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


"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

" 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


"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 - )