JAMES P. CARSE ON NATURE, ORDER, CHAOS

Image result for james p carse

WE CONTROL NATURE for societal reasons. The control of nature advances with our ability to predict the outcome of natural processes. Inasmuch as predictions are but explanations in reverse, it is possible that they will be quite as combative as explanations. Indeed, prediction is the most highly developed skill of the Master Player, for without it control of an opponent is all the more difficult. I t follows that our domination of nature is meant to achieve not certain natural outcomes, but certain societal outcomes.

A small group of physicists, using calculations of the highest known abstraction, uncovered a predictable sequence of subatomic reactions that led directly to the construction of a thermonuclear bomb. It is true that the successful detonation of the bomb proved the predictions of the physicists, but it is also true that we did not explode the bomb to prove them correct; we exploded it to control the behavior of millions of persons and to bring our relations with them to a certain closure.

What this example shows is not that we can exercise power over nature, but that our attempt to do so masks our desire for power over each other. This raises a question as to the cultural consequences of abandoning the strategy of power in our attitude toward nature.

Continue reading “JAMES P. CARSE ON NATURE, ORDER, CHAOS”

BERGSON ON ORDER & CHAOS

In a general way, reality is ordered exactly to the degree in which it satisfies our thought. Order is therefore a certain agreement between subject and object. It is the mind finding itself again in things. But the mind, we said, can go in two opposite ways. Sometimes it follows its natural direction: there is then progress in the form of tension, continuous creation, free activity. Sometimes it inverts it, and this inversion, pushed to the end, leads to extension, to the necessary reciprocal determination of elements externalized each by relation to the others, in short, to geometrical mechanism. Now, whether experience seems to us to adopt the first direction or whether it is drawn in the direction of the second, in both cases we say there is order, for in the two processes the mind finds itself again. The confusion between them is therefore natural. To escape it, different names would have to be given to the two kinds of order, and that is not easy, because of the variety and variability of the forms they take. The order of the second kind may be defined as geometry, which is its extreme limit; more generally, it is that kind of order that is concerned whenever a relation of necessary determination is found between causes and effects. It evokes ideas of inertia, of passivity, of automatism. As to the first kind of order, it oscillates no doubt around finality; and yet we cannot define it as finality, for it is sometimes above, sometimes below. In its highest forms, it is more than finality, for of a free action or a work of art we may say that they show a perfect order, and yet they can only be expressed in terms of ideas approximately, and after the event. Life in its entirety, regarded as a creative evolution, is something analogous; it transcends finality, if we understand by finality the realization of an idea conceived or conceivable in advance. The category of finality is therefore too narrow for life in its entirety. It is, on the other hand, often too wide for a particular manifestation of life taken separately. Be that as it may, it is with the vital that we have here to do, and the whole present study strives to prove that the vital is in the direction of the voluntary. We may say then that this first kind of order is that of the vital or of the willed, in opposition to the second, which is that of the inert and the automatic. Common sense instinctively distinguishes between the two kinds of order, at least in the extreme cases; instinctively, also, it brings them together. Continue reading “BERGSON ON ORDER & CHAOS”

COMPLICATED & COMPLEX SYSTEMS

Modern reductionist methods are well adapted to dealing with complicated (as opposed to complex) systems.  In a complicated system like an automobile or a computer, though there may be many variables, the variables are more of less independent.  If the system isn’t working, you can troubleshoot it by isolating and testing the variables one by one.  You can also generate predictable macroscopic effects through controlling one or a limited number of variables.  Complicated systems are therefore amenable to a piecemeal approach to problem-solving.  The whole is equal to the sum of the parts and causal relationships are generally linear.  To understand and manage a large, complicated system, you divide it up into lots of pieces and assign a team to work on each piece.  The entire structure of academia reflects this approach, with its divisions into relatively autonomous disciplines and sub-disciplines.

The top-down control-based approach that works for complicated systems fails miserably to manage complex systems.  In a complex system, variables are dependent, causal relationships are non-linear, and a small change to one element of the system can dramatically alter the whole.  No part can be understood in isolation, but only with reference to an extended web of relationships to other parts.  In complex systems, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; therefore any reductionist analysis of the system will fail to understand it, and attempts to isolate and alter variables will generate unintended and unpredictable consequences.

