30 December 2007

Why logic? Why intimologies?

The other day i came across this quote from one of the wittiest scientists of the past century, Richard P. Feynman:

Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.

This is a clever way of saying that a scientist doesn't need to think about what he's doing, any more than a blue jay needs to study the Blue Jay Way. And this is quite true, as long as the scientist isn't looking to break new ground in science, but is content to work on the usual problems in the usual ways. C. S. Peirce explains:

The theory of any act in no wise aids the doing of it, so long as what is to be done is of a narrow description, so that it can be governed by the unconscious part of our organism. For such purposes, rules of thumb or no rules at all are the best. You cannot play billiards by analytical mechanics nor keep shop by political economy. But when new paths have to be struck out, a spinal cord is not enough; a brain is needed, and that brain an organ of mind, and that mind perfected by a liberal education. And a liberal education—so far as its relation to the understanding goes—means logic. That is indispensable to it, and no other one thing is.

Logic here ‘is the art of devising methods of research,—the method of methods’; it is also a ‘normative science’, a method of evaluating methods. Peirce made these remarks in 1882, introducing the course in logic which he taught at Johns Hopkins University. If he seems to use the word more broadly than we typically use it today, perhaps it's a sign that we have still not taken the path of ‘liberal education’ to which he pointed so long ago.

Peirce also identified logic with semiotic(s), the study of how signs of all kinds operate. My gnoxic inquiry likewise delves into the roots of significance. I am always asking, How do you mean?. Now, you don't need to answer that question—in other words, you don't need a theory of meaning—in order to commit an act of meaning. You do it all the time, without knowing how. But what if you're aiming to boldly mean what no one has meant before? Then you might need to think about how you can do it. And that's what intimologies are all about.

It's true that a specialist (like Feynman) doesn't need philosophy of science, any more than a bird brain needs philosophy. But the most illuminating discoveries tend to be made by those who cross the old specialist boundaries. I will leave the last word on this to Peirce, continuing from the quote above:

I do not need to be told that science consists of specialties. I know all that, for I belong to the guild of science, have learned one of its trades and am saturated with its current notions. But in my judgment there are scientific men, all whose training has only served to belittle them, and I do not see that a mere scientific specialist stands intellectually much higher than an artisan. I am quite sure that a young man who spends his time exclusively in the laboratory of physics or chemistry or biology, is in danger of profiting but little more from his work than if he were an apprentice in a machine shop.

The scientific specialists—pendulum swingers and the like—are doing a great and useful work; each one very little, but altogether something vast. But the higher places in science in the coming years are for those who succeed in adapting the methods of one science to the investigation of another.…

Now although a man needs not the theory of a method in order to apply it as it has been applied already, yet in order to adapt to his own science the method of another with which he is less familiar, and to properly modify it so as to suit it to its new use, an acquaintance with the principles upon which it depends will be of the greatest benefit. For that sort of work a man needs to be more than a mere specialist; he needs such a general training of his mind, and such knowledge as shall show him how to make his powers most effective in a new direction. That knowledge is logic.

— Peirce (EP1, 212-13)

(By the way, Peirce himself was a ‘pendulum swinger’ in the employ of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and made specialist contributions to several fields; but his first and lasting love was logic and philosophy.)

20 November 2007

Here Comes Everybody

This space has been silent for awhile as i was working on the fourth chapter of Turning Words. It wouldn't take so long if i weren't such a Penelope emulator as i am, weaving a text one day only to unweave it the next and rework it. But at last, that chapter is now online in this its second complete draft. I hope it's better than the first draft was, at least. And this time i've also uploaded the ‘reverse’ side of that chapter—the one that covers the same territory, in a less linear way, but cites far more sources, and presupposes some understanding of the whole book's theme and idiom.

The obverse chapter, Here Comes Everybody, fits into a linear sequence, so it's recommended to start at the beginning of that sequence to better get the drift.

