Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Living in the Penumbra Between Time and History

Does man have a right to the truth? Or Truth rather? If so, then they -- you know who they are -- have no right to deprive man of it. In the name of what is it permissible to deny truth? I mean, besides liberalism?

Now, if we have a right to freedom, then we have a right to truth, since the one is inconceivable in the absence of the other. No wonder the two covary everywhere and everywhen, e.g., the self-evident TRUTH that human beings are created in LIBERTY. Freedom without truth is nihilism, while truth without the freedom to discover it is academia.

Note also the term linking the two: created. This speaks to an unbreakable metaphysical triangle, because both truth and liberty imply creation, being that they can have no natural explanation; each is the very essence of transcendence. Conversely, if freedom and truth are real, then we are created -- whatever that means -- and not a random accident.

This is exactly -- even if implicitly -- what the Church was worried about in the Galileo affair: scientific theories come and go, but the truth to which man is entitled does not and cannot change, unless one redefines truth to mean mere scientific truth, which is then no truth at all (because it is subject to continuous addition, subtraction, extension, and revision).

Something must transcend science, or there's not even the possibility of science. Either man has science or science has man. If the latter, then scientific objectivity is impossible, because man cannot observe the phenomena from an external and disinterested perspective.

I mean, look at this: physicists discover a new particle, and now they have to tear down the whole damn edifice and begin again from the ground up; yesterday the science was settled, today we realize that, er, "we still don't *fully* understand our universe." No. Really?

And physics is easy compared to the complexity and nonlinearity of the earth's climate.

So, what does this mean for all those physicists from the 1930s on who imagined they were living in reality? Turns out they were just living in an imaginary cosmos. But that will always be the case so long as one confuses scientific abstractions with reality, or placeholders with principles, variables with constants.

I was thinking about this yesterday on the drive to work, specifically, about the difference between abstract and concrete historical time. Every educated person has a rough chronograph to organize historical time, e.g., neolithic, paleolithic, ancient, medieval, renaissance, etc. But the more history I read, the more I realize that these abstractions are completely misleading, and basically a cover for ignorance.

Even something as proximate as "World War II" looks quite different if we magnify a small slice of historical time and examine the details. You think you understand something, only to discover that you have simply superimposed a cloud labeled "World War II" over an infinite space.

It seems that many approaches to history resemble the infamous hockey stick of of global warming: examine the details and the stick turns out to be pure fiction; it leads the mind by misleading the mind.

This is one of the recurring themes of Narrative and Freedom, which has basically blown my mind in terms of being able to formulate all of its implications, or reduce them to a manageable swarm. Where to even begin?

Headline you won't be reading, but is nevertheless as true as the one about physics: Obscure Slavic Scholar Proves We Don't Fully Understand History.

I suppose he begins with a trivial truth that nevertheless explodes like a depth charge: that time is open, not closed. But history, in contrast to time, is closed: what happened happened, and that's all there is to it. However, when we write history, we cannot help doing so from the closed perspective, which is fundamentally misleading.

Morson is a literary scholar, not a scientist or historian. Thus, he demonstrates how certain novelists have attempted to depict a more realistic view of time -- much more realistic than any historian can accomplish. In order to do this, the novelist must depict the present as present, not as a mere point inhabiting a closed and linear narrative in the novelist's head. Only in hindsight can we see the narrative, but in the present the future is radically open.

Many times I have watched a movie with the boy, and he will ask why this character had to make that stupid decision, or why this unlikely event happened. The answer is that without the stupid decision or unlikely event, there would be no movie. However, I doubt that any human being, faced with personal calamity, wonders why it happened and thinks to himself, "in order to make the narrative of my life more interesting."

Going back to those vast swaths of time that we cover with names to conceal our ignorance. If this is true of history, how much more true must it be of prehistory -- say, of the 4 billion or so years of prehuman life, or the 9 billion years of prebiological cosmology?

It seems to me, the larger the expanse, the more room for ignorance. If we don't understand World War II, what makes us think we understand something as remote as the "big bang," the emergence of life, or the appearance of human beings? Science can only approach these thingularities in the most abstract manner imaginable, so abstract that they are essentially devoid of content except what the imagination fills in.

