Oct. 27th 2002

Moore,

Switching old and new spectacles back and forth, when one's eye is working overtime to grow a cataract, doesn't do much good; subjects like Jung remain hazy no matter what one does.

From the flavor of your comments, I'd guess we're very close on the Bush-Iraq business. (I generally tend to be a little right of you on social and political issues). I, too, tend to think we (USA) are on the brink of making a big mistake, to understate the situation, any way you want to look at it, if we attack Iraq. I agree that Bush seems to have a megalomaniacal obsession with getting Saddam, probably for a number of reasons, while everything else goes to hell. Curiously, so far there hasn't been much of an organized uproar against this action. Despite Vietnam, I think most Americans believe that if our government favors such an action it must be the right and moral thing to do because we're still the good guys... This is not to take the position that therefore Saddam, who is a scheming monster of another sort, should be allowed to flaunt the restrictions and rules imposed by the international community, either. As recent events have taught us, it's easy to snipe but hard to come up with truly constructive and practical solutions to tough problems. I guess I favor unfettered inspections in Iraq with, hopefully, a coalition of nations forcing this by any necessary means if it's not working. The "innocent" people in Iraq have some responsibility for their leadership also, it seems to me.

Oh, and can there be an exploration of anything of significance without good old God being included. Here, as you know, I tend to be left of just about everybody but Bertrand Russell and Madeline Murray. (Although I strongly suspect I have a lot of silent company; the God crowd, when stirred up, tends not to be so pleasant. Spare me the Christians). Philology notwithstanding, God really stands for Grand Obfuscation Device; once introduced into a discussion the topic is hopelessly muddied. Try discussing automobile mechanics if someone insists on introducing as necessary the concept of the Redeeming Spirit of the car... In some intellectual circles, points of view not encumbered by abstruse and bewildering inventions are often not accorded much repect; it is also true that sometimes the emperor simply doesn't have clothes, and sometimes large issues can be boiled down to a refreshing if not monosyllabic essence.

For me, it comes down to this. No one knows why there is something instead of nothing, if that is even a valid notion. Life evolved on this planet, and maybe other places, and there are no sharp divisions between anything in nature. At some point this process moved to the point of emergence of a wad of interconnecting neurons of adequate complexity to be able to think about itself and its place in the universe. There probably is some built-in need for ritual and demand for answers such that we have invented religions and philosophies to a dramatic extent, generally at odds with one another. Philosophy, as much as we have loved to immerse ourselves in the endeavor, has a dismal track record for producing anything of truly redeeming benefit for mankind. I tend to think, as you know, that often our semantics gets us in more trouble than it solves. That there has been a universal religious questioning says more about how we are wired than about any spiritual realm. What little we know about the universe, including ourselves, we know from scientific inquiry. This frustrates many due to the slow, plodding nature of the process, and the fact that comprehenseve, satisfying, and quick "answers" are not forthcoming; hence the seductive allure of religion, or even branches of philosophy. But as Winston Churchill said of democracy, "It may not be very good, but it's the best there is". Some things seem so obvious as to be mind-boggling in transparency. It is so painful to lose loved ones, and frightening to contemplate one's own demise, that we have concocted all sorts of survivalist beliefs to mitigate and deny the simple fact of biological death. (I'll be reunited with my parents in heaven; presumably they will also be reunited with their parents and relatives, back and back in time, some kind of cosmic family reunion probably including a lot of people I wouldn't want to know...?) Get real, grow up, face it, all of us had a l937 that wasn't so bad. People then counter with a lack of any morality or decency witlhout God--I read an article "Can we be good without God?", as if religious belief and Sunday school have much to do with morality. Church is where good people go to be better. Morality is noted at a simple level among elephants and primates; it's useful to be good because your own chances are generally enhanced, a Golden Rule in nature. Spinning philosophies without continually keeping our place in nature in mind is a sophomoric exercise at best.

I for the most part would not want to join God in heaven, the way He/She/It behaves; Rationalize it any way you want; God has a lousy track record. Just look at the 20th century.

Interesting how Jung tends generally to appeal to the educated elite. Freud was the ill-tempered bearer of generally discouraging news. We never like those who tell us nasty things about ourselves. Kill the messenger (not that his message was always or even usually on the mark). Jung was, well, nicer.

"Car Talk" just came on. I like those guys, and their view of things. Mercifully, this limits my spewing on even more. I cannot, however, end this without my usual disclaimer that, of course, "I could be wrong". (I can't recall any of the philosophers saying that...)

Hoell

*****

1/2/03

Hoell...

I will concede that I write scatterbrained essays. I have given myself permission to indulge in free association, because it gives me a degree of poetic immunity. I’m a relatively ignorant person. I would be reluctant to hazard an opinion without the handy refuge of creative license.

I enthusiastically concur that Saddam Hussein is a monster. I favored sending in a death squad to fry his evil ass over a decade ago when he gassed those Kurdish villages (with our acquiescence - though probably not our actual blessings - and using the hardware and technology which we were providing him at that time. When a Kurdish delegation was finally received by a low level State Department official they were told that we were unwilling just then to jeopardize American-Iraqi relations. Conveniently, our people have since become duly outraged by Saddam’s hideous behavior. Our response has been to butcher a minimum of 100,000 of their wretched infantry in the so-called Gulf War, and to levy sanctions which credible human rights groups estimate to have caused another million or so deaths, mostly children, for their stubborn refusal to oust the bastard. The guy with whom we have the complaint has not, in all that time, missed a single afternoon cookie snack.

I have a problem with hypocrisy and double talk in the swarmy world of international politics. The “international community” is another name for the countries which have fallen into lock step with US unilateralism. Without our strident insistence, I doubt whether many of those restrictions would ever have been imposed. Certainly the sanctions would have been lifted a long time ago. UN resolutions mandating the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories have been ignored. When the World Court ruled in favor of Nicaragua’s claim that Reagan should not be putting mines in their harbors, we told them to stuff it. Israel and Turkey rank #1 and #2 in sheer numbers of violations of Security Council resolutions, but I have heard not one word about either of these nations “thumbing their noses at the international community.” There is an international community when it suits our purposes, and not otherwise.

