Marvelous anomalies

“Human consciousness has at least as great an impact on the planet as any force of nature, yet its existence is in doubt because science does not know how to describe it.” —Marilynne Robinson

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One of the things I most enjoy when reading Marilynne Robinson’s essays is her earnest yet delighted devotion to the preciousness of being a human on the Earth. “The sheer plenitude of things a mortal encounters is a marvel in itself,” she writes, and her prose illustrates how all that she encounters deserves attention and compassion. Humanity, in particular, is a marvelous anomaly (“What a piece of work…”) which she lovingly defends while noting our “propensity to error” leads us into great evils but also to the kind of wide-latitude indeterminancy within which “we construct our minds and our civilizations.”

With clear logic and complex ideas and sentences, Robinson dismantles the logic that dehumanizes us. She demonstrates “that much influential thought is fundamentally incoherent” (this thought includes philosophy, psychology, and scientific theory) but nonetheless informs our norms, our behaviors, the tenor of our beliefs and our entire lives. Too often we are reflexive rather than reflective. Too often we dismiss feelings as irrational, when they originate in our bodies and minds and often work to alter what we regard as facts, thus biasing our perspectives. Emotions are part of our beings as humans. So are questions, especially the unanswerable questions.

Robinson says science “exploits accidents and relishes surprise”–something that poetry does, too (my aside, not hers, though I doubt she would disagree). But scientific method does not “provide an all-sufficient test for the reality of everything.” By implication, the biblical texts and so-called creation myths offer people a method of grasping the awesome that science cannot answer for and may never yield to, as each marvel reveals new mysteries and new questions.

We cannot say that the stars were arrayed to instruct us in the glory of God, to dispose our minds to wonder, to make us feel our finitude within an order of Being for which millennia are more transient than breath. This, for all we know, is the accidental consequence of the accidental emergence of the constellations, the fortuitous interaction of our unfathomable brains and senses with dazzling reality…We must step back and acknowledge that any accounts of the initial moments that make the event seem straightforward and comprehensible are deeply wrong. Nothing else could be true, considering what it has yielded.

I have not mentioned the words theology or philosophy in conjunction with Robinson, because so many readers would be less inclined to read her work. She’s not afraid to use those words and to examine, often rigorously, what they have meant to societies. Don’t be put off. In the final chapter of her book What Are We Doing Here?, Robinson writes about slander. It’s a short essay I wish all of us would read and think about, especially relevant to our current moment.


“Syntax” by Steve Tobin. Copper, bronze.
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In defense of “is”

Contemporary poetry favors compression–perhaps all poetry employs that approach, condensing out of prose whatever has most vitality in terms of imagery, metaphor, emotion. Symbols, metaphors, actions, neologisms, wordplay, rhythm, whatever gets us to the kernel of the poem. My cultural inspiration began among biblical and metaphysical poems, however, and popular song lyrics (the lyrical narrative). Only later did I stumble upon the influences of Eastern poetic strategies, haiku and tanka, the Imagists, and the vividly imposing demand that writers of all kind, but especially poets, should avoid the “to be” verbs.

How would philosophy–or Hamlet–manage without to be? How shall a writer whose work often deals with the quandaries and paradoxes of being (namely: life, death) compose avoiding those verbs, verbs of existence? Existence has active components to it, to my way of thinking; and some of us need the to-be verbs, with all their various conjugations, to express the more inexpressible activity of being-ness.

During my long years of writing and of having my writing critiqued, I’ve been advised more than once to watch my verbs. I recognize the stylistic impulse and agree that too much to be, too much is, was, or has been, can slow or decompress a poem.

Sometimes, exactly what the poet intends to do.

Other times, exactly what the colloquially convincing narrator or character would say.

A time and a place for every verb.

~

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“There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is being and nonbeing. But between this being and nonbeing, I don’t really know which is being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.” (Watson, trans.)

~

I wrote this post not as an encomium for the to-be verbs but as a suggestion that they exist for good reason and possess action in their compressed sayability, that to be does not sidestep to mean. I defend “is” and its siblings. The important thing? Use them well.

