Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Toward Abstract Gestalts

"If metaphor is a verbal
strategy to evoke images,
then as a photographer
I’m interested in
combining images
to alter associations by
extending the image itself 
It is this act
of transformation,
interactivity between images,
that I find the most challenging."

- Nathan Lyons (1930 - 2016)

Postscript / Slightly-convoluted aside on the creative process. I'm still experimenting with what to do with a storehouse of marble abstracts (from c.2011) that I recently "re-discovered" on an old hard-drive during my almost year-long COVID-19-induced "creative convalescence." While the photographs work by themselves - just as straight images - I've started playing with other ways of displaying them. What got me started was the fact that the best abstracts consist of (or possess) multiple overlapping regions that are just as strong if displayed separately. This aesthetic dilemma is both trivial and deep. It is trivial, because it is really no different from the most basic aesthetic judgement that all exposures depend on; i.e., framing. But it is also deeper, because - tautologically - a completed image can only reveal what the intentional framing allows it to reveal. Ironically, the deepest aesthetic value of an image (whether it is intended by the artist or not) may lie hidden, in latent form, discoverable only by discerning the full inherent richness and complexity of the Gestalt of (the myriad entwined parts of) an image.

What do I mean by this, on a more practical level? I first toyed with deliberately breaking up a selection of my marble abstracts into triptychs, literally breaking the images up into equal thirds. I did this not because I thought the images "looked better" when dissected in this way, but because - for the cases I selected - each individual panel proved to be as strong an image - by itself - as the abstract as a whole. But the whole images proved too intrusive - they made it hard to "see the trees for the forest." I next played with making random triptychs, assembling them from a pool of individual 1/3-sized panels (i.e., a candidate triptych consists of a random panel from a random image X, a random panel from a random image Y, and a random panel from a random image Z, keeping only the ones I "liked”). That exercise proved mostly fruitless. While I found a few stray triptychs mildly interesting, most were - sadly but obviously - "less than the sum of their parts." Then I tinkered with constructing triptychs-of-triptychs, but that soon got unmanageable, and the results (except for a few notable exceptions) were less than stellar. (I also experimented with randomly assembling 3-by-3 blocks of parts of images, but the less said about that effort the better.)

And so, we get to the image you see posted on top, which is but one of a fairly large portfolio I've convinced myself I really like; but which also took me a while to understand why (of course, your taste may differ). First, in the context of the labyrinthine "creative process" I just described, the image represents a rather "simple" excursion from just displaying the whole image. Indeed, the "algorithm" (if that is what I dare call it) is to split an image into three parts as before, and choose the "best" (most pleasing?... most interesting?... in practice, whichever one "holds my gaze longest") among the three possible juxtapositions (i.e., 1st and 2nd panel interchanged, 3rd panel fixed; 1st and 3rd panel interchanged, 2nd one fixed; or 2nd and 3rd panel interchanged, and 1st panel fixed); that's it! What makes it work is that - unlike an image that is just broken up into thirds (wherein you "see" the whole even if any of the individual panels strikes an interest on their own) - the whole in this case is objectively invisible (or visible, but only in latent form) - but is nonetheless implicitly still within sight, "just barely out of reach." The viewer is thus afforded a meditative space in which to quietly view and absorb the individual panels, all the while being gently reminded that none of them is the complete story. Indeed, it comes tantalizingly close to letting one to see - in true Goethian fashion - both the whole and its parts simultaneously. Some of the better examples of this (such as the one at the top of this post) induce a dynamic unresolved tension (in me, at least) between seeing the "whole" and "seeing the parts" (along lines of the infamous Necker cube or Wittgenstein's Duck-Rabbit); and take a step toward enticing the viewer to appreciate an image as "more than the sum of its parts."

"Abstract formal elements are
put together like numbers and
letters to make concrete beings
or abstract things;
in the end a formal cosmos
is achieved so much like
the creation that a mere breath
suffices to transform
religion into art."