While i'm here, an observation on the process behind all this:

Since i retired from teaching and moved to Manitoulin Island, most of my waking hours go to wandering in the woods or wandering in the words—that is, reading. Maybe i should say ‘exploring’ instead of ‘wandering’, but there's no firm boundary between the two. And there's a certain similarity between woods and words as well.

At first it's a matter of groping in the wilderness, making trails by trial and error. You make a path by walking on it repeatedly, and gradually it becomes familiar, and certain landmarks begin to stand out. The paths become connections between places, which begin to form a network, and places proliferate as the network becomes finer and more detailed. Knowing a place means knowing how to get there from where you are. Sometimes you see another way to get there, perhaps a simpler way, and feel that you know the place better.

Sometimes it helps to have a view from above—perhaps an aerial or satellite photograph, or a map, which is a more abstract representation of the territory. The actual use of a map in navigation requires you to read yourself into it. Once you have located yourself and your goal on the map, then your on-the-ground know-how takes over, and your actual moves are guided by a specific view from within the path-network—a view bearing no resemblance at all to the map. Once on your way, the view from above can be put aside (until you need it again).

Theoretical knowledge is a kind of map. It can show you several paths of inquiry at once, and how they cross, diverge or converge. But it contributes nothing to your actual know-how unless you have some experience of navigating such a path from inside the territory. A dictionary (especially an etymological one) can contribute to your knowledge of a word, or a concept, but only if you already know something of its actual use. A definition makes connections or reveals relationships among locutions as locations in a universe of discourse, filling in some of the spaces between them.

But it behooves us to remember that all the maps come originally from somebody's exploration …

07 October 2007

Gendlin's Philosophy of the Implicit

Back in August, in a comment on my post Salvation and/or Nirvana post, Tzutzu raised a deep philosophical question which has been at the back of my mind ever since. Since then i've written down several ways of posing the question and of answering it as they occurred to me. But i decided not to post them here (since i'm not one of those bloggers who feels obligated to post regularly!). Here's my only restatement of the question that survives:

Just because my present understanding can be formulated, does that mean it is reduced to a formula?

Once an experience has been formulated, the experiencing seems to evaporate, leaving only the empty husk of the formula behind. And if you try to invest it with new life, the formula seems to act as a strait-jacket or a Procrustean bed, suffocating or mutilating any new meaning that might have emerged. (This appears to be a recurring postmodern nightmare.)

The good news is that there are ways to wake up from this nightmare. You can learn to dip into the source of meaning and let it emerge in forms that don't self-abort upon utterance. In fact you do this all the time, or you couldn't even make sense of the present sentence. One way of realizing this is to see how the process works even as it works implicitly in your seeing and your meaning. This could be done in terms of semiotics, or buddha-dharma, or no doubt many other ways of which i'm unaware. But the most straightforward plain-English approach to such a question that i know of is Eugene Gendlin's.

The Gendlin piece i recommended to Tzutzu was
Thinking Beyond Patterns—which is the one i recommend for those who already have some background in modern and postmodern philosophy. But it's a fairly long read; perhaps a better introduction to Gendlin (because it's much shorter) is Crossing and Dipping. Both have my highest recommendation for anyone with a philosophical heart who's put off by academic philosophy.

22 August 2007

The Great Conversation

I've said on my gnoxplorations page that my work, including posts like this one, represent an attempt to hold up my end of the Great Conversation. But i can't see that contribution in its whole context, and neither can you. Can anyOne? Is there a being for whom the Great Conversation is an internal dialogue?

You and i can only comprehend this (or any question) at the scale of the human body; at this basic level, all the buzzing business inside your brain serves the purpose of your understanding, and none of your neurons has any idea of that, even though they constitute it with their interaction. But what if all the human dialog, the crosstalk of the Internet and all the global media, is just the inner working of a global brain, working as a guidance system within the global body? What if the human collective, or Gaia perhaps, is doing the real meaning, even though we constitute it by interacting?

