Cosmogenic questioning & play

“We may note in passing that the cosmogenic question as to how the world came about is one of the prime pre-occupations of the human mind…a large part of the questions put by a six-year-old are actually of a cosmogenic nature, as for instance: What makes water run? Where does the wind come from? What is dead?” (Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 107)

We have, for many such questions, science-as-answer; but scientific answers do not always satisfy the ontological inquiry of the child. I recall hearing adult answers to my own questions–similar to these–and feeling that I was now supposed to consider the matter closed, the problem solved.

But it wasn’t. Not to my mind. I just was not able to express my dissatisfaction in a way that grownups would understand, and perhaps they would have been unable to respond to me at any rate. It was so frustrating, the problem of communicating perspective.

Rather like a riddle.

Which is what Huizinga gets to in this book: riddles, games, play, and how these activities grow into and perhaps structure (or underpin) culture. If humans are the story-telling animal, it’s also possible we are the questioning animal, that play turns into contest through the practice of making riddles.

Creating our own problems, as it were. “Just throwing that out there,” as a friend of mind says when playing Devils’ advocate. (Note in that common phrase: “playing…”) (See the etymology, literally “thing put forward,” below!)

We question origins, and we pose problematic questions–and we do these things as soon as we can speak!

πρόβλημα

Online Etymology Dictionary says: late 14c., “a difficult question proposed for solution,” from Old French problème (14c.) and directly from Latin problema, from Greek problema “a task, that which is proposed, a question;” also “anything projecting, headland, promontory; fence, barrier;” also “a problem in geometry,” literally “thing put forward,” from proballein “propose,” from pro “forward” (from PIE root *per- (1) “forward”) + ballein “to throw” (from PIE root *gwele- “to throw, reach”)…Meaning “a difficulty” is mid-15c. Mathematical sense is from 1560s in English.

Philosophy, Huizinga posits–and religion–developed out of this human need to structure language into language games, to pose problems, thus creating space for wordplay and riddle or secret-knowledge contests. *

Poetry soon grabbed onto wordplay because poetry has a way of taking on all of culture, incorporating and resisting social norms and practices, reflecting society back to itself, asking cosmogenic and problematic questions. Indeed, do a brief scan of anthropology or history and it’s easy to find cultures in which poetry features in the games of noblemen and warriors and gods. (See Huizinga’s book, which enumerates many).

Also, wordplay, puns, connotations and allusions are fun.

This weekend, I want to get back to playing with words.words-from-letters-magnetic-poetry-kit-geek-words-letters-for-refrigerators-words-with-letters-maker

 

 

~ ~ ~

* ie, Descartes, boy, did he have problems! Both mathematical and mind-body problems, though he was better at the former. (Sorry for the silliness).

 

 

 

Advertisements

Poetry as a value

If individual consciousness exists among human beings, and I believe it does, it is however the collective consciousness that has the longest-ranging impact. We are social mammals. We crave some object or objective with which we can connect and form relationships around in order to create community. Humans cannot survive without communities.

Those communities can be centered around almost anything as long as the focus keeps social members busy with the process of group-forming, skill-sharing, skill-teaching, communication and, ultimately, the development of a shared history. Hence family, tribe, language, or religion–among many other social magnets–keep us cohesive. Until we bicker and subdivide. Society works in ways analogous to the brain and body: through complex systems and nearly-random relationships and long, twisty networks.

I’ve been thinking about the things we “worship”–things we value and therefore believe are inherent among good human beings–and how such perspectives affect the consciousness of entire civilizations. Simon A. May, in Love: A History, suggests that in the early 21st century, “Western” societies have been elevating the idea of love to that socializing focus. An interesting premise, and I suppose there are worse rallying concepts than love, though May points out ways in which even love can be transformed into an ideology rather than an emotion.ann e. michael

In a large society are many sub-societies, each with its own locus of organizing a human collective; these may often overlap or coexist with the vast variety of human interests. Reflecting on this, I consider myself as part of the society of educators, and of book-readers and book-learners, and of art lovers; and also a member of those people who feel that poetry assists in the lifelong endeavor to engage meaningfully and attentively to life.

