Tuesday, April 26, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Thomas the Obscure by Maurice Blanchot, Part II

"Mysticism"  "Mysticism" is another loaded word. I am not referring to metaphysics (a conception of the world) but simply to a journey inward. Georges Bataille, a contemporary of Blanchot's with similar concerns, used the term "Inner Experience." However, in the context of Thomas the Obscure, I believe a slightly better description would be inner exploration. Blanchot's characters, Thomas and Anne, go deep within, to the very limits of the "self." And what do they find? Nothing:

   "It seemed to him that the waves were invading the sort of abyss which was himself"
   "He saw, he heard the core of an infinity where he was bound by the very absence of limits."
   "She passed through strange dead cities where, rather than petrified shapes, mummified circumstances, she found a necropolis of movements, silences, voids; she hurled herself against the extraordinary sonority of nothingness which is made of the reverse of sound."

In this inner state, the borders of the self begin to blur:
   "And yet, sure as he was that there was no one in the room and even in the world, he was just as sure that someone was there, occupying his slumber, approaching him intimately, all around him and within him."

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "If you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss may stare back at you." This is a theme of Thomas the Obscure:
   "He was locked in combat with something inaccessible, foreign, something of which he could say: That doesn't exist...."
   "He felt ever closer to an ever more monstrous absence which took an infinite time to meet."

   The word "Obscure" in the title is apropos. At the conclusion of the "story" we know nothing about Thomas, and Thomas knows nothing about himself.  After all his "explorations" he remains adrift in a sea of empty experience, with a "feeling which has to be give a name and which I call anguish. Here is the night."

   With all that explanation, are we any close to understanding Thomas the Obscure?

Aldous Huxley On Human Nature

Note: This is my blog, but occasionally I will let others do the speaking for me. Here Huxley writes about the mannishness of man (to borrow a phrase from Francis Schaeffer), and he does so much better than I could. Excerpts are from Aldous Huxley-The Complete Essays, Volume VI 1956-1963, Ed. Robert S. Baker and James Sexton. Ivan R. Dee:Chicago 2002

"The scientific theory of human nature that is now emerging is a good deal closer to the Homeric notion of a debating society of somato-psychic factors than to the more "spiritual" hypothesis of an autonomous, unitary, detachable soul imprisoned in a body, or the deceptively commonsensical Cartesian notion of a soul attached, somehow or other, to an automaton."  --from Literature and Science

"Man is a multiple amphibian and exists at one and the same time in a number of universes, dissimilar to the point very nearly, of complete incompatibility. He is at once an animal and a rational intellect; a product of evolution closely related to the apes and a spirit capable of self-transcendence; a sentient being in contact with the brute data of his own nervous system and the physical environment and at the same time the creator of a home-made universe of words and other symbols, in which he lives and moves and has anything from thirty to eighty percent of his being. He is a self-conscious and self-centered ego who is also a member of a moderately gregarious species, an individualist compelled by the population explosion to live at ever closer quarters, and in ever tighter organizations, with millions of other egos as self-centered and poorly socialized as himself. Neurologically, he is lately evolved Jekyll-cortex associated with an immensely ancient brain-stem Hyde. Physiologically, he is a creature whose endocrine system is perfectly and adapted to the conditions prevailing in the lower Paleolithic, but living in a metropolis and spending eight hours a day sitting at a desk in an air-conditioned office. Psychologically, he is a highly educated product of twentieth-century civilization, chained, in a state of hostile and uneasy symbiosis, to a disturbingly dynamic unconscious, a wild fantasy and an unpredictable id-and yet capable of falling in love, writing string quartets, and having mystical experiences." --from Education on the Nonverbal Level

Afterthought: Even if you don't agree with everything Huxley says, you can't accuse him of over-simplification? Man is a complex creature, and the human condition exceeds our linguistic capacity. However, I believe Huxley's words-especially the concept of the "multiple amphibian"- are helpful...Remember that what I include in this blog-my words or others'-is NOT meant to give the Final Answer or to be a declaration of absolute truth. Rather, it is simply what I deem to be interesting and worthy of consideration.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Does Science Suck the Meaning Out of Life? III continued

  Now it has to be admitted that science, in its application (technology), has been used for destructive purposes. Surely, though, that is not the fault of science. In Literature and Science, Aidous Huxley wrote: "Science, it seems hardly necessary to remark, provides no justification for slaughter and oppressions. Hand in hand with progressive technology, it merely provides the means for implementing the old insanities in a novel and more effective way." Science, of course, is not a being that can make decisions-it can be used for good or ill. The problem is with man. But look at the many beneficial uses of technology. Our lives have become much easier and more comfortable. Of course, the comforts and conveniences of the modern age are not ultimately able to resolve our psychological dilemmas (e.g. give life meaning), but I don't see the critics of science giving up technology (the Unabomber being a rare exception) The ancients may have had their beliefs, but they didn't have air conditioners, airplanes, or iPods.
   The stereotype of Science is that it is cold and mechanistic. However, the developments in 20th century science (namely, Quantum Physics and Relativity) have opened the door for a science that is more dynamic and mysterious. For another thing, one does not have to go to the logical extreme (as in section II of this essay) in order to appreciate and accept science. See, for instance, the Dalai Lama's book The Universe in a Singe Atom (see my book review). And, of course, there is no sure way to know whether any scientific concept is entirely true. A good scientist has a healthy doubt and skepticism. However, dogmatic scientific thinkers seem to be, there is room for criticism and change (though it may take some time).
   Finally, however cold or empty the world may be, what I consider much more significant is the Inner Experience of man. Whether it's just brain matter or a "soul" doesn't seem that important; no outside reality or set of facts can touch this "spiritual" realm.

Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom-The Dalai Lama

   While it is not mentioned by the Dalai Lama (I don't know how he missed it), the obvious reference point for this book is Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics. The primary concept is the correspondence between post-Newtonian science and the ancient Eastern teachings. While he touches on a number of topics in science and spirituality, the core of the issue is the dynamic nature of reality. Instead of the static, mechanistic model of classical physics, modern science presents a universe in flux. To use casual language, it's wide open. This is exactly what the eastern thinkers taught milena ago. From Najarjuna's doctrine of emptiness--that there is no center or stability-to the cosmologies of the Kalacharkra and Abhidharma which tell of multiple universes popping in and out of existence, we are reaching similar conclusions with modern tools. These ideas, I'm sure, don't sit so well with scientists of a standard, dogmatic stripe, but they will resonate for more adventurous thinkers in the tradition of scientists like Werner Heisenberg. Even the most unorthodox of Western, scientific minds, however, might be suspect when the Dalai delves into the Buddhist teachings of Karma and reincarnation. This should not, though, keep anyone from reading this book. It is a fascinating read, bound to spark deep thought and serious discussion.
   Science and religion are often considered to be enemies, but this prejudice arises from its confrontation with dogmatic, theist religions. Buddhism is neither. But what the Dalai Lama attempts to convey is that science does not have to come in conflict with any spiritual tradition. After all, what is more "religious" than contemplating the mysteries at the fringe of the scientific endeavor or the feeling of awe while gazing at the night sky? He emphasizes that science is not the only valid way of looking oat the world--it has its limitations. Therefore there is room for both science and spirituality in our examinations of life. To close, here are words taken from the concluding chapter: "In essence science and spirituality, though differing in their approaches, share the same end, which is the betterment of humanity."

Does Science Suck the Meaning Out of Life? Conclusion

"The problem with most people is that they think with their hopes or fears or wishes rather than with their minds."
--Walter Duranty

I have tackled this issue in an admittedly cursory fashion. Much more has been, and could be, said about it. However, I believe it to be a reasonable conclusion that it is not fair to reject the scientific perspective simply because it appears bleak. Even in a world stripped of hope and purpose, man could overcome. So, in considering the validity of science-whether individual ideas or as a worldview-let us not be guided by our feelings but look at the issue as clearly as possible.

Does Science Suck the Meantin Out of Life? III

Give Science a Break!
   To state it bluntly, life sucked long before the Scientific Revolution. In other words: to the extent that life is empty or unsatisfying, the growth of modern science was not a requirement. If one finds life to be meaningless, it probably has more to do with a melancholy temperament (or "mental illness") than to one's beliefs about the world.  Some religious believers are miserable, while many of the scientifically-minded (even those, who accept everything in section II of this ongoing essay) do just fine. Regardless of one's beliefs, life is largely made up of temporal meaning (as opposed to eternal Meaning or Divine purpose): work, play, altruistic endeavors, relationships; whether we are descendants of apes or children of God doesn't change that.
   Consider this: Does music sound less beautiful if we understand the nature of sound waves and how they affect the brain? Does a loving caress give us any less pleasure if we understand that our response boils down to physical operations in the brain? Of course not. Even if the human being is a mechanism subject to natural law and not "free" in any real sense, does that reality affect how we live? Not really: we continue to act volitionally even if we understand that all our actions derive from a set of antecedents. Looking in reverse, we may even gain a new tolerance from the awareness of how genes and environmental stimuli condition our actions.
   What about the damage done to the ego that may be caused by the developments of science? Well, perhaps a little humility is in order. Consider the arrogance and hostility of "God's Chosen" or the hubris of humanism ("Man is the measure of all things"). And what if existence ends in death? That may seem depressing, but the idea of another life isn't so wonderful either-after all some, according to most perspectives, would be punished. Maybe it's better for everybody to have Zero (non-existence) than for some to have a Negative (damnation).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Does Science Suck the Meaning Out of Life? II

