26 January 2008

Tech- and intimologies

There's no hard line between technologies and intimologies. We are not only social animals and expert manipulators but, as Andy Clark puts it, Natural-Born Cyborgs. Our lives are so thoroughly pervaded with ‘mind-expanding technologies’ that ‘it becomes harder and harder to say where the world stops and the person begins’ (Clark 2003, 7). Nothing is more natural for humans than these artificial extensions of ourselves.
It is because our brains, more than those of any other animal on the planet, are primed to seek and consummate such intimate relations with nonbiological resources that we end up as bright and as capable of abstract thought as we are. It is because we are natural-born cyborgs, forever ready to merge our mental activities with the operations of pen, paper and electronics, that we are able to understand the world as we do.
— Clark (2003, 6)

And, of course, that same characteristic enables us to wreak untold damage on the biosphere; to enclose ourselves in a cocoon of denial as we do; and, perhaps, to break out of that cocoon by recognizing that we are the biosphere. We are extensions of it just as technologies are extensions of us.

22 January 2008

Networking and dialogue

Thanks to Mike Kwan for pointing to the Wiser Earth site in his comment on my last post. As he says: ‘It's a tool and directory for currently more than a 108,000 organizations around the world working on social justice and environmental issues. Anyone can contribute to the directory for free or add their own events, jobs, resources, etc. It was started by Paul Hawken and his team a few years ago and was a manifestation of Hawken's Blessed Unrest. The site serves to strengthen the connections within these organizations and people (the Earth's immune system) working for change.’

I added a Wiser Earth link to the Earth community resources list on our gnusystems site last year, but we hadn't read the book until now. I'm also adding a link to the Bohm Dialogue site which i recently discovered. Physicist/philosopher David Bohm devoted the last part of his life to promoting dialogue—not exactly the kind of intergroup communication promoted by Hawken and Wiser Earth, but a process devoted to bringing the participants' hidden assumptions out into the open and ‘suspending’ them. Bohm felt that those assumptions, or rather our chronic inability to see past them, are responsible for much of the mess we are currently making of the world. The aim is not to get everyone to agree, or even to work together on specific problems, but to show that we're all in the same boat, and are all capable of seeing our own and others' assumptions for what they are; and this (rather than agreement) is crucial to understanding one another. It's close in many ways to the dialogue concept developed in Chapter 2 of my book.

Personally i think both kinds of dialogue are important and complementary to one another. When i was working and living in the city (Sudbury, Ontario), i did what i could to promote the kind of networking that Wiser Earth fosters. 20 years ago i started a local newsletter covering environmental, social justice, human rights and international development issues and showing how they were all connected. Now that i've retired to the backwoods, i focus more on the philosophical side, finding that kind of connectedness at the heart of semiosis, communication and life itself. This seems to me a natural development from the more activist work i was doing back in the 20th century.

20 January 2008

From cellular to social intimologies

It's now the middle of winter, but the buds are already there which will start to grow in the spring. How do they know when to start growing? All multicellular organisms grow until they reach maturity: how do their cells know when to stop reproducing?

This is the kind of question addressed by Werner R. Loewenstein in The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication and the Foundations of Life. It's a cause for celebration when a specialist like Loewenstein can present the gist of a lifetime's research to a general audience as he does here. I've been taking it in small doses (a few pages per day), and i don't expect to retain many of the details—and anyway, in a field moving as fast as this one, the details are subject to change. But some central principles persist, and some of those coincide with basic themes of my work in progress, Turning Words.

Turning Words is about guidance systems, and Loewenstein's book reaffirms that living beings are self-guiding systems, perfused at every level with what he calls cybernetic loops. These loops are the keys to self-organizing and self-regulating processes, and Loewenstein shows in some detail how they work at the cellular level. I think it's worthwhile to investigate whether they also work at higher levels, in the psychological and social domains.

Cell populations, or (on a larger scale) organs of a body, do not regulate themselves by electing a legislature, still less by recognizing the authority of a monarch. They don't obey any central command hierarchy; instead, they self-regulate by means of cybernetic loops. The signals meaningful to them arise among themselves, almost anywhere, and propagate by intercellular communication.