Bodies, ecosystems, genomes, societies, and the planet are complex systems.  It is tempting to view them otherwise – as extremely complicated machines – because then we can apply our familiar methods of top-down problem-solving and feel like we are in control of the situation.  The epitome of this illusion is war thinking, and it extends to every technology of control, from border walls to antibiotic drugs to concrete waterways.  Each ends up generating awful unintended consequences, usually including the very opposite of what it was attempting to control (immigration, disease, flooding).

Any narrative, like the Standard Narrative of climate change, is a lens that illuminates some things and obscures others.  it obscures, unfortunately, some of the very things we need to pay attention to most if planet Earth is going to heal.  In the geochemical view, such things as topsoil erosion, pesticides, aquifer depletion, biodiversity loss, conservation of whales or elephants, toxic and radioactive waste, and so on were once seen (and in many cases still are seen) as relatively inconsequential to climate change.  Such oversights are understandable if we see Earth as a fantastically complicated machine.  If we see Earth as alive, then we know that of course destroying its living tissue will render it unable to deal with fluctuations of atmospheric components.

Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story
https://charleseisenstein.org/books/climate-a-new-story/

TWENTY EIGHTEEN: IN REVIEW


 

Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of being.  (Heidegger)

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can talk with him?  (Zhuangzi)

 

Preface

To say we have gone further down the rabbit hole the past few years is to measure the present against some vision of normality.  It certainly seems as though there is some level of absurdity underpinning events within the modern global culture.  Metrics tell us we have never been better off, whilst other metrics tell us we are on the brink of catastrophe.  It is within this context that I have been trying to make some sense of what the hell is going on, for some time now but with an earnest over the past few years.  This has lead me down several rabbit holes, forcing me to confront my own vision of normality.  This year I have read several profound books which have helped me further clarify what I think might describe how things have come to be the way they are.  It is not a case of what we think, but how.  This is such a simple statement to make, but a  much harder one to fully comprehend the significance of.

I started this year by reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and everything fell into place.  Building on and clarifying an intuition that had been growing, this book set the tone for what I would read and think about this year.  McGilchrist says, “certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong,” adding that, “none of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.”  And this, it seems to me, is where we are at today.  Politics aside, no one seems to have illustrated this global predicament more this year than Jordan Peterson.  I read Maps of Meaning after The Master and his Emissary, at the suggestion that Peterson’s ideas mapped somewhat onto McGilchrist’s.  It is perhaps this that has occupied my academic enquiry the most this year.

The other two books that most occupied me this year were Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh.  Whilst quite different to McGilchrist and Peterson, I have found a common thread underpinning these four books, illuminated along the way by returning to Heraclitus, and a new (to me) philosophical translation of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall.  The implications of this leave no aspect of ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environment untouched, and an appreciation of which could lead the way to a more harmonious way of life.  Eisenstein says:

 

Under the sway of dualism, we have essentially sought to divide the world into two parts, one infinite and the other finite, and then to live wholly in the latter which, because it is finite, is amenable to control.  Our lordship over nature is at heart an egregious self-deception, because its first step is to attempt nature’s precipitous reduction, which is equally a reduction of life, a reduction of experience, a reduction of feeling, and a reduction of being: a true Faustian exchange of the infinite for the finite.  This reduction comes in many guises and goes by many names. It is the domestication of the wild; it is the measuring and quantification of nature; it is the conversion of cultural, natural, social, and spiritual wealth into money. Because it is a reduction of life, violence is its inevitable accompaniment; hence the rising crescendo of violence that has bled our civilisation for thousands of years and approaches its feverish apogee as we conclude the present wholesale destruction of entire species, oceans, ecosystems, languages, cultures, and peoples.

 

What follows is my analysis of a way of thinking that has been influenced this year by these books.  A few disclaimers:  I have done my best to eschew the ‘poeticism’ of my previous years in review and write as clearly and succinctly as possible.  It is of course impossible and pointless for me to summarise large academic texts, so I would refer you to the books themselves for the full extrapolation.  Rather, I have taken sections from each to build up a picture of how various seemingly different ideas are implicitly interlinked.  Despite my intentions, this is not an academic essay and therefore I am well aware that, whilst I have tried hard not to, I may seem to contradict myself in places and to use some terminology confusingly.  My hope is that, if you are interested in thinking about the world, you may want to engage with these ideas in constructive discussion.  I certainly would not confess to having things figured out, but I feel comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life, with my narrative.

 

Adam John Miller
20th December 2018


Continue reading “TWENTY EIGHTEEN: IN REVIEW”