“Forcing inspections by any necessary means” sounds kind of nonspecific. Do we perhaps mean to say: “blast the bodies of their teenaged conscripts to pieces, and leave them in the road for the dogs to eat?” (this is what we did the last time we enforced the “necessary means” of evicting Iraqi infantry from Kuwait, and I fear that is the meaning, also, of the current rhetoric. If we feel that sufficient provocation exists for such a deed, if that is what we actually propose to do, then we should speak it plainly and not try to make it sound somehow less ghastly than it is. We are mad at Saddam, so we will put his citizenry to death (some 250,000 of them according to a group of pacifist doctors) with explosives, from a distance which renders them effectively defenseless. In moral preparation for this we will disallow their innocence, and affirm that they are responsible for their leaders. You know, that is the exact reasoning Osama bin Laden used to justify knocking down those buildings full of stockbrokers. America is a democracy. The villains who brought misery upon his brethren really are our representatives, so military etiquette is set aside and everybody becomes a combatant and a fair target.

I don’t know the extent to which we are to blame for the actions of our leaders, but there seems to be a certain brutal justice in our bearing the consequences for them. Whichever way it is, the rules will apply in both directions. I don’t like the way it is going lately. If the philosophers appear not to be making progress for the betterment of mankind, I would say they are doing better than Donald Rumsfeld.

I think we are after Iraqi oil, and all this moralistic palaver is just whitewash for an act of common thievery. The collective nature of the caper dissipates the guilt, and the sheer number of people who concoct and believe the phony myth that justifies our piracy creates a consensus that passes for correctness. What hokum. We are murderers and thieves.

If criticism of the Cheney-Bush approach to foreign policy is the equivalent of sniping from the sidelines, God help us. It is incomprehensible that the guy who delivers your mail is required to pass a civil service exam, but the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s biggest superpower isn’t required to name six foreign heads of state. A litter of swine has a better vision for the future of the world than these lunatics. It is one thing to say that solving any given diplomatic dilemma requires more information than most of us possess, but the Machiavellian-Orwellian weltanschauung they embrace isn’t that difficult to understand. My worst fear is that my ethically bludgeoned, scandal-weary, self-obsessed, beat-up, passive, hedonistic, xenophobic, chronically uneducated countrymen will abdicate their vision of the American agenda to such paranoid flies. The Golden Rule (which we agree has more to do with being smart than being “nice”) may exist among elephants, but it does not exist in the Bush administration.

The time has come, the current reasoning would seem to be, for the Pax Americana to assert itself for the betterment of all the world. It could be accomplished economically in most places, except for the Islamic countries. Resistance to our culture is so adamant in those regions that, against all our Jeffersonian principles, it has been deemed necessary to abandon the moral high ground and simply suppress them militarily. But mark my words, there will be a dimension to this that soldiers are not smart enough to take into account. Victors are given to hubris and decadence (Trent Lott) while the vanquished become energized and creative (Mohamed Atta). Islam has been annihilated militarily before (as has Christianity and any number of Chinese dynasties) and yet come back to reclaim the culture in the sleepy petri dish of Pax Whatever. Even on the level of familiar physical battlegrounds, I don’t know what makes us think we can keep track of every speck of plutonium on earth when we can’t keep an ounce of Mexican pot from finding its way into the hands of any high school kid who wants it. If there is a law of retribution and animosity as firm as the law of supply and demand, one must wonder whether our strategists are completely sane.

*****

Scatterbrained though it may be, I do believe that there is some consistency in the general muddle of my thinking. I’ve never been an empiricist. I’m as baffled by the claims of materialism that the sensory world constitutes a default reality from which departures are mere flights of fancy, as your people are appalled by the “escapist” excesses of undisciplined speculation. I’m duly attentive to the observations of modern physics. Mother nature is a very strange lady indeed, and “keeping in mind my place in nature” does not plant me on terra firma by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it require of me the view that human rationality has no creative role in the most objective representations of the world. Perhaps the “nature” you were referring to was that 200 year riff of Newtonian thinking from which we emerged early in the last century (apples possessing mass and inertia, falling through absolute time and space onto the heads of rigorous scientists.)

Heidegger’s possibly meaningless question is indeed the entrance to philosophy. It is easy, H points out early on, to miss the spot to which the question attempts to direct our view (why is there something rather than not?), and therefore to decline, essentially, to really ask it. Merely to point out that the existence of a thing adds nothing to its definition is not sufficient to establish the futility of our contemplation of being. The narrow scope of our probing into the mechanics of the material world is undoubtedly enveloped by broader or more inclusive realities, unsuspected or undiscoverable by the limited tools and mindset of science. To become dismissive of the inquiry itself into the ground of existence is simply to refuse philosophy, and, in my view, to decline a proper cognizance of the metaphysical situation in which we are surely enveloped. Space-time, for example, at an extreme of the scientific purview bordering perilously on metaphysical speculation, is both unobservable in itself and indispensable to anything taking place at all. The inevitable inclusion, by plodding scientists, of the observer (us) into the nature of our “objects” of study further confuses the issue and casts into doubt whether nature is actually a gadget of some kind sitting out there on the table waiting for us to come to it and figure it out, or something more like a psycho-physical hallucination. To encounter a proper wonderment and dread at the sheer fact and creative power of our own witness does tend to initiate a life of sophomoric incontinence, a lamentable condition, I agree, and preferable only to its alternative.