This may be an appealing idea, since we long to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to serve a higher purpose—this is part of our heritage as social animals. But we can at best imagine such ‘higher purpose’—as we are now doing—within the limitations of a human organism. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, ‘Things known are in the knower according to the mode of the knower’ (Swidler 1999, 9). Drawing upon the repertoire of human-scale experience, we might imagine Humanity or Gaia like a wise and nurturing parent—or we might imagine that this higher-level being cares about us no more than an anthill cares about the feelings of its ants. Let us imagine wisely, and humbly—and in the meantime, let our dialog probe and push the envelope of imagination and of knowledge.

08 August 2007

Reading and writing philosophy

Philosophy is always attempting to explicate the implicit. Try it, and you soon realize that ordinary language, though it must be the ground from which every theoretical edifice arises, is far too vague for any fine-grained explication. So you adopt a more specialized idiom, capable of more specific and less ambiguous expression. You may begin with an idiom already standardized within the field; but inevitably you begin adapting this ‘received idiom’ to current purposes, or inventing a new one, and at each step in the path your idiom becomes more distinctive, more specialized, more esoteric. Your explication, therefore, requires an ever greater commitment from the reader to immerse herself in that idiom.

For any reader, or anyone trying to make sense of the world, critical thinking is an absolute requirement. While we always rely on prejudice, intuition or external authority to some extent, we also have to recognize that none of them are ultimately reliable as guides. And there's no point in substituting one of them for another—for instance, calling upon your own prejudice to bear witness against someone else's authority. It's impossible to cogently criticize a writer's work without grasping its relation to your own experience. That relation is constituted by your reading, and that—not the writer or the writing—is the real target of genuine critical thinking.

What does a reader learn from immersing himself in a writer like, say, Peirce? First, that any thumbnail sketch of the author's ‘system’ is bound to be misunderstood. Indeed these sketches are most commonly used either as substitutes for an immersion to which the student is unwilling to commit himself, or as excuses for refusing that commitment. Of course there are good reasons for refusing that commitment, since intensive study of anything requires you to pass up a thousand other studies: you simply have to choose. But what you learn from any specific study is that no justification for passing it up, being uninformed by the study, can be at all informative about the subject of the study. At best it reveals that one way of reading the subject is a dead end.

03 August 2007

Salvation and/or Nirvana

One of the guiding principles of dialogue is a constant testing of the hypothesis that differences of idiom may conceal a convergence of experience. We are always entitled to wonder whether that other ‘belief system’ may be using different words to indicate the same realities that we know under more familiar names. Is it possible that Christian salvation really denotes the same experience as Buddhist nirvana?

One common factor shared by both is that spiritual seekers and questers imagine them elsewhere: at the end of the current spiritual journey, or on the far side of the river we must cross. This entails that some may reach the goal while others may not.

The Buddha on his deathbed is said to have reminded his followers that if anyone attains enlightenment, it is through his own efforts. The essential privacy of spiritual life (that is, of experience) is also affirmed in the Qur'án, Surah 35:

Allah verily sendeth whom He will astray, and guideth whom He will; so let not thy soul expire in sighings for them. Lo! Allah is aware of what they do!
— 35:8 (Pickthall)

And no burdened soul can bear another's burden, and if one heavy laden crieth for (help with) his load, naught of it will be lifted even though he (unto whom he crieth) be of kin. Thou warnest only those who fear their Lord in secret, and have established worship. He who groweth (in goodness), groweth only for himself, (he cannot by his merit redeem others). Unto Allah is the journeying.

— 35:18 (Pickthall)

On the other hand, the Buddhist bodhisattva gives up all aspiration to a private attainment. Likewise salvation in Christ is in communion, participation in the One Body, love's body. Nirvana is not an escape from the mess of the world, or from entanglement with others, but the realization of the interbeing of the self. So is the body of Christ.

