Friday, October 26, 2012

Great Blue Heron

I saw this Great Blue Heron, one of my favorite birds, out on my dock today when I went down to the kitchen for dinner. I think this can serve as a brief example of the sort of intelligence I was talking about in the last post. Because, typically you would expect to see herons standing in shallow water and weeds, hunting fish and frogs. Certainly it seems strange that he was standing in the open like he was, especially since I noticed him at 6 PM, and he remained there, essentially motionless, until 7:30 when I went inside. I sat on the balcony, hoping to see which way he would fly off, wondering where his nightly roost would be; but he outlasted me, as nature so often does. I grew tired of waiting and went inside. It was nearly full dark by then, and he'd been there at least an hour and a half-- who knows how long he'd been there before I spotted him.

What was he doing there? Definitely not hunting. For one thing, he was not in a good place for hunting: at least a foot and a half above the water's surface, not in the productive weed beds lining the shallows. Also, he barely moved for over an hour, hardly a twitch, aside from incrementally increasing the S-curve of his neck until his head was resting nearly on his shoulders. As dusk deepened, he did some slow wing stretches, similar to how I might stretch the muscles that lie across my shoulder blades. He also did a few knee bends, lifting one leg up, then the other. I thought he was getting ready to fly off. I think he was waiting for me to leave.

I wondered about predators. Certainly not many things prey on these the largest of herons. Possibly a bald eagle, but they prefer fish. An alligator might snap one up, but this heron was mostly safe from that, given the distance it is down to the water surface from the edge of the dock. A Great Horned Owl might take one, but probably not very often. Bobcat? Maybe. Coyote? Possibly. But this was the genius of the bird's chosen location. Not only was it far from any cover a stalking predator might use, but look at his placement. He set himself up right where the fourth tie-off post would have been, had it not been broken off. I don't think this was random or by accident.

One post, two posts, three posts, fo-- HEY!

To a casual glance, and in the growing gloom of dusk, though right out in the open this bird had in a way concealed himself within a regularity of his environment. This is intelligence of a certain manner. Not mere chance, nor the determinism of a genetic behavior. He probably didn't have to think about these things, but this intelligence isn't necessarily rational or lingual; more akin to intuition. Rational thought is just a recent layer of complexification of intelligence.

He wasn't ready to fly off to roost, was probably wanting to wait for full darkness, so no hungry eyes would see where he would finally bed down for the night. Most likely he was digesting a large meal. Often, birds feed just before nightfall, to see their high metabolisms through the night. I guess this one had gotten lucky with a large fish, or several smaller fish or frogs, and was content and satisfied for the day. So what did he do? He flew off to a good place in which to rest. He would have done the Buddha proud, as he faced toward the setting sun across the water, alert, but quiet in body and mind.

I suppose it's easy to discount all of this about inner intelligence. There are always two sides to any story or issue. Here, one could say the bird's behavior was the result of an inner intelligence, but one can just as easily say it is all genetic programming, just a dumb bird in a dumb universe. Sort of like the debate between materialism and idealism:
George Berkeley put forward the contention that nothing is real, in the sense that the universe exists only in our perceptions. When asked by Boswell what he thought of Berkeley's theory that matter may not, in fact, exist, Johnson kicked hard at a stone and stated, "I refute him thus!"
Johnson felt the reality of his foot hitting the stone, but Berkeley could say that he only perceived it, and cannot prove the reality at all. It goes round and round. I posit that both are correct. That is, there is the external view of science, which talks of the material evolution, but I also think there is an inward sense to everything, not just mere mechanics and behaviorism.

I guess the point is, I'm arguing for an acknowledgement of this "two sides to everything" fact. Materialism is not, in fact, the only possibility. It is ignorance to rule out the opposite position categorically; such a ruling out cannot be done, as it would have no basis in fact. This either-or thing cannot be resolved by choosing one or the other, the solution is to transcend the question by subsuming both in to a larger answer. This, really, is why, though I've been interested in both science and religion since earliest childhood, eventually this interest led me into metaphysics. I don't want just to cheerlead for one side, a relative understanding. Like all humans, I long for absolutes.

As Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido, said: everything—even mountains, rivers, plants, and trees—should be your teacher. And this is what natural philosophy is all about, what materialist science has lost, and what my next post, I think, is going to be about.

(By the way, the gator to the left of the frame in the second picture is, of course, fake)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Integral Thought

I've talked on here before about why I feel that science and spirituality must (and will) be reunited at some point in some way, but I was reminded of this issue recently by a Christian friend's Facebook post about a non-believer doctor who had a near death experience and came out with a more open mind on such things. I agreed with the general thrust of the argument he made. Science as it stands is, well, absurd, just as much as spirituality as it stands is often vague, ungrounded, and even willfully ignorant. Neither truly satisfy.

I want to explain why I call science absurd, because in general I know that science is the most powerful, accurate mode of exploring our physical reality. In fact, it is not truly science I have ever had an issue with, it is the materialist philosophy underlying it. The issue is that it says things like, the universe sprang from nothing. This is like saying heat comes from cold, or consciousness from unconsciousness (it says those things as well). But, cold is an absence of heat, or maybe more accurately, a form of heat, a negative measure or sense of heat. Likewise, nothing is a negative sense of something. That is, you can have the nonexistence of a particular thing, but you cannot have nothing absolutely. If you had nothingness, you clearly have something; the only way to have nothing is to not have it. It's all just playing with words at this point, the same way I can say "a square circle;" just because the words can be lined up or uttered doesn't mean that they have any sense or reality to them.

Then, take evolution. For the majority of those who don't believe in evolution, it seems the major deal-breaker is the evolution of man. They can, theoretically, if perhaps a bit uncomfortably, accept that animals, plants, and bacteria evolve, but, they say, what about the human soul? That requires special creation. I actually somewhat agree, in a qualified sense that I will elaborate presently. I see the word "soul" and think "consciousness, mind, self." And, when I think about it, how can human consciousness spring from non-consciousness? See, I could agree with the blind, stupid universe of materialist science if humans (and some animals, let's be honest) did not have consciousness and self awareness. It is theoretically possible that such a universe bumped itself randomly into atoms, stars, galaxies and life. 

But, consciousness exists, and therefore, I call bullshit on that idea. Because no one can figure out or even understand how meaning can come from non-meaning, how awareness could grow from non-awareness. The great mystery of how brain cells' electrochemical reactions somehow result in thought and feeling. And not mere thought or feeling, but the self-awareness of such. How does this arise through the evolution of an inherently unconscious world? Where did it come from, and how does it relate to that unconscious world?

The only solution that I see that is both subjectively and objectively acceptable is to grant consciousness to all existence, from the atoms to the galactic superclusters. It has been there from the beginning. At least on a basic, rudimentary level. The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin puts this in terms of the Within and the Without of things, and based a rather marvelous philosophy on the notion. Everything has an objective existence (that which is studied by science), but also, a subjective, inner sense. They are two perspectives, or properties, of existence. I might put it this way: philosophers talk of "extension" as that property of a thing existing in physical space, extended into space. So here, extension is lined with or enfolded with intention. I don't know if that is a perfectly accurate pair of opposites, but I kind of like how it sounds.  

One way of understanding how this would work is to see the following. You, to your own experience, know yourself to be a subjective being, a soul if you will, a center of experience, meaning, and understanding, and, ultimately, consciousness. You look at me and see an object, a thing beheld within your conscious awareness-- yet you also have no problem granting to me that I too am a subjective being, that I am a center of awareness as well (unless you are a solipsist), just as you accept your own objective physical reality as perceived by me. I am suggesting that we can simply extend that notion to all the universe. 