Who are these scientists, after all? Cutting-edge theoretical scientists are crazy as hell and up to their noses in unanswered philosophical questions as they report to us the annihilation of common sense required to make our observations consistent and calculable. But as a general rule scientists have to be careful of becoming visionaries, lest they lose their connection to experiment and verification. They are pretty smart people, but they are only one particular kind of people. Get out your high school yearbook, and look at the picture titled: Science Club. Those are the scientists. Now look at the rest of us.

The philosophies of skepticism hazard nothing, but simply debunk everything offered by way of explanation for the cosmos in which we find ourselves by the perception and imagination of curious, mystified, metaphysically engaged people. You appear to find solid ground in the late 19th century theory of evolution, an explanation for morphological diversity with which I have no argument. The theory seems basically sound to me, and it is probably true that much of the physical world is analogous to machinery (our invention, it should be noted). The study of natural adaptation, the observation of how biological forms appear in history and vanish from history, is an illuminating area of discovery, inasmuch as nearly everything we look at (with the exception of the Bush administration) tends to be intelligible and make sense, but this kind of thought is not philosophical or religious thought. It is threatening only to inbred South Carolina Baptists for whom there is only one plane of discussion and anything non-biblical is a work of Satan. To think that Darwinian thinking impacts other, vastly more sophisticated world views is possible only given - what is it called? - the illusion of central position. The preposterous claim that the nice template which orders your world exists to the exclusion of all others. My grandfather was of the opinion that anybody who had read Darwin and was still able to entertain religious ideas had simply failed to understand Darwin. Neo-Darwinism is not incorrect or uninteresting, just a limited reductionism which accepts as conclusive the observation that, lacking any kind of entelechy, mutational glitches and natural selection can account for an optimal complementariety between morphology and the environment (including the complexification which embraces Mozart and the preposterous fact that life has figured out its own DNA, while ignoring the observation that light travels backwards in time.) Many of its adherents are “heretical” in Father Joe’s definition - intolerant zealots who will not concede that a complete picture of the world requires that it be seen from many different angles. (It is Catholic teaching, apparently, that the great heresies dogmatized particular approaches to the truth to the exclusion of others, while the Church, in her universality, was flexible enough to embrace them all.) (I know it’s a stretch, but there you go. It was not because they were incorrect that we set them on fire, but because they were not liberal and broad-minded.) Monoplanar creationists and monoplanar evolutionists deserve each other.

Evolution takes as “given” the presence not only of “something”, but of something already ordered and organized by the “Laws of Physics”, imbued with the permissions of mathematics, possessed of inertia, strong force, polarization, the pull of gravitation, an extremely bizarre cosmology of physical possibilities and constraints standing in the greatest need of explanation prior to discussion of any big bang or distinguishable elements dispersed in space-time. If you want to speak of the origin of the species you have to get into crackpots like Teilhard de Chardin, who take it all the way back to the evolution of crystals and heavy molecules. No doubt natural selection occurs at the chemical level, and I would admit that you have to be careful imputing intentionality to a sequence of events that happens to result in one of an infinity of “best possible worlds,” notably the unselfish bacteria (with whom we will someday be reunited) who spent countless billions of years producing all this wonderful oxygen for us to breathe.

I’ll waste a God joke on you:

A scientist is arguing with God. He says: We don’t need you any more. Today we have discovered the secrets of life, and we can do for ourselves all the things we used to credit to you. We can make our own viruses in the laboratory. We’ve developed techniques of cloning and gene-splicing that allow us to create new kinds of living things. We now have a complete list of human genomes. We’re in control of our own evolution. We can engineer human beings from scratch without any celestial assistance.
God says: I don’t think you can. Let’s see you do it.
So the scientists says: Okay, you’re on. And he reaches down and picks up a handful of dirt...
God says: Hold it. You gotta use your own dirt.

*****

Philosophy, to my knowledge, does not aspire to produce anything beneficial to mankind, any more than theoretical physics is obligated to make our lives easier. Dow Chemical, with whom you may have us confused, professed practical goals of that kind - better things for better living? They produced some cleaning compounds, and various noxious jellies (napalm, silicone breast implants.) Philosophy is here to make our lives profoundly uncomfortable, and to lead us to die in neurotic bewilderment. The smug philosophers of whom you speak must be philosophy professors.

You could be wrong? There is absolutely no doubt that you are wrong! If my sophomoric faith clings to any shred of hope in this world it is the belief in the all pervading supremacy of human ignorance. Before our crosseyed stare the truth of the world heads for the woodwork like cockroaches. This applies to the bearers of bad news as well as to the rest of us. Where there is ignorance there is hope.

Don’t you think that all sane people realize they could be wrong? Could it be that all speculative thinkers are devoured by hubris? With the exception of the apostles, we universally regard people who claim noetic certainty as lunatics. We should wear nametags, or hand out cards perhaps, disclosing our I.Q., a list of scholarly societies, highest grade completed and a psychological profile quantifying our tendency to exaggerate and our need to impress others by memorizing passages from books we have not read, followed by a short declaration that we have never been visited by light-giving Andromedans or the Virgin Mary. How often should we inject the disclaimer that we don’t know what we’re talking about? Should we all just sit down because human thought has been deemed susceptible to error? Methinks not. I say we speak for the same reason we piss, because we have a hole to do it through.

If you’re going to hazard an idea, you might as well speak with conviction, just as a matter of style. The legions of postmodernist buzzards out there promoting the futility of knowledge don’t need any special assist from me. Like scientists, philosophers have nothing going for them but an area of consistency, a template which explains many things. Small clearings in the darkness. It was a cleric who observed that “we cannot order our thoughts by reason of darkness,” so somebody in the “God crowd” agrees with you. I don’t personally believe we are complete idiots. Our thoughts conform to our wiring, and our wiring conforms to reality. So we should by all means think.