For a human, to be conscious of self and of experience, and of their privacy, is to be grounded in the human community, in the social nature of the human animal, in the language enabled by empathy and symbol. The self, insofar as one can be conscious of it (rather than conscious with it), is nothing but one of those symbols.

In Luke 2, upon first seeing the child Jesus, Simeon responds as follows:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
which thou has prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to thy people Israel.
Luke 2:29-32 (KJV)

Simeon here takes salvation ‘of all peoples’ as an accomplished fact embodied in Jesus rather than a distant goal, and thus he is allowed to ‘depart in peace’ like a slave released by his master. Before seeing this salvation with his own eyes, Simeon was already ‘righteous and devout’ (2:25), but he had no desire for a private and personal salvation that would leave others unsaved. There is something deeply selfish about such a goal. This is one face of spiritual materialism (Trungpa 1973). It takes a renunciation of that selfishness to realize nirvana not as a remote goal but as a present reality concealed behind the ignorance of self-interest.

01 August 2007


Thanks to Vernon Lynn Stephens for posting the first comment to appear on this blog, and thus proving my expectation wrong—philosophers live for just those moments! (I'm a bit slow responding due to some social distractions over the past few days.)

Thanks also, Vernon, for pointing out the importance of pointers. Some folks use a ‘blogroll’ to furnish pointers to visitors; i use instead an annotated page on my home site, which i call
I've been keeping this updated for over 5 years now, in the hope that it might lead others to some sources that i've found fruitful in various ways. It's mostly print sources but increasingly i'm adding web links to it as well. Anyone who finds these little bloggish meditations of some use will probably find some pointers there.

As for phenomenology, i'm not widely read in that neighborhood, except for Merleau-Ponty—and Eugene Gendlin, who doesn't self-label as a phenomenologist, but he seems connected to that category. Follow this link to SourceNet for more about his work. Most of my acquaintance with Husserl is second-hand (through the Evan Thompson book that i reviewed, for instance), since i've decided i don't have time to immerse myself in his work as i do in Gendlin and Peirce. I do have a hunch that Peirce and Husserl were thinking along parallel but separate tracks in some ways, though neither paid much attention to the other. (Maybe each was put off by the other's idiom, which would be quite understandable in both cases!) My hunch is spelled out a bit more in the ‘Peirce on Phenomenology’ page on my website.

Today i'd like to point in a slightly different direction, toward
The Wholehearted Way, which is a translation of Eihei Dogen's ‘Bendowa’ (one of his earliest works) along with a commentary by Kosho Ushiyama Roshi. I don't know of a better introduction to the practice of Zen Buddhism (though i do list some others on SourceNet). Near the end of the book comes a remark by Dogen (italicized below), followed by Uchiyama Roshi's comment:

If the genuine buddha-dharma permeates the country, because of the ceaseless protection of buddhas and heavenly beings, the emperor's reign will be peaceful.

I agree, and yet if we try to spread buddha-dharma in order to pacify the world, the order will be turned upside down. That is what the so-called new religions do in order to collect people. When zazen practice permeates the world, meaningless conflicts may disappear. Consequently, peace may pervade the world. It may be possible, but such an effect is nothing other than a by-product of zazen. We should not put the cart before the horse.

These days, some companies force employees to practice zazen at Zen temples for the sake of making them obedient, so that they work more efficiently without going on strike. Such zazen has nothing to do with buddha-dharma. Zazen should be strictly good for nothing. It is vital to just practice this good-for-nothing practice.

— (Okumura and Leighton 1997, 198-9)

The point here is that authentic practice is always ‘autotelic’, as the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi puts it: free of ulterior motive. It is not a means to some end external to itself, whether personal or social. It's not a solution for the world's problems: rather it puts all those problems into a bigger context, as a dewdrop does the moon. This principle is confirmed in countless scriptures, all the way from the Tao te Ching and the Bhagavad-Gita to Carlos Castaneda's ‘controlled folly.’ And according to Peirce (especially in his Cambridge Lectures of 1898), the practice of the pure scientist is likewise ‘good for nothing’. A science which serves corporate purposes, or addresses ‘vitally important’ social issues, is ‘upside down’, to use Uchiyama Roshi's term.

