Thursday, June 11, 2020

Unexpected Meeting


"Mathematicians attach great importance to the elegance of their methods and their results. This is not pure dilettantism. What is it indeed that gives us the feeling of elegance in a solution, in a demonstration? It is the harmony of the diverse parts, their symmetry, their happy balance; in a word it is all that introduces order, all that gives unity, that permits us to see clearly and to comprehend at once both the ensemble and the details. But this is exactly what yields great results, in fact the more we see this aggregate clearly and at a single glance, the better we perceive its analogies with other neighboring objects, consequently the more chances we have of divining the possible generalizations. Elegance may produce the feeling of the unforeseen by the unexpected meeting of objects we are not accustomed to bring together; there again it is fruitful, since it thus unveils for us kinships before unrecognized. It is fruitful even when it results only from the contrast between the simplicity of the means and the complexity of the problem set; it makes us then think of the reason for this contrast and very often makes us see that chance is not the reason; that it is to be found in some unexpected law. In a word, the feeling of mathematical elegance is only the satisfaction due to any adaptation of the solution to the needs of our mind, and it is because of this very adaptation that this solution can be for us an instrument. Consequently this aesthetic satisfaction is bound up with the economy of thought."

Henri Poincare (1854 - 1912)

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Crystalline Physiology


"Molecular biologists usually characterize life by objective properties like self-reproduction, variability and selection, adaptation, and metabolism. These characteristics do not constitute the definition of life but are properties of what we have previously recognized as living (on the Earth) on intuitive and subjective grounds. I think there is no objective definition of life (especially of extraterrestrial life) but only a subjective definition: we will decide that a system is 'living' when we will have relations with it (essentially based on communication) which will appear to us sufficiently rich, interesting, complex. Since any type of communication needs a physical support, the system considered must itself have (or be) a complex physical structure. The living systems on Earth have a hierarchical structure of the following type: living system ... organs ... cells ... 'central memory' (DNA). The transition from one stage to another in this scheme may be contingent and have no logical necessity. One could treat the problem at any of these levels. But molecular biologists are used to building the macroscopic from the microscopic. Since there is no other well established working method, I will thus restrict myself to the aim of finding a model of 'central memory.' It will be required to have the fundamental characteristics of DNA: to be stable, to contain rich information, and to diffuse, thanks for a reading mechanism, this information into the surrounding medium (protein synthesis in the case of the cell). These will be the minimal characteristics of ... model for a crystalline physiology. The places of possible occurrence in nature of this kind of physiology, terrestrial and extraterrestrial rocks, interplanetary dust, white dwarfs and neutron stars are then discussed."

Jean Schneider, "A model for a non-chemical form of life: Crystalline physiology," Origins of Life, Volume 8, pages 33-38, 1977.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Mathematical Structure



"A famous thorny issue in philosophy is the so-called infinite regress problem. For example, if we say that the properties of a diamond can be explained by the properties and arrangements of its carbon atoms, that the properties of a carbon atom can be explained by the properties and arrangements of its protons, neutrons and electrons, that the properties of a proton can be explained by the properties and arrangements of its quarks, and so on, then it seems that we're doomed to go on forever trying to explain the properties of the constituent parts. The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis offers a radical solution to this problem: at the bottom level, reality is a mathematical structure, so its parts have no intrinsic properties at all! In other words, the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis implies that we live in a relational reality, in the sense that the properties of the world around us stem not form properties of its ultimate building blocks, but from the relations between these building blocks. The external physical reality is therefore more than the sum of its parts, in the sense that it can have many interesting properties while its parts have no intrinsic properties at all."

- Max Tegmark (1967 - )

Thursday, June 04, 2020

"Dust Blown Up Into Shapes"


"You're water. We're the millstone.
You're wind. We're dust blown up into shapes.
You're spirit. We're the opening and closing
of our hands. You're the clarity.
We're the language that tries to say it.
You're joy. We're all the different kinds of laughing."

Rumi (1207 - 1273)

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Eyes to See


"Nature is painting for us,
day after day,
pictures of infinite beauty
if only we have the
eyes to see them."

- John Ruskin (1819 - 1900)

Postscript. Sometimes a sunset is "just" a sunset. A few years ago I suffered the indignity of having an art juror "explain" to me that - while my photo-submission to a local art show was technically well executed and showed a "beautiful sunset" - because images of sunsets are so passe ("You really ought to know better!" was my admonishment), I should strive for something a "bit more original." This was an assessment by which I was simultaneously both annoyed (since when did beauty of any kind become passe?) and amused (the juror had no idea that what she was really looking at was one of my synesthetic landscapes, not a real sunset). Adding insult to injury - and turning my amusement to even greater annoyance: after I explained to the juror that the image she was looking at was not a sunset but rather an extreme macro of a smidgen of light refracted through the bottom of a glass vase, she cocked her head, and with a bemused smile, very condescendingly reproached me with, "Now, now, I know a sunset when I see one!" Well, as the image shown here attests, sometimes a sunset really is just a sunset (as captured last year during a family trip to the Olympic Peninsula). 