Paul Klee (1879 - 1940)

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Spiritual Eye

"We are easily deluded into assuming that the relationship between a foreign subject and the objects in his world exist on the same spatial and temporal plane as our own relations with the objects in our human world. This fallacy is fed by the belief in the existence of a single world, into which all living creatures are pigeonholed. This gives rise to the widespread conviction that there is only one space and one time for all living things. Only recently have physicists begun to doubt the existence of a universe with a space that is valid for all beings. That such a space cannot exist is evident from the fact that all men live in three distinct spaces, which interpenetrate and complement, but in part also contradict one another."
"The mechanists have pieced together the sensory and motor organs of animals, like so many parts of a machine, ignoring their real functions of perceiving and acting, and have even gone on to mechanize man himself. According to the behaviorists, man’s own sensations and will are mere appearance, to be considered, if at all, only as disturbing static. But we who still hold that our sense organs serve our perceptions, and our motor organs our actions, see in animals as well as not only the mechanical structure, but also the operator, who is built into their organs, as we are into our bodies. We no longer regard animals as mere machines, but as subjects whose essential activity consists of perceiving and acting.  We thus unlock the gates that lead to other realms, for all that a subject perceives becomes his perceptual world and all that he does, his effector world. Perceptual and effector worlds together form a closed unit, the Umwelt. These different worlds, which are as manifold as the animals themselves, present to all nature lovers new lands of such wealth and beauty that a walk through them is well worth while, even though they unfold not to the physical but only to the spiritual eye."

- Jakob von Uexküll (1864 - 1944)

Friday, December 11, 2020

Imagining the World

"Sometimes he seemed to be
saying that nothing existed
unless people thought it did,
and the world was really
only there at all because
people kept on imagining it.
But then he seemed to be
saying that there were
lots of worlds, 
all nearly the same and 
all sort of occupying
the same place 
but all separated by the 
thickness of a shadow, 
so that everything that 
ever could happen 
would have somewhere
to happen in."

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Distant Memory

 "The Cosmos is all
that is or was or ever will be.
Our feeblest contemplations
of the Cosmos stir us -- 
there is a tingling in the spine, 
a catch in the voice, 
a faint sensation, 
as if a distant memory, 
of falling from a height. 
We know we are approaching
the greatest of mysteries."

- Carl Sagan (1934 - 1996)

Monday, December 07, 2020

Broken Symmetry

"Passion for science derives from an aesthetic sensibility, not a practical one. We discover something new about the world, and that lets us better appreciate its beauty. On the surface, the weak interactions are a mess: The force-carrying bosons have different masses and charges, and different interaction strengths for different particles. Then we dig deeper, and an elegant mechanism emerges: a broken symmetry, hidden from our view by a field pervading space. It’s like being able to read poetry in the original language, instead of being stuck with mediocre translations."

-  Sean Carroll (1966 - )
The Particle at the End of the Universe

Thursday, December 03, 2020

Eternally Complex Tapestry

"Its substance was known to me. The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures that went into each strand of that eternally complex tapestry…each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether. The weft of starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh. The fibres stretched taut and glued themselves solidly to a third line, its silk made from the angles of seven flying buttresses to a cathedral roof. The plait disappeared into the enormity of possible spaces.

Every intention, interaction, motivation, every colour, every body, every action and reaction, every piece of physical reality and the thoughts that it engendered, every connection made, every nuanced moment of history and potentiality, every toothache and flagstone, every emotion and birth and banknote, every possible thing ever is woven into that limitless, sprawling web.

It is without beginning or end.
It is complex to a degree
that humbles the mind.
It is a work of such beauty
that my soul wept...

..I have danced with the spider. 
I have cut a caper
with the dancing mad god."

- China Miéville (1972 - )
 Perdido Street Station

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Wonder about Wonder

"How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos? Especially awe inspiring is the fact that any single brain, including yours, is made up of atoms that were forged in the hearts of countless, far-flung stars billions of years ago. These particles drifted for eons and light-years until gravity and change brought them together here, now. These atoms now form a conglomerate- your brain- that can not only ponder the very stars that gave it birth but can also think about its own ability to think and wonder about its own ability to wonder. With the arrival of humans, it has been said, the universe has suddenly become conscious of itself. This, truly, it the greatest mystery of all."

- V. S. Ramachandran (1951 - )
The Tell-Tale Brain

Monday, November 30, 2020

Narrow Borderland of the Senses

"Outside our consciousness
there lies the cold and alien
world of actual things.
Between the two stretches
the narrow borderland of the senses. 
No communication between
the two worlds is possible excepting
across the narrow strip. 
For a proper understanding of
ourselves and of the world,
it is of the highest importance
that this borderland should
be thoroughly explored."