In these days of gathering environmental crisis, people are naturally looking for ways to deal with it. Maybe the best way is to just sit still and hope that such a model of minimal entropy production is contagious. That's seems reasonable, given that most of the problems are symptomatic of our chronic human busyness. But that shouldn't be our reason for sitting still; and the same goes for any essential practice. It has to be its own reason, lest it lose the very purity which makes it essential, along with any ‘practical’ efficacy it may happen to have.

So what about the practice of whole-body reading? In this practice the scripture or text points directly to deepest experience. Ideally your reading is one-pointed, though you reflect later on that this particular text is only one of many pointers, each in its own idiom, to the one deep truth. Later, you might bear witness to that experience by giving someone else a pointer to that same text, or to others which have worked as turning words for you, in one way or another. This is important in these days of information inundation, when a reader or seeker has so many texts to choose from. In a sense we are busy weaving a world-wide web of these pointers and links. But that's only a by-product of our bearing witness to the practice of deep reading, just as The Wholehearted Way is a byproduct of Zen practice, even as it's also an invitation.

When our mind faculty and other sense faculties have been transformed and purified as a result of the merit we have received from hearing, understanding, and practicing this wonderful Dharma, then we need hear only one gatha or one line of the sutra to understand all sutras and teachings. We do not need to study the entire Tripitaka [Buddhist canon] in order to understand the Buddhadharma. One gatha [verse] contains all other gathas, one teaching reveals the deep meaning of all other teachings, just as the truth of impermanence contains the truth of no-self and the truth of interbeing. This is the meaning of the Avatamsaka Sutra: the one contains the all.
— Thich Nhat Hanh (2003, 87)

So you don't even have to read the Avatamsaka Sutra to get this point, yet that could be a turning word for you too, because it may express the point in some way you would never have thought of otherwise, and thus reveal the ‘emptiness’ of all expression. So there's another pointer that you don't have to follow.

29 July 2007

Return of the backwoods philosopher

I've been busy since my last post here, working alternately on my book and on a review of Evan Thompson's book Mind in Life. Now i've finished the review and put it on my website; this book should be of great interest for anyone curious about how biology connects with phenomenology (the systematic study of experience). Or anyone interested in consciousness studies, actually.

So i now plan to resume posting of recent thoughts and readings which are separable from my main work in progress. Comments are welcome, of course, though i don't really expect any in the near future, since i'm out of all the usual loops, so to speak. In this respect i can identify with that philosophical ‘backwoodsman’ of an earlier time, Charley Peirce, who wrote of himself (at age 70) that he was ‘trying to come to understand the nature of the different kinds of reasoning’ and had ‘more and more led the life of a recluse in order to escape all distraction from that study’ (Ketner 1998, 62). That didn't stop him from publishing over 300 reviews, and if weblogs had existed 100 years ago i'm sure he would have used them too. (Not that my output can compare with Peirce's, either in quality or quantity!)

Peirce devoted himself to logic and semiotic not because these were special interests of his—and certainly not because they represented a viable career path!—but because they represent the scaffolding which supports all of the ‘special sciences.’ Philosophy, for Peirce, was the inquiry which ‘rests on no special observations, made by special observational means, but on phenomena which lie open to the observation of every man, every day and hour’ (CP 7.526). The very idea of a ‘specialist’ in logic or philosophy is oxymoronic.

Logic, like the logos of Heraclitus, is involved in the very possibility of learning anything. Heraclitus was among the first to make some observations that explain why it's difficult to discover anything new:

He who does not expect will not find out the unexpected, for it is trackless and unexplored.

Lovers of wisdom must be good inquirers into many things indeed.