This helps explain where consciousness came from. The universe, from it's formation, has been gaining in complexity (at least in scattered areas, since as a whole it is winding down through entropy). From simple atoms, to more complex atoms, to molecules and chemical bonding, to complex organic chemistry, to life, ecology, and so on. With each rise in complexity, there is less of the universe involved (far more atoms than molecules, far more organisms than ecological systems); i.e., the scope is narrower. But each level up is a gain in the depth of consciousness. 
Teilhard talks of an interdependent energy between the Within and the Without; he believes that this energy is "psychic" in nature, but that it is divided into two distinct components: a tangential energy and a radial energy. Teilhard believes that tangential energy "links an element with all others of the same order." Radial energy draws an element towards "ever greater complexity and centricity," which for Teilhard means spiritual perfection. (from the above link)
You can begin to see the facility of the idea. The universe is not entirely random. Not that the Within of things is highly conscious like the human mind. An atom isn't "thinking" about how to join with another atom, or wishing it could find one to join with. A bacteria isn't "thinking" about how to adapt to the antibiotics it has encountered. But there is a leaning in a direction, towards survival, towards greater complexity. The leaning is sort of an inward intelligence in the basic way it might make a gain. 

Robert Pirsig wrote in Lila about how for any scientific problem, an infinite number of hypotheses exist; yet, we don't waste time testing all of them, we have a sense of what ones are most likely. It isn't random computation. Consider a computer. If it were hungry, it would first try chewing on the refrigerator door, then the table, then it's own hand... finally it would hit on "sandwich" and be satisfied. This is because it is not designed to think, but to compute quickly. It would do it quickly, but it would still have to try every possibility. Human minds don't go through everything in the kitchen; we bypass 99% of what's around and go straight for food. In computational speed computers are better, but the human brain is far more efficient, because it can truly think.

This helps us understand evolution. Originally evolution was thought to be a long, gradual change over endless eons. But further understanding shows that often species changed very rapidly, in terms of punctuated equilibrium. This makes sense, since things evolve to maintain a fit with the world in which they live, and out there, things can move fast. The climate doesn't take millions of years to shift, it can happen in a few hundred or thousand years. Some changes happen much, much faster (the antibiotic threat to becteria, for example, or pesticides to insects). But how can random mutations occur fast enough to keep up? 

Maybe there is an inner sense about which way to evolve, which genes to swap around. A sort of sensing which way the environment is changing, and an inward push in that direction. I don't see this as some objective god directing evolution. I think of it as being the same way I encounter my world: I see what's there, what's needed, and my own desire pushes me in the direction of the right sorts of changes. It's not evolution by a higher law, but by an inner creativity and sense of discovery. 

And maybe this is the effort of the entire universe. An evolution not as being akin to building an edifice, with continual embellishments continually added to the basic edifice, but more as an organic unfolding, where all that you will find in the final flower was present in the original bud. Creation not as a momentary act of an outside agent, but an ongoing creative transformation, evolution united with involution. The birth of a mind that then goes on to discover a universe that it makes even as it discovers it (as we, every night, discover a world even as we dream it). Maybe the DNA has a level of intelligence, maybe everything does; maybe the animists were right all along, spirit resides in all things. 

(anyone interested in this stuff might enjoy reading: de Chardin's Phenomenon of Man, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and his less well known Lila, Alan Watt's Supreme Identity, Fritjov Capra's Tao of Physics, and Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything and other works. Wilber is worth mentioning especially because of his work in "integral thought," which I guess is what this post is all about.)

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Is civilization possible without slavery? 

I don't know that it is. You can read online that not every civilization has had slaves, but then again, most have. Certainly the most "civilized" have kept humans as chattel. In the West, our origins are tainted by this fact, as Athens and all of Greece was a slave society, and Rome, the West's Classical model, was very much dependent on the slave class. I'm not even getting into the Arab slave trade, nor what was going on in the East, which were monumental in their own ways. 