Here is a list of people like me who subscribe to the necessity of poetry and who write about it on their blogs. Donna Vorreyer has compiled a listing of poetry-related blogs to follow. I will be following some of them, too.

https://djvorreyer.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/it-feels-just-like-starting-over/

Fully human

A student who grew up in Viet Nam and arrived in the USA just two years ago scheduled an appointment with me for assistance in revising her final paper for Philosophy.

My job is to help her with her articles, subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and plural forms and uses, and when to use a capital letter for proper nouns. I also assist students like her with claims, thesis statements, and rhetorical structure–but I am not a “content tutor.” Of course, I often understand the content and find it interesting to observe how young people interpret, say, literature or philosophy.

In this case, Western philosophy, in English, as interpreted by a person raised in a culture quite different from the Western university system norm.

Philosophy 109 challenges many native-born and US-educated freshman students; taking this course as an English-learner with very little “Western” experience must be ridiculously difficult. So I first assessed how the course had been going for her, and she said, “So-so.” What had been most difficult? Note-taking, she said. With the texts she could take her time, translate, and eventually tease out the ideas; but class lectures were really hard. In addition, she struggled with the concept of opposition and rebuttal as structured in the philosophical argument.

 

Her assigned argument for the term paper was: “The arts, sciences, and philosophy are valuable because they help us to become fully human.”

The paper began with her assertion that the arts make us more fully human because they are beautiful to behold and inspire in us joy and appreciation.

“Is the best art beautiful?” I asked. She said yes, and I asked her, “Is it only art’s beauty that makes us human and good?”

“Not only,” she said, after a moment of hesitation. “Sometimes–sad is beauty. Sad is not good, but sad also makes us human.” She hesitated again and then went on: “I think good art, and good science, has both sides. I think this but it isn’t in my paper. Should I put it in my argument?” We agreed to work on a sentence or two that might express her interpretation more completely while heeding the general conventions of Introduction to Western Philosophy.

Sometimes, syntax is content.*

Without exception (well, almost), I learn so much from student interpretations of ancient concepts. Rather than rolling my eyes and scoffing at how little they know, I’m searching their perspectives for what it is I ought to know about them and their experiences. The stance of most older authorities is that young people must integrate themselves into our norms and conventions; but we will age out of our power base, at which point we’d be better off recognizing their norms and points of view and exercising our neurons by learning how to adapt to the next set of conventions.

Philosophy and the arts will stay around. I have no doubts about that. The ways in which human beings interpret them may change; all to the good–stasis would destroy philosophy and art, thus keeping us from our potential to be fully human.

~

 

*[You might want to read Sister Miriam Joseph’s classic text, The Trivium, for a deeper explanation of how to approach ‘mastery’ of the liberal arts and learning.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whittling

Recently, as I was on the road through the suburban edge of a small city, I noticed something unusual. Sitting on the grass, under a large pine tree, a child of about nine or ten was whittling. Absorbed in his task, he ignored the traffic going by; he had no cell phone or mobile device, no electronic game. He simply remained intent upon the knife and the stick in his hands, shaving off layers of wood.

Seeing him brought back memories of my own childhood. I loved to whittle. I had a Girl Scout pocket knife, and there were plenty of twigs littered around the yard, streets, and sidewalks where I lived. Whittling occupied minutes of boredom, when no friends were around to play with, when I did not feel like reading or had run out of books for the time being (we didn’t always get to the library soon enough for me!). On camping trips with the Scouts or with my family, I whittled for a sort of purpose: pointy sticks on which to spear hot dogs or marshmallows. I attempted to fish as the native people did, with spears–an endeavor that never brought success. Several times, I tried to whittle fishing hooks.