Whatever comes from sight, hearing, learning from experience: this I prefer.

However …

Much learning (polymathia) does not teach understanding.

Eyes and ears are poor witnesses for men if their souls do not understand the language [literally, if they have ‘barbaric souls’].

(The translations here are mostly from Kahn 1979.) The ‘soul’ (psyche) here seems to be the faculty that integrates all the bits and pieces of experience and makes sense of it all.

Semeiotically speaking, the question here is how you can learn anything that you don't already know by reading signs.

The Sign can only represent the Object and tell about it. It cannot furnish acquaintance with or recognition of that Object; for that is what is meant in this volume by the Object of a Sign; namely, that with which it presupposes an acquaintance in order to convey some further information concerning it.

Where does this ‘further information’ come from? Merleau-Ponty (1945, 207-8) raises the question of how a listener can learn anything from a spoken utterance, ‘since it would not be understood if it did not encounter in the listener the ability spontaneously to effect it.’

People can speak to us only a language which we already understand; each word of a difficult text awakens in us thoughts which were ours beforehand, but these meanings sometimes combine to form new thought which recasts them all, and we are transported to the heart of the matter, we find the source.

Such a ‘difficult text’ is precisely what i call a scripture. Why does it have to be ‘difficult’? Because, as Wallace Stevens said of poetry, it ‘must resist the intelligence almost successfully.’ An easy text, like ‘easy listening’ music, is not going to take you anywhere you haven't already been. A new thought, or a new intimacy, does not come to us as the solution to an already-determined problem, as Merleau-Ponty goes on to say:

In understanding others, the problem is always indeterminate because only the solution will bring the data retrospectively to light as convergent; only the central theme of a philosophy, once understood, endows the philosopher's writings with the value of adequate signs.

So that's how a philosophical text can work as scripture: it's up to you, the reader, to get to the ‘central theme’ and thus to ‘the heart of the matter, the source’. And the same is true of mythic or parabolic texts, as Arthur Koestler (1964, 337-8) says:

All mythology is studded with symbols, veiled in allegory; the parables of Christ pose riddles which the audience must solve. The intention is not to obscure the message, but to make it more luminous by compelling the recipient to work it out by himself—to re-create it. Hence the message must be handed to him in implied form—and implied means ‘folded in’. To make it unfold, he must fill in the gaps, complete the hint, see through the symbolic disguise.

But of course you can't do your part as reader unless the writer has done his part as learner; and that explain's old Charley's need to avoid distractions.
For in order that I should be of the service to you that I hold it as the first duty of my remaining years that I should try with all my heart to be, this writing on my part and reading on yours, should amount to a heart to heart confabulation, without any reserve that can possibly obstruct it.

(This too is from Ketner 1998, 62, following immediately from the quote above. As always, my reference list
is key to all sources.)

I can't resist one comment: Charley, who defined ‘confabulation’ in the Century Dictionary as
‘easy, unrestrained conversation,’ would no doubt be amused at the meaning it's now taken on in the special sciences of neurology and psychology, as in Hirstein's Brain Fiction (2005) … but that's another story.

12 May 2007

The Science Delusion

All is not well in the House of Science. It is increasingly evident that some of the research reported in the popular press, and even some of that published in peer-reviewed journals, has been bought and paid for by corporate interests with the aim of promoting their own products. The result is what we might call vulgar science, a debased imitation aiming to sell something by capitalizing on the authority granted to science in the mass media and the popular mind.

The most obvious example is (or was) the ‘research’ purporting to show that climate change is not occurring, or that human activity has not been a significant cause of it. Until a year or two ago, this was taken as a reasonable, evidence-based position by many people, perhaps a majority. This example is obvious because that position is now discredited in the public mind; another (older) example is the ‘research’ funded by tobacco companies on the effects of smoking. Less obvious—and therefore still effective—are other examples, such as ‘research’ and publicity about genetically modified organisms funded by the likes of Monsanto. The gullible public are still taken in by this kind of vulgar science.

