Friday, May 30, 2014

Pushing Back the Vertical Frontier of Cosmic Slack

Not quite finished with The Age of Abundance, so I don't yet know what the author is ultimately driving at. Although I'm enjoying the book, since he's a libertarian, he doesn't understand "abundance" in the same way I do. For me, it equates to surplus, leisure, slack, vertical opportunity, and inward mobility, in that order.

To put it conversely, if there is no surplus, then all our time is spent attending to our most basic and primitive needs. No matter how much spiritual or intellectual potential you possess, you need protein and fat to maintain the brain and glucose to run it. Therefore, the realm of biological necessity is in one sense at odds with the realm of slack, but in another sense, the foundation or boundary condition for its emergence.

Analogously, an automobile relies on necessity in order to facilitate freedom. The engine, steering, and brakes all work because of the laws of physics, which we then transcend by using the car to take us where we want to go. Obviously, our free choices are not conditioned in the same manner as the internal workings of the automobile.

But as we've discussed in the past, that mysterious space between the laws of nature and the interior world of man is everything. Without it, there is no space of contemplation, no distance between impulse and expression, no possibility of introspection. So naturally -- or so it seems to me -- as that space becomes more expansive or available to more people, it's going to have profound consequences, both individually and collectively.

Again, the post-World War II generation -- the boomers -- were born into a world of unprecedented slack. This may sound exaggerated or maybe even funny, but it is absolutely true. There is simply no comparison between, say, my father's childhood and my own. He grew up on a small farm in rural England with no indoor plumbing or central heating, and had an 8th grade education before he was expected to join the anonymous ranks of hard labor.

His own father no doubt had even less slack, in that he worked for the British railway, which I'm guessing involved six days a week, twelve hours a day, until they hand you the watch and you have your heart attack.

But the unique economic circumstances of the post World War II US economy opened up a huge vein of cosmic slack. It is precisely because so many people were no longer tied down to the world of necessity that we see the sudden appearance of various countercultural movements that have culminated in a truly worthless person such as Obama making it to the top of the heap.

He is worthless because instead of using his slack in spiritually, intellectually or economically productive ways, he has used it to attack the very conditions that made it possible, while pursuing every policy that will directly diminish our slack-freedom. In short, he has used his slack to diminish the slack of others, which is an unforgivable cosmic crime for which he will have to answer in the postbiological world.

What is slack? Slack is what I am doing right now: just relaxing in the comfort of my own mental space, with no interior or exterior persecutors telling me what to do. It is Nothing, and yet Everything, depending upon what you do with it.

Lindsey suggests that the Fall of Man was a "descent into necessity." And this is indeed one way to look at it, since in our prelapsarian state we lived off whatever nature provided, but afterwards had to toil by the sweat of our brow to earn our bread. It says that this situation will prevail until we "return to the ground," which I suppose can be taken in two ways: until we are dead and buried, or until we return to Eckhart's primordial ground of slack.

This morning, while driving the boy to school, he asked how much money one has to have in order to be rich. I said that it all depends on the person, which means that wealth is a quality, even a state of mind, not a mere quantity. For a person with few needs, it isn't hard to be wealthy, but the more desires one has, the more money one requires in order to satisfy them.

I added that there are people who spend their lives trying to become wealthy, under the assumption that it wall make them happy. But since they spent their lives in the pursuit of wealth instead of cultivating the habit of happiness, it ends up backfiring.

Even a middle class person in America lives "on the far side of a great fault line, in what prior ages would have considered a dreamscape of miraculous extravagance" (Lindsey). Accompanying this shift was the change "from a scarcity-based mentality of self-restraint to an abundance-based mentality of self-expression."

Lindsey relates this to Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs, which ranges from basic physiological needs at the bottom to things like creativity and spontaneity at the top. However, the pyramid has a number of flaws that I would revise. The first thing I'd do is turn it the other way around to form a V-shape, in order to emphasize that as we ascend, the space becomes wider and more expansive. In other words, slack increases as we push back the vertical horizon.