There was less slavery at other times. It declined in the Dark Ages and on into Medieval Europe. Not to the point of being absent, and it differed country to country, but it was largely replaced by serfdom. Which is still basically forced labor, though not as explicit and carrying somewhat more freedom. But then the Renaissance hits, the great "rebirth" of Western civilization, and what does it bring? The horrors of the African slave trade, the enslavement of whole nations of Native Americans, plus indentured servitude, which was in some ways worse, as far as how the people were treated (an African slave was an investment for life, so was somewhat less abused than someone only "owned" for 4-7 years. They worked the latter to death, more often than you'd think, to get their money's worth). 

I've heard that if people had been civil and patient, slavery in the Old South would have died out on its own, without the national bloodletting of the Civil War. Much the way Canada waited patiently to themselves eventually split from England by a gentlemen's agreement, no Canadian Revolution required. Canadians like to use these examples to prove how violent we Americans are. They are only partially right, because things aren't black and white or simple like that. There were principles at stake, and institutional human suffering, and these are worth fighting for and against, respectively.

Thoreau had something to say about this:
When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. (1)
It's true, it would have ended of itself, the way things were going. But only because we replaced human slaves with machine slaves. Be certain that I am not saying that it is immoral to use machines to do our work. I am simply saying that slavery has not been abolished, only mutated and changed. Of course, there is still wage slavery, as machines have not replaced all human labor, and actual human slavery still persists in pockets all around the world, even here in the US. But that is not my overall point here. The point here is that high civilization is not possible without free labor, and that the degree of civilization is based on how much free labor (energy) is available.

Hell, take animal domestication, the final nail in the slavery case. No civilization has existed that did not have domesticated animals, that is, enslaved animals. Perhaps the American civilizations like Cahokia, the Aztecs and Maya did (the Inca had llamas), but they practiced human slavery, were not as stable or long lasting, and not as developed (at least in the case of Cahokia) as, say, Greece, Rome, China, India, or the Arab world. That is, they were not as far removed from the hunter-gatherer and simple horticultural models they grew out of, and that is why they so easily disappeared back into those models when their civilizations dissolved (in the case of Cahokia and the Mayans). 

Animal slavery is where higher civilization began. It's one thing to keep a herd of sheep around to eat, or even cattle for milk and cheese and meat. But when you strap a saddle on a horse, or a yoke on a pair of ox and force them to do the work for you, you free up human labor to do things like form more refined administrative techniques, writing, art, religious embellishment, war, and technological invention. 

And it all comes down to energy, no? The Age of Fossil Fuel is exactly the same as the Age of Animal Domestication, in that the vast power available in either the livestock or the oil barrel frees humans from drudgery and labor to do other things. Each is a step up of an order of magnitude from what went before. That's why higher civilization developed out of the use of animal labor, and why the Industrial Age sprung up when we tapped the energy of machine labor running on fossil fuels. 

This is the issue around which our current energy woes revolve. Naturally no labor is free, even slave labor, since the slaves need to be bought, and fed, and at least minimally maintained in good health, much as a horse or ox needs to be. Likewise the machine, which, while often cheaper than human workers, still needs maintenance and fuel. It's funny, the way the owner class comes to depend on its slaves, and the energy they represent.

So now the upshot. If it turns out to be true that Peak Oil is not resolved via new energy sources, things are going to decline in complexity. This is obvious, but one must understand what's at stake. You read books like James Kunstler's A World Made By Hand, and it seems like democracy and freedom largely survive the fall. I wonder at that. Power doesn't let go so easily, and I wonder if instead of a sort of benign localism of freeholders and townsfolk, we won't end up with something more akin to a world under a myriad of Pol Pots. Those used to living high on the hog are not going to want to climb down, and I fear that they will simply see that as the oil energy goes, they must return to human energy in the form of serfs and slaves.

