Three Takes on Time

(1) A linear flow from past through present and into the future. This sense of time allows us to plot things from start to finish, birth to death. It gives us telos-driven thinking, such as Aristotle’s entelechy, where the growth of the acorn tends toward the oak it will become, with the destination, the oak, as the final cause of the acorn’s process of becoming. And it gives us the eschatological religions with a clear endgame for the soul’s voyage.

(2) A cyclical flow of endless recurrence. This sense of time, often associated with the continuous death and rebirth imagery of Eastern religions, gives us patterns, seasonal renewal, do-overs, the possibility of the karmic wheel.

These can be presented as opposites, but also can be presented in a kind of symbiotic tension. Joseph Campbell might well play with both, as one can see the mythic structure of the hero’s journey in both eschatological and cyclical aspects. And myth is a well-suited lens on the concept of time. “Myth,” opines Timothy Leary, “is a report from the cellular memory bank. Myths humanize the recurrent themes of evolution.”  And no doubt we have been exposed throughout our evolutionary history to both linear and cyclical patterns in nature.

If you’ll permit me getting a little cosmic about it, both patterns can be related to the journey of the mother ship, planet Earth, which rotates cyclically around the sun, but which is hurtling with the sun and its fellow planets across the universe in a linear path (either out from the Big Bang or back in, depending on our location in the life cycle of the universe). Thus our sense of movement through time is an elegant cognate to the Earth’s movement through space. Space and time lose themselves in a space-time flow. Einstein wins again.

Really, though, if you plot the rotation of the Earth against its linear path away from the Big Bang, the linear and cyclical movements form a spiral in three dimensions. So perhaps it is best for us to view time itself as a spiral. So why do we always hear about “linear” and “cyclical” views of time and never hear about the “spiral” view? We need an advocacy group for the spiral.

Wait! We’re almost there. Now another funny thing happens. Our cosmic spiral still presupposes an absolute reference point, in relation to which we are moving at such-and-such a velocity. But relativity tells us that there is no ground zero, no absolute reference point. Even the Big Bang cannot be plotted to a “point of origin” in space. This conundrum brings us to the third view of time.

(3) Kant philosophized in the late 1700s that time and space had no objective reality but were subjective categories we use to organize an otherwise chaotic flux of experience. He starts at the breaking point of empiricism, which had risen to dominance in the previous century. If your five senses are the fundamental inputs of knowledge, they tell you nothing about the objective world but only about the imprints some presumed world out there makes on our personal sensory registers. Color is not something “out there” but is rather the idiosyncratic way our retina interprets certain wavelengths, etc. Similarly, all our acquired knowledge is based on interpretations made by our own subjective processing plants. So we need subjective ways of organizing the chaotic flux of stimuli, and plotting them into the self-constructed categories of “space” and “time” is our most fundamental organizing strategy.

I am obviously not a scientist and do not offer these three takes as scientific hypotheses. My interest is in the human experience and human conceptions of time. If my astrophysicist friends want to figure out how space and time work in their purely “objective” aspects, let them do the math. I’m sure they will generate many useful ideas along the way. But somewhere deep down, they too emerged from the subjective space of myth, they too are engaged in the hero’s journey. And somewhere along in their figuring, they will have to pass the dragon of the Kantian possibility – that time and space are subjective categories after all. So Joseph Campbell wins this one, with an assist from Kant.

On Edmund Burke

Reading Iain Hampshire-Monk’s review of The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke by David Bromwich, I noted Bromwich’s comment that “no serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism.” Picking out “the father of modern conservatism” does pose difficulties, as such abstract categories as “liberal” and “conservative” are context-sensitive and shift dramatically over time, and picking a single “winner” from among the contestants implies a bit of a game-show approach to history. But to play the game and see where it leads, I confess that some of my own publications support the notion of Burke as the father of modern conservatism, at least if that means providing a modern substructure for conservatism.