If the creative imagination is as fallible as you would suppose, it is also not disconnected from the truth. Of the relation between nature and thought, Einstein (whom I have not read) said (I quote): “Science is an attempt to bring the chaotic diversity of our sensory experience in correspondence with a certain unified system of thinking.” So certainly he believed in thinking (when not wildly at odds with observed data), but how does he allow for legitimate thought, given that shared semantics is certain to result in a unified system of error? The answer is, as you say, that our ideation can not be other than a consequence of our own construction. Einstein loved that notion - that the arithmetic on his blackboard (when correct) and the chain reaction of “nature’s building blocks” at Los Alamos were connected in reality - that the two were expressions of a single calculus. From a “wad of interconnected neurons,” a bit of reasoning steps out of my head and contrives to set off a chain reaction among hypothetical objects too little to see, blowing Nagasaki off the map. It’s all one brew. Possibly there exist escapist individuals who cook up fairytale kingdoms in order to avoid the brutal realities of the world which appears before their eyes. I can’t speak for them. I don’t care about ghosts or flying saucers or the heaven of the Mormons. Spirituality is the vision that there are no dense things. Its “realm” is not elsewhere.

I’ll bet that the jury is still out on whether science is “plodding slowly toward the truth.” It would ne nice to think we’re getting there, but where we’re supposed to be getting to keeps shifting out from under us. Science today has given up on the idea of discovering what things actually are. (Neils Bohr sez “Physics is not about how the world is, it is about what we can say about the world.) They don’t know whether light is waves or particles, and they don’t care. They long ago acknowledged that electrons are conceptual models, diagrammatic aids for the production of mathematical descriptions which don’t contradict our observations and which predict the probabilities of “events.” Time (including 1937) is now a function of velocity, which has something to do with light, which is a total bafflement to everybody. The whole paradigm has shifted from a clockwork universe to something more like roulette. The senses of which Einstein speaks have suffered a diminishing role in modern science. Matter - chunks of stuff which are dense and palpable only to creatures of our general size, becomes ultimately observable as blips from our laboratory equipment which seem to obey the rules of arithmetic, or probabilities, or perhaps music. There is nothing “down to earth” about the configuration into which nature defaults when you approach her purely with the eyes of science. Without any inventive speculation on my part, she begins to look like a piece of logic made temporarily visible to the senses by means of magic goggles. A Pythagorean numerology, if you will, held in thought and witnessed by consciousness (me). The matter which provides loci for the eventfulness we measure is invoked because our minds require that the photons counted by our photomultipliers be actual things called photons, whereas I think such fictions could be subtracted from the picture, like the ether. The periodic table is nothing more than physicists counting to 100.

We are not, perhaps, aiming at a congress of minds to produce a final manifesto, a theory of everything. If that is the point of our efforts, nobody is making much progress. Who ever said that the fulfillment of our curiosity is a final state and not a transitory one, or that it should find its promised land like a kind of corral at the end of the cattle drive rather than accessible all along the way, at random moments in history when a bit of religion or science or art or mathematics lets some poor bloke peek through the blinds and have himself a little epiphany? In any case, if science is constrained to plod through the generations until its theoretical dung ball has resolved all contradictions and encompassed all possible phenomena, philosophy is not to be demeaned for having no such constraints. Philosophy is about the meaning of human life, and whereas it is obligated to be attentive to and consistent with the current facts of science, it is proper enough for philosophers to go ahead and draw their conclusions within their lifetimes. It is also proper for them to go beyond what is experimental and verifiable, when such areas are subject to the rules of good reasoning and don’t wander off into absolute lunacy. (Even when this happens, I suppose, one is still in a perfectly acceptable zone of science fiction or bona-fide schizophrenia.) It should be remembered that the people who cook up the initial, unproven theories of science are no less nuts.

Philosophies aren’t doilies or arbitrary capriccios. I’d say say they are nearly on a par with scientific theories where consistency is concerned. As in science, bad thinking is quickly spotted and discredited. Likewise, among legitimate points of view, both philosophy and science seem to divide themselves into warring camps based less on disputes over empirical evidence than on differing conceptual assumptions, competing paradigms and varying predispositions to want things to come out one way or another. Without conceding too much to Wittgenstein I’d say that philosophers have a bigger problem with language and the communication of meaning. Western philosophy is the history of one generation missing the point of the preceding generation, and then groping its way back in a new language. We have an enchanted relationship with the truth. We circle it from every possible direction. As with science, you can go off on a tangent if you wish, but if you depart too far or too quickly from the body of consensual knowledge you will become nonsensical and irrelevant. Philosophy is not poetry. It is as self-criticizing as science (although Richard Feynman admits that hypothetical models in physics are more apt to pass the test of experimental verification if they possess beauty as theories.) You can’t just speculate any fool thing you want. You have to make sense.

*****

I feel that I am in the realm of nonsense when I speak of things as having no underpinnings, or when I reduce the complex realities of nature to some term which I imagine to be fully explicated as given and not consequent to things unknown. To regard the existence of intelligent life as a “process”, invoking strict materialism, Newtonian space and sequential time, embodying the blind intention of a billiard shot, renders its sequelae (brains, thoughts, philosophies) likewise idiotic. With what herculean effort do we demystify such a grand event as the luminous unfolding of reflective consciousness? What relentless denial does it take to reduce to molecular connectivity and structural mechanics the rationality which is the very source of our own skepticism? The thinking of physicists goes fuzzy when it comes to accounting for neural complexity and the cascade of cognitive activity it allows, in terms of the brute facts of mass, inertia, strong force, weak force, interference, polarization, the Lorenz contraction. Yet here we are, “rather than not”, standing impossibly on these “laws of physics” as we would stand on the 37th floor of a building, declaring that it is not meaningful to discuss the necessity for floors 1-36, or to entertain nonsense about the world resting on the back of a turtle. On one hand it is nonsense to speak of God or hypostatic turtles, since we can have no idea what we are talking about. On the other hand we hardly dare bestow upon the mere fact that we have names for our mysteries the status of knowledge, whether in so doing we chalk them up to Almighty God or the Eternal Laws of Physics. My standing offer to the natural scientist is exactly reciprocal to his demand to see the ghost in the machine. I’ll believe in matter when you can show me a chunk of it that doesn’t disappear under simple magnification. Something intelligible is happening, so there’s your ghost. I don’t see the need to imagine any machine.

