Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The World as Representation

It can be hard to remember these days that not much more than half a century ago, philosophy was something you read about in general-interest magazines and the better grade of newspapers. Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was an international celebrity; the posthumous publication of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Le Phenomenon Humaine (the English translation, predictably, was titled The Phenomenon of Man) got significant flurries of media coverage; Random House’s Vintage Books label brought out cheap mass-market paperback editions of major philosophical writings from Plato straight through to Nietzsche and beyond, and made money off them.

Though philosophy was never really part of the cultural mainstream, it had the same kind of following as avant-garde jazz, say, or science fiction.  At any reasonably large cocktail party you had a pretty fair chance of meeting someone who was into it, and if you knew where to look in any big city—or any college town with pretensions to intellectual culture, for that matter—you could find at least one bar or bookstore or all-night coffee joint where the philosophy geeks hung out, and talked earnestly into the small hours about Kant or Kierkegaard. What’s more, that level of interest in the subject had been pretty standard in the Western world for a very long time.

We’ve come a long way since then, and not in a particularly useful direction. These days, if you hear somebody talk about philosophy in the media, it’s probably a scientific materialist like Neil deGrasse Tyson ranting about how all philosophy is nonsense. The occasional work of philosophical exegesis still gets a page or two in the New York Review of Books now and then, but popular interest in the subject has vanished, and more than vanished: the sort of truculent ignorance about philosophy displayed by Tyson and his many equivalents has become just as common among the chattering classes as a feigned interest in the subject was a half century in the past.

Like most human events, the decline of philosophy in modern times was overdetermined; like the victim in the murder-mystery paperback who was shot, strangled, stabbed, poisoned, whacked over the head with a lead pipe, and then shoved off a bridge to drown, there were more causes of death than the situation actually required. Part of the problem, certainly, was the explosive expansion of the academic industry in the US and elsewhere in the second half of the twentieth century.  In an era when every state teacher’s college aspired to become a university and every state university dreamed of rivaling the Ivy League, a philosophy department was an essential status symbol. The resulting expansion of the field was not necessarily matched by an equivalent increase in genuine philosophers, but it was certainly followed by the transformation of university-employed philosophy professors into a professional caste which, as such castes generally do, defended its status by adopting an impenetrable jargon and ignoring or rebuffing attempts at participation from outside its increasingly airtight circle.

Another factor was the rise of the sort of belligerent scientific materialism exemplified, as noted earlier, by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Scientific inquiry itself is philosophically neutral—it’s possible to practice science from just about any philosophical standpoint you care to name—but the claim at the heart of scientific materialism, the dogmatic insistence that those things that can be investigated using scientific methods and explained by current scientific theory are the only things that can possibly exist, depends on arbitrary metaphysical postulates that were comprehensively disproved by philosophers more than two centuries ago. (We’ll get to those postulates and their problems later on.) Thus the ascendancy of scientific materialism in educated culture pretty much mandated the dismissal of philosophy.

There were plenty of other factors as well, most of them having no more to do with philosophy as such than the ones just cited. Philosophy itself, though, bears some of the responsibility for its own decline. Starting in the seventeenth century and reaching a crisis point in the nineteenth, western philosophy came to a parting of the ways—one that the philosophical traditions of other cultures reached long before it, with similar consequences—and by and large, philosophers and their audiences alike chose a route that led to its present eclipse. That choice isn’t irreparable, and there’s much to be gained by reversing it, but it’s going to take a fair amount of hard intellectual effort and a willingness to abandon some highly popular shibboleths to work back to the mistake that was made, and undo it.

To help make sense of what follows, a concrete metaphor might be useful. If you’re in a place where there are windows nearby, especially if the windows aren’t particularly clean, go look out through a window at the view beyond it. Then, after you’ve done this for a minute or so, change your focus and look at the window rather than through it, so that you see the slight color of the glass and whatever dust or dirt is clinging to it. Repeat the process a few times, until you’re clear on the shift I mean: looking through the window, you see the world; looking at the window, you see the medium through which you see the world—and you might just discover that some of what you thought at first glance was out there in the world was actually on the window glass the whole time.

That, in effect, was the great change that shook western philosophy to its foundations beginning in the seventeenth century. Up to that point, most philosophers in the western world started from a set of unexamined presuppositions about what was true, and used the tools of reasoning and evidence to proceed from those presuppositions to a more or less complete account of the world. They were into what philosophers call metaphysics: reasoned inquiry into the basic principles of existence. That’s the focus of every philosophical tradition in its early years, before the confusing results of metaphysical inquiry refocus attention from “What exists?” to “How do we know what exists?” Metaphysics then gives way to epistemology: reasoned inquiry into what human beings are capable of knowing.

That refocusing happened in Greek philosophy around the fourth century BCE, in Indian philosophy around the tenth century BCE, and in Chinese philosophy a little earlier than in Greece. In each case, philosophers who had been busy constructing elegant explanations of the world on the basis of some set of unexamined cultural assumptions found themselves face to face with hard questions about the validity of those assumptions. In terms of the metaphor suggested above, they were making all kinds of statements about what they saw through the window, and then suddenly realized that the colors they’d attributed to the world were being contributed in part by the window glass and the dust on it, the vast dark shape that seemed to be moving purposefully across the sky was actually a beetle walking on the outside of the window, and so on.

The same refocusing began in the modern world with Rene Descartes, who famously attempted to start his philosophical explorations by doubting everything. That’s a good deal easier said than done, as it happens, and to a modern eye, Descartes’ writings are riddled with unexamined assumptions, but the first attempt had been made and others followed. A trio of epistemologists from the British Isles—John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume—rushed in where Descartes feared to tread, demonstrating that the view from the window had much more to do with the window glass than it did with the world outside. The final step in the process was taken by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who subjected human sensory and rational knowledge to relentless scrutiny and showed that most of what we think of as “out there,” including such apparently hard realities as space and time, are actually  artifacts of the processes by which we perceive things.

Look at an object nearby: a coffee cup, let’s say. You experience the cup as something solid and real, outside yourself: seeing it, you know you can reach for it and pick it up; and to the extent that you notice the processes by which you perceive it, you experience these as wholly passive, a transparent window on an objective external reality. That’s normal, and there are good practical reasons why we usually experience the world that way, but it’s not actually what’s going on.

What’s going on is that a thin stream of visual information is flowing into your mind in the form of brief fragmentary glimpses of color and shape. Your mind then assembles these together into the mental image of the coffee cup, using your memories of that and other coffee cups, and a range of other things as well, as a template onto which the glimpses can be arranged. Arthur Schopenhauer, about whom we’ll be talking a great deal as we proceed, gave the process we’re discussing the useful label of “representation;” when you look at the coffee cup, you’re not passively seeing the cup as it exists, you’re actively representing—literally re-presenting—an image of the cup in your mind.

