dissolving face and establishing lasting authenticity and authentic relationships, private and public. From an emotional, cultural distance, these attempts can look pretty strange. Many will prove to be dead ends (if there is such a thing), but experimentation is like that. And of course, there can be no guarantee of success.

This has been a very difficult post to write. I suspect I have not done very well getting my points across. In my defence, this is a subtle issue, but one I believe to be important and thus worth the effort.