The comic book superstitions of popular religion - which would include the content of nearly all homilies, kitchen samplers and bumper stickers, Readers Digest testimonials and papal encyclicals - sounds as silly to my ears as to yours. My Baptist colleague thinks of God as a celestial King Arthur - his judge, co-pilot, best friend and Jiminy Cricket. He never gets tired of telling me about God and what He is like and how He feels about us and why He does the things He does. Doug and God walk together, and God lets Doug call Him Skippy. Clearly this is pretty silly. But like all popular myth, there is a kernel of truth buried somewhere under the nonsense. In this case it would be the bond of similarity to our originating blueprint (including the fact that we are people), albeit explicated by minds more acclimated to television than to theology. There are universal human intuitions about these things, and I think it is ungracious not to allow the dumbest Oklahoma housewife to represent them to herself via whatever menagerie of celestial characters is suited to her experience and level of sophistication.

Without having any idea what I’m saying, I can see where good old God might be more a person than a process. Suppose we were to agree that the word “God” would be admissible only if defined as a label for “the totality of what we do not know.” God will be our temporary cop-out, our name for the mysteries not yet illumined by science, and when science has answered all the questions, God will disappear. Okay? It would then be fair to say that, since the least accessible phenomena are those pertaining to the origin and ontological ground of ourselves, those things we can’t behold or comprehend, and since we experience ourselves and one another as somebodies (persons) the major mystery of personality resides within what we have agreed to call God. Now we have a situation in which my definition is contained within some convenience, not itself a person, but only the cognitive darkness of the unknown. Without presuming to peer in there and say anything about it, I note that I, a person, am explicated there. (Moore’s version of the ontological argument - as bogus as Anselm’s.)

Experience does not show us anything not sired by something else. To look at our own inventions, we have steam shovels because we have arms. We have telephones because we have nerves. We have computers because we have brains. We produce these things because we intend them and bring them into being as extensions of our bodies. The idea of God (and God as a person) can be approached by any scientific mind willing to include our reflective, cognitive selves among the natural things requiring explanation and asking whether for such things to come to be must not have required similar exemplars. Do these things just bubble up from the initial possibilities of quantum electrodynamics? Can we give a full accounting for Leggo ferris wheels simply by showing how Leggos fit together?

We like to think that the world is a machine because we understand machines and we thus permit ourselves to believe that the world can be understood in the language of machinery. To that limited extent, I believe it can. But even the metaphor of a mechanical contraption or a software program requires an engineer, without which you are back at a catalog of parts.

We entertain within ourselves a dizzying sublimity which is not itself reducible to the catenation of interconnected neurons that allows us to think, any more than a violin (an extremely simple device) explains the music which comes from it, or a computer (a simple maze of switches) accounts for the content of the internet. I won’t dispute your “no brain, no thought,” rule. I will dispute that we are exhaustively defined by our brains or our automobiles. We use these devices to the extent that they are functional and capable of presenting us into the mode of activity we call the world. Somebody lives inside these machines, not hypothetical ghosts, but our nearest and most palpable reality, ourselves. If your patients are reducible to their schizophrenia, their dysfunctional machinery, if they are not persons afflicted with schizophrenia, why do you bother to treat them? If they are an assembly of parts, the state of their functions and dysfunctions, why not toss them back into the recycling bin?

Given the failure of science to account for the human consciousness that is its own daddy, we are justified in going beyond the paradigm of colliding billiard balls and entertaining the idea that the landscape from which we emerge might as well be spiritual for all that we could intend by the current idea of materiality. We don’t have to know what we mean by that. The word (name) “God” indicates, minimally, the direction of our unknowable ground. When we (non-Baptists) use the word we certainly don’t mean to assert that anything is illuminated or explained thereby. Physicists bandy about “God” or “Mother Nature” in a frequently humorous and meaningful way simply to refer to the fact that the matrix in which we tunnel remains, perhaps permanently, beyond our understanding. That things are produced and sustained from such a direction is a primary intuition, not obvious to all minds, not critical to the examination or interpretation of empirical nature. Some simply hold that the world, prior to being a spatio-temporal event, is an intelligible event which, like everything in it, comes to be, rather than not. It is not an abdication of science, but an acknowledgement that the purview of science is limited to the how of things, not the why, whence or whither.

Always in Barbourish harmony with the theme of the hour, the tv is telling me the story of Galileo, the bold natural scientist, and the wicked Church which persecuted him and stifled his discoveries. It is a wearisome tale. The Church, having conflated the heaven of astronomers with the spheres of Garforius, feels itself contradicted by Galileo.

But it is worth noting that Galileo, Inquisition notwithstanding, remained a Catholic, having discovered the language of mathematics, a “thing” not seen or studied in nature, but by which the things of nature are seen and studied. It was a kind of thinking which he considered to be analogous to the thinking of good old God, understood purely as the source of the world, since it is by a cooperation of mathematics and the elemental particulates (if such there be) that the world comes to be configured as we behold it. Beyond being a way of making sense of the world, the intelligible “stuff” of arithmetic appears to be integral to nature itself, both a component of its objective possibility and a mode of our subjective apprehension of it.

Math is an area which to some degree we share in common with the creative agency (natural or not) that produces the things we behold. As something which is intimately bound into our thinking, the rules of calculus constitute the constraining rules of combination by which the laws of physics are allowed any result. It does not put the mystery to rest to say that man’s thinking brain derives its structure from the numerological configuration of material nature, since neither our bodies nor mother nature’s get to be there until you have numbers. Disembodied numbers, the scandalous intelligible world, without which not even primordial ooze possesses enough coherence to occupy space.

