Friday, February 14, 2014

Knowledge and Experience

Not sure if a post will emerge from this maelstrom of activity, with simultaneous departures of son to school and mother-in-law to airport. A bit of a scramble. Trying to keep the melon on straight when all about me are losing theirs, and that sort of thing.

Yes, if you want to put it that way, I suppose you could say I'm not normal. Very easily overstimulated, you might say. Or, you could say I'm quite sufficiently stimulated all by myself, thank you. It's always a crowd in here.

I suspect that many Raccoons are of this reclusive nature, with nervous systems that crackle with energy and bristle with social awkwardness. Or in other words, eccentric. This would explain the... exclusive nature of my readership, because with the standard blog, one reader tells his friends, those friends tell their friends, and in a matter of months you have 100,000 readers.

Or maybe Raccoons are just adept at keeping the secret. Yeah, that's it. We tell only our imaginary friends.

Lately we've been discussing the Cosmic Fundamentals. Which brings up an interesting preliminary question, that is, is a priori knowledge possible? This question is central to the somewhat tedious book on Plato and Aristotle, as they answer it in different ways.

Plato is of course all about a priori knowledge, to the exclusion of experience. Similar to the wise guys of the east, he sees the world as ever-changing and therefore useless as a source of truth.

Rather, truth is somewhere to the north of human existence, in the form of transcendent ideas. Herebelow, for example, we only encounter instances of justice, but our task is to ascend to the level at which we can perceive the ideal of justice in all its purity.

The rub is that you can't do that until you're dead, which is why Socrates happily gulped down the hemlock. Although, like Jesus, he was murdered by the state, what a difference between the Passion and his absence thereof! Jesus asked that the cup be passed, while Socrates betrayed no ambivalence at all.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle begins with experience and works up inductively. He agrees that universals exist, but only in particulars. There is no abstract world of universals we can ascend to, and there is no world more "real" than this one.

Well, they're both wrong. Or half right. If I am not mistaken, Aristotle would agree that some knowledge is a priori, for example, the rules of logic, e.g., the principle of exclusion. Without the P of E, thought itself would be impossible, similar to how a rational economy is impossible in the absence of private property. In other words, to the extent that one is "thinking," it is (partly) because a thing is this and not that.

What about the existence of a Cosmos? Are there ideas that cannot not be in order for any cosmos to exist, or in order for there to exist conscious beings?

No, we are not exactly dealing with the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, which is somewhat of a tautology -- that is, that the laws we observe are conditioned by the fact that we exist. In other words, we shouldn't be surprised that things are the way they are, because if they weren't, we wouldn't be here. This principle cuts both ways, proving either that the cosmos is a huge conspiracy or an epic coincidence.

But Schuon takes a different tack. Weaving together both universal logic and our most intimate experience, he shows that the ultimate universal is indeed accessible to the particular, which is another way of saying that man is created in the image of God. Or, the latter expression is a more mythopoeic way of saying that man is conformed to the Absolute.

Let's begin with the Absolute. What is it? Schuon defines it as necessary reality. This implies an immediate corollary, that there exists possible or contingent reality. We know from experience that there is contingent reality -- things don't have to happen the way they do -- from which we may also deduce our own free will, which is a kind of shadow of necessity.

In other words, if we are free, then we can do this or we can do that. We can choose truth or falsehood, good or evil, truth or ugliness. This reminds me of the intimate relationship between truth and ignorance: we can only approach absolute truth because we are ultimately ignorant. Things are intelligible because intelligence is implicit within them, but we can never exhaust this intelligibility. To do so would be to become the Absolute.

Freedom would seem to imply a kind of "nothingness" within the heart of the Absolute, or a nothing-everything complementarity.

Well, I guess I couldn't transcend the maelstrom. We'll start over on Monday.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

On Distinguishing God's Aseity from a Hole in the Ground

A riddle: what is without a doubt the biggest gap in all of creation? It's an important question, because evidently even a modest sized gap provokes religiosity.

For example, according to the geniuses at (living on borrowed) Time Magazine, There Are No Atheists at the Grand Canyon. Thus, "all it takes is a little awe to make you feel religious."