- Heinrich Hertz (1857 - 1894)

Postscript. Brooks Jensen (editor of Lenswork) offers a neat "trick" to jump-start - and otherwise stimulate - the creative process: spread a portfolio of your images or artwork (small physical prints work best) on the floor, and just play with various arrangements. You may either find stepping stones to ideas percolating just beneath the surface of your muse; or (if you are especially lucky), you may discover latent patterns-of-patterns that define you as an artist - invisible threads that run through your work that only a meditative bird's eye glimpse can reveal; or, as has happened here, you just happily stumble upon heretofore unrelated images that combine to tell their own story to you. The three images assembled together in the triptych above are unrelated, except that all were captured by me at very different times: the left-most image was an "accident" (literally, a waterlogged remnant of a 20 yo print of trees, if you can believe it!); the middle image is an 8yo shot of my ongoing "synesthetic landscape" series; and the right-most image is an oil abstract taken about a decade ago (which, up until my self-imposed "Brooks-Jensenian-exercise," was quietly sitting on an old hard-drive in its pristine raw form). The three images inexplicably aligned themselves - in sequence and correct orientation! - as I threw the first batch of 50 or so small prints on the floor to view. I imagine some Arthur-Clarkian tale being woven of an alien world: first "seen" by a probe as it navigates its way through a hole in an orbiting asteroid; it hurls through the planet's atmosphere and plunges into a stormy methane ocean; and starts collecting data on strange boundaryless lifeforms. Or, it could just be a randomly assembled meaningless triptych of equally random meaningless images ... though, for me, meaning, as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder :) Indeed, I wonder how many other phantasmagoric worlds will remain forever invisible to me, because there are not enough moments of time left in my life to conjure the right sequence?

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Turning Matter Into Spirit

 "I did not know what I was going to do with my life; before anything else I wanted to find an answer, my answer, to the timeless questions, and then after that I would decide what I would become. If I did not begin by discovering what was the grand purpose of life on earth, I said to myself, how would I be able to discover the purpose of my tiny ephemeral life? And if I did not give my life a purpose, how would I be able to engage in action? I was not interested in finding what life's purpose was objectively - this, I divined, was impossible and futile - but simply what purpose I, of my own free will, could give it in accord with my spiritual and intellectual needs. Whether or not this purpose was the true one did not, at that time, have any great significance for me. The important thing was that I should find (should create) a purpose congruent with my own self, and thus, by following it, reel out my particular desires and abilities to the furthest possible limit. For then at last I would be collaborating harmoniously with the totality of the universe.
There are those who aim at living the life of the entire universe - everything, men, animals, trees, stars, we are all one, we are all one substance involved in the same terrible struggle. What struggle?... Turning matter into spirit."

- Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 - 1957)

Friday, November 27, 2020

Order and Harmony

"There is a strange ring of feeling and emotion in these reactions [of scientists to evidence that the universe had a sudden beginning]. They come from the heart whereas you would expect the judgments to come from the brain. Why? I think part of the answer is that scientists cannot bear the thought of a natural phenomenon which cannot be explained, even with unlimited time and money. There is a kind of religion in science; it is the religion of a person who believes there is order and harmony in the Universe. Every event can be explained in a rational way as the product of some previous event; every effect must have its cause, there is no First Cause. … This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized."

- Robert Jastrow (1925 - 2008)
The Enchanted Loom

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Imposing of Order

 "For what are myths
if not the imposing of order
on phenomena that do not possess
order in themselves?
And all myths,
however they differ from
philosophical systems and scientific theories,
share this with them,
that they negate the principle of
randomness in the world."

- Stanislaw Lem (1921 - 2006)
Highcastle: A Remembrance

Monday, November 23, 2020

Answers, Questions, Mysteries

"'Look at that,' he said. 'How the ink bleeds.' He loved the way it looked, to write on a thick pillow of the pad, the way the thicker width of paper underneath was softer and allowed for a more cushiony interface between pen and surface, which meant more time the two would be in contact for any given point, allowing the fiber of the paper to pull, through capillary action, more ink from the pen, more ink, which meant more evenness of ink, a thicker, more even line, a line with character, with solidity. The pad, all those ninety-nine sheets underneath him, the hundred, the even number, ten to the second power, the exponent, the clean block of planes, the space-time, really, represented by that pad, all of the possible drawings, graphs, curves, relationships, all of the answers, questions, mysteries, all of the problems solvable in that space, in those sheets, in those squares."

