Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Friday, December 27, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews Recap


Looking back at the twelve- or thirteen-part series as a whole, I find:
* Two reviews of Christian theology (Just Thomism, Glory to God for All Things)

* Two reviews of literary criticism and poetics (Isola di Rifiuti, Poems and Poetics).

* Two reviews of socio-political history and current events, one respectably mainstream, one fringey (Duck of Minerva, Disinformation)

* Two reviews of philosophy (Meaningness and Noir Realism)

* One review of Jewish thought (The Talmud Blog).

* One review of music (Rate Your Music)

* One review of cuisine (Smitten Kitchen)

* One attempted review of Occultism (Light of a Golden Day, but you're out of luck on that one -- the site's gone)

* One review of general smart-person topical writing about things that interest him (Slate Star Codex)
This is actually not a bad rough sketch of my general interests, in something approaching realistic (if not very fine-grained) proportion.

A lot got left out. A more fine-tuned self-portrait would include more more scholarship -- classical, medieval, modern. Also Anthropology ("hard" and "soft"), contemporary science from neurobiology to cosmology and physics, and mathematics, which I read as the interested layperson I am. But of course mostly what was left out was more philosophy. To remind anyone who may care, the original notion was to mention blogs I had not already mentioned in other connections. This automatically excluded a scad or more (how much is a scad?) of philosophy blogs, and I'm not sure I didn't cheat a little when I snuck in Noir Realism.

The series kept me writing and posting, but it was also a little distracting, and I'm not sure whether I'll attempt anything similar next year. But I do find it interesting, in retrospect, to see that someone could get a fairly good idea of my concerns and interests just from the list of what's included in this series, and yet wouldn't have a clue about what I actually thought. What they'd know is a rough idea of where I thought the interesting issues were; but not my own poor attempts at the answers. There's a reason for that. It's the same reason Plato mentions in the Seventh Letter.

Mandelstam did not say, "It suffices to recount the blogs he has read, and his biography is complete." It is interesting to think about why this would completely deform what he meant.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"This was to fulfill..."


I wrote earlier about the way the Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent seems to undercut its setting. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, something similar (and different) occurs. Much of the Gospel (Matthew 1:18-25) attends to St. Joseph:
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Joseph and Mary are bound by marriage (the text is usually translated with some reference to "engagement" but the culture at the time considered an engaged couple "married," for legal purposes, even though the ceremony was in the future); the Law permits Joseph to call for a public tribunal inquiry into whether Mary has become pregnant as a result of a liaison she entered into willingly, or whether she was forced. Joseph's decision to forego all such investigation shows him to be a man who is not simply observant of the Law but fully attuned to its spirit; he does not insist on his rights, he does not bank on the privilege his position gives him; he is ready to do everything he feels called upon to do. It is after this readiness that his dream says to him: something further, something orthagonal to the Law, is transpiring. And yet in it, both the law and the prophets are fulfilled. It is via Joseph that Jesus' connection to the Davidic promise derives; Joseph is Jesus' father in the eyes of the Law by virtue of having named Him. Modern commentators worry over the words that get rendered as "virgin," the Masoretic text's almah (strictly speaking this is inexact; lexicographers assure us that the word more precisely means "young woman") and the LXX's (accurate) parthenos, but Matthew is not concerned with these. What is all the more striking is that Matthew provides the explicit gloss on "Emmanuel," and an implicit one on "Jesus", i.e., "Joshua", but he passes over in silence the obvious fact that these names are not the same name -- this despite his presenting the one narrative as the fulfillment of the other.

So the Law is thus not abrogated, but its fulfillment in letter and spirit point beyond it, to something strange and new. And prophecy is presented as fulfilled in a manner that clearly is not "literal" (it is precisely the letter which is not fulfilled), but in such a way that the writer does not bat an eye at any discrepancy.

The first Sunday of Advent, the reading (in the liturgical context of the beginning of the Year): you cannot measure time accurately, you cannot know the times. It is about the future exceeding the present. The fourth Sunday of Advent, the Gospel is about the present exceeding the past. This puts the matter far too schematically; the point however is that whatever scheme we have in place is fulfilled precisely in being shown to fail as too schematic.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews XII: Smitten Kitchen


This twelfth and last of the Brief Blog Reviews is devoted to the hedonistic art of cooking. It was one of Plato's favorite discourses to borrow from; it was, W.H. Auden said, the only art in which the 20th century had truly excelled. And so I commend to you this culinary gem, Smitten Kitchen.

Besides featuring really lovely photographs, a calming cream-white and dusk web design reminiscent of blue china plates, and a charming across-the-table conversational style, Smitten Kitchen casts as wide a net as ever I have found on a cooking blog, presenting recipes from as many culinary styles as I can name. (As an experiment, I typed as many "-ese" and "-ish" and "-ian" ethnic names into the search function as I could think of, one after another. I finally pretty much stumped it with 'Sudanese'. Some of those hits come from the comments section, but I'm reviewing the blog as a whole, and its community of readers is part of that -- especially when they report their own variations on the recipes.) There is savory, there is salty, there is spicy, there is hot, there is sweet, there is sour, there is umami. Soup, salad, sandwich, pastry, pasta, casserole, cocktail, canape, main course, or weird in-between cross-over, every third day or so you can find a new recipe, sometimes a whole new menu or a whole new family of food. All you need is the resolution to attempt it.

There's an element of privilege in concerning oneself with cuisine. That issue is the matter for a separate post, but I would argue that anyone who struggles to put food on the table (and that's been me, more than once in my life) ought to care about what happens next -- indeed, insisting on that care is one of the ways to keep hold of the self-respect poverty can drain away. And the good news is that Smitten Kitchen is as economically smart as it is enthusiastic.

Her catholicity notwithstanding (maybe that's a funny word to use for a Jewish cook, but I stand by it), Deb Perelman (Smitten's chef and writer) declines to present "fussy foods" which require ultra-specific parameters or ingredients (say, those infused oils or special varieties of pepper you can only get at some out of the way snooty specialty store, or via catalog). She likes food that is comfortable and easy to prepare (as is necessary in her very small kitchen). But this does not prevent her from making chocolate souffle cupcakes or hollandaise sauce, or poaching an egg (which is not as easy as you might think); and she knows there is a difference between organic produce and what comes from factory farms. She scrupulously credits her sources, acknowledges her tweaks, and shamelessly enjoys her results, which are presented in such succulent and juicy graphic splendor that, though it be cliché, I am tempted to write you can almost taste them from the photos. I think you can smell them, anyway. She writes writes about these with style and aplomb and self-deprecating humor, and with the unobtrusive confidence of a good teacher -- the confidence that makes you think, "I could try that." Go. Try that. I assure you it's a good idea.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge


I am always bemused by the Gospel reading at the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year: Matthew 24:36-44:
"But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him."
This is the Gospel with which the year commences; it occurs in its precisely calibrated position of an intricate system of days and their correlated readings, meant to align a seven-day cycle with a 365-day solar cycle, complicated by a lunar calendar on which it has been overlaid. In this elaborate apparatus of timekeeping and ritual observance, every feast of the church finds its place, and is observed with ordained scripture, prayer, and psalmody. Obligation to feast or to fast is specified. Colors of vestments, melodies for chant, kinds of incense, are indicated for different seasons. All is mapped out with extraordinary attention to detail (although there is also great local variation). And prefacing the entire cycle, in pride of place as the first Gospel reading of the year, is a warning that none of our careful calibration will suffice to indicate when the hour will come for which we wait. It will intervene (if the future-tense "will" even makes sense in this connection) from a plane orthagonal to all mortal timekeeping whatsoever. Our painstaking and precise calendar, this product of human ingenuity and refinement, has seen to it that this reminder of its own short-circuiting is built in to its recurrent initial moment.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews XI: Disinformation


I’m posting this Brief Blog Review on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so it seems appropriate to go way out on a paranoid limb. This month’s review is of the prolific and imperfect Disinformation, a witch’s brew of all sorts of minority and fringe positions. You name it, you’ll find it here: mind-control, surveillance, anti-vaccination, 9/11, hyper-elite secret cabals, alien invaders, and scads more. Most of the blogs reviewed in this series have one or two posts a week. Disinfo has sometimes ten or twenty in a day. Way too many. Too many to read, too many to take in. Nonetheless, I’m putting Disinfo up here as the best single-source digest of what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style”, and not just because we need a bunch of cautionary tales. I admit that I am probably more open to raising my eyebrows at the received version of the daily news, no matter which appointed gatekeeper has passed it on stamped “Approved for General Distribution.” Truth be told, with corporate offices in NYC and several glossy publications (and a television series) to its credit, Disinfo is already itself dangerously close to becoming an alternative gatekeeper for the self-styled cynical hip -- skepticism (of a sort) commodified. But my commending the paranoid style isn’t so much about content. I cut my teeth on Robert Anton Wilson, that zetetic apostle, and while I obviously think that one must problematize doubt as well as certainty, there is much to commend a serious and recurrent engagement with Not Buying What You Are Told.