My line of reasoning (drawing heavily on Burke’s seemingly apolitical treatise on the sublime) was that the 18th century saw rapid erosion of objective social hierarchies as a legitimating discourse in favor of subjective registers – from empiricism’s egalitarian emphasis on the five senses to the Cult of Sensibility novels, wherein “nobility” is established by personal character and not birthright – all tending toward the subjectivism of Kant. Pre-modern conservatives clung to the old hierarchical thinking of the Great Chain of Being. Burke, though, could see the writing on the wall. The new playing field was the field of subjective registers. Kant and Wordsworth (liberally, in my reading) use the new subjectivism to demystify those old hierarchical power structures and empower the individual. Burke, on the other hand, brings conservatism to modernity by updating its ideological support system. He leaves the mystification of objective power sources intact but articulates a subjective and modern ground of authority for that mystification. First and foremost, he does this through his emphasis on the “second nature” of learned behaviors and received traditions folded into our very identities. But one can see it also in how his aesthetic theory shifts the locus of “the sublime” from the neoclassical objective markings to subjective registers of power, terror, etc. In so many ways, he shores up the dignity of traditional institutions and gives them a foothold in the modern playing field. Thus when Enlightenment radicals like Paine and Wollstonecraft would replace monarchy and aristocratic birthrights with rational democratic principles, Burke countered with the  subtlety and forethought that laid the ground for modern conservatism. At least that’s one way of looking at it.

Gary Gautier, “Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian in Context: Gothic Villains, Romantic Heroes, and a New Age of Power Relations,” Genre 32 (1999): 201-34.

Gary Gautier, Landed Patriarchy in Fielding’s Novels (Edwin Mellen Press, 1998), chapter 3.

Romantics in the House

Long ago, I saw the 3’ x 4’ painting below in the jumble of cats and canvas and old wine bottles at Cheryl‘s home studio, and I fussed and flattered and cajoled until she finally said, “Aw, hell, just take it.” In lieu of cash, I give her this tribute of thoughts.

bayou lafourche1 Depending on the time of day or my vantage point as I walk by, it strikes different aesthetic keys from the abstract to the representational. Sometimes my eye catches firefly flecks of color randomly appearing in the textured darkness (a rich blue darkness not well captured here) – but with brushstrokes too large and thick for flecks — more like thumbprints pressed in. Sometimes I absorb it in its representational aspect, as a personalized vision of Bayou Lafourche. In this aspect, it’s like having a trace of the Romantic movement hanging at the bottom of my black spiral staircase, with those impressionistic flecks resting upon the older, richer colors of a Romantic base, a remote natural scene full of darkness and depth, but at the place of greatest depth, the vanishing point at center left, we’re lost not in darkness but in a patch of dim light. Still, the light does not dominate. This is not an airy or ethereal painting. The darkness, the thickness of the atmosphere, the closeness and earthbound quality dominates. The sense of losing oneself in the depth of nature strikes a romantic register, but it strikes a note more brooding than festive.

Compare to Kyle’s 4’ x 6’ triptych (“Ghosts in the Range,” referenced also in my entry on the 4 sheaths) on the side wall of the same room for a different kind of Romanticism.

kyle cropped1Kyle’s vision follows Blake, bringing into focus a Romantic recapitulation of classical themes – archetypal, cosmic, eternal symmetries rolling through, or out from, the sunspot Magna Mater at the center. Cheryl’s painting, on the other hand, triggers the moody pensiveness of a Wordsworth or Coleridge, a mysterious personal communion with some local and obscure and fleeting corner of nature. If the Romantic aesthetic is the sublime aesthetic, I’m not even sure I can call Cheryl’s landscape style sublime. Kyle better fits the Kantian model of the sublime (Critique of Judgment), where one is overwhelmed by the tremendous power (Kant’s dynamical sublime, as in creation or destruction on a massive scale) or tremendous size (Kant’s mathematical sublime, as in the infinity of stars in the clear night sky) of the representation at hand. Then again, if the defining affect of the sublime is the affect of being overwhelmed, Cheryl’s painting might give a different, internalized version of the same, where one is overwhelmed not by any vast external power but by a brooding melancholia within that swells and swamps in its own local space until it overwhelms in its own right.