Monday, June 01, 2020

Non-Doing


"Here is how I sum it up:
Heaven does nothing: its non-doing is its serenity.
Earth does nothing: its non-doing is its rest.
From the union of these two non-doings
All actions proceed,
All things are made.
How vast, how invisible
This coming-to-be!
All things come from nowhere!
How vast, how invisible -
No way to explain it!
All beings in their perfection
Are born of non-doing.
Hence it is said:
"Heaven and earth do nothing
Yet there is nothing they do not do."

Where is the man who can attain
To this non-doing?"

- Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Shuddering Before the Beautiful


"In my entire scientific life, extending over forty-five years, the most shattering experience has been the realization that an exact solution of Einstein's equations of general relativity, discovered by the New Zealand mathematician, Roy Kerr, provides the absolutely exact representation of untold numbers of massive black holes that populate the universe. This shuddering before the beautiful, this incredible fact that a discovery motivated by a search after the beautiful in mathematics should find its exact replica in Nature, persuades me to say that beauty is that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound."

S. Chandrasekhar  (1910 - 1995)

Friday, May 29, 2020

Pure Spirit


"So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect—What is truth? and of the affections—What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. Then shall come to pass what my poet said; 'Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it. The immobility or bruteness of nature, is the absence of spirit; to pure spirit, it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient. Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you.' For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Creative Consciousness


"I believe that we need to learn from natural process about how to be appropriately creative ourselves, meaning that our activities should be appropriate to whatever is the context within which we are acting. This of course applies to everything we do, not just to art or architecture. The process of bringing something into being is what we and the rest of nature are engaged in all the time, but we have a tendency to assume that what emerges from our looking or feeling or doing was there to begin with and we just became aware of it. However just as quarks and mesons, organisms and galaxies are dynamically generated continuously, from we know not what, to become the natural kinds that we call in the generic language of dynamics, attractors, so we and the world we inhabit are generated continuously. The individual properties of these natural kinds reflect the context in which they arise by their particularities. It is this type of process that I believe we need to understand by participating in it, not just by looking at it.
...
The latest problem to appear clearly on the scientific agenda is how consciousness (and feeling) could emerge in a cosmos that is made up of totally inert, insentient components. Complexity theory always requires that there be some precursor of whatever property is observed to emerge in a system, such as superconductivity or the properties of water or the cooperative behavior of bees in a hive. The dilemma now is to account for the evolutionary emergence of feeling from a system that has no qualitative precursor of such a property. This would be a scientific miracle, and scientists don’t like miracles. So some other solution needs to be found. My own preference, to save the unity of scientific understanding, is to adopt some position like that of Whitehead or Bergson, so that consciousness and feelings are grounded in reality and not some ghostly epiphenomena that are not quite real. However, this will be very firmly resisted by the majority of scientists, and for perfectly good reasons. You do not lightly abandon a position that has been so phenomenally successful at explaining so much of nature. I don’t intend to abandon it either, but I believe that science has to be extended in some way to accommodate the reality of qualities."

- Brian Goodwin (1931 - 2009)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Behavior of Things


"Electrons, when they were first discovered, behaved exactly like particles or bullets, very simply. Further research showed, from electron diffraction experiments for example, that they behaved like waves. As time went on there was a growing confusion about how these things really behaved ---- waves or particles, particles or waves? Everything looked like both.

This growing confusion was resolved in 1925 or 1926 with the advent of the correct equations for quantum mechanics. Now we know how the electrons and light behave. But what can I call it? If I say they behave like particles I give the wrong impression; also if I say they behave like waves. They behave in their own inimitable way, which technically could be called a quantum mechanical way. They behave in a way that is like nothing that you have seen before. Your experience with things that you have seen before is incomplete. The behavior of things on a very tiny scale is simply different. An atom does not behave like a weight hanging on a spring and oscillating. Nor does it behave like a miniature representation of the solar system with little planets going around in orbits. Nor does it appear to be somewhat like a cloud or fog of some sort surrounding the nucleus. It behaves like nothing you have seen before.

There is one simplification at least. Electrons behave in this respect in exactly the same way as photons; they are both screwy, but in exactly in the same way….

The difficulty really is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from your saying to yourself, "But how can it be like that?" which is a reflection of uncontrolled but utterly vain desire to see it in terms of something familiar. I will not describe it in terms of an analogy with something familiar; I will simply describe it. There was a time when the newspapers said that only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe there ever was such a time. There might have been a time when only one man did, because he was the only guy who caught on, before he wrote his paper. But after people read the paper a lot of people understood the theory of relativity in some way or other, certainly more than twelve. On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. So do not take the lecture too seriously, feeling that you really have to understand in terms of some model what I am going to describe, but just relax and enjoy it. I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, "But how can it be like that?" because you will get 'down the drain', into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that."