I once was at a spiritual retreat with a number of other people, including a gracious and articulate woman who suddenly surprised me by expressing dismay over the many “chemtrails” she observed in the otherwise blue sky. Whoo-boy, I thought, and tried to gently redirect the conversation. It was considerably later that I reflected: I don’t know what “warrant” she thinks she has for “believing” in chemtrails, but what warrant do I have for disbelieving in them? I went around in circles a few times like this: “Well, if that were true, then... then, the experts... then somebody would have... I mean, somebody other than those people...” Sigh. Honesty finally compelled me (not without a fight) to confess that it mostly boiled down to “chemtrails” seeming, well, just outlandish. Crazy. Paranoid. In short, I wasn’t really thinking. I had already decided, on purely extra-intellectual considerations, that I need not think. This idea was beyond the pale.

Now, is this a bad reason to not consider any given hypothesis? No, not really; or not always. No one has the time, energy, and competence to decide the merits of every last claim “on the evidence.” Sometimes parsimony has to suffice, and doubtless it is often right that it suffices. But one may concede this finitude of personal resource, without resigning oneself to the conveniently available default positions of one’s demographic. It is very easy to act as if one has rejected the “obviously” false, nutty, weirdo claims on some kind of evidence, and forget that one is shooting from the hip of prejudice. Remembering this is one part of what it means to remember that one is awash in a sea of ideology.

There are indeed ideas that are beyond the pale. Some ideas I cannot entertain even if I try. They are not, as William James put it, “living options” for me. But ideas don’t just start out that way by definition, nor do they inevitably remain that way. It is worth asking why certain hypotheses with a general family-resemblance to each other tend to recur in the paranoid fringe, but it’s also worth noting that ninety percent of the time, the term “paranoid fringe” is already a way of chiming in with your superego’s not-so-subtle “Nothing to see here. Move along.” On most days, chemtrails still seem beyond the pale to me. But I don't pretend that I have, or understand, any evidence that makes them plausible or not. And I am less cozy living within the pale; it no longer seems so self-evidently solid to me.

Disinfo’s posts, all presented in a well-designed format whose readability is several cuts above the average paranoid site, are cumulatively a virtual smorgasbord of Things They Don’t Want You To Know. It'll point you to reports that vaccine companies falsify evidence; that incandescent light bulbs are more efficient than fluorescent lights, and safer as well; that fluoride in the water is lulling you into a sleepy conformism, and the evidence is precisely that you find the claim outlandish! These are just a few of the more boring examples. Plenty of the Usual Suspects (Bilderbergers, Trilateralists, Bohemian Grove, Skull’n’Bones, and so on), plenty of surprising eye-openers, lots of conflicting points of view (as I write there is a post on the “selectively doubting” psychology of conspiracy theorists). Most importantly, there is a certain sense of humor about the whole thing, a levity which nonetheless usually resists the temptation to treat the whole thing as a joke (and although it does tend towards the typical standard-issue suspicion of organized religion, there are exceptions even here). Disinfo won’t leave you knowing what to believe or what not to, but it might get the question, “Why don’t I believe that?” to be a little more explicit... and the answer, a little less automatic.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Argument Against Naturalism, and intellectual fashion


Jim S at the blogs Quodlibet and Agent Intellect has been publishing a series on the so-called “Argument from Reason,” an argument purporting to show that naturalism is flawed at best and self-contradictory at worst precisely insofar as naturalism is a set of conclusions arrived at by rational means. This argument was formulated in a succinct form by C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles, and it was the object of an attack by Elizabeth Anscombe in a famous exchange between the two thinkers at the Socratic Club, an exchange which, philosophical folklore has it, Anscombe was generally perceived to have “won” and which certainly issued in Lewis’ revision of the relevant portion of his book for the second edition. The series just reached its seventh and possibly last installation, and is well worth reading.

I know plenty of people, including Christians and theologians, who do not take Lewis seriously as a thinker. I think this is a mistake. He is not a major philosopher or theologian like, say, Lonergan, or even like his friend Austin Farrer; it would have appalled him to be considered one. But he is one of the preeminent minds of the 20th century when it comes to what used to be called "men of letters," a category which in the long run may be the more significant. (It is not the same as "intellectuals.")

The "Argument From Reason," is not, of course, Lewis’ alone; a number of other thinkers, notably Plantinga, adapted it. It seems to me to be one of those convenient litmus tests for “kinds of thinkers;” nobody tends to be neutral about it. You either find it compelling (at least in a strange sort of way, maybe like the ontological proof of God), or you find it makes you squirm with impatience -- how could anyone ever find such an “argument” persuasive?! This makes it a either a conversation-stopper or an ideal conversation-starter, depending.

The argument, in very rough, indeed caricaturish, outline, is as follows: naturalism is the claim that nothing but natural processes exist and occur. These processes are all cause-and-effect processes; indeed, according to naturalism, there is no other kind of process. Such processes, being exhaustive of everything, obviously per hypothesis include the human mind and its conclusions, whether false or true. But this entails, then, that any true conclusions must have been occasioned by cause-&-effect, and in fact by “causes” that are not strictly what we recognize as “reasons” at all. We can, in fact, not have reasons for believing anything at all, including naturalism, if every “reason” reduces to a cause in the ordinary sense.

Anscombe’s case against Lewis has a decidedly “analytic” flavor to it (unsurprisingly), even an “ordinary-language” flavor, as, e.g., her argument that a reason is not what produces a belief but is rather “what is elicited from someone whom we ask to explain himself.” This reads like everyday common-sense to someone who has been steeped in Wittgenstein, and the first several times I encountered it I breezed right past, but in fact it is starkly implausible and surely gets the phenomenology of insight very skew. Nonetheless, the story of Anscombe’s “defeat” of Lewis became a kind of bit of received wisdom, an anecdote substituting for an argument, and has played a role both in the general dismissal of the “Argument from Reason,” and its adoption by special interests, like Plantinga’s -- widely perceived as rear-guard actions in a losing defense of Christianity against the inevitable progress of science. I have some sympathy for the underdog in that scenario, but framed in those terms, it will never do.

I have come to regard the Lewis-Anscombe debate as a late and minor skirmish in a war that was already over, had in fact been over for some time. Lewis’ intellect was shaped, as he said himself, out of the confluence of a number of factors: leaving aside aesthetic and what we would (but he would not) have called existential concerns, these were Scottish common-sensism (derived from Reid) and the Idealism of Bradley, Green, Bosanquet, and so on. Neither of these were the atmosphere of the Socratic Club at Cambridge. The atmosphere that made Anscombe’s arguments so persuasive, so that the verdict of the audience was that Lewis needed to make his argument “more rigorously analytical,” was one that had been made by Russell and Moore, and by Wittgenstein. This does not mean that those audience members simply concluded that Anscombe was right “because they were analytical philosophers” -- as though the weight of the arguments themselves were so much sizzle. To say this would be to commit the fallacy Lewis memorably described as Bulverism. But one may avoid Bulverism and still acknowledge that fashions matter in the history of thinking; that conclusion which look altogether inevitable in one context look starkly implausible in another; and that adjudicating between these contexts is no simple matter of “merely thinking honestly.” We think in contexts, not outside of them.

In fact, a second or third look at the famous disputes -- mainly between Russell and Bradley -- which re-shaped the philosophical landscape in Britain in the early part of the twentieth century, leaves little room for doubt that the change was not decided on the merits of the arguments alone. This re-evaluation has been undertaken by Stewart Candlish in a really valuable work of scholarship (and not just scholarship), The Russell/Bradley Dispute. From a hundred years’ distance, it is obvious that Bradley was not “defeated” by Russell’s arguments, and that in many cases Russell seriously misconceived what Bradley had said or meant. What really happened, it seems to me, is that philosophers got tired of talking in one way, and were excited and intrigued by the possibilities of talking in another way. This sociological slant does not mean that there is no such thing as genuine philosophical insight to be had. It does not consign us to a maze of relativism. But it does mean we must be more cautious in rejecting out of hand positions to which we are unsympathetic, or at least, assuming that we have the weight of argument on our side when we do so.

Of course, if Lewis is correct, claiming that “the weight of argument” has any bearing on the case at all, may commit us to certain other ramifications -- not just epistemological, but ontological. For a deeper consideration of those claims, I refer you to the Quodlibet series, and its numerous references.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"It's like..."