There are certain special situations in which you can watch representation at work. If you’ve ever woken up in an unfamiliar room at night, and had a few seconds pass before the dark unknown shapes around you finally turned into ordinary furniture, you’ve had one of those experiences. Another is provided by the kind of optical illusion that can be seen as two different things. With a little practice, you can flip from one way of seeing the illusion to another, and watch the process of representation as it happens.

What makes the realization just described so challenging is that it’s fairly easy to prove that the cup as we represent it has very little in common with the cup as it exists “out there.” You can prove this by means of science: the cup “out there,” according to the evidence collected painstakingly by physicists, consists of an intricate matrix of quantum probability fields and ripples in space-time, which our senses systematically misperceive as a solid object with a certain color, surface texture, and so on. You can also prove this, as it happens, by sheer sustained introspection—that’s how Indian philosophers got there in the age of the Upanishads—and you can prove it just as well by a sufficiently rigorous logical analysis of the basis of human knowledge, which is what Kant did.

The difficulty here, of course, is that once you’ve figured this out, you’ve basically scuttled any chance at pursuing the kind of metaphysics that’s traditional in the formative period of your philosophical tradition. Kant got this, which is why he titled the most relentless of his analyses Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics; what he meant by this was that anybody who wanted to try to talk about what actually exists had better be prepared to answer some extremely difficult questions first.  When philosophical traditions hit their epistemological crises, accordingly, some philosophers accept the hard limits on human knowledge, ditch the metaphysics, and look for something more useful to do—a quest that typically leads to ethics, mysticism, or both. Other philosophers double down on the metaphysics and either try to find some way around the epistemological barrier, or simply ignore it, and this latter option is the one that most Western philosophers after Kant ended up choosing.  Where that leads—well, we’ll get to that later on.

For the moment, I want to focus a little more closely on the epistemological crisis itself, because there are certain very common ways to misunderstand it. One of them I remember with a certain amount of discomfort, because I made it myself in my first published book, Paths of Wisdom. This is the sort of argument that sees the sensory organs and the nervous system as the reason for the gap between the reality out there—the “thing in itself” (Ding an Sich), as Kant called it—and the representation as we experience it. It’s superficially very convincing: the eye receives light in certain patterns and turns those into a cascade of electrochemical bursts running up the optic nerve, and the visual centers in the brain then fold, spindle, and mutilate the results into the image we see.

The difficulty? When we look at light, an eye, an optic nerve, a brain, we’re not seeing things in themselves, we’re seeing another set of representations, constructed just as arbitrarily in our minds as any other representation. Nietzsche had fun with this one: “What? and others even go so far as to say that the external world is the work of our organs? But then our body, as a piece of this external world, would be the work of our organs! But then our organs themselves would be—the work of our organs!” That is to say, the body is also a representation—or, more precisely, the body as we perceive it is a representation. It has another aspect, but we’ll get to that in a future post.

Another common misunderstanding of the epistemological crisis is to think that it’s saying that your conscious mind assembles the world, and can do so in whatever way it wishes. Not so. Look at the coffee cup again. Can you, by any act of consciousness, make that coffee cup suddenly sprout wings and fly chirping around your computer desk? Of course not. (Those who disagree should be prepared to show their work.) The crucial point here is that representation is neither a conscious activity nor an arbitrary one. Much of it seems to be hardwired, and most of the rest is learned very early in life—each of us spent our first few years learning how to do it, and scientists such as Jean Piaget have chronicled in detail the processes by which children gradually learn how to assemble the world into the specific meaningful shape their culture expects them to get. 

By the time you’re an adult, you do that instantly, with no more conscious effort than you’re using right now to extract meaning from the little squiggles on your computer screen we call “letters.” Much of the learning process, in turn, involves finding meaningful correlations between the bits of sensory data and weaving those into your representations—thus you’ve learned that when you get the bits of visual data that normally assemble into a coffee cup, you can reach for it and get the bits of tactile data that normally assemble into the feeling of picking up the cup, followed by certain sensations of movement, followed by certain sensations of taste, temperature, etc. corresponding to drinking the coffee.

That’s why Kant included the “thing in itself” in his account: there really does seem to be something out there that gives rise to the data we assemble into our representations. It’s just that the window we’re looking through might as well be a funhouse mirror:  it imposes so much of itself on the data that trickles through it that it’s almost impossible to draw firm conclusions about what’s “out there” from our representations.  The most we can do, most of the time, is to see what representations do the best job of allowing us to predict what the next series of fragmentary sensory images will include. That’s what science does, when its practitioners are honest with themselves about its limitations—and it’s possible to do perfectly good science on that basis, by the way.

It’s possible to do quite a lot intellectually on that basis, in fact. From the golden age of ancient Greece straight through to the end of the Renaissance, in fact, a field of scholarship that’s almost completely forgotten today—topics—was an important part of a general education, the kind of thing you studied as a matter of course once you got past grammar school. Topics is the study of those things that can’t be proved logically, but are broadly accepted as more or less true, and so can be used as “places” (in Greek, topoi) on which you can ground a line of argument. The most important of these are the commonplaces (literally, the common places or topoi) that we all use all the time as a basis for our thinking and speaking; in modern terms, we can think of them as “things on which a general consensus exists.” They aren’t truths; they’re useful approximations of truths, things that have been found to work most of the time, things to be set aside only if you have good reason to do so.

Science could have been seen as a way to expand the range of useful topoi. That’s what a scientific experiment does, after all: it answers the question, “If I do this, what happens?” As the results of experiments add up, you end up with a consensus—usually an approximate consensus, because it’s all but unheard of for repetitions of any experiment to get exactly the same result every time, but a consensus nonetheless—that’s accepted by the scientific community as a useful approximation of the truth, and can be set aside only if you have good reason to do so. To a significant extent, that’s the way science is actually practiced—well, when it hasn’t been hopelessly corrupted for economic or political gain—but that’s not the social role that science has come to fill in modern industrial society.

I’ve written here several times already about the trap into which institutional science has backed itself in recent decades, with the enthusiastic assistance of the belligerent scientific materialists mentioned earlier in this post. Public figures in the scientific community routinely like to insist that the current consensus among scientists on any topic must be accepted by the lay public without question, even when scientific opinion has swung around like a weathercock in living memory, and even when unpleasantly detailed evidence of the deliberate falsification of scientific data is tolerably easy to find, especially but not only in the medical and pharmaceutical fields. That insistence isn’t wearing well; nor does it help when scientific materialists insist—as they very often do—that something can’t exist or something else can’t happen, simply because current theory doesn’t happen to provide a mechanism for it.