Also, you will no doubt have noticed that many if not most people use their abundance not to ascend, but in order to try to widen out the narrow base of the pyramid. In other words, imagine someone who merely uses their wealth to satisfy more elaborate physiological needs. But there's nothing one can really do to make that world any roomier.

I mean, you can push back the margins a little, but the best way to do this is via discipline and physical fitness vs. mere indulgence. If one is physically fit, one feels "well" or "content" in that psychophysiological space, and can then use it as a more effective vertical launch pad.

You will also have noticed that when this space opened up in the 1950s, there was indeed a kind of bifurcation in horizontal and vertical directions. Horizontally we had the "sexual revolution," various liberation movements, public defecation masquerading as art, etc. But there was also a legitimate unleashing of spiritual energies.

For example, I have no doubt that this blog can be traced back to those liberating energies. Although there have been detours along the way, the overall thrust of my life has been using this extraordinarily rare gift of slack for vertical exploration and colonization. If you have slack you should try to give it back, not waste it, let alone steal it from others.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tear Down this Digital and Cultural Brick Wall!

This may or may not expand into a post, but the other day I was thinking about how something analogous to digital clipping and compression can be applied to language, to the detriment of its users, i.e., Everybody & Soul.

Audio engineers routinely boost the volume of a CD by clipping away the top and bottom frequencies. As a result, the disc or file or radio broadcast is much louder, but at the expense of a loss of subtle but vital information at the top and bottom ends.

For example, below is an image of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, before and after compression:

This is a visual representation of what these barbarous sound engineers are doing to your ears. It results in obvious audible changes, such as less difference between the loud and soft passages, between hello, hello, hello and WITH THE LIGHTS OUT.

However, there are also many subtle losses that one may not even consciously notice, but will affect one on the soul level. Compression can make a track sound superficially good to the ears, but it will have a hard-to-define fatiguing quality, like eating ice cream three times a day, or like a colorized black-and-white film. Such music either sounds (superficially) better than it actually is, or else fails to sound as (deeply) good as it really is.

If you read the wiki article about the loudness war, you can see that something analogous has happened in mass culture vis-a-vis our tediously transgressive pop stars. Loud and crass as it was, whatever tawdry thing Madonna was doing in 1985 no longer shocks the sensibilities (which it probably never did, since it was old and decayed before it even came out of her piehole), which is why Miley Cyrus has to be that much louder and cruder.

You might say that she clipped Madonna of all *subtlety* and compressed the monotonous sexual message to soul-shattering amplitude. Just as louder CDs result in the image of the digital brickwall above, the range of human reality of a Miley Cyrus is extraordinarily narrow but shrill and in your face. The only way she can continue her courageous artistic development is to embrace straight-up pornography.

Below is the charming image of an impenetrable cultural brick wall:

This line of thought was provoked while listening to the news about the Santa Barbara mass murderer, and the banality popped into my head, there are no words. I then thought of how there is a range of human experience, and how difficult it is for language to reach the top and bottom.

For example, there are no words that reach as deep as the loss of a child. Language simply doesn't go down that far, which makes it a kind of dreadful mystery that only those who have gone through it can know. The rest of us can only pretend, but to even get near that space is profoundly upsetting, so we try to avoid it.

But even short of such extremes, there is a whole range of extra-linguistic experience that is precisely what makes us feel "alive." Analogously, it is same thing that makes an uncompressed CD or good vinyl recording have more "life."

Very difficult to put into words, but it is definitely something one can feel sub- or extra-linguistically. Indeed, a good subwoofer, for example (which extends the lower range of a recording), allows one to hear, say, cello and bass guitar in the core of one's body, not just in the ears. The same sort of thing is used in movie theaters so as to facilitate more "involvement" in the film.

Back when I was studying psychoanalysis, it occurred to me that it is not so much that its various theories are literally true, but rather, that it provides a language with which to reach down into unconscious and preverbal material and clothe it in words.