Awwwww... isn't that nice?

I yield to no one in my awe at the canyonesque emptyheadedness of the MSM, but it doesn't make me feel especially religious. Rather, vice versa: the wisdom I derive from religious tradition renders me speechless in the face of such numinous cluelessness. Confronted with such a gap between words and reality, I can only remind myself that man is a fallen creature, especially when he doesn't realize it.

I'm almost afraid to read the article, because there is nothing to be gained by shooting down an idiot. Doing so can puff up one's pride, but it doesn't take a genius to run circles around a retard.

And I use the latter term advisedly, since there are spiritual retards, just as there are intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and social retards. Not to prejudge the case, but I'm guessing the author is catastrophically vertically challenged.

"Any fool can feel religious around the holidays."

Spoken like a true fool. Better start by defining "religious." Besides, it sounds like the point of this piece is that any fool can feel religious while looking at the Grand Canyon. Thus, it appears that Kluger literally doesn't know God's aseity from a hole in the ground.

Into which he only digs himself deeper, for "there’s nothing quite like nature -- with its ability to elicit feelings of jaw-dropping awe -- to make you contemplate the idea of a higher power."

Well. Yes and no. Nature has no such "ability."

Rather, it is human beings who are able to see beyond appearances to the underlying reality. Human intelligence is intrinsically (and quite literally) supernatural, in that it is conformed to a reality that is not only beyond nature, but the source of nature. Yes, the world is metaphysically transparent, but not to lower animals and MSM hacks (but I repeat myself).

We interrupt this article for a distracting link to another brainwave, this one on why It’s Social Ties -- Not Religion -- That Makes the Faithful Give to Charity. First of all that is grammatically incorrect: Social Ties make, not makes. Second of all, everyone knows it's the IRS that makes us give to "charity." Religion only encourages us, minus the threat of imprisonment.

"All awe contains a slight element of fear or at least vulnerability, and the sooner we have an explanation for what it is we’re seeing and how it came to be, the more reassured we are."

Hmm. I know all about what the IRS is and how it came to be, but I am not reassured. Rather, I'm still frightened of it.

Kluger's point also makes no sense vis-a-vis the Grand Canyon. I mean, everyone knows the Grand Canyon is a result of erosion. So, why does the awe persist?

And it seems to me that fear is quite distinct from awe. I'd probably be awfully afraid to ride one of those donkeys into the Canyon, but I can't imagine it would be a religious experience.

The author concludes by tossing out the same reductionist garbage he disingenuously inserted at the outset: "couldn’t the awe-inspiring also be explained by the random interplay of chemistry, physics and time -- nature in other words -- rather than a spiritual being?"

Hmm. Are we really in awe of randomness, which is another word for the high entropy absence of information? If so, then the most awe-inspiring thing would be the kind of absolute stupidity reflected in this article. Sometimes a gap is just a gap, i.e., a space full of nothing.

"And if so, couldn’t scenes of space or the Grand Canyon make you seek answers by becoming an astronomer or a geologist, rather than looking to religion?"

Yes, I suppose so, for it scarcely matters what sorts of stories frightened monkeys make up in order to sooth themselves and try to make the awful awe go away.

That was an unanticipated digression. Back to our riddle: what is the biggest gap, the grandest canyon, in all of creation?

Well yes, man obviously. But what accounts for man?

I think it has to do with what is hinted at on page 125 of the book, Nature's Greatest Invention: The Helpless Baby. Specifically, the "premature" birth of the human infant at a neurologically incomplete stage confers a kind of infinite plasticity on the human mind.

No, not literally infinite, in the sense that there are also nonlocal guardrails that guide development and give it form. But the brain itself is the closest thing to infinitude in all of existence. Some people put the number of possible brain connections at 100 trillion, but I think the real figure is incalculable.

So the human infant is without question the most awesome gap there can be, this side of the Creator. I haven't read Benedict's Infancy Narratives, but I'll bet there is some relevant information there, because there is no doubt that the Word could not become man without first becoming an infant, a fetus, an embryo, a blastocyst, all the way down. For the abyss between man and God must be filled at the very foundation in order for the gap to become a bridge.