Too obsessive a fixation on that claim to authority, and the political and financial baggage that comes with it, could very possibly result in the widespread rejection of science across the industrial world in the decades ahead. That’s not yet set in stone, and it’s still possible that scientists who aren’t too deeply enmeshed in the existing order of things could provide a balancing voice, and help see to it that a less doctrinaire understanding of science gets a voice and a public presence.

Doing that, though, would require an attitude we might as well call epistemic modesty: the recognition that the human capacity to know has hard limits, and the unqualified absolute truth about most things is out of our reach. Socrates was called the wisest of the Greeks because he accepted the need for epistemic modesty, and recognized that he didn’t actually know much of anything for certain. That recognition didn’t keep him from being able to get up in the morning and go to work at his day job as a stonecutter, and it needn’t keep the rest of us from doing what we have to do as industrial civilization lurches down the trajectory toward a difficult future.

Taken seriously, though, epistemic modesty requires some serious second thoughts about certain very deeply ingrained presuppositions of the cultures of the West. Some of those second thoughts are fairly easy to reach, but one of the most challenging starts with a seemingly simple question: is there anything we experience that isn’t a representation? In the weeks ahead we’ll track that question all the way to its deeply troubling destination.


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. said...

The second meeting of Green Wizards in Ireland will be held on Saturday 4th March 2017 somewhere in Dublin. Time and venue to be confirmed. We'll also post an announcement on the Green Wizards forum. All are welcome!


. josé . said...

"(Those who disagree should be prepared to show their work.)"
I had to laugh out loud.

I did a double major, and one of the fields was philosophy, but that was almost half a century ago, and I've drifted pretty far from that area. But one of the things I did even back then was to take (then new) courses on Indian philosophy and Chinese philosophy, so it was interesting to read your interpretation and begin to piece together the specific lines of thought in those practices that moved from metaphysics to epistemology. The courses weren't presented that way, and my memory is weak, but it gives me an interesting exercise for this week.

Looking forward to the evolution of this series.

Five8Charlie said...

Bless you for going down this path. I suspect your comments section will drop to single digits by the time you get to the end, but please don't stop the journey.

I hear what you are saying about the 'unknowability' of the real world. But given how good our species is with manipulating those representations, at some point, don't we just throw in the towel and say the model we have of the world is correct? For example, Jane gets in a jet airplane in New York and she arrives in Japan 16 hours later. Every part of the process that got her there is well understood and reproducible. We don't do a good job understanding the consequences of our actions (i.e. what are the repercussions of everyone jetting around the world), but the differences between our world and our representation of it must be vanishingly small for us to have such control.

I do get that our knowledge only extends to a certain depth of the world. Understanding how the metal in the turbine of a jet engine withstands the heat and stress of its environment - while still producing thrust - is not the same thing as understanding why Jane wanted to get on the airplane in the first place.

default options said...

is there anything we experience that isn’t a representation?

Bare awareness? The 'witness'. That which experiences 'what it is to be..'?

Daddy Hardup said...

Thank you. I am enjoying the journey so far, though I'm not sure how clearly I can see through the carriage window. The station orchestra sounded magnificent though as we waited to depart. I have downloaded a recording of the Vorspiel from Parsifal to accompany my ride, Hans Knappertsbusch conducting at Bayreuth in 1956, a bootleg I think, as it sounds like it was recorded on my Dad's old reel-to-reel tape recorder, hidden under the owner's seat in the Festspielhaus. But that is just fine for the start of the Long Descent.

My philosophy tutor at the Open University (in the UK) blamed the decline in philosophy on over-specialisation. In her view the last unquestionably great philosopher was Wittgenstein, who had trained as an engineer.


Daniel Najib said...

It is lamentable how much philosophy has been watered down today into some sort of 'lifehack'. I have to bring up Stoicism again. Over the last few years, Stoicism has seen an increase in popularity, and many of its modern proponents are atheists who openly discard the metaphysics of the philosophy as a useless relic of a bygone era, while keeping the ethics.

But reading of the Stoic texts, along with modern authors like Chris Fischer, and Pierre Hadot's The Inner Citadel, show just how fundamentally important metaphysics is to the philosophy; without acknowledging a providential Cosmos, the ethics of Stoicism are hollowed out. For the ethics to fully make sense, Traditional Stoicism acknowledges the divine Nature immanent within the Cosmos. The 'modernisation' and atheism of modern stoicism neglects the entire branch of the philosophy's physics, and so an incomplete picture is had.

Philosophy is important; and while studying it is fine, actually following through on the principles is important. Philosophy is of little value if it is not a lived tradition.

Repent said...

In non-duality of the new age community, "what is", is the ultimate realization. It is so commonplace that it is overlooked and ignored, however it is the goal. There is no path to the goal because you are already what you are seeking. The "is-ness" of each moment, is all there is. Just as it is. There is nothing else, no other place, no other time. Everything is one, whole and complete in this moment.

This is deeply upsetting. This destroys "What if", when "What is" is seen as absolute. Impossible to wrap your head around, although many have tried:

David, by the lake said...

When I periodically get into one of my more downtrodden moods over the loss of knowledge in the coming dark-age bottleneck, I have begun asking myself, "what, precisely, is 'knowledge' anyway?". I wonder if what we term "knowledge" is really an elaboration of our basic ability for storytelling. We connect events we observe by means of a story and use that story as a guide for the world we inhabit, whether the story involves predicting future events or explaining ancient ruins or justifying the present socioeconomic arrangement. The knowledge lost, then, is simply one version of story and the knowledge which survives will undoubtedly be transformed by the circumstances of the bottleneck into a slightly (or significantly) different version of what it was before. Seeing things this way makes the prospect less bleak somehow.

Two quick asides. I missed last week's comment cycle as I was off visiting family and took the opportunity to experiment with disconnecting from the 'net, but my experience re some political fora have led to a decision to abstain from further involvement in those fora -- in my case, PoliticalWire. I have had a number of good and worthwhile conversations there, but increasingly I have been labeled and derided as something I am not, largely because I do not conform to the liberal (establishment) consensus. Perhaps I am ceding ground, but a strategic withdrawal seemed appropriate and my energy is better invested in my city council campaign and my efforts to build/transform my community. In any event, I feel much better, which says a lot about the effect that the interactions were having on me.

Secondly, the campaign continues. I just made arrangements with one of the owners of a local coffeeshop (and family-owned dept store) to have some meet-and-greet events over the next two months before the election in April. We shall see what happens this spring.

And thank you for this series on philosophy. If we don't have a decent grasp of our abilities and limitations, we will only continue to get ourselves into trouble.

Nick Danger said...

We are now and have always been bound in Plato's cave.

Gepetto Fresh said...