Ombhurbhuva has a short post commenting on Shakara’s use of the notion of the sun’s reflection in water as an extended metaphor for Brahman. An objection is put forward to the effect that the comparison is not apt in every respect. For Sankara, this is a feature, not a bug. The citation, in part, goes:
A material thing, such as water, is seen to be clearly separate from and remotely placed from the sun etc. which are themselves material entities (with forms). There it is proper that an image of the sun should be formed. But the Self is not such a material entity (having form); and since It is all-pervasive and non-different from all, It can have no limiting adjuncts either separate or remote from It.
Shankara responds:
nobody can show equality in every respect over and above some point of similarity in some way...For if such an all-round similarity exists, the very relation between the illustration and the thing illustrated will fall through.
This is a crucial element of analogical thinking, but (at least to me) also extremely difficult to grasp, despite looking simple. We routinely analogize in conversation, and then, when our rough-spun comparison bumps into a problem, we usually say something like, "well, here the metaphor falls apart." Sometimes we take this in stride, but other times it leaves us oddly dissatisfied, as though something promised had failed to be delivered.

The really pertinent question is not, "what is the specific dissimilarity in this case?" but "Why do all such extended metaphors stop pertaining?" It seems to me that the reason is: because a perfect point-for-point isomorphism in every respect would not be illustration, but identity. (E.g. the map with a scale of “a mile to the mile” in Sylvie and Bruno; in Borges’ On Exactitude in Science, the Empire’s inhabitants “who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless.”)

The whole point of an analogy is the instantiating of the similar in the dissimilar.

N.b.: Ombhurbhuva seems to make a more rigorous distinction between metaphor and analogy than I am making. He promises “more anon,” so check in over there.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews X: The Talmud Blog



Some may have wondered if I was going to miss the Brief Blog Review this month. Down to the wire.

It’s a somewhat technical blog this time, The Talmud Blog, and it's a somewhat paradoxical blog at that, since no blog can possibly approximate the experience of studying Talmud. I have no formal experience of such study, and only such informal study as my observant Jewish friends undertook with me; but that study is very different from any research I've done by myself. It is one thing to read Jacob Neusner or David Halivni or other scholars, or even primary texts, whether on your own or in a university setting. It is another to study Talmud. When I did this (to the degree that my experience may be called "studying"), I sat with one or a couple of fellow-students, all of whom were absurdly more advanced than I; we would read aloud a portion of a tractate, first the Mishnah and then the Gemara, but usually before we had got even that far, someone would have raised a question -- what does it mean that it says this? Why is such-&-such a scriptural reference deemed relevant? And so on. The conversation goes on from there, everyone teaching everyone else.

It soon becomes apparent that the conversation in the room is echoing a conversation in the pages of the Talmud, much of which reads like stenographer’s notes on an ancient symposium on Jewish law. You get the school of Hillel responding to the school of Shammai, and vice-versa; you get later students offering their various rationales for a given ruling; you get objections and rejoinders and “but if that’s the case, then -–,” and minority opinions that are preserved even if no one else agrees. Crucially, these minority positions can still, like dissenting opinions in American jurisprudence, wind up impacting practical cases much later.

The Talmud Blog is devoted to these ancient documents, compiled (like the Bible itself) over many, many centuries, layers and layers deep, commentaries swathing commentaries, in the living tradition that gave rise to them and still returns to them. It belies the prejudice that texts are inherently unrevisable, that they enshrine and encourage an incorrigible fundamentalism. The Talmud is a concrete illustration of the Latourian claim that a religious tradition is constituted by continually changing its form.

In studying Talmud you can move very rapidly between a practical question like how to compensate your neighbor whose animal has been hurt after wandering onto your land, to abstruse matters of grammar or exegesis, and even spiritual devotion. “What do we learn from this?” and “How do we know this?” are two questions that recur over and over. What emerges from enough of this is not just a competence in Talmudic disquisition, but a sense of what it is like to engage with an open text on multiple and interpenetrating levels. It is not an exaggeration to say that it can change what it means to read.

There is no slavish obeisance to the text in such a setting. My own experience was doubtless unusual in some respects, not least because I was there as a graciously welcomed goy; probably my remedial status slowed things down for everyone. But one thing that was very clear was that the dialogism of the setting came perfectly naturally. The Talmudic term for this is shaqla vetarya, “give and take.” In reminded me, oddly, of what the Platonic academy must have been like.

This experience is impossible to enter into without some personal contacts, and while web-based Talmud-study resources have many laudable features, real-time dialogue is almost never one of them. The Talmud Blog can’t substitute for that, but it can provide an introduction (albeit very asystematic) into the issues and terms a scholarly engagement with the Talmud will involve. If you are an outsider, this introduction leaves a lot to reader’s initiative. You have to be prepared to look up terms like, well, shaqla vetarya, if their meaning doesn't become clear by the third occurrence; you need to read with an awareness that there is a broad context in which the issues addressed are meaningful. If you do this with antennae tuned for these matters, and without pre-judging them, you’ll find that this “broad context” becomes more real and more complex to you.

Monday, September 30, 2013

What, exactly, is alive with the sound of music?



My attention was directed to a short Japanese film. I am late in commenting on this (it originally went up in march of last year), but in case you have not seen it I am putting the link first, before any of my more or less haphazard remarks, so you can enjoy it unimpeded by what I say. There are actually two videos; each is barely over 3 minutes long (the second is a mini-documentary on the making of the first). Click Here, then if you still feel interested, come back.









OK, so where was I?

There is a great deal that could be said here about the relationship between the forest, the stream, the birds and the deer, the cell phone, the boom mike, the proportions of wood weight and density that give rise to individual notes that, taken together in order, comprise a piece of music. Is it just another in the long, long, long series of moves by which capitalism appropriates art and/or nature, or can it be read as art appropriating capitalism? Is this even an interesting question? Is the idea that something like Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring being "appropriated" by something like capitalism laughable, or spooky, or just trivial, or...?

Sue Thompson in her just-published Technobiophilia considers the extensive interface between our attraction to cyber-tech and our attraction to (what's left of) the natural world (and yes, I know "nature" is a construct, I'm writing shorthand here). In an interview Thompson conducted with Kevin Kelley which I presume made it into the book (it's just been published, so I haven't had time to see it yet), Kelley remarks:
Just as we go into a redwood grove and get that cathedral-like feeling, I think that as the Internet continues to complexify and become larger, it will also become a spiritual place where people will retreat to feel something bigger than themselves.
Well, on the one hand, any human endeavor that stays around very long is going to "become spiritual". On the other hand, note that he doesn't say we go into a cathedral to get that redwood-grove-like feeling. Is this part of the problem, or does it point us to something about the grammar of the "feeling" we're talking about? (On the other hand, there is something I balk at when I find "the spiritual" spoken of in terms of feeling, as though that were its primary locus. This needs a lot more unpacking; it isn't the main point here.)

But the grove and the cathedral do shed light on one another, and the comparison makes me see this online film a little differently. When I consider the exquisite care that must have gone into the preparation for this film, my response is somewhat akin to what I feel looking at a stained glass window and thinking of (among other things) the tremendous human effort it represents -- hours and hours of coloring, cutting, and shaping the glass, fitting it into place with strips of lead, carefully, carefully raising it up hundreds of feet into the air, by pulley and rope, to insert it into the stone wall. Moreover, the appearance of the cell phone at the end of the film does not feel like "product placement" analogous to having the hero of an action movie refresh himself with a soft drink between bouts of kicking bad guys' asses. It seems more akin to a medieval guild paying for a panel of stained glass window or altarpiece in a medieval cathedral, and being included in a little picture in detail. But I'm not sure this is the right analogy either.

Bach's melody was the very first one (that I recall) to furnish evidence to my young mind of the existence of Platonic forms. It seemed to me obvious, even at the age of 8 or however old I was, that the music had been discovered not invented. As I listen to it in this permutation, it still seems obvious.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews IX: Poems and Poetics


This month's Brief Blog Review, of Jerome Rothenberg's Poems and Poetics, is one I have planned to do for a while. I am glad I waited until now, though, because it now follows quick on the heels of the publication by Black Widow Press of Eye of Witness: a Jerome Rothenberg Reader, a retrospective look at Rothenberg's extremely long, prolific, and important career as one of our foremost poet-critics. It would be an exaggeration, but a forgivable one, to call Rothenberg the father of comparative poetics. His early anthologies, Technicians of the Sacred and Symposium of the Whole, introduced many of us to things like Navajo creation stories and the Chinese Book of Songs. To read these things side-by-side with Plato or The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in a setting like Rothenberg's which so clearly bespoke respect and care for the original context of the work, was for me a formative experience. Here the assumption was at work that one could meaningfully compare Robert Duncan, songs from the Bantu or the Cherokee, Li Po, or Lady Murasaki, without doing violence to any of them, neither handing them over to the careful handling of experts nor slapping them together as though they were all "saying the same thing," but simply treating them as all mutually relevant in a tremendous ongoing conversation that it would take the rest of one's life to begin to enter oneself. Reading these books in my early 20's permanently cured me of any fear of trespassing.