Here's where the coincidence comes in: i'm also reading presently Paul Hawken's recent book, Blessed Unrest. Hawken describes the rise of a new kind of social ‘movement’, one which promotes social and environmental justice without relying on charismatic leadership, central command structures or ideological consensus. This movement is totally decentralized, and yet can act with great singleness of purpose and power when circumstances make this possible, because each ‘cell’ in the movement is organically in touch with many others.

A sure sign of maturity in any organism is that it stops growing. The growth process is self-regulating; the breakdown of growth control is the disease we call cancer. The corporate structures which currently dominate the political economy of our planet are addicted to ‘growth’ as measured by the movement of money and assets. In organic terms, they are dedicated to prolonging the stage of immaturity, and that is why they afflict the planetary ecosystem just as cancer afflicts an individual body. (The corporate connection with cancer is not only analogical but causal as well, by the way: most of the known carcinogens in the environment are of corporate origin.)

All of this suggests that what humanity needs in order to wake from the long corporate-industrial-consumer trance is a decentralized communication network, which will clue us in to our common interests in the same way that a body knows that it's time to stop growing. This way the human race might just have a chance to reach maturity.

16 January 2008

The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick

The novel is not my favorite literary form, as the payoff in esthetic pleasure or insight rarely justifies the time it takes to read one (or so it seems to me anyway). When i do curl up with a novel it's usually something by an author i've been reading for 30 or 40 years without being often disappointed. One of those is Philip K. Dick, whose reputation is still growing 25 years after his death (thanks in part to some film adaptations (my own favorite being Linklater's A Scanner Darkly).

Without even trying to say what it is about Dick's work that keeps me coming back for so many years, i'd like to put in a word for The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, one of his last works, which for some reason i'd missed until now. It's unusual, for Dick, in that it has no science-fiction elements at all. (It's set in the San Francisco Bay Area during the time when he lived there, and the first-person narrator works in a record store, as he did.) Most of his novels and stories use SF motifs, especially simulated humans and alternate realities, to explore the human psyche while keeping the reader ontologically off balance, as it were. This one proves that he didn't need the SF trappings to spin a compelling psychological/philosophical yarn. And much of it throws a strong light on the triadic relationship among books, readers and reality—which my own work in progress is also about, to some extent.

If you're interested in the early Christian period and the apocryphal scriptures of that time, as Dick was in his final period (e.g. VALIS and The Divine Invasion), i would especially recommend this one as a novel well worth spending a night or three on. It might even change your life, as a scripture should … or maybe show you why your life doesn't really change …

13 January 2008


The more ubiquitous or generic a feature or element of life is, the more names it is likely to have. This comes about because a greater variety of semiotic situations have arisen in which it needed to be distinguished from other features of the current scene. The quality of a concept which demands diversity in its expression is one aspect of what i call polyversity. I recently came across a comment relevant to this which is almost 900 years old. This is translated from the Latin of Peter Abelard's prologue to his Sic et Non, 1120:
There are many seeming contradictions and even obscurities in the innumerable writings of the church fathers. Our respect for their authority should not stand in the way of an effort on our part to come at the truth. The obscurity and contradictions in ancient writings may be explained upon many grounds, and may be discussed without impugning the good faith and insight of the fathers. A writer may use different terms to mean the same thing, in order to avoid a monotonous repetition of the same word. Common, vague words may be employed in order that the common people may understand; and sometimes a writer sacrifices perfect accuracy in the interest of a clear general statement. Poetical, figurative language is often obscure and vague. [tr. Robinson]

Abelard's book went on to juxtapose hundreds of these ‘seeming contradictions’. The authorities of the Church at the time found this highly disturbing, and Abelard's book was suppressed much as the Gospel of Thomas and other ‘apocrypha’ were suppressed 900 years before. But perhaps we have now grown up enough not to panic when we encounter polyversity.

10 January 2008

What scriptures are about

Let's assume, for the sake of simplicity, that the wisdom expressed in a scripture can be stated in the form of a sentence, or proposition.

A proposition is a sign. The subject of a proposition (what it is about) is the object of that sign. What the sentence says about its subject is called the predicate of the proposition.