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Emergence Magazine

 "Silence isn't the absence of something,
but the presence of everything.
When I speak of silence, 
I mean silence from the
noise pollution of modern life,
sounds that have nothing to do
with the natural acoustic system.
Silence is the poetics of space,
what it means to be in a place."

As so often happens when one encounters something one's soul resonates with on a deep level - such as my "accidental" discovery of the film In Pursuit of Silence and its accompanying book Notes on Silence (that I wrote about in a previous post) - other related phenomena soon make their appearance. Case in point: the quote above is taken from Emergence Magazine - or, more precisely, volume 1 of (what I hope is) a series of future publications - which I stumbled across by following up a link to a short essay on Hempton's ongoing efforts on documenting "silence." Since I have abused the adjective "extraordinary" far too many times on my blog (when referring to books and other things I've been touched by) for it to retain any semblance of intended meaning, please take your pick of any of a host of substitutes: exceptional, remarkable, phenomenal, magnificent,...for they all apply. Emergence is a quarterly online magazine that contains essays, interviews, podcasts, and photography on an enormous range of topics at the crossroads of culture, ecology and spirituality. Indeed, it is a veritable treasure trove of textual and visual wisdom, ranging from an homage to the photographic sensibilities of Christian mystic Thomas Merton, to David Abram's musings on animistic engagement with our perceptual world, to the poetic recollections of experiencing the first "Earthrise" from the moon by the Apollo 8 astronauts. But this short list hardly does justice to the wonders you'll find lurking in a Borges' Aleph-like Volume 1's 296 pages! Like In Pursuit of SilenceEmergence Magazine offers gentle guidance and meditative comfort as I struggle to shake the cobwebs off my creative muse. By happy coincidence, just as I was about to close the link I just opened to the online magazine to check that I got it right, I saw that Volume 2 is ready for pre-order! I suspect that those of you who have found something of value on my humble blog will find great - spiritually creative - value in the offerings this online magazine has to offer.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Mazes of Silence

"Theologians push the origins of the pursuit of silence far back in time. The doctrine of tsimtsum, developed by Isaac Luria, a sixteenth-century Jewish mystic, makes the pursuit of silence nothing less than the foundational act of the universe.

Luria began his own pursuit as a young man in a series of solitary retreats to islands in the Nile, where he gained renown for being able to interpret the language of birds, swishing palm-tree fronds, and burning embers. (Certain kabbalists thought that after the destruction of the temple, guardian angels used birds as a kind of remote storage for some of the deepest secrets of the Torah, hence their chirping was full of wisdom. Luria kept mum about what the leaves and coals had to say.) Eventually he moved to Safed in Palestine, and there developed the body of mystical thought for which he is most remembered. He himself wrote almost nothing, being constrained by the vastness of the truth he wished to articulate. “I can hardly open up my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and overflowed,” he explained. Tsimtsum (roughly translated as “contraction”) is also premised on a problem of space. If God is everything—infinite and all-filling—how could there be any room for God’s creations? Thus, the first act in genesis had to be God’s withdrawal of Himself into Himself in order to make space for anything else. This withdrawal—a kind of inner retreat of the Divine—has been described both as a self-limiting and a self-silencing. (The Jewish identification of God with language makes any pullback on His part a retraction of the Divine tongue.) In Luria’s vision, God becomes the original monkish pursuer of silence, retreating into the dark, secluded depths of His nature so that creation would one day have the chance to sing in the light. Early commentators on Luria’s theories likened this process to a kind of cosmic inhalation: “How did He produce and create His world? Like a man who holds and restricts his breath, in order that the little may contain the many.” Each new expression of God’s creative force had to be preceded by another withdrawal, another self-emptying.

A humanistic reading of Luria’s myth might lead us to reflect that when we shut up and yank ourselves out of the picture, the world rushes vibrantly into the gap we leave behind—springing into fresh visibility and audibility. The eighteenth-century Hasidic master Nahman of Bratslav, however, invested the lesson of tsimtsum with a further mystical twist. Nahman argued that mankind had to reproduce the steps the Divine had gone through in His self-silencing so as to make contact with God’s essence. A process of emptying and quieting takes the pursuer deep into an inner void that opens onto the emptiness left behind by God. Yet once inside what Nahman described as the “mazes of silence,” the righteous one discovers that in some inexpressible fashion God exists within the void as well."

