listening to the radio in the garden

The neuroscientist is talking about the difference between default perception – a kind of cognitive shorthand, a convenient fiction provided by the brain, using a mental construct built from previous experience (on a sunny day the sky is [fill in blank]) in order to deal efficiently with the constant stream of sensory information the brain is receiving without having to analyze each element individually – and the enhanced perception experienced at moments when a fuller awareness is required. In such enhanced perception, moments seem to extend beyond the constraints of measurable time, and minute details are revealed to have previously unperceived levels of complexity and connection to other elements of perception. Perception acquires capabilities of recognition that are almost incommensurable to the default mode. There is clearly a survival benefit to having both types of awareness.

And as i am working in the garden, i am thinking of the people who know plants well enough, after many instances of enhanced perception perhaps, to understand them as sentient beings. And therefore move through a garden or grove as you or i would move through a room crowded with people we recognized and knew intimately, most of whom we truly loved, all of whom we respected (i suppose most people’s rooms today would be quite small) hearing each one speaking to you of its current condition of life in its very particular voice.

And for just a moment – but it feels capacious – in the spangled sunlight of the quiet green space, enriched by all the beneficent molecules these speechless, unambulatory but not immobile beings are releasing invisibly but not imperceptibly into the air around me, i feel as if it might be possible to be who and what we are only and yet come to know a thing worth knowing.


the idea of order at key west or elsewhere

If we try to use language transparently, are we doing ourselves a disservice? Perhaps Wallace Stevens was right: if we can’t experience reality directly, and if there is no transcendent level to experience anyway, why not just revel in our own invention? Those fantastical filigrees of forked lightning flashing inside the crystal sphere at the center of our heads. That lovely Blue Guitar plucking out the tune; that jolly Emperor of Ice Cream leading the dance. But Stevens might have been wrong about a couple of things: one is that there is in fact already order in nature, elegant, fiendishly complex order that we have nothing to do with creating – the more science advances, the more it confirms this. Poetry – since Stevens, anyway – seems rather slack-jawed by comparison.

Humans are not the sole artists of creation, the unique imposers or creators of elegant and sophisticated order out of nature’s slovenly, fanged chaos – at Key West or elsewhere, by placing jars in Tennessee or elsewise. In fact, we are the generators of a uniquely inordinate amount of entropy by comparison with other species or systems in the unbuilt, living world.

We can love our words, as Narcissus loved his rippling image in the silken pool, but the world can still reach up to drown us with a single, silent wave.

dispatches from the island of knowledge

Mandelbrot’s fractal set is an abstraction; still the nature of our experience is fractalesque. For there are invisible patterns that do seem to repeat at ever-larger scales: individual consciousness, human history, the cosmos.

For example there is the fact that our personal experience is not any kind of a straight line but rather a series of waves and when we are in one, we think it is all and all, and accurately represents the largest and most enduring picture – and then we pass to another and must acknowledge that the whole pattern shifts, that it is always shifting. But not randomly – those layers of unexamined past experience are always solidifying, hardening into the cruel shape of the present, as real as mountains. Proust understood this, more than any other writer I have read. And so described habit as a monster. He knew that most of what shapes us we do not, and cannot control, at least as the fundamentally isolate little beings he felt us to be.

And so praised art, because it could make of the insubstantial kaleidoscopic evanescent debilities of an individual consciousness something that took manifest form and persisted in the material world far beyond the duration of that or any single consciousness, regaining and vindicating unique experience – time – that was otherwise lost: forgotten, irretrievable, pointless.

Physicist Lee Smolin wrote Time Reborn, not Time Regained. He looks at it another way, and sees, instead of ironclad timeless laws guiding the physical universe, a kind of evolution at work that echoes (or is echoed by) biological evolution. A “principle of precedence” that starts out randomly, developing, down the eons of repetition with alteration, what his outrider colleague in biology Rupert Sheldrake calls “habits, rather than laws” for the physical universe. For this to be true, though, flowing time must be fundamental to material reality, not an illusion or a property that emerges out of other phenomena.

Most of his fellow physicists and mathematicians scoff at this. After all, Einstein! Time is (hypothetically) just an extra dimension in a spatial continuum; it is not a universal standard; its passage is relative to an observer: slowed by accelerating mass, limited by the speed of light, and all that. After all, (somewhat against Einstein) time is (theoretically) reversible or even non-existent at the quantum level. Anyway, once the equals sign has been established in an equation, it doesn’t just evolve into greater- or less-than over time, they say.

Science is always looking for what is fundamental in material reality, but the scientific method is one that with regard to this question may be, as Sheldrake says, “like burning down a cathedral and sifting the ashes to understand the architecture.” Or perhaps building a lovely thing out of mathematical symbols that one then decides is just as real as Chartres – more so, because it is permanent, independent! (That is, isolated. It stands alone, disdainful of all context, as Chartres cannot.)

But what if, after all, temporal flow might be fundamental – but flowing has simply become inimical to our thinking and thus our way of acting in the world? The scientific method needs to isolate bits of reality in order to analyze them, but nothing actually exists in isolation. Flow is also practically impossibilized (a word of Joyce’s, lover of rivers and infinite recirculations, co-inventor of the “stream of consciousness” in fiction, who evidently did understand something about flow) by our language itself, its hardened tenses, its isolation of two elements that are likewise inseparable in the time-bound, living world: entities (nouns) and actions (verbs). Cf. the wise words of quantum physicist David Bohm, often channeled through the wise spirit of Jeff Shampnois’ Negative Geography.