Either way, each of these paintings replays in its own way the Romantic push off the more neatly contained rational pleasure of the neoclassical aesthetic, and I can’t believe how lucky I am to have both in my house where they keep folding themselves ever more deeply into my unconscious. Cheryl and Kyle, you’ve wormed into my psyche “like a maggot in a nut,” as Mr. Bounderby says of himself in Dickens’s Hard Times, which I assume is an old English way of saying that you’ve pretty much gotten in and not getting out. Works for me.

(Compare to my thoughts on other New Orleans artists, Thomas Morrison and Sarah Dunn.)

ISIS/Suspension of Ethics

The recent beheadings and crucifixions in Syria and Iraq in the name of religion is atrocious in its own right, but raises a larger philosophical comparison between secular ethics and religion-based ethics, to the advantage of the secular. Of course, most religious people are horrified by ISIS’s actions and consider them to have no basis in religion whatsoever. I will grant the justice of that position, but it leaves open the question of whether a religion-based ethics is more risky in principle than a secular ethics.

To judge the risk requires pinpointing the essential difference between a religion-based and a secular ethics. The Christian theologian and proto-existentialist, Kierkegaard, is most helpful here. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard sees ethics as fundamentally a secular issue, a derivative of universal rational principles. Religious persons can follow those principles but that is not essentially a function of their religious nature. It simply means that they are following a set of rational principles in addition to being a religious person. The key difference is centered on Kierkegaard’s pointed question: “Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical?” I.e., can the inscrutable commandments of God overrule “normal” ethical principles?

The paradigmatic case for Kierkegaard is when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. “The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac.” So Abraham is forced to choose between the universal principles of ethics (against murdering your son) or accepting the “teleological suspension of ethics,” in which he suspends the rules of ethics to satisfy a higher end.

This to me is the fundamental difference between a secular ethics and an ethics based on religion (at least on the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Religion allows for the possibility that we might suspend normal ethics in light of a higher commandment from an inscrutable God. Otherwise, it is no different from a secular ethics based on rational principles alone (holding God himself subordinate to the laws of ethics).

Although the acts of ISIS are condemned by people of all faiths, the dangers of a “teleological suspension of ethics” can be generalized to some extent, as a risk inherent in religion-based models. In pre-modern Europe, under the hegemonic rule of the Church, we saw the widespread development of those implements that today fill the torture museums of Europe, implements ingeniously designed to create more and more exquisite pain for the ill-fated heretic.  Then we had the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition, brazenly carried on in the name of Church and the states under its authority.

With the 18th century Enlightenment, that largely changed. From the explicitly anti-Church philosophes to Kant, the hegemonic control of the Church gave way to a more humanist ethics grounded in rational principles. The ethics of Western culture today is primarily secular, a product of the Enlightenment. And although far from perfect, it has shaken off the worst abuses of the pre-Enlightenment theocratic ethic. At least now, one cannot break out the torture devices and flaunt them publicly as a general strategy of subjection. At least now, one cannot publicly suspend the normal rules of ethics because an inscrutable God has commanded it.

Now back to Kierkegaard, and to Abraham and Isaac. Although Kierkegaard is a Christian and I am unambiguous in my preference for a secular ethics, Kierkegaard may agree with me up to a point. He himself is almost Kantian in his emphasis that ethics is based on rational principles (unrelated to faith) and is therefore universal. The “ethical” and the “religious” are simply incommensurate categories for Kierkegaard. The ethical has to do with social relations and universal principles. The religious concerns only the individual in relation to the absolute. For Kierkegaard, the “religious moment” occurs when an individual, perhaps like Abraham, lives out his or her life among others, bound by the universal principles of ethics, and then one day something ruptures the plane of that living, and the individual’s identity shoots out in a perpendicular line to the absolute. His relation to the absolute (religious) and his relation to others (ethical) “cannot be mediated,” says Kierkegaard, in a jibe at Hegel and his understudies. Abraham cannot be justified on the ethical plane. He is up against an either/or crisis of the sort that most interested Kierkegaard. There is no gray area. Either you do something completely unethical in honor of God, or you reject God.