Most of the time, however, whittling served no particular purpose. I shaved away at a stick until it was too slender to remove any more wood safely. I whittled to see how slim a stick I could make. I whittled to pass the time until something more interesting occurred.

While whittling, I imagined things. Told myself stories, remembered books and characters, wondered what would happen if…thought up inventions that might be useful or fun, dreamed up games to play with friends, pictured far away or fantasy places and how I would explore them. Probably I looked as intent and absorbed as that boy under his pine tree.

I noticed him because he wasn’t engaged with an electronic device. I noticed him because he did not notice me, or any of the vehicles zipping past his front yard. I noticed him because I identified with his busy hands and intent mind. There is a kind of Zen experience that can come through the process of whittling: busy hands busy mind; followed by busy hands, imaginative mind; followed by busy hands, quiet mind.

It has been awhile since I have done any whittling. But I have a few nice, sharp pocket knives in the house. Maybe I’ll try it again soon.

~IMG_5050.JPG

The narrative vein

Every time there is a crime, journalists seek the story.

Police talk about putting together the story of the perpetrator. The person’s story assists in determining motive. Motive can assist in solving a crime or prosecuting the perpetrator.

Stories require conflict. What is a drama or novel without plot? There is a whole world of plot for narratives, but they tend to need conflict somewhere.

The narrative vein in poetry follows the same story source, although in poetry much can be compressed. There are nonetheless implications of conflict, sometimes powerfully so.

I have posted before about human beings as “The story-telling animal.” Brian Boyd and Daniel Dennett and others note the ways in which stories help us to understand ourselves and others.

I begin to think that storytelling gives us not merely a method for examining cognition, but that perhaps telling stories=human sentience. That perhaps we would not be sentient if we were not aware of stories, able to invent them, or try to recall our own memories in a storytelling fashion. We could be human beings without them, but we could not be sentient.

This is just a story I’m creating for myself in this moment.

This is my own story about sentience, consciousness, and compassion through understanding of narrative persons, personas, and perspectives.

At the same time, I find I wonder:

Do we need better stories?

33414458

Transitions & ambition

letter I
have maintained this blog pretty regularly, for years now, writing about books and poems and gardens and teaching, examining the concept of consciousness and trying to plumb–from a novice’s perspective–the brain’s wiring and functions. I suppose I am seeking a kind of “interdisciplinary” approach in these posts and in life: a philosophy of values that considers the arts, aesthetics, evolution, biology, social structures, neurology, consciousness, physics, etymology, pedagogy, ecology, and compassion (have I forgotten anything?) in a distinct but expansive method of living in which I can situate myself and which might guide my behavior as I make my life-long way through the world. If, by some chance, my words influence a reader–so much the better; this is, after all, a public space (WordPress.com).

Like many people who use social media platforms for their writing, though, I have a mixed view of its suitability as a medium and of its perceived necessity for contemporary writers. My purpose, originally, was to practice writing prose and to promote the arts and the natural environment as necessary complements to and instruction for the development of empathy (compassion) and metacognition in human beings.

The blog has been reasonably suitable for practice; it gets me writing what is basically a brief essay on a more-or-less weekly basis. It has several thousand “followers,” but only a handful of readers. [I can discern this through the statistics page on WordPress, though I don’t check often.] In general, I use this platform mostly as a way of “seeing what I think,” and it serves that purpose, too.

IMG_0127

I have come to some conclusions about the problem of consciousness (and about whether it actually is a problem) through the reading and experiences of the past ten years or so. Those conclusions are, however, private ones. While the process of discovery and inquisitiveness works in a public forum, the takeaway remains, for this blogger, a thing carried within.

But.