How perfectly awe-ful!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

I Once Was Blind. And Deaf. And Stupid.

We left off yesterday with a quote from Ratzinger, to the effect that freedom, love, and reason are the genuine cosmic powers and necessary conditions for the existence of progress, AKA evolution.

It is quite important to understand -- I suppose for both religious and irreligious persons alike -- that this is not intended in any romantic or sentimental or fruity way, but quite literally.

I used to be one of those people who would hear something like this and just tune it out: "right, all is love, blah blah blah." Oddly, I didn't have the same reservations when uttered by John Lennon. Maybe because he expressed it in such a romantic, sentimental, and fruity manner.

Now that I think about it, the Beatles became my religion right around the same time I declared my atheism at age nine or ten. I remember one of the PowerLine guys saying that he first learned politics at the knee of John Lennon. I did too, but also my theology, sociology, and economics.

Of course, I mean this in a more general way, in the sense that I simply absorbed the sensibilities of 1960s at a very impressionable age. I think it explains why to this day I am such an improvisational orthoparadoxical bohemian classical liberal neo-traditional retrofuturistic freevangelical conservative hippie gentleman slacker. I'm still as weird as ever. It's the others who got all normal and surrendered to the Conspiracy. ge know what I'm talkin' 'bout.

That being the case, something like Catholicism or institutional religion in general would have been at antipodes to my rebellious and free-spirited podes. Naturally I was drawn toward cool nonwestern spiritual traditions that promised low-cost liberation from all problems.

If someone were to ask how I left that world behind and below, I would cite three little factors: 1) empirical reality, 2) common sense, and 3) spiritual discernment. Take away those three, and I'd no doubt be as lost and confused as Obama's mama.

Back to baseball. How, philosophically speaking, do we get to first base? Again, there are no freebies in baseball, nor can one steal first base. Rather, one has to earn one's way there.

There's no hiding in baseball either, no team to anonymously blend into so as to conceal your deficiencies. Rather, it's just you and the pitcher, and he's trying to prevent you from getting to first, so again, no one is going to give it to you. You are naked unto the world, with barely more than the tools God and nature gave you -- just you and a stick. (That reminds me of a tweet by Iowahawk: that figure skating might be interesting if there were more defense.)

But you can do a lot with a stick. I am immediately reminded of Polanyi's analogy of how the blind person uses his stick to probe the space around him. At first he is aware only of sensations in the hand. But eventually the hand-sensations become subsidiary to his focal awareness of the space around him; or, you could say a dialectical and expanding space opens up between unconscious/conscious, implicit/explicit, latent/manifest, etc.

The point is that a three-dimensional sensorium has been opened up via one-dimensional taps on the surface of the skin. The blind man has succeeded in getting to first base with no cheating at all, and certainly no affirmative discrimination to simply plop him on first and pretend he hit a line drive into the gap.

An even better example would be Helen Keller, who could neither see nor hear. How did she ever get on base? How did she transcend a one- or two-dimensional animal or vegetable existence?

It doesn't matter if it's apocryphal -- for it is the story Man -- but there is a moment in the 1962 film when Helen discovers transcendence and thus enters the human Gap. It is also when she discovers the Word, in this case the word for water. Before this, there are a multitude of unconnected experiences of water, but a sudden unity emerges that ties all these experiences together. Ah ha! Water!

(My wife, by the way, plays Helen's baby sister in the film; this must be her:

Me? My only film appearance was in the 1973 made-for-TV classic, The Man Who Could Talk to Kids. I was slacking off with a couple of friends in Malibu, having skipped school, and the director gave us five dollars each to be extras. To get paid for ditching pretty much makes it the Best Day Ever.)

Back into our cold and bracing stream of thought. It turns out that everything is just a variation of the stick in the dark: microscopes, telescopes, language, philosophy, science, scripture, blogging, whatever. Everything takes place in the Gap and widens and deepens the Gap. To discover universals is to have discovered the universe. The deeper person simply has the more encompassing Gap, both in terms of unified content and dimensionality.