Kierkegaard may also agree with me that any social order would do best with a secular ethics based on rational principles. He certainly had no patience for state religion, and often disparaged the Christian state of Denmark and “Christendom” in general for their deployments of Christianity into the political or social arena. But he leaves room for Abraham, the “knight of faith” – not as a model of good citizenship or social order, but as a model of the individual wrenched away from his social identity by a connection to the absolute.

I finally disagree with Kierkegaard and reject the “teleological suspension of ethics” in all of its forms; however, I find Kierkegaard well worth reading and I myself have only scratched the surface of his thought. Moreover, no sound reading of Kierkegaard can ever use the “teleological suspension of ethics” to justify the behavior of ISIS or the Spanish Inquisition. In Kierkegaard, that suspension can never be applied as a public practice, but can only occur as a relation between the individual and the absolute. The problem is that so many groups at so many times and places have used a variant of the idea (God’s commandment allows me to overrule ethics) to vicious ends. In the case of the Middle East, this is further complicated by a historical trajectory quite different from Europe. Whereas the Enlightenment – the rise of secular ethics and secular democracies – in Europe can be seen as a liberation from the hegemonic oppression of the Church, in the Middle East of the past half-century, religion (in the form of a resurgent Islam) is often seen as the liberating force that can throw off the shackles of oppressive Western democracies. This inversion of the role of religion is historically explicable, but the ethical dangers are apparent when we see how easily ethical norms can be discarded when religious zeal is in full cry. Better to have a secular ethics based on rational principles. If you want to layer a religious faith on top of that ethics, fine, but don’t start believing that your faith trumps ethics or you become a danger to yourself and others.

Psychosis/Enlightenment 2

MT, we started by talking about Plato, and you pondered what would happen if we stripped away our illusions. Would we end up as the Dalai Lama or as Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger? Would we spiral towards madness or find serenity?

So I pondered Plato. Reality is a manifold, with some layers more illusory than others. Plato found the sensory layer most illusory (as do the Buddhists I presume), but he didn’t see it in black and white terms (illusion bad, reality good). Even the sensory layer is an important first step, a pointer to the next layer, which then seems “real” to us until we get one step deeper, etc. MT, you’re becoming a Platonist despite your own resistance.

Note Plato’s assignment of sensory data to the lowest level (most illusory) of reality/truth seems to pit him against the empiricist epistemology that dominates our current Age of Science (late 17th century to present); however, one of the foremost thinkers of the emerging Age of Science, David Hume, who carried empiricism as far as it could logically go (much to the consternation and inspiration of Kant), concluded much the same – that following the truth of sensory data (empiricism) leads us to conclude that sensory data tells us nothing about the objective world “out there” but only tells us about the imprints some presumed world out there makes on our personal sensory registers. The only difference between Hume the empiricist and Plato the rationalist is that, after they’ve both deconstructed the idea of gaining knowledge about the world-as-it-really-is via sensory data, Plato seeks a deeper layer through rational inquiry while Hume says that’s the end of it and goes out for a pint and a game of backgammon (and my Scottish friends can take that as an insult or a compliment, as you will).

I like your Dalai Lama or Meursault reverie, but I’d go a step further and say that these are the utopic and dystopic outcomes, respectively, of stripping away our illusions.