Great post, as always... though it gave me some flashbacks to an unpleasant ivy league undergraduate metaphysics and epistemology class I took where I got in a few arguments with the professor.

On an unrelated note, I'm about to start reading Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France", both because you've cited him as an influence (I beleieve you once described yourself as a Burkean conservative), and because the same is apparently true of Steve Bannon, the man that left-leaning news organizations have been fretting about as the horrifying power lurking behind the throne of trump guided by an apocalyptic vision.

Interestingly, Bannon's apparent regard for Howe and Strauss' "fourth turning" theory of American History has somewhat unexpectedly mainstream media musing on cyclical theories of history. In a Huffington Post article, they quote a Princeton professor who says that "Cyclical models of history are something academics kick around every now and then" and that “It’s just a conceit. It’s a fiction, it’s all made up,” “There’s nothing to them. They’re just inventions.”


I guess since they aren't scientific enough, They're useless?

Ray Wharton said...

So good to start with Schopenhauer, I don't think I would have ever got a bit out of Kant, if not for Schopenhauer's chewing on that roughage.

Every schoolboy knows that what we experience that isn't Representation is will! Trying to say what that is though, brings us right back to representation. This might be why mysticism and ethics become the late stage of philosophy. Ethics is fundamentally related to questions concerning will, and the fact that as soon as we start thinking about it we are in a tangle of especially untrained representations makes mysticism (understood here as a wariness toward representation and a lot beside) important.

Though we don't so much experience will, like we experience representations, so much as we are will... or willed... or willing. But, mysticism rises again, sorting our the different grammatical forms of will sprouts tangles of representations again.

The limits of representation are one of the best tells in this area. If we deny the limits, we thereby make them much more restrictive and illusive than they need to be. Once the limits have been accepted as being real, and part of our life and yet they are precisely not representations, we can move forward to developing helpful representations on our own nature. Therefore I think that the limits and preconditions of representation are very very closely related to will.

James M. Jensen II said...

"When philosophical traditions hit their epistemological crises, accordingly, some philosophers accept the hard limits on human knowledge, ditch the metaphysics, and look for something more useful to do—a quest that typically leads to ethics, mysticism, or both."

Add politics and art to those options, and you basically get the pragmatist approach to the issue. Pragmatism since William James has in many ways been an attempt to get philosophers to turn away from traditional metaphysics to something—anything—more useful. To their critics, pragmatists want to give up on the project of securing a firm foundation for philosophy; to pragmatists, that's like saying we have to make sure the stack of turtles the Earth is resting on aren't going to topple over and take us with them.

By the way, I feel I should clarify something I said last week, when I said pragmatists and Kant share a suspicion of representationalist accounts of truth and knowledge. In that context, "representation" isn't quite the same as in what you're talking about. Pragmatists would generally agree—there are exceptions—with the representationalist account of experience that you've outlined here. That's a part of why we reject the representationalist account of truth and knowledge: those accounts both essentially suggest that some representations are more faithful to the thing-in-itself than others, and we don't think that makes any sense.

That said, I'd point out that the "thing-in-itself" idea does have one problem: it's a Wittgenstein's beetle.* Its nature is utterly irrelevant to anything we can actually know about the object. That makes me suspicious of just how useful a concept it is. It seems that its main purpose is to reiterate that the world is an independent causal factor. As Donald Davidson put it, "Causation, unlike explanation, is not under a description,"** and I wonder if that isn't sufficient to describe the situation.

* For those not familiar with this term, it comes from a thought experiment by Ludwig Wittgenstein: imagine everyone has a small box with a "beetle" inside, but nobody can look in anybody else's box or interact with anyone else's beetle in any way. Then, the word "beetle" does not refer to anything in particular. Wittgenstein suggests that someone's box can even be empty.

** Davidson thought it was fine for two accounts of the same phenomenon (such as folk psychology and neuroscience as explanations of a person's behavior) to use radically different terminology, assumptions, and methodology as long as they agreed on their causal predictions.

Violet Cabra said...

If I may, having struggled with epistemic terror for much of my life, suggest that there is nothing we can experience that isn't representation outside of the realms of the divine, which is can only be accepted as an article of faith. This is one of the reasons that faith is so important; it anchors consciousness outside of the feedback loops of self-conscious representations. If there is no real perceived outside of representation the human mind suffers very greatly indeed. If there is any more evidence needed that evolution doesn't have a direction here it is; our minds were clearly NOT designed to look directly at their own processes, and the ability to do so was ushered in by a long-string of almost entirely unrelated selection.

Austin Levreault said...

This post is Genius :) The limits of human understanding seems to be one to the main themes of The Arch druid Report. There is something poetic that the limits of what modest humans can ultimately know is what's going to shut the lid on the Religion of Progress. What I've always found funny about the current "Theory of everything" is that there are 14 people in the world who are credentialed to understand it.

So this morning, in a genetics class I'm taking, we talked about genetic engineering. And the professor talked about how at this point we could probably genetically engineer people with higher IQs. Somehow, I don't think that's going to help us overcome the limits of what humans can ultimately know just because we have smarter people. There is still going to be gunk on that window. It also creeps me out that there's a room filled with genetically engineered bunnies, meant for Australia, just down the hallway from me right now. These bunnies are meant to chlorinate the rabbits gene pool with nasty stuff to help control the bunny infestation on the down under continent. Like if human genetic engineering ever became a thing it could be used as a nasty, nasty, weapon. I'd add a subset to the limits of what humans can know, and that is what humans should be able to mess with. It seems like ethics must step in before the limit of knowing is reached. I hope the long decline is long enough to learn to brew good beer. Cheers :)

Ruben said...

I just wrote about the "thin stream of visual information...flowing into your mind" in The harsh reality of cognitive limits.

"Our senses take in an enormous amount of data that our brain must manage and select responses for. As Tor Norretranders says:

“The fact is that every single second, millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness processes only perhaps forty bits a second – at most. Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. Every single second, every one of us discards millions of bits…”

Estimates of how many million bits per second vary, but the average estimate is about 60 million.

60 million bits of data per second flood our senses, but we are conscious of only 40. Not 40 million, just 40. That means we are conscious of just 0.00007% of what we perceive.

And you wonder why it is hard to get people to read your recycling brochure."

NomadsSoul said...


Thank You for the succinct summary of philosophical studies and related topic trajectories.

One area in which scientific materialism has been pushed is the nature of human consciousness.
And within that domain the questions of free will and the doer of said will.

While science has yet to unlock these mysteries completely; science has uncovered areas of the brain that appear responsible for the representation commonly called an ego. As well, Scientific tools such as the fMRI can now detect if the responsible brain centers are active or inactive.