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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.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transitions & ambition

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Mind & gray matter

After an interlude of fiction-reading and the start of the semester, during which there is little time for personal reading, I have returned to some of the topics of neurology, consciousness, and the evolution of the story-telling mind that have so often diverted me from–yet influenced my thinking on–poetry.

Just a brief overview of my “difficult books” of the past four or five years…I have a background in philosophy and, to a much lesser extent, theology. Both disciplines endeavored over thousands of years to explain why we think the way we do and why or how we reason, make decisions, and make clearly unreasonable decisions.

The Free Will paradox, the Mind-Body Problem, ethics, tribalism, the body politic, you name it.

My thinking tends to sway slightly Eastern in terms of intention, mindful behavior, and non-theistic compassion despite my being raised pretty much Western Protestant with Enlightenment ethics and values (also compassion, as based upon the teachings of Jesus).

Throw in a bit of psychology built upon philosophical foundations, Freud, William James, Darwin, Thoreau, and my constant searching for what makes a being conscious, and I end up with an eclectic but not unreasonable reading list.

Also poetry. But I digress.

Here’s the barest outline of my more recent forays into understanding the probably not-understandable: I read Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe to obtain a grasp of a chemistry-and-statistically-based (Boolean) thinking concerning how consciousness may have arisen in the universe and whether we Earthly human beings may not be entirely alone as conscious beings in a huge and expanding cosmos. Frances Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis offers a biologist’s view of how we ought to go about trying to study consciousness and its evolution based upon biological science. Douglas Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop, a deeply engaging look at an interdisciplinary concept of consciousness, examines evolution, biology, neurology, and a bit of physics and philosophy; Dennett & Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh grounds philosophy in neurological underpinnings. Just to be sure the physicists are not overlooked in my overview of consciousness, I’m now reading Werner Lowenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain.

Referenced in almost all of these books are Patricia Churchland, the D’Amasios, Thomas Nagel, Thomas Kuhn, Charles Darwin, Descartes, and Kant.

To name a few.

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~

What good has this reading done me, in terms of understanding what constitutes consciousness, from what it is derived, and how it evolved? Do I know any more than I did about human beings? I certainly know more about the human body, especially the brain, than I did. I know more about the cellular level of information processing and more about theories people have posited during the past centuries–and what aspects of those theories seem to have had either intuitive, reasonable influence or scientific (empirical) value.

That last paragraph appears to be question-dodging, doesn’t it?

~~

I love to read. I love human beings. I love the phenomena of the visible and experiential world. I love the urgent fuel of creativity. Can that be enough, for now?

In time, maybe I will come to accept the fraying of the consciousness, the decay of memory and the intimate Beloveds as they fade into senility or pass out of the tactile world.

 

Truth as relationship

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What is truth? Is there an absolute truth? Is truth relative? Can it be relative and simultaneously absolute? I have not been much of a sojourner on the path to truth, because other things interest me more; however, in 2017, what constitutes truth has become a topic of contemporary discussion–in the most superficial ways imaginable.

And as I have been reading about Josiah Royce in Harry Cotton’s text, the definition of truth and the concept of The Absolute (the philosophy of which Royce and his dear friend William James often argued over) raise their abstract heads and ask for understanding.

Royce insists that truth is not something that happens. It’s not a verb, though people often employ the concept of truth when referring to occurrences: It happened just this way, so I know it is true. That’s a scientist’s empirical truth, or a pragmatist’s truth, someone who believes in his or her own experiences–a truth-in-action. It is also by nature individual in essence.

Just so, says Royce, but what happens to that truth-in-action once the action has stopped, the occurrence is over? Is the event still true? It is now past, and therefore has passed into the realm of memory or idea. Any number of other probabilities could have occurred in experience but did not, and it would be impossible to disprove all of those possibilities in order to prove something that happened as “true.” Cotton sums the thinking up (and you’d have to read Royce’s work on this idea to get the better picture) as “Indeed, no series of events can determine the truth of an idea.” Rather than being an event, Truth, says Royce,

…is a relation whereby various possible or real objects, events, ideas, counsels, and deeds are joined, in ideal at least, into one significant whole. This whole is no one event, or mere set of distinct events. It is a connected life process.    [my italics]

I cannot say I am wholly convinced by Royce’s philosophy in general; but I do like the concept of truth as “a connected life process,” which–to my own mind and given my predilections  about life and consciousness and truth–rings true.