The object of any sign you can read must be something that you can direct your attention to. No sentence can tell you what its own object is. It can include a name for it, but that won't help unless you already know what that name refers to. The most it can do, without relying on some other (indexical) sign to designate the object, is to direct your attention by relying on your linguistic habits—that is, on some generic connection between words and your experience.

In the case of a scriptural sentence, the experience (the object) must also be generic in some sense. Scriptures don't tell you anything about isolated facts or minor details, but about some pervasive quality of life.

The more generic is the subject of a text, the deeper its meaning, the more it approaches the status of scripture. For a human reader, a story about Jesus is scriptural to the extent that ‘Jesus’ names a generic feature of human experience. A story specifying factual details about an individual named ‘Jesus’ who lived in a specific time and place meets the criteria for history, but not for scripture. What makes a reference to ‘Jesus’ scriptural, for you, is that you can read ‘Jesus’ as the name of a real presence in your life—a definite presence either remembered or anticipated, or (ideally) both. The same goes for ‘Buddha’, which is why the sutras say that his body pervades the universe. And the same for any mythic archetype. All genuine myths and sacred stories are grounded in universally human experience, which must therefore be your experience.

The interpretant of a scriptural sign, and thus its enlightening or life-changing effect, emerges from the reader's effort to clarify the real connection between its object and the rest of reality. In a proposition, that connection is the content of the predicate. But the effort is all for nought if misdirected to the wrong subject (object, referent).

When the sentence doesn't make sense, the reader has to consider that she may be directing her attention to the wrong object. You can't rely on your mental habits to tell you what the scripture is about, unless your habits are cyclic and self-correcting. In other words, the ideal reader's methods must be rooted in the self-organizing process of life itself.

But it would take a whole book to explain that …

08 January 2008

The ideal reader revisited

A scripture is a text which challenges the reader to live up to the standard of an ideal reader.

The ideal reader has to believe that the text is a sign of the truth. This truth is then the object which the reader aims to see through the sign. Or as Wittgenstein might say, it's the object of the language-game of reading. By an observer of this process, the reader's faith in the sign as representative of the truth could be called a heuristic device; but for the participant, the reader entering into dialogue with the text, this faith must be a genuine belief—in other words, it must actually guide the reader's conduct. She must dedicate herself to learning something new from the text, not reading into it something she already knows or believes.

However, when we reflect on the logic or semiotic of the reading process, it is clear that the real meaning of the text is its interpretant, i.e. the new sign generated in the mind of the reader by the process itself. This is the ‘sequel’ which is ‘of all books the most indispensable part’, as Thoreau said in the passage i quoted here last week, in the ‘Earwaves’ post. And of course this is not the end of the process: the immediate interpretant (the new sign) must generate another interpretant, and somewhere along the line this must affect the practice (behavior) of the interpreter, which ideally carries the whole community forward, toward the ultimate confluence of life and truth. The meaning of the text thus includes what Peirce called the ‘logical’ and ‘ultimate’ interpretants as well as the immediate.

Summing up, then, the ‘meaning’ of the scriptural sign is its object from the participant's point of view and its interpretant from the observer's point of view.

What then does the object of the sign look like from the observer's perspective? I'll take up that question next time.

07 January 2008

What CAN it mean?

I'm a day late here, but said in my last post that i would expand on the comment by Tanasije Gjorgoski that ‘the text is not just WHAT IT MEANS to me, but what it CAN mean to me.’ This i think puts very well the attitude of the ideal reader of scripture: that the real meaning of the text is something he comes forward to meet, not something that comes from within his prior understanding. Looking at this reading process from the outside, we could say that it is future-oriented: the meaning is the outcome of it, not the input. But from inside the process, the reader has to assume that the meaning is already embodied in the text. That way he can approach the text as a teacher from which he is willing to learn something new. It would be difficult for a reader to adopt this ideal attitude toward the text if he already believed that it was an altered version of an earlier sacred text.