Although at first glance it seems cute but false to say that madness equates to “stripped of illusions,” it seems believable when I think of illusions as filters. To lose all of your filters would seem a form of psychosis. Someone — was it Aldous Huxley in Doors of Perception? — suggested that consciousness itself evolved not as a way to increase access to the world but as a filter for limiting access to the world, for blocking all the “ambient noise” as it were, so we could focus on a smaller zone of input more efficiently. And if the Huxley/Doors reference is right, I think he went on to say that hallucinogenics remove filters, quite literally expanding the scope of consciousness (and he struggles with whether the output is more akin to psychosis or enlightenment).

For the psychosis side of the equation, see psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and his sometime follower, Julia Kristeva. In my primitive understanding of Lacan, we pass through three “orders” in the formation of the psyche (or rather we build up three layers, like rings in a tree). The “real” order is the hidden kernel to which we have no analytical access. Like the noumenal world in Kant’s metaphysics, it is merely a logical assumption that we must make in order for later stages to make sense. We enter the “imaginary” order when we one day see ourselves in the mirror, so to speak (maybe around a year old), see an entity with clear boundaries, and come to imagine ourselves as separate individuals surrounded by external people and environments. Later, we enter the “symbolic” order with the formation of language skills. We begin to process the world through a symbolic overlay (e.g., the sound “tree” symbolically represents the concept “tree,” which isolates and defines a whole range of sensory inputs, the sound “me” represents…, etc.). We now define our personhood relative to that symbolic overlay. We have entered the symbolic order.

In trying to access the “real,” we can only “imagine” it as an undifferentiated flux, or conceptualize it via the symbolic order (as a logical presupposition, an object of psychoanalysis, etc.). Either way, our view is mediated through imaginary or symbolic orders – we have no direct, unmediated access.

Kristeva followed Lacan in theory and focused in practice on “borderline” patients, patients whom I think she found permanently stuck between imaginary and symbolic orders, with perhaps some tantalizing glimpses of the “real” (alas, I’ve lost my original notes on Kristeva and Lacan to Hurricane Katrina).

Back to Huxley’s inference about hallucinogenics, he might say that they strip away the layering of the symbolic order, the webs and webs we have thrown over the flux of original experience, dividing it up into regions we can name and render intelligible. If you strip away all that layering, all those illusions, and get back in some fashion to the lived experience of the “imaginary” order or even the “real,” is the result more akin to psychosis or enlightenment? I think Huxley tentatively concludes that it can give you isolated moments of personal enlightenment but that it is inconsistent with everyday life; it inhibits your ability to function successfully in the workaday, social world (which seems consonant with my personal LSD experiences). In other words, you can strip away the illusion and dip into those pre-symbolic levels of experience, but you have to come back up to sustain your everyday life, since the very enlightenment you feel on the personal level renders you psychotic relative to the social order within which you must live.

Then again, there’s always the Dalai Lama.

Prequel:  Psychosis and Enlightenment

Science and Philosophy

For some reason, science and philosophy have recently been pitted against each other in the blogosphere and public discourse. Maybe something Neil deGrasse Tyson said in Cosmos, but I didn’t have a chance to watch it. The antagonism between those disciplines, though, seems unwarranted.

Science was a subset of philosophy (“natural philosophy”) until the late 17th century. The subset was defined as a basically empirical quest for knowledge about the sensory world, or the objective world. Science has now grown into a separate discipline, and I think all acknowledge that physicists are far more precise than philosophers at elucidating knowledge of the objective world. But the objective world is only one abstraction from lived reality. When it comes to the subjective aspect of lived reality and related values – art, ethics, love, justice – philosophy has the edge. If you’re grappling with “how to live a good life” (a favorite question of the ancient Greek philosophers), a perusal of Epicurus or Gandhi might serve at least as well as Newton’s Principia or Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. And every physicist should be able to appreciate, at a minimum, Plato and Hume and Kant, who consider the logical presuppositions of empiricism as well as the conditions within which physics and the study of the objective world have a value for those of us living concrete human lives. “Why should we care about science?” is almost by definition the purview not of physics but of meta-physics, as it requires someone to step outside of science and view science as a whole against the larger screen of human values and what makes life worth living.