When I discovered, a couple of years ago, that Rothenberg was blogging, I had two thoughts. One was a kind of not being able to believe the good luck. The other was, Of course. Rothenberg comes out of the great experimental and democratic tradition of poetry, that welcomes all comers, and will try anything twice. Of course he would jump into this medium with both feet. Of course he would self-publish. Of course he would put his email address up. His is the tradition of William Carlos Williams, Stanley Burnshaw, and Guy Davenport -- of great learning matched with great generosity.

This lineage, moreover, is a stream of thought that has kept faith with the conception of poetry as a wisdom tradition. It is rooted in a worldwide practice of myth and storytelling and singing, a practice that has not learned to despair even in the face of everything the twentieth century could throw at it. You can just splash around over at Poems and Poetics and not come to the end for a long while. Rothenberg sometimes posts up to two or three times a week, and his archives go back five years. You will wind up learning much, much more about world literature. But you might also come away nourished and steeled for the fight.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Bad Arguments and Bad Manners

It has been said that metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct. -- W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up
Brandon at Siris has written a number of good posts over the years on the taxonomy, lore, and misuse of the notion of fallacy. Having stumbled, not long ago, on his article in First Things on Reification, I was moved to the following few reflections (not as deep as his), when I encountered this cutely-illustrated Little Book of Bad Arguments recently and was struck again by how much this word "fallacy" is abused, and used to abuse. (It is not sufficient, to refute an contention, to say, "But that's a slippery slope argument!" One must say why, in any particular case, the particular slippery slope argument is not compelling.)

The book gives an example of the "fallacy of irrelevant authority": "Astrology was practiced by technologically advanced civilizations such as the Ancient Chinese. Therefore, it must be true." Put this way, of course, this is clearly fallacious. But the observation that "Astrology was practiced by technologically advanced civilizations such as the Ancient Chinese" might well feature as an exhibit in a set of arguments aiming to demonstrate the plausibility of astrology. It functions more or less as a kind of testimonial, as in a court of law or in a résumé. It is meant to establish the credentials of astrology in light of the fact that it is associated with a culture we have, presumably, other grounds for respecting. "Practiced by the ancient Chinese" here serves as an index, not (on pain of fallacy) as proof. (One possible rejoinder here, of course can be, "Yes, so was foot-binding," which presumably would press the champion of astrology to explain why the precedent matters in one case and not -- let us hope -- in the other).

One sees a variation on this from time to time in what amounts to informal "expert testimony" in various disputes, e.g. about science and religion. Someone points to Professor N., a respected professor of molecular biology or cosmology who is also a member in good standing at the local mosque or synagogue. This is frequently met with groans, and rightly so if it is supposed to demonstrate anything very far-reaching, like God's existence. But it is certainly a relevant piece of evidence for the claim that it is possible to believe in God and be a practicing scientist. The counter-interpretation that "all it proves is that scientists are not immune to wishful thinking," or "scientists can intellectually compartmentalize too," is just that -- an interpretation. If someone wanted to argue for the claim that scientists can intellectually compartmentalize and hold incompatible beliefs, and they adduced as evidence the example of Professor N., they would have (on certain premises) a decent Exhibit A, but to hold that this clinched the matter would be, well, fallacious.

Then there are the times when no fallacy has been committed at all. The most frequent occasion for this, depressingly common, is the accusation of "ad hominem" in a case like:
He thinks that's evidence that there must be a God? My God, he's an idiot!
This is, strictly, different from:
Yeah, he has an "argument" for God's existence, but why even consider it? He's an idiot!
Both arguments exhibit bad manners, but only one of them is, strictly, a fallacy (unless you want to quibble that the definition of "idiot" haven't been clarified sufficiently).

Very frequently, when tempted to cry "fallacy!," what one really means is that a step in the argument has been left out (or more than one). Rather than snort "ad hominem!" or "reification!" or "slippery slope!", the proper (and Socratic) response to most instances of apparent fallacy is "And why is this relevant?" When you remember your manners and press someone to explain the omitted steps, not only do they usually see where their own case is weak without your rubbing their nose in it, but both parties expand the context from which they are arguing. What is really at stake, motivating the dispute, becomes clearer, and very often, you find it is not what you thought it was at first.

Moreover, it is worth recalling that even a true claim can be argued for (badly, of course) with fallacious reasoning. (And, to be sure, rudely, as well.) To think otherwise is --

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Very Close to the Music of What Happens


In mid-2003, as the news of the war in Iraq continued to drone on, my friend J. called me on the phone. We were each feeling the heaviness of the war despite the distance of many miles and the mufflings of spin and counter-spin; the helpless wretchedness of knowing that violence wreaked in our names was being employed by the avarice of power for its own ends. Wanting to express the sorrow beneath the anger, J. found a voice for the sadness she felt in lines from Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf. I remember listening on the phone with tears:
...like the misery felt by an old man
Who has lived to see his son’s body
Swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
And weep for his boy, watching the raven
Gloat where he hangs: he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
That his child is gone; he has no interest
In living on until another heir
Is born in the hall, now that his first-born
Has entered death’s dominion forever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son’s dwelling,
The banquet hall bereft of all delight,
The windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
The warriors underground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
And sings a lament; everything seems too large,
The steadings and the fields.
It's odd -- the poem is not obviously about the sufferings of war, let alone any suffering either J. or I had ever undergone. Moreover, the whole thing is an extended simile -- the old man in the passage is not a character in Beowulf, but a figure to whose sorrow another figure (in an inset story within the poem) is compared. Later that year, Heaney was in Seattle opening the city's annual Arts and Lectures series. In the midst of the talk he remarked upon the war, and by way of insisting upon the perennial relevance of poetry he said he would read a passage that spoke directly to the bereftness of spirit after such loss. I remember feeling my pulse quicken and my breath catch as he began to read. It was, beginning to end, the identical passage. He sensed in it the very same still-viable voice that my friend had heard. It would have been eerie had it not been so obvious.

I suspect Heaney would have found more here than the nice coincidence of a couple of people with roughly similar preferences in literature finding some bare solace in the same stretch of lines. For Heaney, poetry was really a site of genuine meaning, "strong enough to help," in a phrase from George Seferis' notebooks which Heaney quoted more than once (see the lectures published as The Redress of Poetry). This strength comes not from erudition or cleverness or the chance sharing of a taste for verse; and though any attempt to get very specific about it starts, like Yeats' spiritualism and cosmic cycles, to give off a faint whiff of ectoplasm, still you "know it when you feel it." It does help, to find that someone has wrested from what you thought was inevitable muteness an apprehendable word for what you feel; and when that word comes from a millennium away and is recognized by an independent authority (and there was no doubting Heaney's quiet and unassuming authority that night), one has the sense of having touched something almost electric.

One comes, sometimes, indemonstrably close to something, a closeness that is not covered by any deflationary explanation; a feeling that seems actually to depend upon the gap between what one senses, and one's capacity to articulate it; but one feels it the more keenly, the more effort one makes towards articulation -- an effort that can seem effortless but is (any poet will testify) hard-won:
Song

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
Seamus Heaney, 13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013.

Requiem Æternam.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews VIII: Meaningness


[Apologies for previously broken links in this post, now fixed, I hope. Thanks to the reader who pointed the problem out.]

This series of Brief Blog Reviews continues to be an exercise in revising criteria. My review this month is not of a single blog but of a group of blogs. Though not as frequently updated as most of the blogs I have included, collectively their frequency should just about edge them into the ballpark. They are, moreover, all accessible via a single page, Meaningness, and are all by a single author, David Chapman, who I am commending especuially but not solely for his funny, straight-talking (except when he’s not), and generally right presentation of Buddhism.

By “right,” here, I mean two things, neither of which I am qualified to pronounce upon: technically right about Buddhism, and view-from-nowhere right about reality. Aside from the usual characteristics (smarts and style) that I tend to point out in these reviews, Chapman is “right” often enough to make me suspicious. My guess is that if I read him long enough I may find myself staring at my own prejudices. (I hope I recognize them as such.) His critique of monism (scattered through more than one post but a good place to start is here) is close to spot-on, and generally sympathetic enough to make one feel that he understands pretty well the temptation of the monist enough to give his criticisms street-cred. (I am, however, a little more sympathetic to the "bad ideas," or at least the dead Germans, that he's talking about.) He’s less understanding, as far as I can tell, when it comes to nihilism, which he seems to think is a kind of metaphysical boogeyman. Chapman describes himself as a serious practitioner of a relatively obscure form of tantra, and tantra (according to my limited and book-acquired comprehension) pulls no punches about terror, despair, and paranoia; so I assume he’s seen a bit of metaphysical horror. I find him just a bit dismissive on this count; but this doesn’t keep me from being able to smile.

