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 (ĂȘtre). 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)