But what I really wanted to discuss is how There Are No Words for regions above and beyond the ego, and how if we forget this, we may unwittingly reduce these to mere word-worlds. Then you turn the kingdom of heaven into a kind of brick wall instead of a door or window.

Distressing though it may be, it is possible for the supra-conscious realm to be subject to the same dreadful fate as, say, the Sinatra-->Elvis-->Madonna-->Cyrus regression, i.e., decreasing subtlety and increasing density.

Lately I've been reading a biography of Ira Gershwin, who was the lyric-writing half of the immortal Gershwin brothers. This was after picking up an irresistibly cheap used copy of Reading Lyrics, a compendium of some of the finest lyrics of our greatest popular composers.

Yes, 90% of the songs are about love, and it is interesting in itself to trace the evolution of how it is described and conveyed (the collection proceeds chronologically).

Now, love is the quintessence of one of those high-frequency states beyond the reach of language, which I suppose is precisely why there are so many songs about it. You can't write a song about 2 + 2 = 4, because that's it. There's nothing more to say. But there is always something more to say about love, which, when you think about it, is odd.

A very distinct increase in subtlety -- or dynamic range, you might say -- occurs with the lyrics of Cole Porter. This is because Sex per se is allowed in the door, obviously not in the hamhanded manner of a Madonna or Cyrus, but in a sly, playful and witty way that always complements and intensifies the Love. Let's see if I can dig out an example. Here is the very first one, All of You:

After watching your appeal from ev'ry angle, / There's a big romantic deal I've got to wangle, / For I've fallen for a certain luscious lass, / And it's not a passing fancy or a fancy pass.

I love the looks of you, the lure of you, / I'd love to make a tour of you, / The eyes, the arms, the mouth of you, / The east, west, north, and the south of you.

You could say that prudery and pornography are two sides of the same brick wall. But Porter's lyrics cover a much wider range of what it means to be human, body and soul.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Adolescent Crisis of Scientism

Stark makes the entirely valid point that once science was up and running, it no longer needed the original religious and metaphysical assumptions that had nurtured it.

Come to think of it, this was one of the themes of my doctoral dissertation way back when, which only goes to show that obsessions can be quite stable and enduring. I guess I've been tilling the same field ever since.

Full portentous title of this 1988 epic: Psychoanalysis, Postmodern Physics, and the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution: Toward a Rapprochement of Mind and Nature.

"Rapprochement" is a double entendre, in that it is a psychoanalytic term of art having to do with the "human developmental milestone usually occurring between 15 to 24 months," when "the child moves away from and then returns to the mother for reassurance." In its customary sense, it connotes a "bringing together," the "re-establishment of cordial relations," or a convergence of diverse factions and interests.

Therefore, what I implicitly meant by the title -- but which I seriously doubt that anyone appreciated -- is that it is as if mind and mother nature start out as one, just like mother and baby. Gradually the baby individuates from mother and is able to tolerate emotional distance and spatiotemporal separation. At this point it is safe to reunite with mother, without fear of maternal re-engulfment and loss of identity.

Yeah, it happens. But I don't want to get sidetracked into clinical examples. My point was that primitive man is more or less merged with nature, so there is no distinct separation between subject and object, or will and nature. Thus the ubiquitous existence of primitive magic, which is founded on the assumption that mind and nature are entangled in such a way that the former can have a direct effect on the latter, e.g., with human sacrifice, rain dances, the Keynesian multiplier, etc.

If you don't think this psychic layer of magical fusion persists, then you're not paying attention, because it pretty much explains everything about the left, if not in content per se, then in terms of the underlying cognitive process (hence the chronically intelligent stupidity or stupid intelligence of the tenured).

In other words, it is possible to think about the world in a cognitively sophisticated manner, even while being rooted in pure magic. Indeed, most revolutionary movements are created and led by magic-mongering intellectuals, from Marxism to radical Muhammadism.