(Finally, check out this link, and savor the irony)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Creative Methods

I've been thinking again about creativity, and ways to increase inspiration. Partially because I feel I'm in a rut, but also because creativity is life, and, both for myself and society, the future depends on it. If I want to have a full and good life, I need to keep on that razor edge of experience and consciousness, to keep seeing and seeking the new. Same goes for society, which is lost in short-term thinking, staring at the ground one foot in front of itself as it charges toward a cliff.

So. I was thinking about how to induce the creative flow. Seems a hard thing, so often the muses seem to be erratic, unpredictable. How can one tap into this at will? There are tons of websites on this, which talk about special techniques you must pay to get, as well as more mundane things, like taking a walk, word association, "stop being so logical," and so on. I don't discount these techniques, by the way. Little tricks and exercises can be pretty helpful.

Take free writing. Set yourself a timer, or a set number of pages you will fill, and start writing. Start even, if you must, writing things like, "this is a really stupid exercise, because I have nothing to say, what a waste of time this will be..." Don't stop, don't edit, don't even really think, just keep the pen (or typing) going. Later you go back and cherry-pick the good, the interesting bits. This has worked for me; both in the initial writing, out of which I have dug out some gold, as well in a more long-term sense, by simply steering my mind into more receptive territory, helping to lift me out of the creative doldrums in general. 

Another thing I know, is that creativity springs, I'm sure of this, at least in part from plenty of "staring into space" time. That is, not consuming or absorbing information and stimuli, but just doing nothing, letting your mind roam. I know that the last few months I've filled much of my free time with TV, books, internet, and so forth, and consequently have hardly written a line, and this blog has fallen into cobwebs and dust, comparatively speaking.

The consumption has its uses and importance, of course. Sort of like pre-loading ideas and images before a mushroom trip; it is the material with which the insights build themselves. You can't build a house without the wood and brick. But you also need the Plan. And in creative endeavors, that equates to Inspiration. A way for those building blocks to come together. The way a shaman would throw his bones, and in their random fall could read the future. You need that element of freedom, to let the materials assemble themselves into your work. Thus, the Plan is found by drifting freely. 

Watch this TED video on the elusive creative genius. Gilbert talks about an anecdote of Tom Waits, who gets inspiration once while he was driving. The anecdote is funny and interesting, but you can see here what I'm talking about too. Driving is an automatic thing, largely. We don't have to think too much about the tasks, most of the time; and so the mind is free to roam. Assuming, of course, the radio is off and you're alone. It is not at all strange that Waits had a new song pop into his head at such a moment. The same is true on the toilet, when (assuming your bowels are functioning right) you're relaxed, and your mind unoccupied. 

I also came across this brilliant article in Scientific American, titled "An Easy Way to Increase Creativity." It talks about "psychological distance:
...anything that we do not experience as occurring now, here, and to ourselves falls into the “psychologically distant” category. It’s also possible to induce a state of “psychological distance” simply by changing the way we think about a particular problem, such as attempting to take another person's perspective, or by thinking of the question as if it were unreal and unlikely.
There are a series of experiments discussed, which I find very interesting and a fresh approach, for me at least, and something I aim to try. It's fascinating, though maybe obvious... this idea that simply by reframing a problem, you can suddenly get more insights. Pretend you are trying to solve it a year from now, or in a distant city, or even that the problem itself is far less probable. It's a cliche, putting yourself in another man's shoes, but I never thought of using that for creative purposes; I always took it at face value, a lesson in tolerance, empathy and understanding.

Lastly, drugs work. I mentioned mushrooms. I've never done them, but I believe psychedelics are powerful tools for creativity. A lot of visionary art has come as a result of their use. So is marijuana, alcohol, and caffeine. These I've sampled, and except for caffeine, they rarely produce any amazing works while one is actually under the influence. Alcohol relaxes inhibitions, and used moderately may loosen up your writers block, but the line is easy to cross into idiotic drunken ramblings. Caffeine makes you productive as hell, thus, there's more chance that something good will flow out. Cannabis, however, I found the most useful. It can help knock you out of your mental habits, into new frames of seeing things. And creativity is all about seeing. Not just visually, no; I mean really contacting experience with clarity.