This is all that I (and the thinkers I admire) mean by “God”: anything encountered in the direction from which things (including ourselves) emerge. It isn’t a claim to transcendent knowledge. It is simply a way of speaking that admits of such a direction. It is an assertion that one is not exclusively an empiricist. Taking leave of natural science is bound to appear obfuscatory to one committed to the completeness of natural science. (I begin to accuse Richard Feynman of nonsense the minute I’m no longer able to understand him. But in the cold light of morning I can’t seriously believe he is a fake.)

If you believe that the world requires no source, that there are no purely intelligible realities, or that for the universe to be something does not require more juju than for it to be nothing, then all religious talk is automatically nonsense. When we stand at the point of Heidegger’s question, all of us presumably disinclined to spend our lives ensconced in vain fantasies, we choose the world in which we are going to live and the unsubstantiated realities of which we will speak. We will forever look across a threshold at fools, and they will look back at us, each of us standing in our own seamless geometries. You think the other guys are storytellers, in denial of their mortality. They think you are naive and gullible, convinced that reality defaults to the appearances reported by your cognitive-sensory apparatus. You await some tangible product from their philosophizing and their idle meditations on being and nothingness and form and substance. They await your blackboard presentations defending the sufficiency of the human mind to explain why light behaves differently when we are watching than when we aren’t, or why the Laws of Physics operate uniformly at all times and for all parts of space, but not for different magnitudes, or the impact of the discovery that time is a function of velocity on the meaning of such phrases as “before you are born” and “after you die,” or how it is that dead matter knows what it is supposed to do.

As you must have suspected, I just finished plowing my brain through a short Feynman essay: “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.” It is about the same length as your gift of many years ago - Jay Haley’s “Strategies of Psychotherapy”, a wakeup call for people under the illusion that the Freudian landscape is the default reality for the practical treatment of mental illness. Feynman, while enumerating what ambitions physics needs to abandon in order to “understand” and predict observed nature, makes a similar case with regard to the landscape of objective science as the default reality for those who caution us to keep our “place in nature” in mind when inclined to go off on conceptual tangents. Please read this and send me a book report on the subject: “What Is Our Place In Nature?” (Feynmann, incidentally, shares your opinion of philosophers.)

If the world can now be described only in the language of mathematical probabilities and conceptual models, how can it be said that the cosmos of Heisenberg is any less a human concoction than that of Pius XII? That chimeras abound in all areas of human thought leads me to regard human thought itself as the touchstone of knowledge. It doesn’t comprehend the world. It doesn’t make the world better. It makes the world period, and projects it before our eyes as the tantalizing mix of verity and hallucination we in fact behold. I have always suspected that the universe is actually a Kantian peep show about 4 1/2 feet in diameter.

*****

George Will came on my television set the other day with the oddest diatribe against those Jung aficionados - the “educated elite.” He had in hand hard facts, to wit, that up to 95% of the faculty of major universities in this country were political liberals. Why was he telling me this, I wondered? Why would he concede that educated people overwhelmingly shun political conservatism? This conclusion, it turned out, had never even occurred to him. It was, he maintained, proof positive of a liberal bias in university hiring practices. The smoking gun, in his view.

We should not dismiss the educated elite. They are educated. They think about things instead of watching ball games. There is a difference between Jung and nonsense. Freud’s account of the human mind is no less outlandish. Because of their historical proximity, their psychological paradigms are similar, but their spiritual orientations are poles apart. A peculiar split between pragmatic and transcendental priorities cuts across all lines of intelligence and scholarship. No degree of scientific or philosophic sophistication automatically confers any insight into the “meaning of it all.” We are all over the board with the issue of whether the world gets here by itself, or is produced by another agency. Or whether it is purposeful or a kind of energizer bunny run amuck. Or whether it matters. We have smart people and idiots on both sides of the question.

Freud, the “bearer of discouraging news?” An atheist Messiah, come into our midst to let us know there is no God? Give me a minute to picture this. The Pope, announcing that God has not yet given us the go-ahead for birth control, is a bearer of discouraging news. Freud, who received his oedipal explanation for human sado-masochism from goodness-knows-what unimpeachable oracle, is bearing no news. He is reporting no clinical conclusion from his extensive research into the sexual/infantile/anthropological flotsam from which our personalities were supposed to have congealed. It has been many years since I read The Future of an Illusion, so I may recall it incorrectly. It seems to me he did for religion what Feuerbach did for Hegel, i.e. flattened it into psychology. To pathologize the totality of religious ideation as a palliative for our primitive appetites and fears is indeed a terribly obvious, almost flippant way to explain all that cognition. Since the fears do exist, it is a compelling argument that we’re just a bunch of scaredy cats. Hard to believe, though, that in all those millennia it only just now occurred to us.

Feynmann does something similar with the whole of physics in this little book. I’ll see if I can find it. (Ann probably has the book, but I’ll send it to you anyway, for your Christmas present.) Here it is, back on page 120, long after he has ditched me in the calculus of probabilities and “amplitudes” in subatomic particle behavior. Understand, this guy is a respectable Nobel Prize winning physicist, not some glib hippie trying to snow us with slithy toves and wu-li masters:

Underneath so many of the phenomena we see every day are only three basic actions: one is described by the simple coupling number, j; the other two by functions - P(A to B) and E(A to B) - both of which are closely related. That’s all there is to it, and from it all the rest of the laws of physics come.

When he (or Freud) says “That’s all there is to it,” does that mean all the rest is chopped liver? Mother Nature creates things with simple beginnings and complex finales. That the idea of the tree is embodied in the seed tells me only that the seed is not all that simple or all that primitive. Mindless growth, based not on an idea or blueprint inserted from “elsewhere,” but merely given a push- start from a set of originating rules, results in fractals, cancers, open-ended Boolean algebras and the like - semi-intelligible, quasi-organic constructions set into motion like cars without drivers, without any goals.