Ask the average person what he knows about global warming, and you will be lucky to get one factual or logically coherent sentence. The rest is magic. The same with economics, foreign policy, homosexuality, socialized medicine, etc. If the person is not guided by fact and logic, then something else is guiding him, and that thing is magic -- which is not illogical per se, but rather, simply follows the assumptions of a different form of logic.

For example, I'll bet you five dollars... Here, look at Deepak. He is in a feud with scientists, not because he wants a mature rapprochement between science and religion, but rather, because he insists upon a reversion to pre-religious magic.

"He has written that his practices can extend the human lifespan and treat chronic disease, a position criticized by scientists, who say his treatments rely on the placebo effect, that he misuses terms and ideas from quantum physics (quantum mysticism), and that he provides people with false hope that may deny them effective medical treatment."

In other words, if I read Professor Wiki rightly, Deepak is a dangerous quack and destructive fraud.

"... [T]he popularity of Chopra's views is associated with increasing anti-scientific attitudes in society.... such popularity represents an assault on the objectivity of science.... Michael Shermer [who I am sure is no bargain either], founder of The Skeptics Society, has said that Chopra is 'the very definition of what we mean by pseudoscience.'"

A little further down we read that Chopra is symptomatic of the inability "to distinguish between real scientists and those who peddle theories in the guise of science." His "nonsensical references to quantum physics are placed in a lineage of American religious pseudoscience, extending back through Scientology to Christian Science."

I guess we're late to this party: Deepakism "exemplifies the need of human beings for 'MAGIC' in their lives," such that "the sophistries of Chopra" sit "alongside the emotivism of Oprah Winfrey, the special effects and logic of Star Trek, and the MAGIC of Harry Potter."

Suffice it to say that this is not the rapprochement I have in mind. Rather, as in developmental rapprochement, we want to maintain the individuality of the constituents, whether mother and child or religion and science. In short, we do not want regression or fusion, but rather, progression and synthesis. How is such a thing possible?

The same way science itself -- or even Mind -- is possible. Science is again only possible because of certain inbuilt assumptions. You might say that science has parents of whom it is ashamed, very much like the adolescent who starts to be ashamed of his parents, and then goes on to imagine that he creates his own identity. However, once he safely establishes his separate identity, he can gain a new appreciation of the continuity.

So yes, I do believe it was necessary for science to leave home, to say goodbye to mother and father, and to make it on its own. But like the prodigal son, we are happy to welcome it home to the wide embrace of Reality.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Colonizing the New Psychic World

As promised, nine more takeaways from How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity. Imagine that: the most important story ever -- at least horizontally speaking -- neglected!

However, "neglected" might not be the most accurate adjective. How about "abused." Or maybe "deconstructed." Or "tragic." Or "imperialistic." Neglect is far too passive a term. At best, the glorious story of our triumph has been abandoned. At the other end is frank condemnation. That's what you call academic diversity!

Note also the equation of "west" and "modernity" in the title. One could equally say: How Modernity Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of the West.

Another irony about the left is that they want their modernity -- at least parts of it -- but don't want to know about or have anything to do with the specific conditions that brought it about.

But there is a parallel stupidity on the "right" -- or whatever you want to call these folks -- in which they appropriately cherish the conditions that brought modernity about, while rejecting much of its dynamism and content (and not just the bad stuff). It is a battle of stupidities with which the Raccoon wants nothing to do, and up with which he will not put.

This cultural heteroparadox is discussed in an unintentionally related book called The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture. To extend the equation above, to say "west" is to say "modernity," which is to say prosperity and abundance. And you would think that to say the latter would be to say Happy Happy Joy Joy. But the majority of people do not say, let alone feel, this. Or so it seems.

So, what went -- and is going -- wrong? It is a genuine conundrum, because the majority of people in the modern west are living lives that were the literal dreams of past generations.