- George Prochnik (1961 - )

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Silent Language

"Images are silent, but they speak in silence. They are a silent language. They are a station on the way from silence to language. They stand on the frontier where silence and language face each other closer than anywhere else, but the tension between them is resolved by beauty. Images and pictures remind man of life before the coming of language.

In the ancient languages one notices that the birth of words from silence was not taken for granted but was considered an event of sufficient importance to require a pause in the flow of language before the arrival of the next word. Words were constantly being interrupted by silence. As a river being born receives at every moment waters from different springs, in like manner after every word a new spring of silence flowed into the stream of the sentence.

In the ancient languages the word was merely an interruption of the silence. Every word was rimmed around with silence. It was this surrounding rim of silence that gave it its individual shape, and kept it separate and distinct from all other words, fenced off from them with its individuality guarded by the silence. If there is no silence between words they lose their individual shape and personality. Instead of being persons they become an undifferentiated mass.

In the ancient languages there was a silence in the interval between two words. The language breathed silence, spoke silence, into the great silence from which it came."

- Max Picard (1888 - 1965)
World of Silence

Monday, November 02, 2020

Meeting Yourself in Silence

"The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes one’s work for peace. It destroys one’s inner capacity of peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s work because it kills the roots of inner wisdom which make work fruitful."

- Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)

For regular followers of my blog (I hope at least a few of you remain!), I apologize for the recent dearth - heck, a veritable void - of posts and images. While legitimate reasons may (oh, so slightly) outweigh embarrassed half-baked excuses, the real truth(s) are revealed in Merton's quote: the dearth has as much to do with surrendering to too many (non photography related) projects as it does to my - and, everyone else's - ongoing battle to maintain some semblance of "inner peace" that - without which - it is impossible to sustain the creative process. 

I have always been a photographer of the heart; meaning, that I when I sense my left brain working - thinking, processing, analyzing - I put my camera back in its bag and turn my attention to other matters. I have also long embraced my heart's need for a deep contemplative quiet before my muse awakens. Unfortunately, such states have been increasingly hard to come by; what, with an unceasing pandemic, growing unrest in my country (a day away from a profoundly important election as I type these words), and spillage of day-time anxiety over what the next few months and year will bring over into dreams (and nightmares). And so, in turn, my camera sits patiently in its bag, and my blog wallows in its dearth of new images. But, alas, a ray of hope...

Merton's quote is taken from an essay ("The Modern-Day Desert") that appears in a truly extraordinary book, Notes on Silence, written and edited by Cassidy Hall and Patrick Shen. This book - discovered by chance as I was looking for something "completely unrelated" on the web a few weeks ago - has been a blessing; it is, at once, a spiritual salve, a place of solace, and a portal to precisely what my soul needs to help stumble its way through the muck and morass of this dark time. The book is also as much a metaphoric portal to otherworldly spiritual realms as it is a direct one to the mother project from which it was spawned; namely, an equally remarkable (and multiple award-winning film) called In Pursuit of Silence

Both film and book are joyously mystical meditations on the ineffability of silence. Not in a pedantic "let's listen to sounds of silence" sort of way (a topic well covered by other documentaries), but as revelatory / participatory pointers-to / glimpses-of what lies beyond the silence. Words, images, film stills, quotations, transcripts (in the book) - and, yes, "sounds" (and the lack of them) in the film - are brilliantly combined, mutated, and transformed into a new transcendent meta-language that hints of truths that pure silence is itself but a waystation to. You will meet myriad musicians, artists, mystics, philosophers, monastics, and theologians, and learn about the infinite variety of silences that permeate existence. 

Of course, the inner serenity I thought I had lost - and which I most certainly, and inexcusably, took for granted - was never gone! But it took this film and its accompanying Notes on Silence to remind me what "inner serenity" looks like. Seeing silence is akin to meeting yourself for the very first time.

I encourage anyone whose artistic muse dwells in inner silence to first view the film, and then order a copy of the book to keep by your bedside reading table. It is a treasure trove of timeless wisdom.

PS/Postscript. The image at the top of this post was taken mid-Oct at the Peaks of Otter Lake (along the Blue Ridge Parkway in VA). Apart from a few forgettable "snapshots" around the house and garden, this image is among the first "real" photographs I've taken in months. My muse may not have fully awakened, but I can see vestiges of an "inner serenity" that Notes on Silence reminded me never really left.

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


"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


"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)