Which means that they are essentially myth by another name. And not even good myths. For what is myth, really? I would say that myth operates in the penumbra between prehistory and history, or the known and the unknowable; William Irwin Thompson said something to the effect that at the horizon of history is myth.

Consider Genesis, which addresses all of our most conspicuous existential and ontological edges; it works at the edge of cosmogony, of history, of anthropology, of sexuality, of freedom and responsibility, etc. Please bear in mind that these edges are necessary and inevitable. We will never be rid of them, nor can one be human without thinking about them.

For example, even if physicists totally understood the big bang, it would nevertheless give rise to obvious questions such as "what caused the big bang?" Likewise, even if we knew the precise point that man "entered" history, the period prior to that would still be an ultrabeastly infrahuman dreamspace we'd have to fill with imagination and myth.

So, no matter how long we try to defer it, we eventually confront myth, which is one of the Big Things religion knows but secularism doesn't. As such, the latter thrashes around in those infertile manmade myths instead of floating upstream in the very pregnant God-given ones.

To be continued...

19 Comments:

Blogger ted said...

Every educated person has a rough chronograph to organize historical time, e.g., neolithic, paleolithic, ancient, medieval, renaissance, etc. But the more history I read, the more I realize that these abstractions are completely misleading, and basically a cover for ignorance.

Exactly! This is why I began to get uncomfortable with the Integral mindset of orientating generalizations. It is as if the particulars did not matter anymore, and we could remain disinterested high priests of history. Screw Hegel and his progenitors :).

4/15/2014 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Every educated person has a rough chronograph to organize historical time, e.g., neolithic, paleolithic, ancient, medieval, renaissance, etc. But the more history I read, the more I realize that these abstractions are completely misleading, and basically a cover for ignorance.

So often, we are told that the history is settled. Then someone does a big dig, and suddenly everything they thought we knew about the past must be re-shuffled to accommodate the (often) uncomfortable reality. And it's generally uncomfortable because not only did historians fill in the blanks with their ignorant imaginations, but with their projections about what they wished the truth to have been. Thus vanished native American civilizations were actually peace-loving noble savages - until evidence was found of cannibalism. Oops.

4/15/2014 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger Magister said...

a rough chronograph ... basically a cover for ignorance

Or agenda.

Another stimulating book on narrative is Reading for the Plot by Peter Brooks, who sees narratives (IIRC) shaped primarily by psychological urges. And however reductive and repulsive his politics, Fredric Jameson wrote a useful book called The Political Unconscious which describes the bringing of any narrative to closure as a "strategy of containment." Both Brooks and Jameson see the process of telling a story as a potentially anarchic process (plots can go in many directions!) that must gradually be disciplined by psychological and/or ideological imperatives toward some sort of resolution or conclusion. Both of them find elements of stories that resist that kind of discipline to be the most interesting.

It has always seemed to me that this approach to thinking about narrative could be turned back on the so-called "progressives," who are all about discipline and control.


4/15/2014 01:25:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Discipline and control of other people, anyway. Particularly the "wrong sorts."

4/15/2014 01:33:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Interesting point about closure, by the way. It seems to me that leftism is generally opposed to any true closure of their own ideas, though. They are always moving the goalposts; thus, for instance, feminism isn't content with getting the vote, or requesting equal employment opportunity. They start with reasonable requests, and when those are met move on to the things which are not so reasonable, and make their demands with louder voices...

4/15/2014 01:37:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

If I ever wondered how "thou shalt not bear false witness" made the Big 10 or why God condemns all liars, pointing up the relationship between truth and freedom answers the question.

Those who don't think we deserve the truth either don't believe in freedom at all or don't think most of us are worthy of having it.

4/15/2014 08:46:00 PM  
Blogger Skorpion said...

@Julie:

"The devil is easy to identify. He appears when you're terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn't grant." -- Fiorello LaGuardia

4/15/2014 09:16:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Without a proper myth understanding there is only misunderstanding.

Of course, that doesn't stop the scientistic suckularists from believing they know more than anyone else.
Pride makes idiots outta geniuses.

At least it's easy to quickly discern if one is earnestly seeking truth and freedom or if one is simply so full of shit that they "know" everything.