Tanasije also commented on my most recent post:
‘Still, it seems to me that the issue of changes is important. Maybe they are good, in the way you described, but I think that they also can be bad, and that they can prevent the text doing what it was intended to do—make the access to the wisdom easier.
(BTW, I guess it is clear that I'm not saying that any of those scenarios are true in the case of scriptures. Just that they might be, at least as a logical possibility.)’

My follow-up question would be: How relevant is this possibility to the reading process? I think that depends on whether the possibility is a testable hypothesis. And from this i think it follows that the possibility of a text having been corrupted is irrelevant to the process of reading that text as scripture. At the beginning of the process, considering that possibility would only ‘block the way of inquiry’, as Peirce would put it. And later on in the process, it would be of no use because it's untestable.

The ideal reader must begin by approaching the text as he would a teacher from whom he expects to learn some deep truth that he doesn't already know. Once he's arrived at some understanding of the text, then critical thinking kicks in. Various readings and understandings need to be considered and evaluated. This may involve comparing this text with others, and/or assessing its value as a representation of the truth which it signifies. But it would short-circuit the reading process to prejudge the text as ‘pure’ or ‘corrupt’, or genuine or not, without first entering into dialogue with it.

Getting back to the (highly plausible) scenario where the sayings uttered by Jesus circulated orally for a generation or so before being written down: since the actual utterances of Jesus were not written down at the time, we have no way of comparing the texts we do have with a prior version. Therefore the possibility that Jesus had better access to wisdom than the authors of the existing gospels is not a testable hypothesis. Also, we have no way of deciding whether any specific version of a particular saying is a ‘corruption’ or an improvement on the original, if there is no original. So these possibilities are just as irrelevant to critical thinking as they are to the ideal reader's engagement with the text. All of this would apply to the reading of a mathematical proof just as well as the reading of a scripture. It's critical thinking, and not historical evidence, that decides whether a ‘proof’ really proves anything, just as it decides whether a text is a genuine scripture.

As we agreed earlier, we are assuming that the wisdom to which Jesus had access is independent of any formulation of it. So even if we could prove that some newly discovered text was written by Jesus himself, it would still be an open question whether some later writers might have expressed that wisdom better than Jesus did. (Doesn't any good teacher hope that the work of his students will surpass his own?)

We do have some historical evidence (though little consensus among the experts) that some gospels (such as Thomas) represent the sayings of Jesus with more historical truth than others. But history in itself affords us no reason for believing that Jesus said it better than the Christians who survived him. That's just a prejudice which faith brings to bear on history. If that kind of faith discourages a reader from engaging with the text, then it disqualifies him as an ideal reader of that text. On the other hand, if the reader is encouraged by faith to approach a specific text with reverence, that's a good start for an ideal reader—but the process could still come to a bad end if her faith discourages the critical thinking which must enter into the later stages of the process. Without critical thinking, the outcome of the process will be less than ideal, regardless of the quality or ‘purity’ of the text.

The outcome of any reading or semiotic process is what Peirce called the ‘interpretant’. My next post will say more about that, and about a few other concepts basic to the logic and semiotic of reading scripture.

05 January 2008

Scripture and wisdom

In an exchange of comments on my ‘Gospel seeds’ post of Jan. 3, Tanasije Gjorgoski raised a couple of good questions which i'll try to answer today and tomorrow.

Tanas, you mention ‘two different scenarios (in both of which Jesus has access to extraordinary wisdom).’

First, let's make it explicit what we are assuming here: that this wisdom is real, and accessible, regardless of whether anyone (including Jesus) actually knows it or not. It is important, therefore, to distinguish between the wisdom itself and the expression or formulation of it. The expression, whether it's a written text, an oral text, or even a person's life, is only a sign of the wisdom, a medium through which the skillful sign-user might gain access to it.

Continuing with your message:
‘In the first scenario, Jesus expressed that wisdom, and his words were written.
In the other scenario, Jesus expressed that wisdom, but through a process as you described, his words got changed, some things were removed and some others added.
It seems to me, that (of course depending on the amount of the changes), the expressed wisdom of the original words can be lost.’