Turns out that two distinct brain areas have been mapped which correlate to the ego or lack thereof. These are called the Default Mode Network (DMN) and the Tasking Mode Network (TMN). For most everyone, the DMN is primarily active and is responsible for our sense of self and all those nagging thoughts about the past and future that fill our days. The TMN network activates when we move into problem solving mode with a significant reduction of DMN activity and the related brain chatter.

There are individuals that experience a significantly different world everyday because their DMN is all but permanently shut down. This is the state often labeled non-dual in the eastern mystical traditions such as Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism and Zen.

One of the best living examples is a thoroughly Western man by the name of Gary Weber. Some thirty years ago he set out on a path to eliminate his brain chatter and now lives in a world without self-referential thoughts or significant emotions. His DMN is effectively shut down 24/7. He summarizes his experience and the most recent scientific findings in a short you tube video linked below. Ironically, Mr. Weber holds a PhD in Material Science.

The End of Suffering and the Default Mode Network

His quest and the science documenting his state, and those of others with similar experience, underscores the limits of scientific materialism and related preconceived notions of what it means to be human and conscious.

Tower 440 said...

Hi John
A few of us have been kicking around ideas for a motto and a mission statement for the Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association. The suggestion box is open to all.
Also, the idea of a First Tower or a Tower Prime or something like that has some appeal. Since we don’t yet have a building fund, would you mind putting a rook from an old chess set on your mantle?
And another thing… for ceremonial occasions, what do you and the Wizardren think of entering from a West gate or door at dusk – fleeing the dying light and all that?

Tower 440 said...

Greetings to the assembled Wizardren!
The Spring joint meeting of the Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association, Tower Number 440, and Ruinmen’s Guild, Local 440 will be held at 12:30 PM on Saturday, March 18, 2017. Our location is Ruko’s Family Restaurant, 9385 Mentor Avenue, Mentor, Ohio 44060, (440) 974-1914. Shining the Green Light! Public Welcome! Tables for Failed Scholars. Look for the table topper with the Green Wizard Hat. Contact us at
Our speaker will be Green Wizard Gene Ainsworth, the first member of Tower 440 to travel with a GWB&PA issued “passport.” (Email us for the template.) Gene will report on his People to People trip to Cuba, particularly his research and interviews with the Cuban People to learn about how they have coped with the difficulties, of the electrical grid, lack of utilities and refrigeration.
Many thanks to John for the posting space on his blog.

Zachary Braverman said...

I have long made the same point (though not as eloquently). The "scientific" position on many unproven things seems to be "No" when it should be "Unknown." There seems to be an obsession with turning out a facile Yes or No conclusion when none such is warranted. The basic attitude of science should be skepticism, but the true sceptic will answer "I just don't know" when confronted with many questions instead of "Yes has not been proven, so the answer is a hard No."

Take for example, alien visitations. I highly doubt aliens have visited the earth, but I'm willing to say the issue hasn't been proven one way or another. Many people who style themselves as rational and objective, however, will say the answer is definitely no, which is actually the opposite of rational and objective.

Maybe this is due to the function of science in our society. They unconsciously feel that saying "I don't know" would diminish their authority. My wife, who is a doctor, is the same way. Ever since she became a doctor, I've noticed that she assumes knowledge that I know she does not have, about subjects both medical and not. I think that in her job it's her job to know things and provide answers, so she just gets used to this attitude. And so she falls into the trap of thinking she knows things she most definitely does not.

aNanyMouse said...

Good stuff as usual, JMG. On corruption in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, you may want to bone up on the Diet Wars, esp. involving Nina Teicholz, USDA Guidelines, and the (Naderite) CSPI.
Regarding epistemic modesty, I gather that K. Popper’s falsification formula mostly washes for you. Regarding mostly “unheard of for repetitions of any experiment to get exactly the same result”, to what extent is this a function of our unprecedented ability to measure exactitude, and thus detect inexactitude? Insofar as this inexactitude owes to other factors, when did this start to become so common, to the point where it mattered hugely?

Jo said...

Diogenes the Cynic is one of my favourite philosophers, both for his reputation of telling it like it is, and because he lived his beliefs through to their logical conclusions. He devoted his life to pointing out the difference between the nature of a thing (physis) and its representation, or custom (nomos). He was no doubt incredibly annoying to everyone who knew him as he pointed out the stupidity of most of societal 'norms'. I find his conclusions, and the conclusions of Stoic philosophy, which he inspired, to be oddly comforting - if we question everything, both society and value we place on things turn out to be an illusion. So why worry about anything? Reject society, live how you want and be happy.

Marcus Aurelius, also in the Stoic philosophy stable, had this to say about the slippery nature of 'truth':

Make for yourself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to you, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved. For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object that is presented to you in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole.

Marcus Aurelius Meditations iii.11

Ian R Orchard said...

My personal encounter with Representation was the discovery that our brains see movement as a series of still images that are stitched together to create the illusion of movement, like a movie camera. The 'stills' are remarkable short exposures because the first time was when I glanced up at an aircraft and for a moment saw its propellers as stationary. Which gave me a fright. You can see the effect while waiting at a red light: focus firmly on a mark on the road in front of you that is close to where the wheels of vehicles will pass by and you will see the wheels as stationary, particularly mag wheels. As soon as you look at the wheels they blur as usual.
Oliver Sacks mentioned the phenomenon with reference to a brain-injured woman who lost the ability to convert the representation to movement. She had great difficulty filling a coffee cup or crossing a road because she could no longer integrate the stills to predict when the cup would overflow or if the car was a hazard for her.

Graeme Bushell said...

Here be dragons, indeed.

A couple of illustrative examples that don't exist, in a scientific materialist sense: colour, and pain.

Greatly enjoyed this.


Degringolade said...

John Michael:

I am so excited.

But concerning this statement:

"Not so. Look at the coffee cup again. Can you, by any act of consciousness, make that coffee cup suddenly sprout wings and fly chirping around your computer desk? Of course not. (Those who disagree should be prepared to show their work.) "

Well Buckaroo, I cannot wait until you have a go at Husserl. :)

inohuri said...

Thanks. I was a bit panicked that you would go off into stuff I can't understand. This looks familiar enough to grow from.

BTW when looking for definitions I found

Say what? As usual I don't get it. Cosmetics are philosophy?

Dylan said...

But that intricate matrix of quantum probability fields and ripples in space-time tastes so good!

Joking aside, I want to share with the ADR readership this review of Retrotopia published last week in our community newspaper. I bought a copy of the book, bought another for a friend, and requested one for the local public library. I hope to discuss this book with more people in my area.

Now to the post at hand. The notion of a transition from metaphysics to epistemology in every philosophical tradition seems a very useful heuristic for tracking that tradition's development. As soon as I'd finished reading I reached for Decline of the West to see how these ideas fit into his representational system.