Richard Feynman (1918 - 1988)

Monday, May 25, 2020

Humboldtian Threads


"Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. “In this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt said, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today. When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel."


"Mere communion with nature, mere contact with the free air, exercise a soothing yet comforting and strengthening influence on the wearied mind, calm the storm of passion, and soften the heart when shaken by sorrow to its inmost depths."

Alexander von Humboldt (1769 - 1859)

Postscript: If there is any solace to be found during this difficult time, it is - as Humboldt reminds us - but a mindful nature-walk away. This montage reveals some of the (usually invisible, if not simply ignored) "Humboldtian threads" that quietly weave their way through the small neighborhood park in which my younger son and I now regularly take our late-day rejuvenating saunters

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Dynamic Unity


"What Goethe means by the Urpflanze is the dynamic unity of the coming-into-being of all plants as the self-differencing of One plant, which in therefore intensively multiple but appears to us extensively as all the many different plants. What this means is that each plant is the Urpflanze being one possible mode of itself - the number of possibilities is indeterminate. Hence, paradoxically, it is everywhere visible and nowhere visible - although once we begin to think dynamically, this is no paradox at all. Instead of being separate from the many particular plants that we see, i.e., as 'the one over many', Goethe's Urpflanze is One which comes into concrete manifestation simultaneously with the many - with which it is identical because the many are now the self-differences of One. This is very different indeed from the two-world theory which separates the One from the many. There is no such dualism in Goethe's thinking, for which in his own words: 'The universal and the particular coincide: the particular is the universal, appearing under different conditions.'"

- Henri Bortoft (1938 - 2012)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Soul and Landscape


"It is one of the perils of our so-called civilized age that we do not yet acknowledge enough, or cherish enough, this connection between soul and landscape - between our own best possibilities, and the view from our own windows. We need the world as much as it needs us, and we need it in privacy, intimacy, and surety. We need the field from which the lark rises - bird that is more than itself, that is the voice of the universe: vigorous, godly job. Without the physical world such hope it: hacked off. Is: dried up. Without wilderness no fish could leap and flash, no deer could bound soft as eternal waters over the field; no bird could open its wings and become buoyant, adventurous, valorous beyond even the plan of nature. Nor could we."

- Mary Oliver (1935 - 2019)

Friday, May 15, 2020

Sacred Place


"You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen."

- Joseph Campbell (1904 - 1987)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The World Runs Free


"The mere existence of free will already has consequences for the philosophy of general relativity. That theory has been thought by some to show that “the flow of time” is an illusion. We quote only one of many distinguished authors to that effect: 'The objective world simply is, it does not happen' (Hermann Weyl). It is remarkable that this common opinion, often referred to as the “block universe” view, has come about merely as a consequence of the usual way of modeling the mathematics of general relativity as a theory about the curvature of an eternally existing arena of space-time. In the light of the Free Will theorem this view is mistaken, since the future of the universe is not determined. Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to build the Panama Canal shows that free will moves mountains, which implies, by general relativity, that even the curvature of space is not determined. The stage is still being built while the show goes on. Einstein could not bring himself to believe that 'God plays dice with the world,' but perhaps we could reconcile him to the idea that 'God lets the world run free.'"

- John Conway (1937 - 2020) and Simon Kochen (1934 - )

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Autopoiesis and Cognition


"In a sense it has been my way to transcendental experience: to the discovery that matter metaphorically speaking, is the creation of the spirit (the mode of existence of the observer in a domain of discourse), and that the spirit is the creation of the matter it creates. This is not a paradox, but it is the expression of our existence in a domain of cognition in which the content of cognition is cognition itself. Beyond that nothing can be said."

Monday, May 11, 2020

Being and Thinking


"These paintings were intended to challenge the objective nature of being (être). The notion of being is presented here as relative rather than irrefutable: it is merely a projection of our minds, a whim of our thinking. The mind has the right to establish being wherever it cares to and for as long as it likes. There is no intrinsic difference between being and fantasy (fantasme); being is an attribute that the mind assigns to fantasy. One could apply the term ‘nihilism’ to this challenge of being, but it is reverse nihilism, since it confers the power of being on any fantasy whatsoever, given that being is a secretion of our minds.

These paintings are an exercise for training the mind to deal with a being that it creates for itself rather than one imposed upon it. The mind should get rid of the feeling that it alone must change while being cannot change; the mind will train itself to vary being rather than varying itself, the mind will train itself to move through a space in which being is variable and never anything but a hypothesis, the mind will practice using its ability to provide its own fulcrums wherever it wishes, it will learn to rely on illusion, to create the ground on which it walks. The mind will learn how to move through all the various degrees of being, and it will feel at ease when being is undependable, flicks on and off, remains potential, and sleeps or wakes at will. Being and thinking are one and the same."