Regarding the latter, it is not as if there is only one transcendent dimension we enter when we discover the existence of universals. Rather, the discovery of universals sends us hither and yon, into a wider world of freedom, truth, beauty, virtue.

And yes, love, of all things.

Whoever does not see here is blind. Whoever does not hear here is deaf. And whoever does not begin to adore here and to praise the creating Intelligence is dumb. --Saint Bonaventure

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

You Say You Want a Revolution? I Prefer a Line.

The idea of the gap, as discussed in yesterday's post, has many applications. For example, our essential political differences have to do with the gap between the individual and the collective, and how it ought to be filled: by the state or by the free and spontaneous activities of civil society.

Tocqueville famously observed that one of America's unique characteristics was the presence of so many voluntary organizations that mediate between man and state. The more the state appropriates these vital functions, the less the individual can do so; or, as Dennis Prager says, the larger the government, the smaller the citizen.

A corollary of this is that we need large and ontologically hefty souls in order to preserve limited constitutional government -- which is why the magnificent universality of a George Washington towers over the small-minded pettiness of an Obama.

It has been said that the American revolution was the only successful one in history. Why is this? In large part because our founders made the correct choice at the outset between liberty and egalitarianism, and between a liberal republic vs. an illiberal democracy. That is, they knew that a pure democracy would eventually consume itself, as citizens vote themselves more goodies from an ever-expanding state; no one can honestly say they didn't warn us about Obama.

Conversely, the French, for example, "tried to create the impossible: a regime of both liberty and of 'patriotic' state power. The history of the revolution is proof that these goals are incompatible" (Krauthammer). And yet, virtually every revolution since then follows the French and not American model.

Which makes one suspect that we are giving the same name to two very different phenomena. For example, even Jefferson or Paine in their most intemperate flights of intemperateness wouldn't agree with Saint-Just that "The Republic consists in the extermination of everything that opposes it."

In point of fact -- and we have discussed this in the past -- our war of independence was the opposite of a revolution. For what is a revolution? Well, for starters, it is a circle, as in how our earth revolves around the sun. You might say that political revolutions pretend to take place at 180˚ but necessarily come 360˚ and thus back to 0˚.

Speaking of whom -- and by now it is a cliche to say so -- Obama's countless broken promises (actually, some folks have attempted to count them) demonstrates how revolutionaries, once in power, become the new conservatives, since they want to conserve and increase their power. Thus, all of Obama's broken promises cohere around the same theme: the power of the state over the citizen.

If America wasn't founded in revolution, then what do we call it? Well, what is the "opposite" of a circle? For our purposes it is a line. As we know, not just liberalism but all primitive mentalities are circular. It was the Jews who discovered linear time, and therefore the very possibility of evolution and progress. For clearly, evolution is an irreversible line, not an absurcular nul de slack.

With a circle, no matter how far one "progresses," one eventually regresses; and in the absence of downsight into the circularity of this phase space, one will march straight ahead into the past, as we see in the case of Obama's retrograde policies. Every single one of his primary constituencies is doing worse today than five years ago, but I suppose that, from the perspective of the circle, it looks as if they are barreling ahead.

Krauthammer quips that the "brutal circularity" of the radical revolutionary should be "properly called not revolution but nihilism." Again, it is nihilistic because it necessarily returns to 0˚. But why?

I would say because of the absence of Truth and Freedom. The child of Truth and Freedom is Creativity, and the latter is the advance of novelty. The advance of novelty -- which is quintessentially linear -- is the opposite of the circularity of the eternal return. The very historical appearance of the United States was a radical departure, so perhaps this newness became conflated with "revolution."

The founders were quite aware of this novelty, i.e., that they were creating a government rooted not just in ideas, but in permanent truths. Obama couldn't possibly be more wrong than to foolishly suggest that the Framers somehow rejected absolute truth. I mean, our founding document couldn't be more clear, with its reference to the self-evident truths from which government derives its purpose and its legitimacy. To deviate from these truths can never result in progress, for the same reason that rejecting any truth is going to impede progress.