Sure enough, there are Descartes, Locke, and Kant, midway through Spengler's chart of 'Contemporary Spiritual Epochs'. Do you find his subsequent notion of 'the great conclusive systems' useful, and would you place the work of Kant and Aristotle in those positions, as he does? What about Confucius?

Bob said...


Wonderful essay. Thank you, sincerely. I so appreciate what you do for me and the rest of your readers every week.

I don't usually comment but this week's essay really struck a chord. As a background, my first attempt at a degree was at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota where I guessed it, philosophy. I also say "attempt at a degree" because I failed my comprehensive exercise, "comps", spring of my senior year (which wasn't surprising) and then quit going to class. As such, I appreciate your nutshell coverage of western philosophy and am going to forward this essay on to a few close friends who don't quite understand what I talk about sometimes.

One of the main reasons I failed my comps was that I chose (foolishly, I should have been a Religion major like my then-future ex-wife) to take up the subject of Nonduality as the focus of my paper. For the sake of argument, I'm taking Nonduality to mean "a state of being absent subject and object". Funny thing though; language and its inbred cousin conscious thought are almost necessarily dual so you're pretty well up the proverbial creek if you try to communicate pure perception into anything other than allegory or metaphor or huge philosophical treatises more useful for doorstops or kindling than anything else.

I chose Nonduality as a topic because at some point during my junior year I found Zen Buddhism. I'd already been practicing Aikido and was becoming familiar with the spiritual tenets surrounding that martial art, so when I started learning about Zen and Buddhism as a whole, I was blown away. I may or may not have also been experimenting with cannabis, LSD and psilocybin in an attempt to "open my mind" and maybe find the answers to the philosophical questions I had. I'd like to think I found some. In any case, I attempted to present Nonduality to the philosophy folks and it went over like the Hindenburg. I stuck with the Zen and the Aikido, and maybe or maybe not some of the rest and went on to spend time as a live-in in a Zen center.

So to answer your last question, "is there anything we experience that isn't a representation?", my answer is "maybe, but I can't tell you about it even if I've had it".

Or I can show you a flower or hit you with a stick.

- Bob Heyn

John Michael Greer said...

.Jose., I've come to think that Goethe's famous dictum on languages -- those who only know one language don't really know any language at all -- applies to the different cultural traditions of philosophy as well. Know your way around Indian and Chinese philosophy and the Classical and Western traditions take on a whole new shape.

Five8Charlie, for practical purposes, that's what we do all the time, and there's good reason to do so. Tolerably often, though, things happen for which our representations haven't prepared us, and that's when it's useful to be able to remember that they're just representations, not realities. More on this as we proceed!

Default Options, good. You're getting warm.

Daddy H., oh my. I have a couple of Knappertsbusch recordings, and they're among my favorite interpretations of Wagner.

Daniel, and yet historically it was precisely the dependence of classical Stoicism on untestable metaphysical assumptions that led to its eclipse. Neoplatonism, which became the last school standing in the long history of classical philosophy, offered something other than assumptions -- especially in its later forms, once Iamblichus and Proclus got to work on it, it offered the prospect of verification through religious and mystical experience. More on this as we proceed.

Repent, so noted. That's not the direction I'll be exploring, though.

David, good! We'll be talking more about knowledge as a mode of storytelling as this proceeds.

Nick, we are now, and have always been, able to slip out of the bonds Plato mentioned and find our way up out of the cave into the sunlight. See you there!

Gepetto, of course they've got to shout down cyclical theories of history. Listen to those, and the Great God Progress topples from his throne once and for all.

Ray, shhh! We'll get to that. ;-)

James, and yet Schopenhauer makes a very strong case that we have access, in a certain sense, to the thing-in-itself: something that isn't a representation. So the box with the beetle in it arguably has a lid that can be opened. More on this as we proceed. I would agree with Davidson, by the way -- causation is storytelling, and different stories can point to the same moral.

Violet, understood -- but a good case can be made that we can actually perceive something that isn't a representation. I'll be discussing that next week.

Justin said...


Agreed - I think that's what the whole Garden of Eden (and all the comparable creation myths) thing is really about.

After all, "why am I a self-aware consciousness and why can/does such a thing exist?" is a seriously vexing question. Of course, nobody would notice if we couldn't notice. Hmm.

Daniel Najib said...


You wrote
"and yet historically it was precisely the dependence of classical Stoicism on untestable metaphysical assumptions that led to its eclipse."

I have never heard this before. That is something to contemplate.

I do value religious and mystical experience, and while I have not studied Neoplatonism, my polytheistic and magical experiences have only deepened my commitment to Traditional Stoicism.

John Michael Greer said...

Austin, good. SF writer Gordon Dickson pointed up the absurdity of trying to use genetic engineering to advance human intelligence a long time ago. Let's imagine, they said, that a group of gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans got together a few million years ago and decided to create a super-primate. Would they have gone for genetic modifications that would make them more fitted to (and thus more dependent on) their existing environment? Or would they have grasped the possibilities open to a primate that was much less well suited to any one environment, in order to have the capacity to expand into almost any environment? All our ideas about intelligence focus on the first option; like the apes in Dickson's metaphor, we're unable even to consider what would be involved in giving up specialized capacities in order to universalize potential.

Ruben, excellent. Yes, that's one solid way to get to the same realization!

NomadsSoul, I confess that the thought of a human being who's made himself incapable of self-examination and emotion strikes me as almost uniquely horrible.

Tower 440, I can do better than that. I used to build paper models, many years ago, and I have a model of a German castle with a single large tower on one side sitting on top of one of my bookcases. Tower Prime now exists. As for entering from the west at symbolic sunset, that's very good indeed:

"Guard of the Tower, what is the time?"

"Chief Ruinman, it is the hour of sunset, when the shadows of the past stretch long and dark across a landscape of ruins."

Zachary, yep. I've watched this over and over again -- and unfortunately physicians seem to be trained to fall into that trap. (A common joke in the alternative health care scene: "What's the difference between God and a doctor?" "God doesn't think He's a doctor.")

Mouse, experimental scientists have been dealing with variable results as long as there have been scientific experiments. The increase in the ability to detect subtle variation has proceeded step by step with an increase in the ability to control confounding variables -- so the amount of wobble in experimental results seems to be pretty much the same all through the history of science.

Jo, the old Skeptics, Cynics, and Stoics are certainly worthwhile role models for this kind of project, no question.

Ian, yep. I do that all the time with the blades of ceiling fans. It really can be unnerving.

Graeme, good. I also appreciate the psychologists, and there were quite a few of them, who spent many decades insisting that mental imagery doesn't exist because it can't be measured.

Degringolade, I'll consider it, but Husserl to my mind is second only to Heidegger in the fine art of making trivial statements in terms so obscure it's easy for the incautious to mistake them for profundities.