- Jean Dubuffet (1901 - 1985)

Postscript: This abstract image was captured during last week's "rejuvenating saunter" (as described in the postscript to the last blog entry). While this self-contained surreal reality lived only a few inches away from the reeds of grass that appear in the earlier picture (and was captured no more than a minute or so afterwards), the states of mind that the two images invoked in me could not have been more different. I could articulate an "objective" - but, oh-so-far-from-meaningful - description of what you are looking at (one might read: "A time-lapsed eddy with some play of bright sunlight on the surface of a small creek"); but, in truth, Dubuffet's analysis of his own abstract paintings (see MoMA's online collection) is so much better at conveying what I was thinking as I took this picture!

Friday, May 08, 2020

Rejuvenative Pleasures of Sauntering


"I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived 'from idle people who roved about the country,' in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, 'There goes a Sainte-Terrer,' a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea."

- Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)

Postscript: Little did I know back in November of last year (in this post) that the word "saunter" would come back and haunt me - haunt all of us; unexpectedly, to be sure, and not in a bad way, but mindfully and full of joy. For what better way is there of dealing with today's unrelenting virus-induced stressors than succumbing to the gentle pleasures of Thoreau-ian sauntering? And so, my younger son (having now advanced far beyond his early Polaroid experiments and maturing quite nicely as an budding-artist with a Fujifilm XT-2 in hand) and I have been taking daily saunters to rejuvenate our sequestered souls. The impressionistic image above (which captures the gentle swaying and swirling of reeds of grass in a shallow creek along a footpath near our home in northern VA) may not be a Wagnerian panorama of, say, the Scottish highlands, but it is no less able to depict the ineffable effervescence of our lives. Though I started our saunter in a decidedly dour mood (minus my normal commute time, my "work days" are now effectively 3 hours longer!), it took but a few precious moments immersed in a gentle forest breeze, the soft burbling of water and the glimmer of the day's last sunlight on a tiny reed of grass to put smiles back on our faces. Thank you, Mr. Thoreau, for reminding me of the timeless - and rejuvenative - pleasures of sauntering!

Friday, May 01, 2020

Heraclitean Fire


"All things are in flux; 
the flux is subject to a 
unifying measure or rational principle. 
This principle (logos
the hidden harmony behind all change) 
bound opposites together in a unified tension, 
which is like that of a lyre, 
where a stable harmonious sound 
emerges from the tension of the 
opposing forces that arise from the 
bow bound together by the string.
...
The living and the dead,
The awake and the sleeping,
The young and the old are all one and the same.
When the ones change, they become the others.
When those shift again, they become these again.
...
God is day and night.
God is winter and summer.
God is war and peace.
God is fertility and famine.
He transforms into many things.
...
Day and night are one.
Goodness and badness are one.
The beginning and the end of a circle are one."

- Heraclitus (c.535 - c.475 BC)

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Symbolic Universe


"There is no remedy against this reversal of the natural order. Man cannot escape from his own achievement. He cannot but adopt the conditions of his own life. No longer in a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe. They are the varied threads which weave the symbolic net, the tangled web of human experience. All human progress in thought and experience refines and strengthens this net. No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man's symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself.

He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium. His situation is the same in the theoretical as in the practical sphere. Even here man does not live in a world of hard facts, or according to his immediate needs and desires. He lives rather in the midst of imaginary emotions, in hopes and fears, in illusions and disillusions, in his fantasies and dreams. 'What disturbs and alarms man,' said Epictetus, 'are not the things, but his opinions and fantasies about the things."

- Ernst Cassirer (1874 - 1945)

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Places of Initiation


"… a ditch somewhere – or a creek, meadow, woodlot, or marsh…. These are places of initiation, where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin.… Everybody has a ditch, or ought to. For only the ditches and the fields, the woods, the ravines – can teach us to care enough for all the land."

- Robert Michael Pyle (1947 - )

Monday, April 27, 2020

Emergence


"Can the emergence of real new properties in complex systems really be explained? If the sciences of complexity offer important new insights, theories, and methodologies for dealing with complex, higher-order phenomena (as we think they do), and if the traditional view of explanation cannot account for the explanatory strategies we find here, we should look for other accounts of scientific explanation. Perhaps the very idea of scientific explanation as a strictly deductive argument should be reinterpreted and explanations seen in a more dynamic and context dependent setting, eventually themselves being emergent structures, ‘emergent explanations’."

