Purposiveness and Imagination

Blogmate Paul Adkin has been posting on becoming and purposiveness lately, so I thought I’d chime in.

Stasis and change. This duality has puzzled brains since the ancient Greeks, if not the primeval mind itself. The laws of physics give you the “how,” but what about the “why”? Why all this movement from one state to another? In our own lives, we can call it “purposiveness.” We might not have a definite destination (or a definite purpose) in mind, but movement is always movement toward a destination, however unspecified.

If “purposiveness” characterizes our movements, or changes in state, “imagination” is the best term we have for the force that drives the changes. Imagination is our capacity to project beyond the immediate real, the here and now of our existence. We can anticipate possible futures, reflect on things remote in time and space or visualize things that seem impossible in real time and space. All the possibilities and impossibilities that are not in our immediate sensory arena. That is the scope of imagination. In this sense, it is the source not only of the arts but of scientific investigation in its theorizing mode. Indeed, the quest for knowledge generally is driven by imagination, a reaching out in the mind to grasp what cannot be presently grasped. The scientific method is nothing but imagination systematized.

One might propose a cognate force in the physical universe (or in that aspect of lived reality that we, imaginatively, call the physical universe). As the seed becomes the tree, as mountains rise and fall, as the solar systems steady into their fixed movements, as black holes expand their mass and devour matter, always this drive to change from one state to another. Why? An intelligent God or anthropomorphic consciousness might be too much to swallow, but the laws of physics express a kind of purposiveness, a method to the continual striving from one state to another. And if imagination is the force behind the striving in our little lives, is it too far of a stretch to assume that the same force is behind the striving enacted by natural processes?

I’ll take Occam’s Razor on this one. If there are two ways to explain a phenomenon, start with the simpler, the one that requires the fewest assumptions. Assuming that the same force that drives the trajectory of our lived reality drives the movements of the (purportedly) physical universe is simpler than assuming that there are two separate but remarkably similar forces driving changes in the two (artificially) separate spheres.

Of course, everything could be entirely random. But my imagination tells me otherwise. The capacity to project and orient toward possible futures and possible outcomes, toward fantastic visions and goals at a distance from present reality – that capacity seems to throw a monkey wrench into the randomness. And once you throw in the monkey wrench, where does it stop?

x x x

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.

To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.

Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.

(Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

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Trump Eulogies

Per the new fictional non-fiction genre of the Trump eulogy, here is my contribution:

Poor George. Sweet guy. Like a kid. Gee-whiz George. Couldn’t tell a lie. But the Brits were laughing at us. I love the Brits. I got Brits working the greens at Mar-a-Lago. Great for managing the shithole country workers. But they were cleaning our clocks, while Gee-whiz George was busy telling the truth. So I says to him, “George, you gotta storm the airports.” And he says, “There ain’t no airports.” And I says, “George, you see that crowd out there. Biggest crowd ever. They don’t want facts. They want entertainment.” No, Gee-whiz George could not tell a lie. So he had a failed presidency. And I’m here today to save his image by telling you about the great storming of the airports at Yorktown and Fort McHenry. And I can tell you, my friends. Believe me. Wherever Gee-whiz George is today, he is looking up and saying, “Trump was right! Thank God for Trump! Thank God for a winner!”

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Hitchhiking to Oaxaca

One problem with hitchhiking. In a metro area of 3 million (in this case, Puebla) without subways, you’re going to lose the first couple of hours trying to get to a decent spot beyond the edge of the city.

I was lucky enough to get a ride to the main (and quite hectic) bus station. After several well-intended misdirections, I found the gate for a bus to a (presumably) good spot on the road to Oaxaca. I bought my ticket. “The bus leaves in 50 minutes,” said the ticket guy. I didn’t want to lose another hour, so I walked out to the buses and asked a few drivers from the same company. “Leaving right now,” said one, and I boarded. I find this rather typical in Mexico. Everyone is incredibly kind and eager to help, but it is difficult to help with much clarity because the whole world is winging it. It ain’t Germany (though I love both equally – and both are great for hitchhiking).

The bus dropped me right at the toll booth of Hwy 150D. The toll takers were busy, so I just walked through the gates. Like everyone else. Yes, inside the toll booth of what we (in the US) would call a “controlled-access highway,” there is a mini human ecosystem on the shoulder: tables set up selling tacos and jugos, guys with flags offering to change tires, hitchhikers (me), people walking around selling M&Ms, toll workers on break, and some people just hanging out.