~~

But other blogger-writers have influenced my thinking about what a public forum such as blogging or Facebook can do for the writing process. Dave Bonta and Luisa Igloria, as well as Michael Czarnecki and Lou Faber–among others–promote by example the option, and value, of publishing new or unedited, unfinished, partially-revised work. Granted, not all of them have thousands of readers who weigh in on criticism or encouragement; but the very process of making public the work-in-progress seems to me to be courageous. This may be because I am a wimp, or it may be because the social aspects of the vaunted “po-biz” have dampened my willingness to show a kind of transparency in my writing methods.

I am not on the tenure track and will not be teaching in an MFA program, however, so why would it matter?

Therefore: be prepared, oh limited but blesséd audience. I may begin to foist upon you the recent sad, sad poems I’ve been writing–in draft form. Or I may begin to reveal the poems from my seven-years’-unpublished manuscript online. Or I may, like Luisa and Michael, begin to blog “a poem a day” (unlikely, but…). It seems to me that a transition is in order here. And that stands as my writing ambition for the moment, as autumn makes its way toward the solstice and I face another stack of student essays to grade.

 

 

 

 

Evolution of the neuron

I have just read, albeit slowly, Werner R. Loewenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain. Having finished the book, I can attest I understand his argument even though my grasp of the physics involved is decidedly at the novice level. The last three chapters of the book were what drew me to reading it in the first place–those chapters cap the text with his model of how Evolution (he anthropomorphizes the theory) “chose to design”–in its exemplary, concise way–complex systems that led not just to life but to sentience.

Loewenstein compares neuro/biological processes with computers in terms of their being processors of information from the environments. He seems enthusiastic about computers in general, but he argues that artificial intelligence remains far away from evolving into sentience because consciousness requires many kinds of parallel processing that intersect and interact and filter out information. That complexity, he claims, will be difficult to engineer; yet over eons, the process of evolution accomplished it through a combination of physics, chemistry, and biology.braintrust-small

Loewenstein prioritizes the physics aspect: how electrical pulses in neurons parallel electrical pulses (attraction and repulsion) in atoms, how these behaviors can combine to create compounds or release energy; he uses analogies and spends several chapters on the eye, its neurons and dendrites and cones and rods, to demonstrate how a system of information reception and filtering can occur that relays information to the brain and then back to other information receptors and actors in the body of a worm, bird, or human being. Get enough relay systems going, and sight + touch + smell + hearing + taste evolve into the living animal. At some point, the multiple parallel information systems develop into consciousness (Loewenstein does not speculate where that point occurs–it is still “a mystery,” he admits).

~

Douglas Fox, writing in Aeon, quotes neuroscientist Leonid Moroz as saying, “There is more than one way to make a neuron, more than one way to make a brain.” In this fascinating article, Fox follows Moroz’s lengthy study of ctenophores, jellyfish-like creatures about which little is understood–though Moroz and his team of researchers are changing that. At the same time, their work suggests that our previous understanding of brain development is not necessarily the only model out there for how neurons and synapses can get information processed and acted upon to sustain a life. If that life is lived under very different environmental circumstances, maybe evolution might “choose” different paths of systematic information processing (ie, “thinking”).

…when he failed to find common neurotransmitters in ctenophore nerves back in 1995, it wasn’t simply that his tests weren’t working; rather, it was because the animal wasn’t using them in any way. This, says Moroz, was ‘a big surprise’.

‘We all use neurotransmitters,’ he says. ‘From jellyfish to worms, to molluscs, to humans, to sea urchins, you will see a very consistent set of signalling molecules.’ But, somehow, the ctenophore had evolved a nervous system in which these roles were filled by a different, as-yet unknown set of molecules.

Fox poses the researchers’ questions this way: “how divergent can nervous systems be? Do we truly understand how life senses its surroundings and behaves?” Science has generally, post-Darwin, followed a straight-line approach to evolution; but good scientists recognize that sometimes the road less traveled by has made all the difference.

 

Although the very idea of “sentient jellyfish” might appall many people, I wonder what sort of consciousness ctenophores would develop.  🙂