Chapman, who may or may not be the central character in Ken Wilber’s Boomeritis, is a former neopagan and AI researcher; his current project (aside from writing about vampires) trying to elaborate a space for possible alternative Buddhisms, outside what he sees as the consensus version. In this he is not unlike Tim Morton, or Brad Warner (Chapman expressly credits Hardcore Zen), or (maybe a bit more iffy, this one) Glenn Wallis’ Non-Buddhism; maybe, too, by what people are doing over at the Dharma Overground. (Note: these parallels are Very Rough.) By “consensus” Buddhism I take it Chapman means something fairly close to Yavanayāna (as Amod Lele calls it over at Love of All Wisdom), or what Wallis often refers to as x-Buddhism (again with the Rough Parallels): a general convergence in First-World countries that Buddhism is about interconnectedness, kindness, and the transcendence of ego. Of course, this devolves into a culture of niceness, and at worst of egoism masked as the quest for enlightenment – but Chapman is too wise and too kind to just sassily point this out (we knew this about religions already, after all, from Christianity and Marxism and etc...) and leave it at that.

His close critiques of consumerism-and-Buddhism are well taken, and well served both by his familiarity with Buddhist history (recent and ancient) and by his willingness to look into some of the sorts of Buddhism that rub “the consensus” the wrong way, both aesthetically or morally. (See, for instance, his post on corpse meditation.) All of this falls to some degree under his negative project, the “making space” project. I’m especially impressed, however, by his by his overall positive project of Meaningness (as a word this a barbarous coinage, but as a pointer to experience it works very well), work which promises to eventually coalesce into a book elaborating this eponymous concept, which is in some ways close (i.e. "Very Roughly" parallel) to what I mean by Participation, and (more close to Chapman’s own intent) is a thought-provoking reworking of the central notion of pratityasamutpada.

“Right” though Chapman so often is, of course, we are bound to disagree. He would likely regard me as a sort of Eternalist by some measures (what with my Christianity and all), and I defend myself by distinguishing between Eternity and Sempiternity, as usual. That defense, however, is not this post. I do find his analyses of the pitfalls of Eternalism pertinent, and his takes on other of our contemporary cults -- e.g. that of Bayesian statistics, or the search for the True Self, or “Spiritual But Not Religious,” (an especial peeve of mine; Chapman points me to its apparently popular abbreviation SBNR, one I ought to have thought of) -- are these all rife with compassionate and truthful zingers. (Also, he discovered Eric Voeglin via Robert Anton Wilson, which I cannot help but find pretty charming.) The comments on his various posts tend to be engaged and forthright and Chapman almost always responds with thought and care. I urge you to go over yourself and at least eavesdrop on the conversation.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews VII: Slate Star Codex


So the actual Brief Blog Review this month, written in some haste but not, I emphasize, in desperation, is of Slate Star Codex.

This blog has been published for considerably less than my usual requirement for these Reviews, so this is out-on-a-limb for the series, but author Scott Alexander has been writing (under a different name) for much longer over at the notable group blog Less Wrong, and besides, as my recent not-review demonstrated, sometimes having a long track record is no guarantee you won’t suddenly go offline. Of course, I could just review Less Wrong, but this one is More Interesting. Crowdsourcing tends to flatten certain things.

Slate Star Codex does plenty to urge the Less Wrong line: check your biases, notice seventy times seven times what arguments you think just couldn’t be right, doubt and keep on doubting, and so on. His recent post on Scientismism, reclaiming it as a badge of honor (which may be something of a trend; Ladyman and Ross did the same thing a couple of years back, and I’m guessing there are others) flies his colors high and reasonable. To be sure, I’m probably way less Scientismist than he is, but these Reviews are not about Whether We Agree. In fact, I was won over to his blog when reading this admirable review of Reactionary Poltics, which wins my vote for the best act of avowed online ventriloquism I’ve ever encountered. For paragraph after paragraph, he details in elegant and judicious and resolutely fair style a political perspective he finds pretty much abhorrent, and winds up persuading you of its relevance and almost of its deserving a place at the table, if not its truth. If more people could do this for their ideological foes, the world would be a less scary place. Only after this act of sympathetic presentation, which every debater should study in detail, did he proceed to his own refutations.

But it isn’t merely his brains or his style that really make me a fan, nor is it the fact that he’s my nominee for the coveted award for most Freemasonic-sounding title of a non-Freemasonic blog. It’s really his heart. Go read his kind and gut-wrenching posts on working in a hospital and what happens there. As someone for whom “memento mori” is not just a weird sounding phrase for a skull on a shelf, not to mention someone who very recently watched my father-in-law die, I found these more than bracing. Reminders not just of the fact that we will die but of a statistically plausible description of how we may die, they are written not out of resentment or prurience but out of what feels like compassion struck hapless by its own strength. If the notion of a thoughtful and care-ful balance between heart and head seems like a cliché to you, read Star Slate Codex. You'll see what it means.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Destiny with a light touch


Michael, a.k.a. Ombhurbhuva, has an anecdotal post about a curious experience in India. And because I just mentioned The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, I suspect myself of possibly being an accomplice to the occasion of the post, though not the anecdote.

The citation from Ouspensky runs:
It may sound strange to you but the fact is that sometimes I see people who would like to come to me, walking along this street, but they cannot find my house. (spoken by the 'Magician' (Gurdjieff ?)from The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin by Ouspensky)
And the anecdote:
I had arrived in Delhi with a certain sense that a fate was a fait accompli. Still, you can't just decide your own fate in the way that might be expressed as 'this has to happen so I will decide to make it happen'. This is a 'saved' Calvinist tense that I could not comprehend then and cannot now. I could not simply decide to make my journey home a pilgrimage as a freak of my own....It amounted to unwarranted testing of my luck.
...
I was getting the feeling that it was time to move on, so the ultimate recourse of the marooned traveler would have to be resorted to – the Embassy. ....I had the address and I walked up and down but couldn’t find it. I wasn’t lost or anything like that, the fog wasn’t so bad but having spent hours looking for it I finally gave up the search....

‘This is not meant to be’, I said to myself and turned to make my way back. An elderly man passing by stopped and started talking to me. He turned out to be a devotee of Baba’s and he brought me along with him to a youth club that he was connected with. He gave me tea there and let me sleep on the floor for the night then in the morning he gave me breakfast and 20 Rupees. Having changed my mind or accepted that I should not have recourse to the Embassy, the speed at which my fortune altered was, what else, a sign.
The post adds that a couple of years later he had occasion to go to the Embassy, which turned out to be right where he'd been looking for it.

I tend to be sensitive, perhaps over-sensitive, to such events (or what I construe as such) and am aware of my capacity to subtly try to nudge the world into providing them. A fool's errand, for there is really nothing that can be done to prove to the Central Coincidence Coordinating Committee that one is ready for one's allotted propinquity. There is no way to sneakily tug at the universe's chain. (Really, one is trying to forge the chain, tiptoe up to the universe and slip it around it's neck.) Indeed, the trust Ombhurbhuva refers to is precisely (albeit subtly) the opposite of such chain-tugging. Much better to pray forthrightly: Give us this day...

One can in fact school oneself to be sensitive to such things. In fact, the crash course is all too easy. Just do what Michael did and plunge into the unknown... Go "seek your fortune," like the third child in the fairy tales. When your survival depends upon it, you start to see all sorts of things. Gurdjieff was aware of, and exploited this painted-into-a-corner tendency of the mind. Colin Wilson, that interesting case masquerading as self-declared genius, quotes, in one of the two books I've read by him (I think it was The Occult, but it might have been Mysteries), an ostensible remark of Sartre, which I've been unable to trace. The remark is to the effect that Sartre never felt so free, so alive, as when, during the Resistance, he might have been shot any day. I'm not sure Sartre said this or that he could have been in such a position, but the sentiment if common enough, and what it names is sometimes much more than a sense of burgeoning will-to-power. Gurdjieff exploited it to get students to awaken out of the general somnambulent state he considered most of the human race to be in most of the time. It's a Zen-master-'s-stick approach: a double-bind can sometimes snap you into the "wisdom of no escape" and the Pure Mind.

I can hear voices muttering in the audience, or is it my own bias-checking? First of all, Enlightenment is one thing, reading portents in your daily life is another. And secondly, if it comes to these portents, what about it? Out come the standard-issue tropes: we are, after all, "connection-making" creatures with brains that adapted to construe meaning; we "evolved to survive" and we survived by being able to see connections; when you press the survival instinct, no wonder the brain lights up in pretty colors. No need to get mystical about one more of natural selection's little side-effects. Yes, and this plus occasional neuronal twitches, kinship selection, and ordinary bad primate politics explains the history of religion from the neolithic through the Axial to the end of the species. Of course, I notice in my impatient reaction to these clichés a cliché of my own -- "More things in heaven and earth.." -- a twitch which marks for me the edge where two or my own strong mental tendencies overlap, like tectonic plates. I hasten to add, therefore, that there is such a thing as being crazy, and that one man's synchronicity is another man's symptom and another's so-what.