On Emergence and Explanation
(Baas and Emmeche, 1997)

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Self-Sustaining Agents


"… long before we were conscious, thinking beings, our cells were reading data from the environment and working together to mold us into robust, self-sustaining agents. What we take as intelligence, then, is not simply about using symbols to represent the world as it objectively is. Rather, we only have the world as it is revealed to us, which is rooted in our evolved, embodied needs as an organism. Nature ‘has built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it’, … we think with our whole body, not just with the brain."

Thursday, April 23, 2020

One Mountain Day


"Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever."

- John Muir (1838 - 1914)

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Visual Imagination


"As to the ontological status of the unconscious. . . the 'words' that compose it are elements drawn from the realm of the imaginary - notably from visual imagination - but promoted to the dignity of signifiers. The term imago, somewhat fallen into disuse, corresponds fairly well, if taken in a broad sense, to these elementary terms of unconscious discourse. . . . The 'sentences' that are found in this discourse are short sequences, most often fragmentary, circular and repetitive. it is these that we discover as unconscious phantasies"

- Jean Laplanche (1924 - 2012)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Rocks as Pointers


"The path my feet took was lined with images, whole gardens of pictures. With exposures I picked bouquets, each more vivid than the previous...finally a gathering of gem-like flames in the low tide...I thought I had forgotten how to use my camera, so I counted each step of the process aloud...shutter speed, aperture, cock the shutter...Though I feared to lose the sense of beauty, no loss occurred; the sense of rapport was strong beyond belief.

While rocks were photographed, the subject of the sequence is not rocks; while symbols seem to appear, they are pointers to the significance. The meaning appears in the space between the images, in the mood they raise in the beholder. The flow of the sequence eddies in the river of his associations as he passes from picture to picture. The rocks and the photographs are only objects upon which significance is spread like sheets on the ground to dry."

- Minor White (1908 - 1976)

Monday, April 20, 2020

Unfathomable Depth


"Words, no matter whether they are vocalized and made into sounds or remain unspoken as thoughts, can cast an almost hypnotic spell upon you. You easily lose yourself in them, become hypnotized into implicitly believing that when you have attached a word to something, you know what it is. The fact is: You don’t know what it is. You have only covered up the mystery with a label. Everything, a bird, a tree, even a simple stone, and certainly a human being, is ultimately unknowable. This is because it has unfathomable depth. All we can perceive, experience, think about, is the surface layer of reality, less than the tip of an iceberg."

- Eckhart Tolle (1948 - )

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Other Worlds


"Our universe is what it is simply because we are here.

The situation can be likened to that of a group of intelligent fish who one day begin wondering why their world is completely filled with water.

Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water. For years, they put their minds to the task but can never quite seem to prove their assertion.

Then a wizened group of fish postulates that maybe they are fooling themselves. Maybe, they suggest, there are many other worlds, some of them completely dry, some wet, and everything in between.”

Alan Lightman (1948 - )

Friday, April 17, 2020

Sovereignty of the Intellect


"The Greeks made Space the subject-matter of a science of supreme simplicity and certainty. Out of it grew, in the mind of classical antiquity, the idea of pure science. Geometry became one of the most powerful expressions of that sovereignty of the intellect that inspired the thought of those times. At a later epoch, when the intellectual despotism of the Church, which had been maintained through the Middle Ages, had crumbled, and a wave of skepticism threatened to sweep away all that had seemed most fixed, those who believed in Truth clung to Geometry as to a rock, and it was the highest ideal of every scientist to carry on his science 'more geometrico.'"

- Hermann Weyl (1885 - 1955)


Thursday, April 16, 2020

Timeless Life


"...in the case of trees and certain other forms of plant life, they already have a structure that expresses perfectly a timeless life in more than three dimensions. Being motionless, the only movement is that of their growth, which leaves a solid trail of wood behind in much the same way we ourselves are leaving a long stream of ghostly images. The tree's shape is its history, each bough the curve of a magnificent time statue which I can assure you that we folk Upstairs appreciate just as enthusiastically as do you humans."

- Alan Moore (1953 - )

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Garden of Forking Paths


"The Garden of Forking Paths is an enormous guessing game, or parable, in which the subject is time. The rules of the game forbid the use of the word itself. To eliminate a word completely, to refer to it by means of inept phrases and obvious paraphrases, is perhaps the best way of drawing attention to it. This, then, is the tortuous method of approach preferred by the oblique Ts'ui Pen in every meandering of his interminable novel. I have gone over hundreds of manuscripts, I have corrected errors introduced by careless copyists, I have worked out the plan from this chaos, I have restored, or believe I have restored, the original. I have translated the whole work. I can state categorically that not once has the word time been used in the whole book. 