Yes, there's always a minority who are capable of critical thinking, and thus can discriminate between real and bogus science. But there is no hope that the majority will ever reach this level. We can only conclude that the whole scientific enterprise is beyond redemption, and refuse to consider seriously anything presented in the name of science. It's time to expose, once and for all, the Science Delusion.

Now, some will question the wisdom of this proposal. At least, i hope so! The logic of it boils down to this: Debased and vulgar science is a reality, therefore science itself is a vulgar delusion. The strange thing is that when the same logic is applied to religion—the God Delusion, as Richard Dawkins calls it—some otherwise reasonable people are inclined to take it seriously. Some apparently think it worthwhile to debunk the most vulgar uses and expressions of religious belief. Watching such a zealous crusader carry out this kind of secular jihad is a bit embarrassing, like watching people shoot fish in a barrel and call it sport. It's even more embarrassing than listening to the self-appointed prophets and gurus who think they know the Answer to all the world's problems. Those gurus may be deficient in critical thinking, but at least they offer us something worth criticizing.

Besides, sometimes prophets offer advice that holds up well under critical scrutiny and passes every pragmatic test. For instance: Cast out first the beam from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to cast out the mote from your brother's eye.

11 May 2007

Ripping up religion

Recently there's been a spate of attempts to criticize religion from a ‘scientific’ viewpoint. Many of these are little better than ‘hack work’ compared to genuine social criticism. The authors often express contempt for ‘literal’ readings of scripture without recognizing that the job has already been done (with more skill) within religious communities themselves. A reader investing great value in a scripture has far more motivation (and capacity) to reveal the shortcomings of a ‘literal’ reading than a cynical observer who doesn't care what the scripture means. This kind of critic, barking at religion just as dogs bark at the unfamiliar, generally indulges in attacking straw men while ignoring both the differences and the similarities between religious and scientific readings. Some even claim that any non-literal reading of a scripture is dishonest, on the ground that most members of the religious community take it literally. But a straw man is still a straw man regardless of how many crows are scared by it, and rending it limb from limb remains a rather childish exercise.

In the Buddhist idiom, grasping is the great mistake. Dogmatic acceptance of an idea is one way of ‘clinging’ or ‘grasping’; dogmatic rejection of it is another.

30 March 2007

Science, scripture and semiotics

Intimologies (and gnoxic studies) represent a semiotic confluence of science and scripture.
Scripture here means whatever you read (or write) with your whole body.
Science means the public, consensual process of the human dialog with nature.

Whole-body reading of the real can only be done from the inside, by the ‘first person.’ Reports and expressions of that reading can only represent it externally (i.e. for other readers).

Investigation of an internal process (such as whole-body reading) can only be done from the outside, by ‘third-person’ methods, using reports and expressions as data (necessarily incomplete and fallible).

Science without scripture loses its body. Scripture without science loses its head.

28 March 2007

Autistics in translation

My work in progress, in Chapter 3, comments on the ‘virtuality’ of the human world—the way culture interposes itself between humans and nature, including their own nature. It's become problematic that we ‘rely so much on external artifacts for guidance. Now we are beginning to notice the unintended consequences of this turn of evolutionary events. In a sense, then, the burning question is how we can yank our heads out of those virtual clouds and get our feet back on the ground.’

According to Temple Grandin, in her (2005) book with Catherine Johnson, one way to escape the web of abstractions is to be autistic. Though there's a heavy social price to pay for being that way, it does short-circuit the tendency to dwell in abstractions and generalities. Grandin says that autistic people and animals tend to be ‘splitters’ where normal people are ‘lumpers.’ Following Snyder and Mitchell, she claims ‘that the reason autistic people see the pieces of things is that they have privileged access to lower levels of raw information’ (Grandin and Johnson 2005, 299). Therefore they pay close attention to details that the rest of us don't even notice.