The Scientific Worldview Presented in its Bleakest Form:
   "We wished to awaken the feeling of man's sovereignty by showing his divine birth; this path is now forbidden, since a monkey stands at the entrance (Friedrich Nietzsche)." Perhaps the most controversial idea in science is the theory of evolution. Man, according to Darwin, has ascended from lower lifeforms including, yes, an ape-like creature. Our origins go back to the simplest of organisms. I remember one man being utterly bewildered and disgusted at the idea that we came from a "tadpole." Evolution just does not sit well with many people. It doesn't help that the time line contrasts with certain creation stories and that-while not eliminating the possibility of a God-it certainly redefines the role of a Creator.
    Evolution posits that the universe is very old, and that mankind is very young-just a speck in time.  The medieval church was willing to kill over the belief that the earth is the center of the universe. However, the discoveries in astronomy demonstrate that the earth (and man) is just a speck in space as well. This littleness is not exactly good for the ego.
   What's more, science seems to discredit the notion of a "soul." Man, along with everything else, is but a conglomeration of molecultes. Our thoughts and feelings appear to be nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain. What makes you "you" is simply the material contents of your brain. Returning to Sarte's quote, man is "a set of pre-determined reactions, in no way different from the patterns of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table, or a chair, or a stone." This does not leave much room for the notion of human freedom. Considering that man is not inherently different from animals-or all other matter-damage is once again done to the ego.
   If all that isn't enough, science has also stormed the gates of heaven, i.e. taken from us the hope of another life. Once the brain stops, existence ends. This is it, science seems to indicate.
   The list could go on, I'm sure. I've just hit the highlights. And I didn't even touch the nefarious ways in which science has been put to use: certain technologies have resulted in the destruction of man and nature. Is there anything good about science? How could we possibly defend it? Let us consider an opposing perspective.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Does Science Suck the Meaning Out of Life? Introduction

   "All kinds of materialism lead one to treat every man including ones self as an object-that is, as a set of pre-determined reactions, in no way different from the patterns of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table, or a chair, or a stone. Our aim is precisely to establish the human kingdom as a pattern of values in distinction from the material world." Here, in his piece "Existentialism is a Humanism," Jean-Paul Sartre defends the dignity of man against the objectification of science. Science is often considered the enemy of religion, but the avowed atheist Sartre sees it also as the enemy of humanism. Is the scientific perspective really so bad?
   What I will not be doing here is defending the validity of the scientific worldview. That is an interesting and important question, but the topic at hand is peripheral to that question. Before such debate could commence, we would need to deal with the prejudices that cloud the issue. One of these is the perception that science is "depressing" i.e. the destroyer of cherished beliefs (about both the divine and human), the death of purpose and hope. I will tackle this perception head-on to see if it has any merit.
    Now science, in the broadest sense, just means "knowledge" and technology is the application of knowledge to meet our needs. These are inescapably part of our lives. But science, as in the use of the scientific method, is a particular way of understanding the world. More to the point, the scientific worldview (sometimes called naturalism or materialism) considers science the best method for understanding the world. At times, the scientific worldview spills over into metaphysics. Here is where it clashes with religion. In reality, the conflict between the two is not that serious. Limits can be set on the scientific perspective without depreciating the validity of science. Religion and spirituality can still exist in their own, separate space. Science is agnostic and cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. However, for the sake of our immediate discussion, I will set aside-for now the possibility of a moderate, nuanced position and consider the scientific worldview at its logical extreme

Monday, April 11, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Thomas the Obscure by Maurice Blanchot, Part I

Upon completing Thomas the Obscure, all I could do was ask myself, "What did I just read?!" This book is just plain weird--odd, unnerving, and almost entirely devoid of conventional narrative.  It doesn't make much sense, and I don't think it's supposed to.  This is a different kind of reading experience, one recommended only to the most adventurous readers.  I'm  sure Blanchot would laugh at any attempt to explain or analyze his work, but one desires some framework for comprehending what has been read. In this regard, some background is helpful.Attempting to wrap my mind around it a bit, I though in terms of "postmodernism" and "mysticism."

"Postmodernism"  I use quotation marks because this is a loaded word, to say the least.  All I meant to get across is that Blanchot largely eschews logical clarity and a coherent, linear plot line in favor of something more akin to poetry. But to explain a bit more, let us recall that, while the "modern" in "postmodern" refers to Enlightenment rationalism, the roots stretch back to Greek philosophy. Blanchot rejects, or attempts to move beyond, the entire framework of Western thought. The simplest explanation of this worldview is in Aristotelian logic developed through a long series of developments (which go beyond the scope of this review).  Albert Camus sums it well, "A whole family of minds...have persisted in blocking the royal road to reason...Whatever may be or have been their ambitions, all started out from that indescribable universe where contradiction, anguish, or impotence reigns."  He writes of "those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines."  He exhorts, "the real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions." If ever there was a book that examines this "odd vegetation," Thomas the Obscure is it.

  In "those distant regions" even our language fails us, built as it is upon a dualistic foundation. How does one express a "post-rational" viewpoint using language, when-apart from nosensical babbling-language is inherently rational? This is a problem Blanchot tackles head-on by stretching language to its limits--his writing is as nosensical as it can be and still make some sense, if that makes sense. Let me give some examples of the autonomics that fill the pages of Thomas the Obscure, in order to illustrate "postmodernism" in action:

   "I would like to see you when you are alone. If ever I could be before you and completely absent from you, I would have a chance to meet you."
   "All that which Anne still loved, silence and solitude, were called night. All that which Anne hated, silence and solitude, were also called night."
   "A sort of integral ventriloquist, wherever I cried out, that is where I was not, and also just where I was, being in every way the equivalent of silence."
   "Drab birds, designated to be the conservatory of music without notes, sang the absence of song."