"The explanation is obvious. The Garden of Forking Paths is a picture, incomplete yet not false, of the universe such as Ts'ui Pen conceived it to be. Differing from Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not think of time as absolute and uniform. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time - the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the 
centuries - embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899 - 1986)
"The Garden of Forking Paths" in Ficciones 

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Order of Thought


"But spontaneity is not by any means a blind, disorderly urge, a mere power of caprice. A philosophy restricted to the alternatives of conventional language has no way of conceiving an intelligence which does not work according to plan, according to a one-at-a-time order of thought. Yet the concrete evidence of such an intelligence is right to hand in our own thoughtlessly ordered bodies. For the Tao does not 'know' how it produces the universe just as we do not 'know' how we construct our brains."

- Alan Watts (1915 - 1973)

Friday, April 10, 2020

Creation Myths


"Religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms. The story of the lost paradise was a myth, not a factual account of a historical event. People were not expected to “believe" it in the abstract; like any mythos, it depended upon the rituals associated with the cult of a particular holy place to make what it signified a reality in the lives of participants.

The same applies to the creation myth that was central to ancient religion and has now become controversial in the Western world because the Genesis story seems to clash with modern science. But until the early modern period, nobody read a cosmology as a literal account of the origins of life. In the ancient world, it was inspired by an acute sense of the contingency and frailty of existence. Why had anything come into being at all, when there could so easily have been nothing? There has never been a simple or even a possible answer to this question, but people continue to ask it, pushing their minds to the limit of what we can know."

- Karen Armstrong (1944 - )

Thursday, April 09, 2020

A Glimpse of Reality


"In short, [Einstein's General Theory of Relativity] describes a colorful and amazing world where universes explode, space collapses into bottomless holes, time sags and slows near a planet, and the unbounded extensions of interstellar space ripple and sway like the surface of the sea... And all of this...was not a tale told by an idiot in a fit of lunacy or a hallucination caused by Calabria's burning Mediterranean sun and its dazzling sea. It was reality. Or better, a glimpse of reality, a little less veiled than our blurred and banal everyday view of it. A reality that seems to be made of the same stuff that our dreams are made of, but that is nevertheless more real than our clouded, quotidian dreaming."

- Carlo Rovelli (1956 - )

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Firmament


"Throughout the earth there are ancient forms, forms incorruptible and eternal; any one of them could be the symbol I sought. A mountain could be the speech of the god, or a river or the empire or the configuration of the stars. But in the process of the centuries the mountain is leveled and the river will change its course, empires experience mutilation and havoc and the configuration of the stars varies. There is change in the firmament. The mountain and the star are individuals and individuals perish. I sought something more tenacious, more invulnerable. I thought of the generations of cereals, of grasses, or birds, of men. Perhaps the magic would be written on my face, perhaps I myself was the end of my search.”

- Jorge Luis Borges (1899 - 1986)

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Grasping the Universe


"Your question is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. "

- Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

Monday, April 06, 2020

Radiance and Instability


"Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways; pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the moondriven sea. Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will.

But here rise the stubborn continents. The shelves of gravel and the cliffs of rock break from water baldly into air, that dry, terrible outerspace of radiance and instability, where there is no support for life. And now, now the currents mislead and the waves betray, breaking their endless circle, to leap up in loud foam against rock and air, breaking....

What will the creature made all of seadrift do on the dry sand of daylight; what will the mind do, each morning, waking?"

- Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 - 2018)

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Holy Fire


"For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I received impressions, but I did not print out captions. My own self-awareness had disappeared; it seems now almost as though, had I been wired to electrodes, my EEG would have been flat. I have done this sort of thing so often that I have lost self-consciousness about moving slowly and halting suddenly. And I have often noticed that even a few minutes of this self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves. Martin Buber quotes an old Hasid master who said, “When you walk across the field with your mind pure and holy, then from all the stones, and all growing things, and all animals, the sparks of their souls come out and cling to you, and then they are purified and become a holy fire in you."

- Annie Dillard (1945 - )

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Quantum Objects


"Quantum objects present us with a choice of languages, but it’s too easily forgotten that this is precisely what it is: a struggle to formulate the right words, not a description of the reality behind them. Quantum objects are not sometimes particles and sometimes waves, like a football fan changing her team allegiance according to last week’s results. Quantum objects are what they are, and we have no reason to suppose that ‘what they are’ changes in any meaningful way depending on how we try to look at them. Rather, all we can say is that what we measure sometimes looks like what we would expect to see if we were measuring discrete little ball-like entities, while in other experiments it looks like the behavior expected of waves of the same kind as those of sound travelling in air, or that wrinkle and swell on the sea surface. So the phrase ‘wave–particle duality’ doesn’t really refer to quantum objects at all, but to the interpretation of experiments – which is to say, to our human-scale view of things."