In fact, if not for those restless dreamers, the dream would never have come to pass. But the fulfillment of the dream hasn't made people happy. However, I disagree with the notion that the dream is actually a nightmare that makes people unhappy (i.e., "alienation," "false consciousness," and all those other diseases of the tenured).

Rather, the enslackened conditions of modernity simply allow people the time and space to indulge their misery, their conflict, their envy, their emptiness, whatever. For most of history, this was quite literally impossible, since it was a struggle just to obtain food to live another day. To the extent that neurosis existed, it was a luxury of the affluent 1% or less.

Because western history entered a quite novel space after World War II, people living through it have been unable to see it -- the fish being the last to know about water. Perhaps it will be more obvious to future generations, but it's really not that hard to see with your activated Coonvision.

As Lindsey writes, "In the years after World War II, America crossed a great historical threshold. In all prior civilizations and social orders, the vast bulk of humanity had been preoccupied with responding to basic material needs.... Concern with physical survival and security was now banished to the periphery of social life."

This "liberation from material necessity marks a fundamental change in the human condition, one that leaves no aspect of social existence unaffected."

In my opinion, this is the One Big Thing that ties together a diverse range of cultural, spiritual, political, and artistic phenomena, both good and bad. The fact is, we are in "uncharted territory," and every modern movement, from scientism to fundamentalism, is an attempt to deal with it.

When we say "uncharted territory," what do we mean? We mean first and foremost that a space has opened up as a result of freedom from necessity, and that mankind simply isn't accustomed to this space. As a result, all sorts of mischief and mayhem ensue from trying to fill the space with ideology, paranoia, acting out, sex, drugs, rock & roll, video games, vulgar politics, whatever.

Most people now have the opportunity to ask questions such as: who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is the meaning of existence? Such questions are pointless when mere survival cannot be taken for granted, and one must toil all day just to subsist.

This space began opening up with the industrial revolution, but it didn't reach a critical mass until the mid 20th century. Consider: from the reign of Augustus to 1500 or so, "world output per head was essentially unchanged." To the extent that economic growth occurred, it was canceled out by increased population.

And although conditions were dramatically improving by the 19th century, you will be forgiven for failing to notice. "A typical farmhouse in early 19th century America was a cold and dark affair," providing "basic shelter from the elements" but little more. There was an intimate relationship between work and food: if you shirked the former, you missed out on the latter.

But don't despair. It was all over soon. "From 1800 to 1900, life expectancy for males registered almost no gain, inching upward from 45.5 to 46.3." Medical care? In 1900, just a little over a hundred years ago, Americans "spent nearly twice as much on funerals as on medicine." If Obama were around then, he's be campaigning for socialized mortuaries to bend down the cost-curve of death: Embalmacare.

By 1890, only 24% of American homes had running water. Who are you? Who are you? Easy. You're that guy or gal who lugs 9,000 gallons of water to the house, year in, year out. Now, stop asking stupid questions and get to it, so you can think about more important things such as gathering the wood.

Here is an example of a reality that people seemingly fail to appreciate: the first commercial radio broadcast was in 1920. Less than a century later, here we are instantaneously communicating with each other all over the world. It's difficult to even say this without sounding painfully clichéd, but there is something quite cosmically revolutionary beneath the cliché. I hope.

More telling stats: in 1900, "2 percent of Americans took vacations." In 1890, 3.5% of 17 year-olds were high school graduates. By 1950 that number was up to 57.4%.

The upshot is that the sorts of existential questions that were pointless in the past now confront everyone. And I'm not sure that big-box religion has fully kept up with the challenge of dealing with this new space and with these urgent questions. (There are also religious movements that do gear themselves to the new mentality, e.g., the New Age, but they go badly off the rails.)

It's not the content that has to change, but I think one must be able to address people where they're coming from. Whether we like it or not, dogmatic and predigested answers will not satisfy, at least at first. Rather, I think such a person needs to... how to put it... experientially understand the truth of dogma within his own psychic space, and see how these time-tested answers comport to the deepest questions within. Or something like that. It's difficult to say without sounding painfully clichéd, at least this morning for some reason.