Inohuri, funny. No, marketing is marketing. ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Dylan, thank you! A thoughtful and very positive review; I appreciate especially that you got the central point of the tier system.

Bob, excellent! The flower and the stick are certainly options. I hope to demonstrate another next week.

Daniel, and it would have been entirely possible for Stoics to have crossed the same bridge Iamblichus did, and showed that philosophy and traditional Pagan religion need not be at war with one another, as they'd been since the time of Socrates. It so happened that the Neoplatonists worked out a way to respond constructively to the Second Religiosity of the Classical world, while the Stoics never did -- but that was a contingent event, not a necessary one, and it's certainly a valid option for today's Stoics to relate their philosophy to religion in constructive ways.

NomadsSoul said...


The place that Gary Weber has arrived is after decades of self examination in the Zen tradition - that is decades contemplating Zen koans.

It is a state post ego where the concept of a doer no longer exists as most people understand that concept.

It is a place where traditional struggles of self and agency are not of paramount importance.

Christophe said...

My father was a research biochemist who was a bit less than an exemplary model of epistemic modesty. He bought into science's claim to authority hook, line, and sinker, including the delusion that whatever cannot be explained by science cannot be real, or is at least a misinterpretation of reality. Not only did his status increase in lockstep with science's "authority," but he could timidly hide his insecurities and doubts within that cloak of infallibility. Drunk on the power of almighty science, he did not have to face his demons, but hypnotized himself into not seeing them any longer. Eventually, the requirements of writing grants, submitting reports, justifying expenses, and defending positions took the place of the demons he had never faced and left him distrusting the anchor he had tethered himself to. Unmoored, he drifted.

Rather than attracting bold, risk-taking independent thinkers, my experience is that what passes for science and medicine nowadays appeals more to conformists seeking easy answers, status, and protection from the inherent challenge of living in a complex, ever-changing world. A clockwork universe obeying scientific laws of human authorship promised to explain away superstition, dispel demons, and banish ignorance. Instead it unknowingly wove them into its very essence. Some of the most superstitious fools I know, with too many demons to hide, happen to be scientists and doctors.

That is in no way a criticism of the scientific method, one of the most useful codifications of one of the most useful habits of the human mind to make sense out of incoming data. However, science can only lay claim to the codification, not the habit. Observing a baby transition from wailing grief every time an object is hidden from view to determined searching once enough experiences have convinced her of the validity of object permanence should be a humbling experience for any seasoned practitioner of the scientific method. Would that all "scientists" could practice so fluently a mental gift the gods have bestowed on babies!

patriciaormsby said...

I'm looking forward to seeing how this develops! I can see now, too, why I feel so totally inept at "philosophy" despite being brought up by a father who talked to me for hours on end about Zen and other eastern philosophies and my attempts with modest success to explain some of this to my mostly LDS classmates at school, where the thoughtful among them could start to accept my Buddhism as not some sort of Devil worship.

When I moved to Japan, the real reason was I wanted to look at the world through a completely different window (and your essay today helped me finally to verbalize this). To the average person that tries this, the first year is fascinating, like a kaleidoscope! The second year, you find it all increasingly offensive as you have more clashes with people who unreasonably cannot accept the way you see their world. (Gracious!) If you persist obstinately beyond this point, you slowly start to see things from their perspective. It took me a good decade, a good husband and the good luck to get trained in Shinto to really start appreciating Japan. Particularly difficult for me was that the ways I represented things to myself in English would not translate into Japanese without a complete academic thesis. Things I loved, they could not see why! Foreigners keep their sanity here by meeting regularly with other foreigners, listening intently to the newcomers' rhapsodizing, and placing bets on how many months before it turns into a wonderfully endearing heartfelt bashing. It's easy to stay in that sort of "womb." Over the 32 years I've been here, I've developed a second side to my persona, one that gets along nicely in Japan, has plenty of verbal and experiential tools for getting along and doesn't need the people here to see the view out my other window.

If I'd been less insecure, I may have made my adjustment to this different reality much sooner. Having done it once, though, makes it easier for me to accomplish it elsewhere, expecting and recognizing ostranenie, apologizing for my inevitable mistakes and realizing that a good thumping to the ego is normal.

But what I grasped today (and wonder if that is one thing you are leading with this) is that two completely different cultures have evolved in America, with entirely different views out their respective windows. Trying to get them to see eye-to-eye may prove to be impossible. But if we do not try, where is this going to lead?

Off-topic, but the February meeting of the Kanto Green Wizards went very well without me, I hear. Lots of new people, including a couple from Melbourne, where our other foreign priestess hails from, and they had a lot of fun. I don't know if any followers of your blog came, but it is still a meeting of the Kanto Green Wizards in my opinion, because the basic idea is shared, all the way down to dissensus!

physimytht said...

A very good start. I encourage you to double your output and delight us with a Saturday edition. Bloody difficult to get a discussion on philosophy going. I will hold my questions in courtesy to discourse.

NomadicBeer said...


Re:epistemological crisis. I am probably missing something but the example that you use seem fallacious. I have seen it in very similar forms in many places (last I think it was a book by Richard Dawkins) but it never convinced me.
One criticism I have is that it seems a false dilemma. Yes, our representations of the external world can be mistaken, but the simple fact that we agree most of the time (due to common evolutionary pressures at the very least) suggests that representations are a very useful first approximations of the world. One of the great successes of 20th century science was to find where are the limits of this approximation.
A better metaphor is fuzzy logic. A chair is not perfectly defined (is a stump a chair?) but that does not make the label any less useful.

Another other criticism of your example is that I see no problem using multiple models of the world. A teacup is a "intricate matrix of quantum probability fields and ripples in space-time" but that model is much less useful than our day-to-day representation of the teacup. If we are talking about a proton, the quantum model works better obviously. More generally this fallacy could be described as "mixing of the levels". A human body works on many levels: quantum superposition, chemistry, mezoscale physics, mechanics, etc. I don't see a problem with multiple partial representations.

Please don't interpret these as personal criticisms. Like I said before, I tend to oversimplify things. Philosophy is a stumbling block for me because in my mind ideas can be approached from different directions. As long as the logical conclusions are compatible, what is the problem?

Matt Heins said...

" there anything we experience that isn’t a representation?"

Experience is not knowledge.

We only ever experience the world as it is.

We only ever know representations.

Welcome to life as a talking ape.

Damned monolith. ;-)

Kutamun said...

Was watching Prof Brien Cox the physicist on t.v the other night and started to feel a vit creeped out by his smug subtle insistence that the universe is a vast mechanistic device that we are on the verge of discovering the keys to . He seems a breed of neoliberal lefty celebrity scientist that gets trotted out a lot via public broadcasting . He often jousts with climate deniers and religious types on panel shows with wildly cheering audiences whenever he speaks , and boos when the other guys trot out their fallacies .