Whereas we have to acknowledge that complexity proceeds from simplicity, I think we are in error when we try to reduce one to the other. Perhaps we do this to rest our brains from the nagging likelihood that there is a great deal more going on than is to be seen in Nature perceived at her simplest moments. All of philosophy boiled down to the fear of death? Some cephalized worm crawls up on the beach and develops a horror at the possibility of non-existence? Freud will have to do better than that to drain this thing of its mystery.

The significance of his contribution to human knowledge has been duly noted, and will no doubt constitute a substantial footnote to the final explanation for all eventfulness. But his reluctance to look for meaning in cognitive areas outside his own clinical turf seems more to define his limitations. While he was perfectly entitled to write it, Future of an Illusion was outside his area of expertise. If he had taken the opportunity to get drunk with Karl Jung more often he’d have more to say on the subject of religion.

*****

Moving along to morality...

Is every impulse of selflessness and solicitude due to a form of self interest? Does it all boil down to the self- preservation of the individual? What about soldiers, mothers, ants, hospice workers, animal shelter volunteers? You are right that goodness has nothing to do with Sunday school or any church, that it is a fact of nature. Your dog, like a perfect Christian, would die for you. There’s nothing in it for him. It’s hard-wired into his brain. At the level of nature, we don’t have to imbue love with any supernatural attributes. It’s the alternative to belligerence. In math you combine and you disjoin. In nature you hold together and you make war.

I attribute my nearly total ignorance of history to the fact that I was afraid to sign up for any high school class taught by somebody named Battershell. As I (dimly) understand it, in 1840 there began to occur a reaction against Hegelian rationalism whereby man came to view himself less as a fallen angel and more as a natural creature - a psychological basket case for Feuerbach, or a work unit cogged into some ruthless economic process for Marx. These guys were not simply content to forego theology and transcendentalism, they hated it and blamed it for our inability to accept our humanity and make this world into the Promised Land. An unhappy corollary of abandoning the idea of our participation in divinity was that we were forced to define ourselves simply as participants in natural processes - i.e. as machines, since nature would have been, at that time, a giant Newtonian clock. This was confirmed by Darwin and Freud, and most of all by the Industrial Revolution and Henry Ford who discovered that human beings actually were machines, and could be plugged into assembly lines and used to manufacture textiles and kitchen appliances. Finally, something of redeeming benefit to mankind! Sweatshops! Robber barons! Reeking factories! Gatling guns! Planes & bombs! WWI! WWII! Maquiladoras! You can’t blame the 20th century on God. God died in the 19th century. The 20th century was God-free!

I’ll hazard to disagree with your assessment of the track record of the Church (including, I suppose, much Protestant rabble). The first Portuguese, Islamic and British business people to take an interest in Nigeria were not Christians but capitalists, who methodically plundered the country for gold, ivory and plantation slaves. These secular attentions were followed by an influx of missionaries, who came from Alsace and Ireland to set up schools, missions and hospitals. Nigerians for the most part don’t care much for the British, who did more harm than good for those under their protectorship. But the Catholics are regarded as saints, having brought the first health care or education they had ever known, and having done so purely out of brotherly love with no recompense but the certainty of malaria and an early death. Their gravestones, says Father Joe, are all over the countryside, and their memory is much revered.

Today, when an African famine occurs due to a conflict between political assholes slugging it out over some piece of blighted turf, prior to any United Nations relief effort or any humanitarian stirrings here in good old UncleSamville, established missions of the Holy Roman Catholic Church seem to be there in place, handing out food and medicine. We tend to magnify the crusades, the inquisitions and the like, to make the Church appear monstrous (which indeed it was), but perversions are always monstrous. It is we who are monstrous, in the poor use of our institutions. Right this very minute, in fairly unequivocal language, the Pope is telling our countrymen that to kill 250,000 Iraqis because George Bush is mad at Saddam Hussein, is monstrous. Other people (right wing gomers, retired soldiers, the Baptists (alone among churches), most newspapers, your whole government) are telling us it is not monstrous. With glaring exceptions, the Church (which claims to have something to do with God) has almost always advocated for peace, decency and diplomacy, while political powers and their minions have tended to go more with robbery and butchery. (I’m talking to a historian here, so I’d better admit I could be wrong about that.) The Church is mandated to see all men as brothers, whereas Americans are more easily convinced that Iraqis are devils. Granting the inevitable corruption that infests all human organizations, I’ll bet the religious-minded have a better track record, by virtue of their unnoteworthy daily attention to the welfare (and orthodoxy) of people across the centuries, than any competitors. This vast ministry goes, I believe, largely unnoticed compared to the political posturing and bland pronouncements of Popes and Cardinals. For every pedophile that hits the front page, countless hundreds of clergy are attending to their vocations, running orphan homes, tending the sick and dying, feeding hungry people, teaching school, trying to get people to love one another, as their directives and their inner decency dictate. You can question their intelligence or their motives or their sanity, but they are out there nevertheless doing the good deeds while you and I sit home on our fat asses. (Three medical missionaries, for example,were killed a few hours ago at some backwash Baptist hospital in Yemen.) By and large, plumbers can’t claim that level of humanitarianism, or scientists either.