However, on a good day, it is one of the things we try to do here at One Cosmos. You know, teach an old dogma with some new tricks.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Adjust Your Calendar, or Ten Takeaways from How the West Was Won

This is a Bonus Post, considering the fact that it's a holiday and all. And I suppose the subject matter isn't inappropriate, since the West wasn't won by a bunch of guilt-ridden tenured pussies who think we prevailed only because everyone else was so peaceful, tolerant, and enlightened.

Rather, we won because of a combination of correct religion and metaphysics, freedom to pursue knowledge and truth, and superior technology in the application of righteous violence, in that order. (Not to mention little things like private property, monogamy, and decentralized power, but these can be seen as entailments of more fundamental truths.)

Just as most people maintain a rough calendar of future activities and commitments, we should be equally concerned about past activities and commitments, not necessarily ours per se, but mankind's.

After all, you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been, and this applies both individually and collectively. Stark's How the West Was Won helps us revise our cosmic calendars, for some people more dramatically than others.

To cite the most obvious example, if you fail to understand and appreciate how Christianity was absolutely central to the rise of science, then your old calendar is hopelessly corrupt. In fact, Stark makes a compelling case for the thesis that there was no scientific revolution, and certainly no sudden rejection of religion at its origin. Rather, the idea of a revolution was a retrospective invention of self-glorifying enlightenment literary figures who were not scientists and played no part in its development, e.g., Voltaire.

Interestingly, Stark demonstrates this not just with logic and history, but with empirical evidence. Specifically, he examines the lives of the most important scientists of the so-called revolution, relying on independent sources to come up with the list, and essentially dividing them between the intensely religious, the conventionally religious, and the skeptical.

As to how one can determine whether a person is intensely religious, it isn't all that difficult, really. For example, Isaac Newton would qualify, since he "wrote far more on theology than he did on physics," as would Kepler, who "was deeply interested in mysticism and in biblical questions," devoting "great effort to working out the date of the Creation..."

Long story short, among 52 scientific luminaries, 31 are judged to be devout, 20 conventional, and only one a rank skeptic. That latter would be Edmond Halley, who was "rejected for a professorship at Oxford on grounds of 'atheism.'"

Of course, it is difficult to know what was really in the hearts of the "conventional," since they may have simply been going with the program to avoid attention and controversy. Even so, a solid majority were nevertheless intensely devout, so it is unlikely that the rest would be at the other extreme end of the continuum.

And in any event, this highlights the obvious fact that there is and can be no conflict between science and Christianity, because science came to be in only one time and in one place: in the Christian west.

Frankly, this should not come as a shock or surprise to anyone. Nevertheless, it is something the academic left will never acknowledge, which is itself an intriguing scientific question. That is, how and why does this perverse ideology begin and end in the rejection of reality? More on this later.

Suffice it to say that honorary Raccoon emeritus Alfred North Whitehead made this point almost a century ago, that science developed in the west because of the implicit "faith in the possibility of science" (emphasis mine). It was transparently derived "from medieval theology," which revolved around "insistence on the rationality of God," so that "the search into nature could only result in the vindication of faith in rationality" (quoted in Stark).

Conversely, just as "Christian theology was essential for the rise of science," "non-Christian theologies had stifled the scientific enterprise everywhere else."

We are excluding Judaism only because it had no major impact on the scientific enterprise until the 19th century liberation of the Jews in Europe, at which point they raced to the top. That too is a fascinating historical nugget, because it means that a whole people with the correct view of reality had been actively suppressed from exploring its implications to the benefit of all!

Nor is it any coincidence that so many anti-scientific progressive campus groups lead the charge of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Israel. Hey, if you hate reality, might as well go straight to the source.

Well, this is not a day of slack for me, since I have grubby remunerative work to do. We'll pick up this thread at a later date, since I guess we have ten more aways to take from the book.