We do not live in a story, the critique goes. There is no narrative structure to our lives except the one we put there -- it isn't written in advance bu God or anyone else. The idea of these little "flourishes of God's pen" just follows from (or else it brings on, I can't remember) an outmoded God-as-artisan metaphysics we should've jettisoned by now; or else from a grandiose Romantic mythology of "life as a work of art." Our tastes are subtler, thank you. Stories that depend on foreshadowing, "symbols" (ugh), and coincidences, are easy to regard as heavy-handed and clumsy, or at best, middlebrow.

And yet.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
It is wrong... to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences... but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
Now, I'd want to hedge this with many a warning. The "plot" of our life is elusive (at best); it is only in the "theme" of our lives (in the sense of these words that I employ here and here) that we may discern this meta-aesthetic significance. Or, maybe better, I'd put things the other way around: this "dimension of beauty" does not orient us to any kind of narrative arc of our lives; but these "signs", if you like, may unfold for us into the motifs of our life, the light or the incidental music as it were.
Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life.
Michael notes that he finds, in the journal he kept at the time he was in India,
a great many references to glyphs and symbols that now baffle me. It is as though I swam in a sea of omens. ...the sea is itself for mariners a force that cannot be controlled and gives rise to the multitude of superstitions that chart it on the subtle plane. It was the alertness of fear and its attempt to control through augury what cannot be so controlled that made me interpretive beyond reason. I note the remark on the top of a page “I wouldn’t like to tell a psychiatrist any of this”.
The more interesting thing here isn't the fear of seeing things. It's the wisdom to decline to squint and try to see things. (This is especially tricky when you start to wonder what to do in response to your various "signs." A motif is not a cue. Those who press their coincidences into service as signs of destiny often wind up under trains, the playthings of their own phantoms. As a friend of mine once remarked to me: When something is communicated to you in a subtle way, you should respond to it in a subtle way.) There can be such a thing as reverence without making the world into a stage (or an idol) for your reverence, complete with little magic tricks by God or secret messages for your benefit.

One very wu-wei aspect of the Great Art, and, it would seem, not the least difficult, is to cultivate an openness to these moments, without at the same time trying to underhandedly organize them. A question of the right-hand and left-hand paths.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Not the Brief Blog Review


This month my Brief Blog Review was to be of the excellent Light of A Golden Day. Excellent and now defunct, despite dependable postings month after month, usually week after week, since 2009. I clicked on my link to the blog, and all I got was one of those not-found messages one sometimes bumps into on the internet. But this couldn't be right -- could it? Oh yes, sure could. After years of writing one of the most interesting and deep esoteric-occult blogs on the internet, Frater A.M. has packed it in, dare I say "unceremoniously." I don't know anything about Frater A.M. except his blog, so I can't unpack any of his reasons, which are doubtless good ones, but I have to say I'm sorry to see him go. I have never drawn a magic circle on my floor, I own no enchanted paraphernalia, and I wouldn't know a genuine sigil from a scribble or a seismograph readout, but his blog was one of the places where one could find all kinds of deep lore and trace a word from the Prophets through Talmud to the Golden Dawn, or lay out all the correspondences between planets, metals, humors and angelic powers in seven different systems, from a guy who did it all with a straight face, no apologies, and (very hard to pull off) no sanctimonious airs. He was especially good at finding relatively obscure Kabbalistic sources, and making them seem readable -- all without bending over didactically backwards. I wish him well in whatever comes next.

The blog lives on for a limited time in Google cache. Seriously, google "Light of a Golden Day" and "blog", and click on every cached page that comes up. Soon the only (limited) access will be via the WayBack machine.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Sempiternal Recurrence


When I remarked before that Nietzsche's doctrine of the Eternal Return is grounded in an experience, not a theory, I was not making things up. Although I do not, in fact, believe in Eternal Recurrence, I know very well what it is to so believe. Well before I read Nietzsche, I had lived through what Nietzsche describes in The Gay Science and in Zarathustra: the actual experience of "seeing" that Recurrence just is. (Just for the record, there were no drugs involved.) This is not, in any way, for me, a freeing or yea-saying experience; it is on the contrary extremely paralyzing. Maybe I am just a 'weak soul,' as he might put it, but I doubt very much that many readers of Nietzsche have actually drank as deeply from that well as I have.

[added later: I realize that this sounds like some kind of magic trump card, and an unverifiable one at that. OK. But I should clarify at least that what I'm claiming here is certainly not that I know my Nietzsche better than anyone else. I mean that when I read most people on Nietzsche, I rarely get the sense they've really felt the looming reality (even if that reality is phantasmal) of the Eternal Return -- seen it, grasped (or been grasped by) it, the way one occasionally really does see that you and all your loved ones are mortal and will die. This isn't a deduction from premises, it's a change of premises. I will add that I'm aware of a few exceptions to this generalization about Nietzsche readers, and would be very interested to learn of more. I'm sticking this paragraph in here near the top to forestall misunderstanding, but I say it in a little more detail in a comment below.]

I'm not concerned here to argue for the dispositive validity of "subjective" experiences, mine or anyone else's; or to explain them (whether "away" or not) either. I have reached provisional interpretations of these experiences and could doubtless reach others -- probably will, in fact. My Nietzscheanism is heterodox, (no doubt like, mutatis mutandis, my Christianity), and while I suspect there is "something to" the vision of Recurrence (as also to Reincarnation), it is not, in my onto-cosmology, precisely as Nietzsche says. And I might add, with great fervor, Thank God for that.

I'm not going to try to articulate this idiosyncratic vision here (the short version is: there may well be "closed time-like loops," but no one has to be stuck in them; compare Ousepnsky's Strange Life of Ivan Osokin), partly because it's too inchoate; but mainly because describing the experience -- a kind of Déjà vu to the nth power -- is a hopeless cause; if you don't immediately meet my eye and say "Oh my God, Yeah, I know!," the best you will be able to do is politely assume I'm not crazy. Maybe later.

My point here is far more modest. I want to contest an alternative vision of Nietzscheanism which claims that one doesn't need a truth-claim for the Return. All one needs is to treat it as a kind of useful fiction. This is Nietzscheanism "Als-ob" style: who cares if Eternal Recurrence is True? Just live as if it were true! This rationale runs thus: whether or not we can "believe" in Eternal Recurrence, it is at least starkly immanent; it refuses any recourse to a great beyond, which is (per argument) indisputably a good thing, since the allure of transcendence has made such mischief in its "world-denying" nay-saying. Whatever the merits of this critique of Transcendence, this argument will not do on hermeneutic grounds. It is not what Nietzsche means. Yes, I know that Nietzsche offers seems in some places to offer his doctrine as if it were a kind of litmus-test for Yea-Saying ("Have you said yes to a single joy?"), and downplays the question of its truth or falsity. But no "As If" will salvage the Nietzschean demon scenario as he recounts it in The Gay Science. I know this may seem beside-the-point (especially considering Nietzsche's well-known disdain, at least in some moods, for proof and refutation), but the issue is not merely exegetical. The demon is to be imagined as suggesting a true (i.e., a "literal") situation. The question is not, Can you live as though this were "figuratively" true? The question is, What would be your response if you saw that this was inescapably the way things are? One may adjust the terminology as one likes, but do not suppose that you can evade the "Eternal Return" by calling it a myth -- the only thing that gives it its ethical force is that it is accepted per hypothesis, and the hypothesis is that it is so, in the same way that, as the demon puts it this very night and this dog barking and "I myself" are so. What if you really had to live your life over and over, and every last detail remained unaltered, because that's Just How Things Are? Nietzsche's meta-ethical point only comes through if you take this question absolutely seriously. Otherwise one is like Zarathustra's dwarf, "making things too easy on yourself".

This argument is essentially that all as-if claims are conceptually dependent upon the possibility of unmodifiedly assertive claims. This is similar to, and perhaps an instance of, the Brandomian privileging of assertions:
Why privilege assertion? Because the other speech acts depend on it. For instance, ordering or commanding someone to do something is not just producing a performance that obliges them to do it. It is specifying what one is being commanded to do by
describing it, by saying what it is one is to do. So I take it that no-one who does not understand the claim “The door is shut,” can understand the order “Shut the door,” (although they could learn to respond appropriately to those noises).(Brandom, 1999 Interview)
Brandom's argument is broader than mine, and I don't necessarily wish to sign on to its every nuance, but I do believe he names a practical and pragmatic wrinkle that must be faced by every Wittgensteinian retreat to where "my spade is turned." Yes, explanations "come to an end somewhere," and one may name this "where" practice, but there are practices and practices, and the practice of giving reasons has a different grammar than that of other practices, for instance of command-and-response, or of "as if".

Nonetheless, a Wittgensteinian of my stripe (by which I mean, the kind that foregrounds continuity rather than discontinuity between his early and late work) can counter that it is simply the grammar of giving reasons that sets this language-game apart, and this grammar is just a feature of this particular practice; so one may elaborate and spell out this grammar as much as one likes, but it remains a practice among practices, unless one is prepared to grant a kind of "unsayable" rationale ("rationale" is already far too said, too "explicit"), such as Wittgenstein hazarded in the Tractatus. This would be a sort of transcendental seeing of the structure of propositionality as such. For Wittgenstein (at this stage), "logic is transcendental" (Tractatus 6.13), but so too, "ethics is transcendental" (ibid. 6.421). Both are bound up with the idea of the world as a whole, or "contemplated...sub specie aeterni."