I’m not as critical of the Church, obviously, as I have been in the past, but I’m not to the point where I think it is the source and dispensary of human goodness. Father Joe has to believe this, at some doctrinal level, since for the faithful the Church is the “body of Christ”, source of all goodness. I haven’t quite sorted through all that yet, but even for Christians the idea certainly flies in the face of experience. As you say, for many in the God crowd the magic seems not to be working, and many deplorable atheists such as yourself are very nice people indeed. As proximal sources of intelligence and virtue and love, I favor individuals over collectives. So the idea of popping into church to get yourself some virtue is of course a superstition. What is admirable about the institution is that its declared purpose is to advocate and implement a certain view of the betterment of mankind - a not-so-bad view in which we are all fed and clothed and healthy and educated (and Catholic.) We are exhorted to respect life. We are asked to give up war and capital punishment and rape and torture and birth control, to the annoyance of both liberals and conservatives. Money is properly funneled from the rich to the poor (here in America we are fleeced mercilessly) and people who are inclined to do good for their fellow man can sign up and get sent to fly-infested leper colonies in the most needful pestholes of the third world. It is more difficult to find fault with an institution that takes seriously the effort to promulgate goodness and the good impulses of its membership, than with banks and brokerage firms and militias that stifle goodness and encourage monopoly and greed and brutality.

*****

To speak to the question of the logical absurdity of sitting down with your ancestors:

Several things must turn out to be true for your ’simple biological fact of death’ to have authoritative meaning. It must be established that the world is constituted materially (a passive substrate), that all forms and morphologies are pushed into existence by the sheer structural predisposition for particles or units of matter to catenate into organic structures, given perhaps some primordial jolt of force to get things moving, without the agency of blueprints, entelechies or supravening or indwelling intelligence of any kind. Clusters of elements come together, do a little song and dance, succumb to entropy and that is that. Consciousness and all its contents is nothing more than neural fizz. Philosophic and religious notions of immortality are nothing more than the inertial imperative of space debris translated into a complexified, reflective anomaly of some kind that “believes” it ought to have unlimited continuity. History is objectively real and probably without beginning or end, and the arrow of time is unidirectional. People, selves, souls are poetic constructions. The sublimities of the human mind are simply what happens when you mix amino acids with water and let them sit in the sun for a couple of billion years. Unlike matter and energy, of which the known universe is said to be comprised, persons do not enjoy protection from utter disappearance, as do carbohydrates, which can neither be created nor destroyed. Noel’s fingernails will go on to participate in the pageant of history, while their owner, Noel himself, having been nothing more than a wrinkle in matter, will disappear like a deleted phone message. Note that, as with the God crowd, you have proposed many articles of faith, which will require rigorous apologia and detailed encyclicals.

The topic itself of “Life after death” is already too speculative for me. It presupposes that we know what death is, beyond a discontinuance of life. (Discontinuance of life means no more life, so there’s your answer already.) Or that we know what life is - a self-sustaining, self-replicating metabolic process? The conscious presence of a self to itself? Being there, something rather than nothing? And the tricky notion of “after” that assumes time to be a sort of parade of things happening independently of our experience, with 1937 back behind us and 2050 up ahead. Life after death, as it stands, is a question that doesn’t make sense. I nearly went crazy thinking about time one time, and I’m going to have to think about it some more because I haven’t quite got it. The last vivid thought I had about time was that the self and the present were identical, which meant that we are complicit in time, or put more strangely, the time in which we are supposed to be dead can’t be there without us.

Oh yes, ancestors. I know how you feel about idle speculation, so I only want to open up the possibility or non-absurdity of it, and not whether I think you will someday do it. As an evolutionist, you have no problem with the emergence and separation of succeeding generations of both individuals and species. Seen as a tree structure in time, two or more differentiated individuals are joined to a single ancestor earlier on. Only our inability to break out of the standing wave that moves us through history (I don’t, by the way, think that is the correct picture) prevents us from beholding events displayed in time as we see this diagram, from end to end at once, as we normally see space. It is not absurd but only at odds with experience that we might proceed from twigs into trunks. All it would take to sit you down with your great grandpa would be to arrest or remove the arrow of time, so that you aren’t being scanned sequentially through temporal events any more, and can be “present” to the entire space of your history instead of just a slice. When we drive through Chicago, Chicago doesn’t pass away, so what makes us think that as we live our lives our lives pass away? There is nothing in Minkowski’s vector diagram of space-time that says elapsed moments are irretrievable. It’s just something that never happens to live people. Logically, remergence and rejoining and reunification are no more absurd than divergence and separation and differentiation. If death stops the arrow, then (except for being dead) there is no reason for us not to rejoin our ancestors, all the way back to Abraham’s scrotum and beyond. It’s hard to tell what that might be like, or why it would be desirable. But it is not ridiculous or inconceivable or even much at odds with science. We should get psychologically prepared for it, because it might happen to us against our will. Death could be nothing more than time’s arrow redirecting, putting us into rewind, or vanishing altogether, so that we escape at last from our moving slit into a proper view of things, leaving our inertial bodies to fall into their breakfast food.


Ten topics to liven up your party without introducing God into the discussion:

1. Diesel Mechanics
2. Database Management
3. Football
4. Tax Tips for Seniors
5. Civil War Cannon Positions
6. Insect Control
7. Smelter Particulate Analysis
8. Warehouse Inventory Techniques
9. Flap Surgery
10. Vibratory Metal Fatigue



Happy New Year,

Moore

*****

1-1-03

Moore:

Was checking my email (bullied into this more than is my wont due to recent and growing emergence of lots of "spam" I haven't as yet figured out how to get rid of) and found your essay or polemic (didn't say diatribe, did I?) on politics and esp. our cosmologies, sloppily entitled. Whew! The hour is late and I need to read it a few times to get the essence; hopefully a response soon. I will bear in mind that Cicero is credited with saying that "If I had more time I would speak to you more briefly".

As we ponder, among other things, time (when do we think about its passage more than this time of year?), let me point out that l937 was not such a bad year: the Great Depression was winding down, World War 2 had not yet started, Hitler hadn't annexed too many countries or gassed too many people yet, and somehow my Dad was able to afford a new Packard, which ran, after a fashion, until l953. Rather than celebrate 2003, let us mourn the passing of 2002, the year we didn't die, the year nothing really rotten happened to this country (which I do cherish, warts and all), and the year I didn't lose any more beloved friends.

Happy New Year, Moore!

nlh