4/15/2014 11:45:00 PM  
Blogger Magister said...

they are always moving the goalposts

Right, because the goal is simply to unsettle any stable social or economic practice they don't like. Perpetual criticism is the whole game. This means they won't even trust themselves or each other -- hence the self-hatred, purges, duplicity, lack of commitment, and scoffing at integrity. It's easy to picture them as being blown around by wind, not only the wind of Dante's second circle of hell (lusts), but by the beating of something larger and more malevolent, like the principle of chaos and division. No wonder the men of Rohan are told to "stand fast."

4/16/2014 06:16:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

On a tangent, Morson's criticism of the Russian Formalists on page 24 reminds me of the criticisms I've seen at Ace's lately about the problems with Common Core principles: both work to demystify creativity by bypassing the creative process and forcing people to work their way through according to a rigid, pre-determined structure.

In the case of Russian Formalism, I guess (knowing nothing about it except what Morson mentions there) this meant the outline of a complete story was already given, and all that was left to the author was to add a few words for color. In the case of Common Core, whether it's whole word reading or overly complex basic math, the attempt is to force-feed skills that normally develop naturally through a process of discovery: after learning phonics, young minds will reach a point on their own where they recognize whole words without needing to sound them out; and after learning basic addition, young minds will naturally explore useful shortcuts to make it easier on their own. But to mandate these processes instead of allowing for the discovery actually causes confusion, neutralizes the creative process, and makes learning extremely unpleasant.

And I can't imagine being a writer constrained by formalist principles would have been any more exciting.

4/16/2014 07:24:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Julie said "... reminds me of the criticisms I've seen at Ace's lately about the problems with Common Core principles: both work to demystify creativity by bypassing the creative process and forcing people to work their way through according to a rigid, pre-determined structure."

Yep. And by 'demystify creativity' they mean to eliminate it and replace it with a behavioristic, flow charted process of prescribed causes to produce prescribed and approved effects.

Freedom, Creativity and Rights are inseparable, and if someone attempts to eliminate one, intentionally or not, they will eliminate (or at least attempt to forbid) the others as well.

4/16/2014 07:30:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Van, exactly. You'll appreciate this:

"The Formalists preferred to speak not of the creation but of the 'making' of works. Like more recent Marxists, they were fond of industrial production ... In their view, all great works of art, no less than minor ones, result from an essentially mechanical fabrication, in which ready-made elements inherited from earlier periods of literary history are combined according to well-chosen principles, which are also historically given. At their most extreme, the Formalists denied the significance not only of the creative process but also of the author who imagines he is engaging in it."

4/16/2014 07:42:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

"So, what does this mean for all those physicists from the 1930s on who imagined they were living in reality? Turns out they were just living in an imaginary cosmos. But that will always be the case so long as one confuses scientific abstractions with reality, or placeholders with principles, variables with constants. "

And of course that confusing of abstractions with reality and placeholders with principles, is the scientistically minded means of fabricating new and improved myths to explain what they cannot know. Unfortunately their sci-myths, stopping up the creative holes which allow truth and freedom to enter, with masses of quantitative facts, ultimately explains what isn't really worth knowing, and discards what is.

It has no room for freedom or fear.

Ugh.

Just about time for a Zeus to kill Chronus again.

4/16/2014 08:00:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Julie quoted "At their most extreme, the Formalists denied the significance not only of the creative process but also of the author who imagines he is engaging in it."

Bingo!

4/16/2014 08:02:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

I was kind of bummed out that there were no e-books to try Morson out with, but it's looking like I'll have to go ahead and dive into the physical covers.

4/16/2014 08:05:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Uh-oh, Chronus loses one of his cajones: Brainstorming is POINTLESS: New study finds you're better off focussing on a single good idea: "The researchers conclude that 'quantity breeds quality' isn't true."

4/16/2014 08:22:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Ha - I've known that for years. I can't think of a single time I've been in an official "Brainstorming" session that has produced anything particularly fruitful or interesting. But they are great at reinforcing the opinions of the dominant member of the group and smothering any genuinely innovative ideas...

4/16/2014 08:26:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Yep. And seeing as how anyone who's ever engaged in brainstorming soon realizes how unproductive (and stifling) they are, they've been the center of classroom 'learning strategies' for years.

4/16/2014 08:36:00 AM  
Blogger ted said...

Brilliant. Another vote that the individual should always be primary, and that collective intelligence is a facade for marginalization.

4/16/2014 08:37:00 AM  

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