This ties back to "staring into space" time. A Zen sort of method, although I'm not necessarily talking about meditation. Meditation does help, of course, for me at least; the clarity of observation it brings is what I'm talking about. It helps temper my habit to wallow in my prejudices and habitual understanding, helping me to see things not as I am, but as they are. But, ideas and thoughts are worthwhile too, and sometimes it is right to let yourself follow them, rather than practicing at clarity and emptiness. It's a different state of consciousness than pure meditation, but it is a relative, and I think the two interact and commingle.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

On Change and Being Stuck

Watched this amazingly inspiring video a week ago, and since then have been thinking a lot about making changes. Changes in my own life, changes in the greater world around me. The message isn't particularly new for me, but really had an impact, and I urge anyone coming across this page to watch it.

So I'm trying to figure out what I'm really going to do. I keep running into this problem of feeling utterly trapped. I've felt this way ever since I came of age, out of the egocentric world of the child and teenager. I guess around age 18, especially after 9-11. Started getting into politics and bigger issues, trying to understand this system in which we live, and trying to figure out my place within it, and finding very few good options before me.

I know I've talked a lot on here about living the change, saying stuff about opting out of the system as it is. But man, how? How can people operate outside of the system? If you don't play by the rules, you don't get to eat. If you don't work, then you don't get to sleep indoors. They got us by the short and curlies.

One example I know I've thrown out there was gardening. Want to grow a garden? Well, you have to own land, but homesteading is so far from what most people are capable of, it's hard to imagine it happening. I mean, for those who can afford to buy land, often they buy it in town near their job. They have a house, not property. A huge building of outsized proportions, a weight around their neck, often, because we've become accustomed to such foolishness. And to really be free of the system, you can't just grow a token garden out back, a few tomato plants and maybe some lettuce, beans, and cucumbers. You need to plant a sizable amount of land (in terms of an acre or more) and have a host of skills that few people really have anymore: food preservation, crop rotation, what to do about plant disease and pests, and maybe tending livestock, among much else. I'm talking about farming, and farming requires a lot of knowledge.

And that's just for food. What about everything else we need? Clothing, shelter, transportation, medical care, etc etc. How to opt out of all that? I mean, they own our lives, whoever "they" is, if there is a "who" besides the inhuman system itself... they own our lives because they own the means of sustaining our lives. I say again: you dont work, you don't eat, you don't sleep indoors, you don't get to go to the doctor, you lose every which way. How can you fight back against such a thing? You can put out your recycling, consume less, you can try to elect better leaders, take your money out of the banks, but in the end, youre going to go to work every day because your stomach demands it, and more importantly, your children's stomachs.

I think often of Grapes of Wrath, which I know is a novel but it's such a vivid image of the Depression, and seems accurate from what I've read. And not just the Depression, but the way the union battles went for decades back then, the brutal fight it was. Brutal not just because Power fights you on it, but because you have to sit there, watch your children cry because they're hungry, while you strike and picket. What a thing to do! Most men would work for the lowered wages, rather than strike and get nothing. The only ray of hope is that, in spite of those horrible stakes, people did it anyways. They fought back, they suffered, but they did what they had to do.

But here we're talking not about just getting more workplace rights, fairer laws and economic practices, but a whole new economic paradigm. We don't have a clear goal, like better wages, the 8 hour workday or the 5 day work week, or an end to child labor. It's hard to even know where we're trying to go.

So I just don't know. I'm constantly inspired by these sorts of videos, books, ideas, but never know how to proceed. The edges of this problem are just out of reach. I can't imagine any way to have a real impact on the sort of paradigm shift I'm referring to, and can imagine even less a mass movement in this direction. I don't want to give into despair, but I feel like I've been stuck for the last 11 years and it just plain sucks.