Bob, this post is starting to get pretty obvious, isn't it? Could we please have a new rant, or at least a novel way of expressing it?

Okay, back to the Gap, which we will pretentiously capitalize. By its very nature, the Human Situation takes place in the Gap.

Now, this Gap is either nothing or it is everything, and I mean that quite literally. In other words, if the existentialists, materialists, and other flatlanders are correct, then this Gap is a kind of absurd irruption in the middle of nowhere, in which we are condemned to a meaningless freedom with no possible telos, no goal beyond itself. This is what Sartre means when he equates being and nothingness.

But the existentialist -- as do all bad philosophies -- errs in starting at first base without explaining how he got there. This is in violation of the old baseball adage that one cannot steal first base; rather, one must earn one's way there by getting a base hit, or walking, or getting plunked by the pitcher.

In the realm of philosophy, what is Home Plate, i.e., one's first principle? For if one starts with the wrong principle, it is not possible to get to first base. To cite one obvious example, if one is a materialist, one can never leave the batter's box. Rather, one will always be zero-for-zero, which works out to a perfect batting average of .000. However, since it is "perfect," it seems that the materialist imagines he is batting 1.000.

Example. Okay, look at Sartre: he claims with one hundred percent certainty that everything is meaningless, so one hundred x zero (i.e. zero meaning) works out to a philosophical batting average of .000.

Now, no one could possibly bat a thousand or always bowl a perfect game except maybe Jesus.

Prior to God's creative activity, the world is said to be "without form and void." In other words, it is a big Nothing. Which it must be in the absence of God. Man himself has no form -- i.e., no nature -- if he is not created. Is it any wonder that civilization deteriorates and descends back into primordial chaos and barbarism when we disregard these God-given forms? When we do that we are back in the revolutionary circle, where it is impossible to evolve.

And come to think of it, isn't the Serpent the first revolutionary, and his circular doctrine a declaration of independence from God? And for that matter, didn't Obama's mentor, Saul Alinsky, dedicate Rules for Radicals to "the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom -- Lucifer”? If Alinsky was trying to be ironic, then he was too ironic by half.

... [O]nly if it is true that the universe comes from freedom, love, and reason, and that these are the real underlying powers, can we trust one another, go forward into the future, and live as human beings.... For this means that freedom and love are not ineffectual ideas but rather that they are sustaining forces of reality. --Josef Ratzinger

Monday, February 10, 2014

On the Annoying Gap Between God and Man

If I am not mistaken -- it's been awhile since Brain Anatomy 101 -- our neurons don't actually touch. Despite the fact that our skull is packed with some 100 billion of them, there is still enough space for a tiny space between each one, called the synaptic gap (or cleft). Neurons actually communicate with each other by spitting a chemical into the synapse -- called a neurotransmitter -- while the neuron on the other end sucks it up.

Now, aren't you glad human beings don't communicate that way?

I suppose we sometimes do, as with pheromones. For example, they say that baby pheromones have a powerful effect on maternal behavior.

Ants apparently do something similar. I don't imagine there is much information in the signal -- maybe "picnic over there" or "check out the asshole with the garden hose." (About eight years ago I wrote a long-forgotten post on the similarities between ant and liberal communication.)

But then, neurons don't pass along much information either. There aren't all that many neurotransmitters, and besides, like digital code, they only have two possible messages: excite or inhibit, i.e., fire or don't fire.

How this results in consciousness is anyone's guess. Mine is that it doesn't. That is to say, brain activity -- and even brains -- is ultimately an effect of intelligence, not its cause. Similarly, a computer can't program itself, and if we leave it alone, it's not as if it will eventually grow hands and blunder itself into self-consciousness.

This is all by way of prelude, waiting for the coffee to squeeze some adrenaline into my synaptic gaps. While we listen for that sucking sound in my axons, let's reflect upon a famous image, and see if it has anything to do with this post:

As you can see, despite the fact that God is by definition "everywhere," there is nevertheless a visible synaptic gap between God and man. What goes on within that gap?