You seem to imply that the wisdom would not be lost if the words of Jesus were preserved in written form exactly as he said them. If so, i disagree with you on that point. What if the words themselves become an object of worship rather than a means of access to wisdom? What if people get so attached to the words that they fail to recognize other expressions of the same wisdom? What if ritual repetition of the words replaces the practice of hearing them, i.e. actively listening for the meaning to which they point? Indeed, as St. Paul said, the letter kills, while the spirit gives life. Besides, if Jesus had thought that his message could be adequately represented by a fixed set of written words, surely he would at least have written them down himself. Even if he was only human, he wasn't illiterate.

Turning to your (second) scenario, which is more in accordance with the historical record, you say that the access to that wisdom ‘might be impossible … given enough changes to the original words.’ Now, in the first place, i don't believe that the possible loss of wisdom would depend on ‘the amount of changes’ to the words originally spoken by Jesus. Rather, it would depend on whether people actually understood the wisdom represented by those words, and lived by its light in dialogue with others.

Besides, if the teaching did circulate orally over a period of decades before being written down, changes to the original words might be necessary in order to preserve access to the wisdom toward which the words point. Surely if Jesus himself had lived to preach for another 40 years, he would not have spent the time just repeating what he'd said before. Rather he would re-present the wisdom in whatever form was required by changing circumstances and audiences (exactly as the historical Buddha did in his 80-year life). And that's exactly what his followers would do, if they really got the message from Jesus—for the real ‘message’ is not the text uttered by Jesus but the wisdom signified by that text. Changes in the text could actually optimize the access to wisdom rather than reducing it. When scribes start copying the text letter for letter without understanding it, but just because it is believed to be the Word of God, that's where the transmission of wisdom begins to break down.

Of course, from a historian's point of view, it's a different story! But scholars in the history of the period, such as DeConick, say that the attempt to find out exactly what Jesus actually said or did is rather futile, since the only historical records we have are vague and contradictory. What the historian can study is what the various groups of early Christians believed, and how they expressed their beliefs. If they put words in the mouth of Jesus, it's because they felt those words to express the deepest wisdom. As the readers alive today, our responsibility is to read those texts with an open mind and decide for ourselves how deep that wisdom is.

You also wrote that ‘the text is not just WHAT IT MEANS to me, but what it CAN mean to me.’ I think this is a very important point, and will take it up tomorrow, along with some further reflections on the logic of reading scriptures.

04 January 2008


To write something down is only to testify that at some point, in some situation, it meant something worthy of notice. To publish it is an expression of faith that it might mean as much to somebody somewhere else. But can you tell them how to hear it?

Dogen, in one of his Shobogenzo essays, tells the story of a Chinese poet who realized the intimate truth upon hearing the sounds of a valley stream flowing in the night. He wrote the following verse:
The sound of the valley stream is the Universal Tongue,
the colors of the mountains are all the Pure Body.
Another day how can I recite
the eighty-four thousand verses of last night?
— (tr. Cleary 1995, 116)

How can i comment on this? I will close with a bit of Henry David Thoreau, from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers:
A good book is the plectrum with which our else silent lyres are struck. We not unfrequently refer the interest which belongs to our own unwritten sequel to the written and comparatively lifeless body of the work. Of all books this sequel is the most indispensable part. It should be the author's aim to say once and emphatically, “He said,” εφη. This is the most the book-maker can attain to. If he make his volume a mole whereon the waves of Silence may break, it is well.
It were vain for me to endeavor to interpret the Silence. She cannot be done into English. For six thousand years men have translated her with what fidelity belonged to each, and still she is little better than a sealed book. A man may run on confidently for a time, thinking he has her under his thumb, and shall one day exhaust her, but he too must at last be silent, and men remark only how brave a beginning he made; for when he at length dives into her, so vast is the disproportion of the told to the untold, that the former will seem but the bubble on the surface where he disappeared. Nevertheless, we will go on, like those Chinese cliff swallows, feathering our nests with the froth, which may one day be bread of life to such as dwell by the sea-shore.

03 January 2008

Gospel seeds

I've always been a lover (and collector) of aphorisms. The pithy one-liner is my favorite literary form. I sowed my Seednet before i even dreamed of writing a book. So when it came to choosing an exemplar of scripture for that book, the Gospel of Thomas was a natural choice, being made up almost entirely of seed-sayings well worth pondering.