In Nietzsche, this contemplation has short-circuited. The horror of the Eternal Return, for me, is precisely that Nietzsche conflates eternity with sempiternality -- his return is a continuous stuck repeat button, and things "unfold"-- with nothing New ever. How this could have appealed to Deleuze, with his persistent pursuit of the Whiteheadian question "how can there be something new?", is an occasion for bafflement. The Return is mere serial recurrence, recurrence in Time. If Nietzsche had expressed (here) an inkling of actual Eternity, things might be different.

But then, in order to speak of Eternity, we must admit speaking of Transcendence -- or at least, with Wittgenstein, of admitting that Transcendence "shows itself".

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Blind Mind-unmaker


Imagine that you are in possession of a full, Laplacean knowledge of the state of another person's brain, a person who is arguing with you for a position diametrically opposed to your own. It does not matter what the content of the disagreement is; but what is essential, for the purposes of this thought-experiment, is that your knowledge of your interlocutor's brain-state -- a knowledge which is of course scientifically mediated, say by the enormous quantum-parallel-processing capacities a hyperfuturistic supercomputer -- also gives you the manipulative access to these brain-states. This means that in addition to being able to interfere with their brain "from above," i.e., trying to change their brain-states the old-fashioned way, by argument, you now also have the capacity to interfere "from below": changing one neuro-chemical or neuro-structural detail after another. We will further stipulate that this alteration be performed "non-invasively," and "cleanly" (with surgical precision but without surgery). No other collateral changes (no "unintended consequences") will attend the alterations of your opponent's brain. In fact, they will not experience you as having done anything to them at all, except argue with them. You have a Ring of Gyges when it comes to their brain. But, and here is the important point, you will be able to literally "change their mind."

In short, as you go on arguing with them, you can alternate your argumentative moves with making incremental changes in the brain, in such a way as to cause them to abandon their former intractability, and to agree with you.

Do you now feel that you have "won the argument?"

Have you done anything unethical? Do you feel guilty?

If the answer to the latter is Yes, you needn't worry -- on the terms we are supposing, you can also have a full account, scientifically mediated, of your own brain states, and can make any necessary adjustments to dissolve your reservations.

This is one extension -- by no means the most disturbing one -- I think of when I consider R. Scott Bakker's "worst-case scenario" of his Blind Brain Theory. I have to admit, I am relieved to see him say he regards it as a worst-case scenario. Now I have not read all of Bakker's (many and lengthy) posts on this matter, so I am open to correction; moreover, his hypothesis is so unpalatable to me that, while I applaud his refusal to pull his punches, I have almost certainly misconstrued it in some way. (Bakker predicts that one should find the theory unpalatable -- he does so himself.)

Insofar as I understand him, it would seem that he is drawing radical conclusions from the notion, also argued by Colin McGinn for instance, that the brain, a natural system like any other, simply did not evolve to understand its own processes but rather to ensure the survival of its organism. Consciousness is thus an inherently mysterious process to itself, not primarily because of some weird quality of self-reference qua self-reference, let alone because of something essentially ineffable and spiritual about consciousness itself, but because the brain inherently lacks the capacity to register the relevant data.

It isn't just what Bakker suggests here, it's specifically what he opposes, and his manner of opposing, that causes me to shudder.
science is overcoming the neural complexities that have for so long made an intentional citadel out of the soul. It will continue doing what it has always done, which is offer sometimes simple, sometimes sophisticated, mechanical explanations of what it finds, and so effectively ‘disenchanting’ the brain the way it has the world.... Since there are infinitely more ways for our mechanistic scientific understanding to contradict our intentional prescientific understanding [than to confirm it], we should, all things being equal, expect that the latter will be overthrown. Indeed, we already have a growing mountain of evidence trending in this direction. Given our apologetic inclinations, however, it should come as no surprise that the literature is rife with arguments why all things are not equal. Aside from an ingrained suspicion of happy endings, especially where science is concerned (I’m inclined to think it will cut our throats), the difficulty I have with such arguments lies in their reliance on metacognitive intuition. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are in any better position peering into our souls than our ancestors were peering into the heavens. Why should the accumulation of scientific information be any friendlier to our traditional, prescientific assumptions this one time around?
Bakker critiques phenomenology and post-phenomenological philosophy, for instance, as a massive rationalization of our cherished illusions of being special, a rationalization doomed to being exposed as the New-Age conceit it is:
Yours is a prescientific discourse, one whose domain is about to be overrun by the sciences. The black box of the brain has been cracked open, revealing more than enough to put your conceptual conceits on notice. Did you really think you would be the lone exception? That your discourse, out of all of them, would be the one to prevail, to hold back the empirical philistines that had conquered all corners of existence otherwise? It’s not quite that point yet, but the longer you continue your discourses independent of the sciences, the more magical you become – the less cognitive. And with legitimacy goes institutional credibility. Like it or not, you have begun the perhaps not so long drift toward Oprah spots with Eckhart Tolle.
One possible rejoinder to Bakker is Davidsonian "anomalous monism," according to which there is no strict law-like account of the relation between mental and physical events, despite the fact that mental events are identical with (certain) physical events. But on the other hand, Bakker may have skirted this ploy already, because for the Blind Brain Theory (as I understand it), such terms as "beliefs," "desires," and so on, are not actually mental states, but rather extremely coarse-grained terms that don't so much refer to brain-states only indirectly, as not refer to anything at all. The terms themselves are an effect of the illusion the BBT is supposed to account for.

Now Bakker insists, his theory is an empirical one: it makes predictions and could be shown to be false by these predictions failing to obtain. What he doesn't want to brook is an a priori argument that reasons from the specialness of consciousness per se. I am not sure that Bakker's argument is entirely falsifiable in this way; many of his empirical predictions (e.g. that human knowledge will prove to be the function of heuristic brain "modules") do not seem to me to be uniquely predicted by his hypothesis; more importantly, the brain might experientially fail to account for itself, might endemically fall prey to the illusion of selfhood, and be structurally and functionally incapable of grasping its own function -- might, in short, fulfill these characteristic expectations of the theory, even in the absence of any number of the specific features Bakker names. Thus, even if Bakker were wrong about why the brain is blind, the brain might still be blind.

Nonetheless, it's clear that Bakker wants to make the Blind Brain Theory as strong as possible, if only as a devil's advocate. This caveat arises because, at the post where Bakker links to his original exposition of the BBT, he has a single clause for a tagline. The clause is: Please convince me it's gotta be wrong!

I respect Bakker for drawing so starkly the nihilisitic outcome of his thoughts, and for trying to frame them in a falsifiable manner. Neither of these is easy. The first takes tremendous courage, the second exhausting work. But I think what I appreciate most is this one sentence. The same ghost of a plea occurs at the very end of his abstract to the same paper. There Bakker writes:
BBT separates the question of consciousness from the question of how consciousness appears, and so drastically narrows the so-called explanatory gap. If true, it considerably ‘softens’ the hard problem. But at what cost?
That little question mark at the end "leaves unsaid" a great deal. Towards the end of his paper, Bakker says a bit of it:
If you are anything like me, you find this thesis profoundly repellent. BBT paints a picture that is utterly antithetical to our intuitions, a cartoon consciousness, one that appears as deep as deep and as wide as wide for the simple lack of any information otherwise; and yet a picture that we might nonetheless expect, given the Recursive System and it myriad structural and developmental infelicities. A chasm of some kind has to lie between consciousness as possessed and consciousness as experienced. Given the human brain’s mad complexity and human consciousness’s evolutionary youth, it would be nothing short of astounding if it were not profoundly deceptive somehow. ... Imagine all of your life amounting to nothing more than a series of distortions and illusions attending a recursive twist in some organism’s brain. For more than ten years I have been mulling ‘brain blindness,’ dreading it – even hating it.... And I still can’t quite bring myself to believe it.
And yet. And yet, the honest man Bakker is wants to argue for it; because, clearly, turning away from it just because he hates it is also unpalatable. Or, is there something more?

Bakker has had a ridiculous time of it with fans and detractors of his fantasy fiction, particularly in regards to his depiction of the bad treatment of women, which in the barbaric settings he describes can be very bad indeed (it gets bad for the men, too). In his self-defense Bakker has reiterated what artist after artist has insisted: depiction is not endorsement. Describe a rape and you are not describing one of your own fantasies. Well, OK, the reply goes, maybe not one rape, but when do we get to start being suspicious? Two? Ten? The critics get out their pencil and paper and start adding up tick marks. You can read a depressing amount of this back and forth if you hang out on various message boards (or just trawl them later), lots of recriminations and he-should-know-better, some of which is substantive, lots of which is from weird trolls who get their entertainment in this way. I'm not linking to it, but you can find it easily enough. I assume, because I like to assume the best about people, that Bakker has taken some of the substantive points to heart.