-  Philip Ball (1962 - )

Friday, April 03, 2020

Frozen Thoughts


"Bowman was aware of some changes in his behavior patterns; it would have been absurd to expect anything else in the circumstances. He could no longer tolerate silence; except when he was sleeping, or talking over the circuit to Earth, he kept the ship's sound system running at almost painful loudness. / At first, needing the companionship of the human voice, he had listened to classical plays--especially the works of Shaw, Ibsen, and Shakespeare--or poetry readings from Discovery's enormous library of recorded sounds. 

The problems they dealt with, however, seemed so remote, or so easily resolved with a little common sense, that after a while he lost patience with them. / So he switched to opera--usually in Italian or German, so that he was not distracted even by the minimal intellectual content that most operas contained. This phase lasted for two weeks before he realized that the sound of all these superbly trained voices was only exacerbating his loneliness. But what finally ended this cycle was Verdi's Requiem Mass, which he had never heard performed on Earth. The "Dies Irae," roaring with ominous appropriateness through the empty ship, left him completely shattered; and when the trumpets of Doomsday echoed from the heavens, he could endure no more. / Thereafter, he played only instrumental music. 

He started with the romantic composers, but shed them one by one as their emotional outpourings became too oppressive. Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, lasted a few weeks, Beethoven rather longer. He finally found peace, as so many others had done, in the abstract architecture of Bach, occasionally ornamented with Mozart. / And so Discovery drove on toward Saturn, as often as not pulsating with the cool music of the harpsichord, the frozen thoughts of a brain that had been dust for twice a hundred years."

- Arthur C. Clarke (1917 - 2008)

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Towards Silence


"Somewhere in the
onrush of everydayness
I lost track of myself.
Now I lie beside this chaste sea
watching a skyful of sun, clouds,
and birds sailing towards silence.
Music enters the afternoon,
weaves the air then gently falls
on me with the uncertainty of rain.
Suddenly all things beneath the sand
are moving with the restless wind.

Preoccupied with the perishable day,
I am deaf to yesterday's churning
with its graveclothes and honors.
All I want to hear, or feel, is music,

So, I will remain by this partisan sea,
running without moving,
shedding the thick skin of doubt,
listening to the sky sing, watching--
still waiting to bring myself
to this place where I should arrive."

- Gordon Parks (1912 - 2006)

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Uncalculating Mind


"Whatever evaluation we finally make of a stretch of land, however, no matter how profound or accurate, we will find it inadequate. The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try to sense the range and variety of its expression—its weather and colors and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there."
- Barry Lopez (1945 - )

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Peculiar and Hypnotic


"It's peculiar and hypnotic,
the way you stare
and kind of start thinking
when you're watching
something which is still."

- Sam Taylor-Johnson (1967 - )

Monday, March 30, 2020

Mysterious Encounter


"Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face

grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.

In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.

And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am."

- Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 - 1926)

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Nature's Eternity


"If we are absorbed in a movie it may seem at first that the screen lies behind the image. Likewise, if we are so captivated by experience that we overlook the simple experience of being aware or awareness itself, we may first locate it in the background of experience. In this first step, being aware or awareness itself is recognized as the subjective witness of all objective experience. Looking more closely we see that the screen is not just in the background of the image but entirely pervades it. Likewise, all experience is permeated with the knowing with which it is known. It is saturated with the experience of being aware or awareness itself. There is no part of a thought, feeling, sensation or perception that is not infused with the knowing of it. 

This second realization collapses, at least to a degree, the distinction between awareness and its objects. In the third step, we understand that it is not even legitimate to claim that knowing, being aware or awareness itself pervades all experience, as if experience were one thing and awareness another. Just as the screen is all there is to an image, so pure knowing, being aware or awareness itself is all there is to experience. All there is to a thought is thinking, and all there is to thinking is knowing. All there is to an emotion is feeling, and all there is to feeling is knowing. All there is to a sensation is sensing, and all there is to sensing is knowing. All there is to a perception is perceiving, and all there is to perceiving is knowing. Thus, all there is to experience is knowing, and it is knowing that knows this knowing. Being all alone, with nothing in itself other than itself with which it could be limited or divided, knowing or pure awareness is whole, perfect, complete, indivisible and without limits. 

This absence of duality, separation or otherness is the experience of love or beauty, in which any distinction between a self and an object, other or world has dissolved. Thus, love and beauty are the nature of awareness. In the familiar experience of love or beauty, awareness is tasting its own eternal, infinite reality. It is in this context that the painter Paul Cézanne said that art gives us the ‘taste of nature’s eternity’."