It took me 5 minutes to get set up, getting my highway info out so I could stuff my daypack into my backpack, get my OAX sign ready, stake out a spot at a safe distance from the vendors and such. Lots of big trucks coming through in the right lane, making it difficult. But in just 15 minutes, someone risks life and limb to cut through the trucks. A fiftyish couple, Lalo and Erika, heading from Xalapa to … yes, to Oaxaca. One ride. Hitchhiking is too easy in Mexico. Going through Guanajuato state and then here, I have never waited longer that 20 minutes for a ride, the people on the side of the road were all helpful (none of the hawk-eyed judgement leveled at hitchhikers in the US), and my drivers all relaxed and friendly, including couples more often than not (as opposed to the US, where it’s almost all single, blue-collar men that pick you up).

At Tehuacán, we turn right and go into the mountains. Lalo and Erika speak almost no English, for which I am grateful. My hitchhiking immersion strategy is working. The flora changes dramatically from agave and organ pipe cactus to big trees. Then we slope out into white sandy, rocky terrain dotted with individual trees standing dark and green in relief. Then red clay terrain. Then fully green mountains again. We are getting near Oaxaca.

“Watch out for the negra,” says Erika. “The yellow mole and the red one, the one they call ‘coloradito,’ are great. But the negra, the negra is spicy. Really spicy.”

I doubt anyone can beat the dark, chocolaty mole I had in a middle-aged woman’s home in Puebla, but since I’ve been in Mexico, half the people have told me that Puebla has the best food and half say Oaxaca. I would find the negra not spicy at all, but in any event, I took Erika’s comment under advisement.

(One final note about the people of Oaxaca — and my new friends there can reply as needed. They are among the nicest, friendliest, most relaxed people I’ve met, but put them behind the wheel of a car and it’s like their hair is on fire. Visitors beware when crossing those streets!)








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“Standard of Living ” vs “Quality of Life”

If you’re like me, sometimes those phrases blur together in the gray matter, and you need a reminder that they are entirely different things. My most recent reminder came from spending some months in Mexico, after which it struck me that the standard of living is higher in the US but the quality of life is higher in Mexico. I.e., in the US everyone has cars, people have more expensive things in their homes, etc. But in Mexico – at least in my experience living in Guanajuato and visiting a number of other towns – there is more day-to-day human content. I could walk down my street any time of day or evening and there were people everywhere – families, street vendors, buskers, teenagers. If I walked a mile or more, I would likely run into at least one person I knew, and given the pace of life, we might stop for a drink or poke around in an open mercado. How many times did I stumble upon an impromptu art opening or free movie night?

In Mexico, I spent hardly any money, had no car or nice “things,” but when life is full, nice things are superfluous. And when people live their lives out on the streets in the community, life may have ups and downs, but it will almost certainly be full. There is more life, more beating heart, in Mexico. At least for me. I do not want to generalize – at least not about quality of life. The standard of living is more quantifiable, and I can generalize that it is higher in the US. Quality of life is more subjective and certainly varies from place to place within those two countries (and varies from person to person). So I can’t really conclude that the quality of life in Mexico is irrefutably higher than in the US. It’s just that for me, Mexico was my reminder: standard of living and quality of life are two different things. You might have a different reminder. But it’s nice to reflect on that once in a while for perspective.

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Art at Lechón Illustrado

I was at Lechón Illustrado recently looking at Samara Colina’s paintings with friend and artist, Catalina Gris. What I found most interesting was how the paintings worked on two levels. Up close, you could get lost in a fantastic abstract array of color patches.

Then, as you slowly move away, the image becomes more and more representational.

When the whole scene finally comes into focus, the sheer number of human figures represented is dizzying.

“Maybe,” I said to Cati, “maybe that’s what Kant meant by the mathematical sublime.” (Sidebar: I have more than once bantered my German friends that it takes a German like Kant to see mathematics as a sublime experience.) Anyway, Kant was talking about magnitude, but here it is literally a numeric overload; as you step back from the detail, the multitude is too great to fathom or even to be contained in the frame of the canvas. Even the spatula smears diagonally across the upper left and right warp the time-space curve into something larger than what the senses can grasp.

“No,” Cati said. “This isn’t it – the Kantian sublime.” Not that she didn’t like the painting, she just thought I was forcing in the theory. She was probably right. I always try a bit too hard to wrap my head around the mathematical sublime. (Kant’s power-based dynamical sublime is easier to grasp for me.)

“Maybe if the entire wall was covered,” Cati said.

“Yes,” I said, “That’s it.”

Whether representative of Kant’s mathematical sublime or not, it is a signature feature of Colina’s work (cp. the painting below, also at Lechón Illustrado).

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