Future, Present, & Past:

~~ 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

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".