- Rupert Spira (1960 - )

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Expressing the Spiritual


"Why is abstract art perfectly aligned with the spiritual? Abstract art can capture all manner of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. According to scholar and curator Kirk Varnedoe, who wrote Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock, it 'absorbs projection and generates meaning ahead of naming, establishing the form of things unknown, sui generis, in their peculiar complexities,' Moreover, abstraction offers a 'form of enrichment and alteration of experience denied to the fixed mimesis of known things.' It expands beyond depictions of the real world and engenders its own reality. As our ideas of spirituality change over time, abstract idioms evolve, and through abstraction we 'regenerate ourselves by bathing in the extreme...' It is precisely because abstraction is on 'the borderland around the opening into nothingness' that it is such an effective means of expressing the spiritual. Liberated from the constraints of depicting the real world, abstract art is free to explore the invisible Other. It can reflect the subjective reality of the spiritual -  inner states of being and spiritual presence - through materials, form, and color alone. For such an adventure, what vehicle - with its ability to convey the complex range of human experience - is more adept at engaging the spiritual in art?"

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Eye Cannot See It


"Eye cannot see It,
Tongue cannot utter It,
Mind cannot grasp It.
There is no way to
learn or to teach It.
It is different from the known,
Beyond the unknown.
In this all the ancient masters agree."

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Faith


"When you get to the end
of all the light you know
and it's time to step
into the darkness
of the unknown,
faith is knowing that one
of two things shall happen:
either you will be given
something solid to stand on,
or you will be taught how to fly."

- Edward Teller (1908 - 2003)

Monday, March 23, 2020

Soul of the World


"Each person carries a hidden poetic unity that reflects the mysterious continuity of the Soul of the World. In the depths of the soul, we are each an old soul able to survive the troubles of the world and contribute to its healing and renewal. The key to what we miss and secretly long for is hidden within us. Medicine men and healers of all kinds from cultures around the world have used various techniques to not only “heal” the soul, but also to restore individuals to their proper place in the world and in their culture. To heal means to “make whole,” and when we feel whole we are in touch with the whole world. When in touch with our underlying soul, we are naturally in touch with nature and the Soul of the World. We are the missing ingredient in the solutions needed for all that ails us, if we but awaken to the nature of our own souls."

- Michael Meade (1944 - )

Saturday, March 21, 2020

I Am a Leaf

"Like bubbles in a spring, 
the phrase floated effortlessly
to the surface of
my consciousness.
I am a Leaf."

Back in September, while on a trip to the Pacific Northwest with my family, I wrote of an "unexpected kindness" that flowed my way in the form of an email from a recent "follower" of my blog, whose note politely inquired about when I'd next post a new picture. As I wrote at the time, the impersonal sterility of our modern world makes it easy to forget that what connects us all are simple, gentle, human gestures, like one photographer reaching out to another over the technological ether to ask, "I enjoy seeing your pictures; you haven't stopped posting have you?" It is in this same spirit of a deep interconnectedness among all living beings, that I offer in this post not a picture (none would do justice to the impact that the story - and its accompanying photographs - I am about to reveal had on me), but rather a link to an extraordinary - and extraordinarily uplifting and visionary - essay ("I Am a Leaf") that was recently posted by photographer Paul Cotter on the website, Gratefulness.org.

It is curious how I came upon Paul's essay (which I had not seen posted on his own site), for it too is evidence of the "interconnectedness" of things. While Paul and I have never met in person (I look forward to the day we do, for our aesthetic travels appear to have much in common), we have exchanged many emails ever since connecting over an essay Paul had published on Wynn Bullock in 2016. I got to Paul's post by following a link I'd seen on Barbara Bullock Wilson's Facebook page; as dedicated readers of my own blog know, Barbara serendipitously become a treasured "virtual" friend of mine soon after the first email she sent me after reading of my "discovery" of her father's color abstractions back in 2012). But back to Paul, interconnectedness, and his remarkable "I am a Leaf." Paul sent me a link to his essay after reading two of my recent posts (“Branches” and “Part of Something Larger”). Both of these posts, in turns out, had resonated strongly with Paul. After you read his essay, you will immediately see why.

Without spoiling your pleasure of reading Paul's own words, here is part of the email I sent Paul soon after I read his essay for the first time (I have read it multiple times since, and will not soon forget it's message): "Paul, thank you so much for sharing your story. I felt a deep chill reading it, though not in an 'ego-centric' manner, rather in a way profoundly devoid of any 'I' whatsoever. Your experience, and the transformative (dare I say, transcendent) quality of embracing being a  'Part of Something Larger', literally (frank admission) brought a tear to my eye. For a moment, just a fleeting moment, through your words and the images accompanying them, I remember losing my sense of self and reveling in pure being." 

Now, gentle reader, if you have not done so already, please go here and read what Paul has to say about life, vulnerability, self, reality, impermanence, interconnectedness, and - yes - why we are all, "just" leaves. The accompanying images are also nothing short of breathtaking; luminescent, spiritually infused, and all preternaturally soulful. In short, fine-art photography at its very best. 

Please share Paul's message with as many people you believe may benefit from his story. And then stay tuned for things to follow, as Paul has admitted to some long-term plans he has in mind. Thank you, Paul, for sharing your experience!