Friday, October 29, 2010

What I Think

What I think hardly matters to anybody but me. Anyone who has read almost anything I've written knows that I'm quite naive. Still, I find my online excursions thought provoking and wonder about the ideas I encounter. The nice thing about blogs is that there is a space way out here on the long tail where I can ruminate about and point to what interests me without being told to often not to speak about what I don't know; simply because so few people see what I write. It's also nice that online is a social space and by sometimes sharing what I think on my blog at least I needn't be completely anonymous to others, especially others whose blogs I leave too-long comments on.

Christopher Alexander's idea of the quality without a name seems very important to me, but I find it hard to talk about it. Part of the difficulty is the absurdity of "the quality without a name" is the name of a quality without a name. And of course part of the difficulty is that I haven't really thought out why this idea seems so important to me carefully.

Recently I've been talking about computers, because I got a new one. But I'm also very interested in general by technologies: How the upsides are rarely clearly envisioned in advance, but can only be seen in retrospect, and that the downsides are almost always unintended.

For the last couple of weeks I've been thinking of a contrast of two views about culture. The first from Constitutional Law scholar J.M. Balkin's book Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology. Here's a short snippet taken from the first chapter here:
Cultural software does not merely obscure; it also clarifies. It does not merely limit the imagination but empowers it as well. The theory of cultural software thus rejects a uniformly pejorative conception that views ideology as a disease or a decrepit form of human thought. In the theory of cultural software, the mechanisms of ideological thought are the mechanisms of everyday thought. In this theory, truth and falsity, deception and empowerment enter through the same door
. The second view is that of ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terrence McKenna:
This is something, culture is not your friend. Culture is for other people's convenience and the convenience of various institutions, churches, companies, tax collection schemes, what have you. It is not your friend. It insults you. It disempowers you. It uses and abuses you. None of us are well treated by culture.
Not in the partial written transcript at that link, but ending the video clip posted there, the question was asked: "How do we fight back?" McKenna answers:
By creating art...By putting the art pedal to the metal we really maximize our humanness and become much more necessary and incomprehensible to the machines.
Both authors have spoken about what to make of our thoughts using the metaphor of computer software. Both are pointing out the importance of freedom and that's something important about the quality without a name.

My general temperament aligns me more closely with Balkin's use of the metaphor of software as applied to culture. His chapter begins with a metaphor from the Talmud:
God knew that He was finished with the task of creation, He endeavored to bring into existence everything that might be needed later on. At the end of this list of necessary items is a curious addition: the first set of tongs, for, as the Talmud tells us, tongs can only be made with other tongs.
Central to Balkin's conception of cultural software is the idea of "a tool that can be made only from another tool." Balkin locates cultural software in us, which seems pretty convincing. But I'm left wondering how to account for network effects and the observation that Balkin's metaphor of software seems to depend on a pre-Internet notion of what software is. Nevertheless, Balkin is speaking about a rather formal way of thinking, or is speaking in formal language, which is more in my comfort zone than where McKenna is coming from.

I haven't read Douglass Rushkoff's book Program or be Programmed, but I have seen a few videos and read a few Web pages about it. I'm not sure the connections I make are very good, but more generally connect Rushkoff to McKenna in re these quotes. The point about Balkin's fromal language is about outward forms or structure. McKenna, Rushkoff and Lilly--I'll get to him--pay more heed to processes than structure.

Terrence McKenna died in 2000 and I only discovered him in the last year or so. I'm not sure how I missed him before. In 2005 I went to an Afrobeats night at a local club and met some nice young folks who suggested that I connect with them through I think I probably was already on Friendster, but never connected with anyone there, so it seems like Tribe was my first exposure to online social networks. Very lively discussions there and I soon got a vivid picture of myself on the other side of a generation gap. Because there was so much discussion going on at Tribe then, there was ample opportunity for me to learn more and to begin bridging the gap. But it goes to show how clueless I still am not to have stumbled upon McKenna and his ideas directly at Tribe.

At there were ideas which in one way or another people were talking about back in the seventies, but the vocabulary and orientations to these ideas had changed. Because I've been lately thinking about the ideas which struck me as important in the 1970's and have continued to think about, I was reminded of John Lilly's book "Simulations of God." I lost my copy along the way but found a place to download it here.

I mentioned in a previous post that writing a philosophy paper about Kierkegaard was very hard for me--my paper was exasperating to my professor. It was hard because I was thinking of studying social science of one sort or another and "objectivity" and "subjectivity" and notions about them were driving me nuts. I've got a textbook on my shelf by Robert E. Ornstein, "The Nature of Human Consciousness." The old saw goes something like "If you can remember the sixties, you weren't there." I think that applies to the seventies too. Anyhow I can't remember what course the textbook is from. I think it was probably from a course in what was then the School of Library and Information Sciences, entitled "Cybernetics." I'm embarrassed to say that I walked out of the class after a session about defining "information" after asking the sophmoric question: "Then what is wisdom?"

I regret not having paid better attention in school. Nonetheless while not articulating the hard problem of consciousness in quite the way it's stated today, and without paying attention to my studies, I'd concluded even then that human consciousness was a hard problem. Lazy as I am I tend to put hard problems aside. That's probably why I don't still have my copy of "Simulations of God" even though I remember it impressed me back in the day.

Mary Catherine Bateson speaking of her father Gregory wrote:
[I]t seems that we have the capacity to be wrong in rather creative ways--so wrong that this world we cannot understand may become one in which we cannot live. But it is important to remember in this context Gregory's commitment to the principle of double description. The richest knowledge of the tree includes both myth and botany. Apart from Cretura, nothing can be known; apart from Pleroma, there is nothing to know. Gregory, convinced that the artist and visionary sometimes knows more than all our science, might have ended with this fragrant of prayer embedded in a poem by William Blake:

May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton's sleep!
The emphasis is mine. Bateson thought of himself as a Monist but certainly not a Physicalist. Whenever I've tried to talk about Bateson's ideas I always seem to give the impression that Bateson was a Dualist. A part of what I think about when I think about "a quality without a name" is Bateson's contention of "mind and nature: a necessary unity." With emphasis on the "unity" bit.

I certainly don't think I can solve "the hard problem of consciousness," but I think I can't really compare Jack Balkin's use of the metaphor of "software" with Terrence McKenna's without touching on the issue of human consciousness.

After re-reading "Simulations of God" recently I happened upon a lecture by Slavoj Zizek, Materialism and Theology on YouTube. Zizek doesn't really talk about consciousness, but is critical of "vulgar materialism" while stridently advocating materialism. I think it's a good jumping off point to explore being and thinking and in turn consciousness. I'll leave that for another day, but this is some of what I've been thinking lately.

1 comment:

The 27th Comrade said...

On the Hard Problem of Consciousness, check the book I am reading now, “Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness”.
Not yet done, but it is a bloody great read.