None of that is directly relevant to the question of the material causes of consciousness, you might say; but there is an isomorphism of sorts, for in the relevant BBT writings, too, Bakker is describing a catastophic theoretic scenario while at the same time insisting that he's not advocating for it. It's more just staring the bleak possibility in the face; the need to not flinch just because the possibility is bleak. It's like a game of chicken played with a brick wall. "There will always be apologists" for consciousness, Bakker shrugs. But someone has to articulate the case against it....

Well, maybe. Still, there is that "ingrained suspicion of happy endings," a sort of anti-eucatastrophe stance, in which Bakker is certainly in good, or at least populous, company. Is it just this which goads one on, this unsettling drip-drip-drip of skepticism...? or is there in us some kind of Poe-esque imp of the perverse that wants (and does not want) to be shown, impossibly, to be what Francis Crick wrote in the opening of The Astonishing Hypothesis:
 ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it, "You're nothing but a pack of neurons."
But let us take Bakker at his word and accept that driven though he is to articulate BBT, he nonetheless hates it. Reframing the initial thought-experiment, suppose I am arguing with Bakker about the BBT. Suppose that without his knowledge, I am supplied with such a display as I mentioned before, mapping his brain and supplying me with all the hitherto-missing information I need to understand his cognition. Obviously, I am aware (in this scenario) that the Blind Brain Theory, or something like it, is true, since the technology I have access to presupposes it. But I also know that Bakker, despite his obsessive interest in the theory, can't stand it and does not want it to be true. Should I then tweak his brain to remove his qualms? Or to remove his propensity to believe the theory?

A sharp reader will note immediately that I am leaving aside many, many possibilities. There is no reason after all why I couldn't, on this theory, tweak Bakker's brain in any of a thousand thousand other ways, some of them highly entertaining to certain dispositions. I refer you to Bakker's novel Neuropath for an exploration of some of these implications. Neuropath includes (fair warning) some of those upsetting rape-scenarios, so go advisedly into that dark night. It explores (with, let it be said, somewhat less subtlety) a victim-&-victimizer relationship between Neil Cassidy and Thomas Bible that, to my mind, recalls Winston and O'Brien in 1984. This comparison raises a question: who will wield this power over the malleable mind, and to what ends? This is a question asked also by Mark Fisher in a recently published essay on Bakker's novel, and by Steven Craig Hickman in a recent post. And, like the return of the repressed, here comes that question of motives again. Fisher notes that the question of Why the villain of Neuropath would set out to torture his victims can only arise in the structure of the novel as a kind of narratological relic, a fossilized souveneir from a time when the question of motive made sense. Why, in particular, try so very hard to drive home the truth of eliminative reductionism, the horror of the astonishing hypothesis?
instead of moving beyond intentionality, Cassidy’s relationship to Bible shows all the signs of an obsessive attachment. It matters very intensely to Cassidy what Bible thinks and feels. Rather than being a coolly rational presence, scientific detachment incarnate, Cassidy is a Romantic, Mephistopholean figure, engaged in a contradictory, necessarily self-defeating, quest. Despite having exposed experience as a myth, he wants to close the gap between experience and knowledge; he wants Bible to live the Argument.
Fisher is surely correct to point out that the "agentless" agency at work in this logic is that of ideology:
The agent without intentionality in Neuropath is that of capital itself. Bakker is correct to say that the most important implications of the novel concern capital’s instrumentalization of neuroscience....Cassidy’s neurosurgical work illustrates Paolo Virno’s claim that “[n]ihilism, once hidden in the shadow of technical-productive power, becomes a fundamental ingredient of that power, a quality highly prized by the marketplace of labor.” [Paolo Virno, Grammar of the Multitude, p 86] But capital’s practical nihilism remains a mitigated nihilism. Even while capital fully exploits the results of neuroscientific research, it is at the same time committed to disseminating the ideological image of the conscious subject capable of exercising choice. It is capital, therefore, that must keep deferring the “semantic apocalypse”.
This gets things, I think, both right and wrong, though I cannot argue the point extensively here. Suffice it to say that I regard capital as indeed in denial of its nihilistic implications (in certain moments i would say it is constituted by this denial), but I do not regard a glorious apotheosis of this nihilism to be the deliverance we all await -- as if we will be liberated finally once capital's mitigated nihilism at last casts off this mitigation.

Orwell, for his part, has O'Brien articulate what drives him to destroy Winston, to take him apart and reassemble him in a shape of O'Brien's own choosing:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know what no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. (1984 p 263)
This passage, it seems to me, is far more cogent than is Fisher's too-quick shrugging-off of the implications of the "Argument," as Bakker calls BBT in Neuropath. The Argument is not merely what powers the tools of sadism in the novel; it is what makes the sadism possible.

At the same time, the BBT certainly invites us to raise our eyebrows at O'Brien's claim that the Part officials "know what we are doing." And yet, there is nothing "Mephistophelean" about O'Brien; he is no spirit of negation. Doublethink is not negation; it is too shallow for that. It is simply the requisite thinking of whatever thought currently needs thinking for the purposes of power; a thought that is as close as thinking can come to being contentless, since "content" is purely functional. (This is what "2+2=5" means). And it seems to me that this is also very close to what the BBT asserts.

In his post commenting on Neuropath and on Fisher's essay, Hickman first notes
the either/or scenario that Fisher draws out[:] how either the technocapitalists or the technosocialists (‘General Intellect’) in the immediate future might use such knowledge to wield powers of control/emacipation never before imaginable...[Fisher] brings up two notions, both hinging on the amoral ‘practical nihilism’ of neuroscience itself: 1) the reinforcement by the dominant ideology, technocapitalism, to use such technologies to gain complete control over every aspect of our lives through invasive techniques of brain manipulation; or, 2) the power of some alternative, possibly Leftward, collectivist ideology that seeks through the malleability or plasticity of these same neurosciences to use the ‘General Intellect’ to freely experiment on itself.
Hickman then reasonably asks:
Do we really want either of these paths?
I am not at all sure that my answer to this question is Hickman's -- I'm not sure either of us have "an" answer -- but one could be forgiven for observing that at any rate, this is a separate question from whether the BBT is true. Maybe it is true, and we should just hope that it does not become generally known? But among other obvious ethical and meta-epistemic difficulties, the problem is, it seems very hard to ask the question of truth in complete separation from the question of what motivates the question, and to what use the answer can be put. Philosophy is not simply the discipline involved in keeping these rigorously distinguished; it is also the passionate comprehension of the desires at play in their conflation.

What I like (if that is the word) in Bakker is his unstinting calling-it-as-he-sees-it, his willingness to remind us of the horrible implications of posthumanism, without any escape route. One can only be reminded of Nietzsche:
Socrates and Plato, in this regard great doubters and admirable innovators, were nonetheless innocently credulous in regard to that most fateful of prejudices, that profoundest of errors, that "right knowledge must be followed by right action." In this principle they were still the heirs of the universal madness and presumption that there exists knowledge as to the essential nature of an action. "For it would be terrible if insight into the nature of right action were not followed by right action." -- this is the only kind of proof these great men deemed necessary for demonstrating the truth of this idea; the opposite seemed to them crazy and unthinkable. (Dawn, II, 116)
I once wrote a thirteen-point Credo of sorts. The seventh item read:
If you have never felt the undertow of pure nihilism, you do not know what [you think] you're not missing.

"It would be terrible." This is not an argument with any dispositive force. But it is a datum, and that datum requires an account like every datum. Here the question is, what do you mean, "terrible?"

If we mean, "unpleasant for me," well, Bakker is clearly prepared to say, Too bad. But this is not what we mean, I think. "Terrible" in this context means, this is a catastophic way of constructing the universe. It would be better to make it otherwise. Better for who? What do you mean, better? The entire range of questions about ethics, from Euthyphro to Sam Harris, rise up like ghosts, and on the Blind Brain Theory they are indeed as substantial as ghosts. This means, please note, that you cannot have recourse to any ethical or moral or normative concept whatsoever at bottom. The universe does not care that you care. You caring is just a local tic every bit as significant as a sunspot or a sandwich. Caring is an accident.

Strictly speaking, on the BBT, all moral evaluation of the universe is meaningless. Your preferences are meaningless. Bakker's recoil from the BBT is meaningless. He has no actual criterion to appeal to. I say, No. The recoil is meaningful. It is a grammatical response in the "space of reasons," a different neighborhood of the very same space in which we have reasons for believing things. Things like theories of the brain.

And this had better be the case, because in the absence of a moral space of reasons, the entire question of whether I should pull that switch for Bakker, or which choice of the two Hickman proposes we should choose -- indeed, any "should" question at all -- is completely unanswerable.