The great advantage of an aphorism is its portability. Its compact length makes it easy to remember, re-use and recycle in varying situations, without having to carry a book around. Every new context adds breadth to its meaning, though the context of living experience is the primal source of its depth. It behooves the reader of such a scripture to learn something about the cultural context in which it originated—not so much to recover the ‘original meaning’ of the text, but to split and recombine the atoms of meaning, as it were, to reveal the continuity of the semiosis articulated by the text.

I have therefore been looking into the cultural milieu which produced the Gospel of Thomas, using the resources listed on my Sourcenet page. The most recently acquired of these is The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, by April D. DeConick, who has stirred things up somewhat in this field of scholarship with her work on Thomas and with The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says. I won't go into detail about these here, but instead recommend her Forbidden Gospels blog and the links you will find there.

One point she makes about G. Thomas puts the aphoristic nature of it in a new perspective (for me anyway). If she is right about its development process, this ‘book’ circulated orally long before it was written down. It follows that unlike a text written before circulation, the ‘original’ Gospel of Thomas probably included variant versions of the sayings included in it, and there is no way to specify an ‘original’ version with the kind of precision we expect of a book composed in writing. Jesus himself was not a writer, and out of all the things he might have said, it was only the most memorable and meaningful that lasted long enough to be written down. And by that time, those who had been using them to ‘reach’ others would remember the sayings which had most often proved useful for that purpose, and the form in which they remembered them would vary somewhat to suit this variety of uses. Lacking an authoritative text to consult, they would also be likely to add some new sayings and forget some old ones. DeConick identifies some sayings as belonging to the oldest ‘kernel’ of the gospel, and others (about half) as later ‘accretions’.

When this (or any) gospel came to be written down, it would naturally take the form that the writer found most appropriate for the situation(s) in which the book was intended to be used. The Coptic version of G. Thomas found in the Nag Hammadi library—the only complete copy we have—is probably a translation of a Greek translation of a Syriac translation of an Aramaic ‘original’ which only existed in people's memories. All of the Gospels are reconstructions in that respect. It seems likely that G. Thomas gives the sayings that circulated among first-century Christians in the most concentrated form available to us; but we also have to assume that the specific form of this gospel—what it includes, what it leaves out, and the terms it uses—made sense in the specific situation of whoever wrote it down. If you are looking to find out what Jesus actually said, you won't get an authoritative answer from this book or any other, including the canonical gospels. But what's the difference? The bottom line, for you, is what you mean by this (or any) scripture.

02 January 2008

The gnoxic orientation

I got a note from someone who read the latest chapter of my book draft and asked, ‘is your main stance theist? religious? christian? catholic?’ The writer also asked about the Gospel of Thomas, which is quoted in that chapter without explanation (because it's introduced in Chapter 1 of the book). Here's my reply, revised a bit for a broader audience, and with some links to resources on my home site. I'll also have more to say tomorrow about the Gospel of Thomas.

The stance of my work in progress (Turning Words) and the gnoxic stance more generally, is pragmatic in the Peircean sense, and not theist or religious. The book does focus quite a lot on the reading of (what i call) scriptures, but on the role of the reader rather than on the scripture's role with respect to religious institutions. The Gospel of Thomas is the one scripture most frequently quoted and mentioned in the book. You can find out more about it, and a list of the resources i've used for studying this and other gospels, on my Sourcenet page.

However, Turning Words also employs the Buddhist idiom as much as the Christian—in fact the title is a Zen term. It draws upon several other religious discourses as well, especially when they are (in my reading) semiotically equivalent. I guess you could call my stance ‘catholic’ (small c) in that sense! Basically i treat them all as signs and challenge the reader to take responsibility for their meaning, and to reflect on the semiotic process as well. (And the same for the various scientific discourses also found in the book.)

That's the gnoxic stance, which is philosophical by nature. The philosopher's role, as i see it, is to promote critical thinking and reflection rather than anyone's claim to spiritual authority. I haven't gone into my personal religious orientation here because i don't think that's what the question called for; anyone curious about that can find out more about me from my blogger profile or the home page of my website.