Well, religion, for starters. There is also a gap between the world and the senses, and science is what takes place within this gap. For that matter, there is a gap between persons, and this gap is filled with anything from love to knowledge to touch to whatever.

So, gaps are everywhere. For example, history fills the gap between past and present. Likewise, one of my primary hobbies is filling the gap between ear and atmosphere with arresting sound vibrations, AKA music.

Back to the religious gap. That this gap exists is beyond dispute. One doesn't necessarily have to fill it with religion per se, but one must fill it with something. By way of analogy, it needn't necessarily be truth, but everyone has something in his head, even if it is unalloyed BS.

Viewed in a purely abstract manner, the religious gap is a result of the distinction between relative and Absolute. Therefore, the gap is essentially necessary, in that we know we are relative, i.e., contingent, and relative implies Absolute just as contingency implies necessity.

Now that I think about it, this same gap accounts for our free will -- it is the space in which freedom occurs -- which is why the question of freedom is intrinsically bound up with the question of God. At Grandma's birthday party this weekend, I attempted to explain this principle to a couple of relatives, to no avail. Indeed, despite the fact that they are Jewish, they could not appreciate the remarkable parallel between Exodus and the Gap. For what is wandering in the bewilderness but life in the divine-human gap?

In this little book of flaming homilies on the subject of creation, Ratzinger writes of how the biblical account of cosmogenesis makes it impossible to think of the world as a closed and self-sufficient system. Rather, it has a source beyond itself. As a result, the Most Important Things can't be understood without reference to this Source.

This is, of course, a binary question: either the cosmos is created or it is not created, and therefore dependent or independent, closed or open, static or evolving. There is no "in between." (Come to think of it, I also tried to explain to the same two individuals why evolution, i.e., to higher states, is impossible in a materialistic cosmos, but no luck.)

The following passage by Ratzinger is relevant: "The Bible is thus the story of God's struggle with human beings to make himself understandable to them over the course of time."

This implies that the gap cannot be filled -- or at least was not filled -- in an all-at-once manner. Indeed, if it could be so filled, then it wouldn't be a gap at all. The existence of the gap implies the need for both space and time -- an evolutionary space, as it were -- to fill it.

On a macro level, God can't very well make himself understood by pre-human animals. And once human beings are here, he can't very well make himself known by, say, a book, since they first have to learn how to read. And write.

So there is God's side of the gap; there is also the human side, for which reason the Bible "is also the story of their struggle to seize hold of God over the course of time."

The most abstract possible way to depict this gap is like so: (⇅). If Michelangelo had had access to the ancient Raccoon wisdom, he would have painted little arrows between the index fingers of God and Adam. Oh well, nobody's perfect.

Therefore, the story of creation is not just a once-upon-a-time deal, but rather, is ongoing. You might say that man is the creature that carries on the creation. Thus, human existence is a gift that keeps giving. But only if we open God's presence in the gap.

The Hebrew Bible tracks the journey of God's people through time and history: "indeed, the whole Old Testament is a journeying with the word of God." It is a step-by-step process, at first quite concretely so, e.g., "go to the land I will show you."

Where we depart from our Jewish friends is in seeing a continuation of this journey toward a Person. As Ratzinger describes it, scripture reveals, "in its totality, an advance toward Christ."

Thus, like any narrative, the meaning of everything that has come before is only revealed at the end: "every individual part derives its meaning from the whole, and the whole derives its meaning from the end -- from Christ."

The preliminary bottom line this morning is that by definition, the Gap cannot be filled from our side, no matter how much (↑) we pour into it -- or how much (k) we flood the zone with.

But it seems that the same goes for God. No matter how much (↓) he pours in, it is never enough, especially if we are to retain our free will. This is why no amount of knowledge, no matter how sublime, turns us into God (i.e., the Gnostic temptation), for we are always limited by our relativity.

"Perhaps there's another way," said God to himselves. "One of us ought to go down there and actually embody the Gap."

"It's crazy," said the Holy Spirit, "but it might just work."

"Any volunteers?"