None of this is to argue against the need for evidence and reason as tools for understanding. It is to argue for a scientific principle of humility: like physicist Marcelo Gleiser’s “island of knowledge.” The island of knowledge as it grows in size never diminishes the sea of ignorance out of which it emerges; instead its lengthening borders come in contact with an ever greater area of ignorance; its growing height merely allows us to see a larger portion of that infinite sea…

born too soon?

We might be early arrivals in the evolution of life-forms in the universe.

That could explain a lot! No one to guide us, no one to learn from. No wonder we’ve been such blunderers – just about everything we’ve accomplished, for good or ill or both, has an enormous amount of serendipity to it. If we’d had any proper mentors, how would we have had the adolescent folly to attempt to eradicate the wisest societies among us? Those which, after creating some ancient “progress traps” of their own, in hunting too efficiently and so helping to extinguish forever the beasts on which they fed, came to realize that humans were surrounded by thousands of older and deeply knowing alien intelligences called animals and plants, from whom we ought to learn by patient and respectful example…

The ironic thing about the growing obsession with smarter machines, is that smarter machines as they are currently envisioned will not need what we call wisdom, even if they were to be capable of developing it. In the meantime, even as tools, they make wisdom irrelevant for our survival as well. In the consumer society of today, never mind tomorrow, the more successful we are, the more we get to regress till we are almost infantile.

hiking with zeno

It was a on a hike on Mt. Tamalpais once that i looked down at a piece of ground i was traversing and found that i suddenly perceived that the total complexity comprised in it (just in the span of a stride: organic life, inorganic matter, an uncountable number of dynamic elements overlain, interwoven, all existing together in unique relationship to one another – in just that time, that place, but by extension every element of the microcosm imbricated with places and times beyond) must be greater than anything i could imagine any human (and certainly any calculating machine) comprehending in a lifetime of study. It was just plants and rocks and soil but it was Zeno’s paradox of motion transformed into ecology: if every tiny space contains a functional infinity of complexity, how can we ever understand enough to participate properly in a world of such spaces?

But we do move, and we can participate. Maybe it’s as simple as the Tin Woodsman knowing he had no heart and so, Baum says with a twinkle in his words, being extra cautious of inadvertently crushing the smallest creature underfoot. As simple and as difficult and as unlikely as that.

beauty and waste

The world is a baffling mixture of beauty and waste. Desire makes it run, desire creates its vibrant variety and its entropic disasters, its climax ecosystems and its ruinous wastelands. Now the desire to expand always and forever to move on leave it all behind transform everything control everything never to have to pay for what we do never to suffer the consequences never to die – animates us, or at least the most powerful among us, and those who desire to be in their place. All that churning desire generates beauty and waste – far, far more waste than beauty, but then a small amount of beauty is infinitely more sustaining to us than a mountain of waste seems destructive. We will wade through an ocean of waste for a moment of beauty, pleasure, triumph, desire fulfilled.

Buddhists say the way to enlightenment is the stilling of desire. But desire has been unleashed from its ancient constraints by history and economics and there’s no calling it in now. Pace Marx (or Buddha) i venture that forces larger than human are all that will reshape it, in time. But the Law of Unintended Consequences, the one that dominates our story so far, offers only unpredictable results…

And in the meantime? Seeing this, can we try to uncouple beauty from waste, or at least, rebalance the proportions? What does that mean in a given life?

Perhaps: watch closely, speak coherently, act generously.

(I don’t know. Insert changing adverbs as needed.)

time and humility

The simplicity of the world is more complex than any human or mechanical representation of it, and the complexity of the world passes all possible understanding. This is because the world evolves in time, and our horizon of time is miniscule and so we are forced to project patterns that we identify as linear or non-linear but in either case without any unpredictable alteration into the most distant future. Yet we have never identified any patterns in the world outside our own imaginations that exist beyond the reach of time – and thus, might not themselves be altered by it. We do not know what time is in essence; we do not even have an approach, a “law of time.” We have physicists waving it away with a scribble of blackboard chalk, and technologists collapsing it into an airless immediacy which no living thing can experience. We have fear-laced religions and creepier scientists hallucinating about infinite durations of it available to self-selected elites after the body’s death. We have only one philosopher who embraced it as possibly the most fundamental aspect of reality, a creative principle of change, the invisible engine of all life, all movement, the sole enabler of novelty and complexity – and he was dismissed by scientistic arrogance and consigned to a dusty shelf called “vitalism” like a quaint Victorian hobbyist.

But we have since reached a stage where many of our theories and equations give us garbled answers and our tools are beginning to stare back at us with baleful looks that say: you are not in charge of what you have created. How much of a machine do you desire to be? And what will be the cost, and who will pay?

Do those who are dragging you down this road have any idea where they are really going – and why?

So will there be some humbling? Will there be sufficient limits ultimately re-imposed by the forces of the unhinging biosphere or the wild cosmos not wholly cataclysmically (cataclysm is the triumph of waste, and we have fed upon it like carrion-eaters) but over the spans of time in which the rest of the living world has evolved its elegant and quintessential complexity? Will they forge the bright pathways in sapient brains that enable the species to re-enter that world as respectful acolyte? To grow up? Or will we continue surfing our self-created chaos and braying about ourselves till nothing but uncanny machines and waste are left when we have done?

Or what?

There is no freedom only responsibility – John Trudell


Books that help:

The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, by Roberto Unger Mangabeira and Lee Smolin

Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

Thinking in Time, an Introduction to Henri Bergson, by Suzanne Guerlac

The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abrams