 

Difficult books & the death of reading

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Philip Yancey worries about “the death of reading” in a recent Washington Post opinion piece; he says that even he, an inveterate reader and possessor of several thousand books, finds it harder than it once was to read for several hours each day. He feels distracted by modern technology’s urgency yet suggests reading–now more than ever–offers not just intellectual but neurological rewards:  “neuroscience proves…it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.” (Yancey does not cite the study, so I cannot do so; I think he picked this information up from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows).

I find I still have time to read; but I am not a well-respected writer of books, articles, opinion columns, and blogs, nor am I asked to appear in public as a speaker very often. Yancey has a life that requires hours at a computer. My life contains less urgency from an audience, although my students–when classes are in session–certainly supply a sense of “prioritize me!” that can get distracting.

Most of us recognize that there are many forms of urgent distractions in our lives.

Anyway, I continue to apply myself to books.

~

My latest difficult book has a bit of family history. Royce on the Human Self was written by one of my father’s college professors, J. Harry Cotton, and published in 1955. Harry Cotton was a Presbyterian minister who later taught at Wabash College, where my father encountered him. My dad gave me this book a month ago, saying, “I thought you might be interested in this one. I came across it in my shelves and read it, thinking I’d never read it before. But apparently I had, because I see that I annotated it in the margins. And I hadn’t recalled that he inscribed it to me.” The human self must overlap with consciousness, so why not introduce myself to Royce, especially given the circumstances?

Josiah Royce is not a name I encountered in Philosophy coursework, even when I was studying William James’ work (it was undergraduate study, so we did not get to James’ correspondence with Royce and their disagreements over the Absolute; James & Royce were colleagues and very good friends).

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My father notes the misspelling of his name by Dr. Cotton. I note the logic chart my father annotated above.

Royce’s philosophy was rather Hegelian–he studied in Göttingen–and he was a long-time proponent of “idealism” (defined in what strikes me as a rather phenomenologist way) based upon his rendering of what constitutes the Absolute. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, “In his later works, Royce reconceived his metaphysics as an ‘absolute pragmatism’ grounded in semiotics.” Royce moved from idealism into the possibility of objects, which took him for awhile on a symbolic logic train of thinking. He loses me a bit there, despite Dr. Cotton’s quite clearly-written summaries.

An intriguing aspect of the book, for me, is my then-22-year-old father’s marginalia. Sometimes, his notes–in handwriting that has hardly changed in 60 years–make a comment [“Royce denies a self-evident truth contra-Descartes”]. More often, there is a question, or some underlining, that suggests where his interests lay. I notice he seems to have skimmed over the “Logic as the Science of Order” chapter (that’s a section I found to be a bit of a slog myself).

I wonder whether the last chapter, which covers Royce’s late thinking on Christianity, the problem of evil, and salvation, would have made any sense to a person as young as my dad was in ’55. By the time Royce got to his most mature philosophical thinking on god and the human self, he was in his 50s and had experienced the loss of a young adult son to “madness” and typhoid. These are the sort of events that mature the thinking of a thinking and feeling human being such as Royce obviously was. In our early 20s, few of us have that kind of depth to our understanding of mortal, ethical, or spiritual issues.

~

Nevertheless–my father, influenced to some extent by his Uncle Raymond and by Harry Cotton–chose to go to graduate school in Theology. He may not recall whether Royce’s work on Salvation or Christianity had any bearing on his decision. But I wonder. I think of my dad–a classic extrovert, despite his prodigious reading habits–when I read the following words by Royce concerning the community and the relational aspect of the human self (in the Absolute, or in god, as referred to by the use of his in this quote):

And as the moments of my finite thought are to me when I reflect upon my own meaning and upon the relations of many moments of my life, so my neighbors and I are to the larger Self when, discoursing together about the same objects, we find ourselves as it were but moments in his inclusive unity.

All one. There are many philosophies and theologies that stress that premise.