I think all will also acknowledge that science isn’t “the world” but is a secondary mechanism that observes and analyzes the world at an objective distance. There will always be a difference between the immediate experience of the world (e.g., the feeling of being in love) and the mediated analysis of the world (e.g., finding the chemical process that corresponds to the feeling of being in love). Science is de facto a mediated view of the world. It gains its power by limiting its scope to what can be gleaned at an objective distance from lived reality. Just as Plato’s myth of the cave and Boethius’s metaphor of the circle and Blake’s visionary poetry and Buddhist yoga practices and Shakespeare plays give us access points to lived reality that might fall outside the scope of science (i.e., vantage points that do not stand at the same objective distance as science).

So I am as fascinated as most with the yields of science, but I say let’s celebrate the scientist, artist, and philosopher all for advancing our range of fulfillment. And let’s keep some historical perspective. Pre-17th century periods, in which empiricism was not the dominant epistemology, didn’t value science quite as much because they considered the sensory world less important in the scheme of human values. Science and empiricism constitute the dominant epistemology of our age (a comparatively short 300 years so far). But who knows what priorities, what epistemologies, what new paradigms lay past the horizon line of the next age?

Two Critiques of Materialism

1. What are you most certain of and how do you know it?  Let’s say you’re pretty sure about many things but most certain about mathematical truths (e.g., an equilateral triangle has three 60 degree angles).  Let’s say to prove this you draw a triangle on the chalk board.  But the triangle on the chalk board is imperfect: the lines are grainy and not quite straight, etc.  In fact, every physically produced triangle will fall short of the perfect triangle.  But all of your mathematical knowledge about triangles is based on the perfect triangle—the one in which the lines are perfectly straight and the angles exactly what they should be.  That ideal triangle, the one that doesn’t exist in the material world, is the only one you really know anything about, but luckily that knowledge carries over, albeit imperfectly, in the material world.  And mathematical knowledge, being the most certain, is a model for other kinds of knowledge.  So according to this theory, the material world does exist, but for us to have any real knowledge about it requires assumption of an ideal world that transcends this or that material object.

2. The second critique disagrees with the first, and assumes that knowledge is sensory based.  All knowledge begins with the five senses.  But what knowledge do you gain from the five senses?  Knowledge about the material world?  Not at all.  “The pillow is red” is not a proposition about the pillow itself, but about how the pillow registers in the retina.  “The pillow is soft” says nothing about the pillow in itself but only addresses how the pillow registers tactile sensations in neurons under the skin.  In fact, we may agree that the pillow is largely empty space with tiny atoms bombarding each other. But this knowledge too has been derived from empirical studies that rely in the first instance on sensory data.  So all we know about are the imprints made upon our own body’s sensory registers.  If there are material things out in space which exist independently of our sensory judgments, we can know nothing about them in themselves—we can only know about them post-processed, as it were.  So according to this theory, the material world may exist, but we’ll never know, because all we know about are the products of our own subjective processing plant.

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The first critique was favored in the 4th century BC by Plato, who deliberately rejected empiricism (and the Greeks had already theorized that the world was nothing more than billions of tiny particles called atoms bombarding one another and creating the appearance of solid shapes—a conclusion they drew through philosophical inquiry without any need for scientific instruments, and a materialist conclusion Plato had studied and rejected on the grounds that it could only give us low-level knowledge accessible to the senses, knowledge of material reality, which is only a shadow cast by a more ideal reality accessible to reason).

The second critique was favored by the empiricist, David Hume, who was presumably following the empiricism of 18th-century scientists to its logical conclusion—that the material world was either non-existent or utterly unknowable.  (There are counterarguments—and rebuttals—Kant, e.g., would pick up exactly where Hume left off. But it’s interesting to see how the ultimate empiricist, Hume, and the ultimate anti-empiricist, the rationalist Plato, both conclude that a purely materialist world view is untenable.)