Of course, any use of this new information would depend on someone's ability to generalize … otherwise we'd be overwhelmed by it, as autistics often are by the incoming flood of sensation.

18 March 2007

Language and Logos

There's an old saying in the West that if you lie, your nose will grow. In East Asia it's been said that if you lie, you lose your eyebrows. How do we know that these two idioms are equivalent? Because we recognize each of them in context as indicating the common experience of lying. You can lie in any idiom, though it's only called ‘lying’ in English. There's no way of naming the experience except in some language.

Why does ‘losing your eyebrows’ mean lying? How did that happen in Chinese discourse? No one could have predicted that this expression would ‘stick’ to that meaning, no matter how complete their general comprehension of Chinese syntax and semantics. Calling it an idiom implies that it's a peculiar development, explicable only with reference to accidents of history. But the Chinese language itself, or any language, is only a higher level of idiomaticity. If it weren't, there would only be one human language, every term within it having real (rather than virtual) connections with human experience. But such a language could not have evolved.

What's the common, essential root from which all languages branch? Some Greeks called it Logos, some Buddhists called it Dharma. But logos can also mean any word, and dharma any system, in those idioms.

Past and future Buddhas have names: Shakyamuni, Maitreya. What do we call the living Buddha? If you hear the healing message, or the turning word, does it matter whom you hear it from? How do you know what you've heard if you don't pass it on?

One spring day in 1246 CE, Dogen gave the following Dharma Hall Discourse:

If I expound Buddha Dharma as an offering to my fellow practitioners, I cannot avoid my eyebrows falling out. If I do not expound Buddha Dharma as an offering to my fellow practitioners, I will enter hell as fast as an arrow. Going beyond these two alternatives, what can I do today for you, my fellow practitioners?

After a pause Dogen said: Above the heavens there is no Maitreya, below the earth there is no Maitreya, but seeing his face is superior to hearing his name. If you meet him in person you cannot be deceived.

Eihei Koroku 2.156 (Leighton and Okumura 2004, 182)

16 March 2007

Reading, writing and scripture

From the point of view of a writer a text is never finalized, a writer is always prone to reworking or reshaping it knowing that any detail of a text is only one of the possible realizations of the potential paradigm. Anything could be changed. For the reader the text is a cast-iron structure, where everything is in the only possible place, where everything bears a meaning and nothing can be changed. An author perceives the final text as a last draft, while a reader takes what is a last draft to be a finalized text.
— Yuri Lotman (1990, 79)

Every reader who's done any writing will recognize the truth of this simple observation. From there it's but a short step to realizing that the typical reader's attitude finds its purest expression in the believer's attitude toward Scripture. Since ‘everything bears a meaning’ is inseparable in his mind from ‘nothing can be changed,’ he resists the evidence presented by historians, critics and scholars that the sacred texts have in fact changed. To the pure reader, the idea that the sacred text was ever a work in progress appears blasphemous. Those who read the universe as the perfected work of the Creator feel the same about the notion of evolution. But this ‘pure reader’ confuses historical time with real time.

The reader's real time is utterly unlike the writer's. In reader's time, the text has to be taken as a constant in order to find and fix some definite relations among the floating variables appearing as the stream of experience. (What else could a meaningful text be about?) So the song, poem, film, story or scripture is perfectly connected to the deeper order at the heart of things. But once this order is discovered and confirmed, then it can be taken as constant, and the text as variable. Eventually the text reveals itself as a draft to be revised for the renewal of the ordering vision. So now we're in writer's time. Semiosis, like breathing, has to keep cycling from inspiration to expiration, round and round again, in order to stay alive.

The reader who doesn't know himself as the writer of his own understanding thinks inspiration is life and expiration death. He doesn't see the larger life of the whole cycle. Lacking intimacy with the writer, he imagines the Author—or in science, the Expert—as an authority to whom he is subject, and before whom he is abject. Intimologies are cures for this disease of dialogue.