Lacan has provided me with my latest impression of the meaning of life in his typically cryptic "Man The LHommelette "!

In considering the sphericity of primordial Man as much as his division, it is the egg that comes to mind and that has thus perhaps been repressed since Plato, given the preeminence granted for centuries to the sphere in a hierarchy of forms sanctioned by the natural sciences. Consider the egg in a viviparous womb where it has no need for a shell, and recall that, whenever the membranes burst, a part of the egg is harmed, for the membranes of the fertilized egg are offspring [filles] just as much as the living being brought into the world by their perforation. Consequently, upon cutting the cord, what the newborn loses is not, as analysts think, its mother, but rather its anatomical complement. Midwives call it the "afterbirth" \delivre\ Now imagine that every time the membranes burst, a phantom—an infinitely more primal form of life, in no wise willing to settle for a duplicate role in some microcosmic world within a world—takes flight through the same passage. Man [I'Homme] is made by breaking an egg, but so is the "Manlet" \l'Hommelette\.

patriciaormsby said...

@David by the lake, I made a similar decision last week to desist from a political mud-slinging contest that I was trying to moderate in a sense (it would be helpful if I could delete posts). But I tried again this week, asking one of the Democrats to tell me his biggest fear or outrage over Trump's presidency, and all I got for that was a string of Huff Po links. The Republicans seem to have more leeway, being the winners, and one of them opened up with his concerns that the rioting would lead to more violence against "normal people." I don't know if it would have been any more effective if he'd avoided that polarizing term. It was simply decried as preposterous that loving Democrats would do such a Republican thing.

You and I are probably better off remembering that in a real battle, bridges get burned. I have the advantage of being physically remote. Still, I see my efforts as being more and more futile. And (lucky me) I have just tons of translating work coming from various fields of activism. (Better get back to it.)

beetleswamp said...

I remember one of the first parties I went to in college. The house was packed, beer kegs flowing, and lots of other substances being passed around. In the middle of this crowded couch someone passed a bong to this one guy, and I'll never forget the gratitude in his voice and expression because he thought it was a tall glass of water and someone had noticed he was very thirsty and offered him an unprecedented gesture of kindness. He took a nice deep swig before anybody could stop him and then started projectile vomiting all over the place, at which point we left rather than help clean up the mess.

That one example stuck with me a long time of how important it is to do a "reality check" on a regular basis and it's great that you are bringing this stuff to everyone's attention. I'm certainly learning a lot.

Breanna said...

I have recently encountered the idea that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe and that our brains are used for filtering it into a form we can work with. There are various bits of evidence for this, mostly from the experimental realms that modern science studiously ignores - things like near-death experiences where brain activity is measurably absent yet the person's consciousness is profoundly expanded. Most such evidence seems to indicate that the more active our brains, the more limited our consciousness.

So would that mean that Consciousness is a thing we can experience outside of representation?

escapefromwisconsin said...

Apologies for being off topic, but I thought you might appreciate the following anecdote:

"Computer hackers seized control of the electronic keycard system of a luxury Austrian hotel, releasing it only after a £1,300 ransom was paid... It was the fourth time the 111-year hotel, where suites cost as much as £233 a night, had been targeted by hackers...

“We are planning at the next room refurbishment for old-fashioned door locks with real keys,” said Brandstaetter. “Just like 111 years ago at the time of our great grandfathers.”

Leo Knight said...

I read this immediately after watching the movie "The Theory of Everything," about the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane. One scene seemed to resonate with this. Hawking is at dinner with friends and family, but cannot participate, as his disease has robbed him of most of his motor skills. The film shows his point of view. The sound mutes away until the conversation becomes distant echoes, punctuated by the clink of silverware and crystal. The camera wanders about the table, looking longingly as glasses and bottles of wine, forks and spoons full of food, pass by. Everyone else seems so at ease, but to Hawking, they are beyond reach. He excuses himself, and winds up trapped on the stairs, unable to climb them.

greg simay said...

hi John,
An issue that has long interested me is whether knowledge is consistent with physical determinism. The classic formulation of knowledge is justified true belief.* Something being true, and believing that it's true, strikes me as being possible under determinism. But the justification? Not so sure.

To put it crudely, believing something because the atoms in our brain swerve one way rather than the other seems hardly to be a justification, even if the belief is true and strongly felt. But now consider natural selection, which would presumably favor thought processes that promote survival. For example, fleeing from unfamiliar shadows on the assumption that they represent lurking predators may only be true some of the time, but is nevertheless a behavior that best guarantees surviving long enough to reproduce.

But brain processes that promote survival are not necessarily the same as brain processes that allowed Kant to write "The Critique of Pure Reason." So how did we evolve from jumping at shadows to learning not to jump to conclusions? If physical determinism is true, it seems that at best our thoughts will have survival value, but any underlying truth can't be known...only believed. In that sense, a materialistic worldview seems to be self refuting when it comes to knowledge.

*Gettier's Paradox casts doubt on whether we can really answer what would constitute a valid justification of a belief. If memory serves, Gettier's example goes something like this: For years, whenever Joe saw a purple van in his Boss's assigned space, his Boss was in the office. And sure enough, on a fine Monday morning, he sees the purple van in the assigned space and sure enough, the boss is in. Except, that this time the purple van is not the boss's. The van belongs to the boss's old college chum who's dropped by for a visit. The boss allowed him to use his space, since his own van is in the shop being serviced. That his pal has a purple van of the same make is a coincidence. So, was Joe's belief justified, or was it just a lucky guess? And what does it say about the beliefs we may hold? If we invoke probability and say that a belief is justified if there's a 99% chance that it's true, how do we know that it's 99%.

Roboslob said...

Recently, I thought of an artwork I may or may not get around to doing:

A video of trees with the caption, "These are not trees. These are words."

Roboslob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin Warner said...

That's really great stuff in this week's essay with a ton of stuff to unpack. In reading it, I get the concept of an "epistemological barrier" in trying to understand our universe though I wonder about where the limits of having epistemic modesty could lay. After all, part of being human is to question things that we aren't even built to understand even though a lot of the barriers that we have are actually cultural rather than biological.

The concept of Topics sounds familiar and I take it that things like justice, loyalty, trust, truth and the like could fall into this category. I guess the study of them waned when it became more important to get an Economics or Management degree than an Arts degree the past few decades. Trying to prove them can be the devil itself but as Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote "what is essential is invisible to the eye" which is something that I have never forgotten.

I did wonder about one reason that all this philosophical territory may not so thoroughly explored and it is this. Here you are actually playing with the concept of reality itself, as you were in this week's essay, and that can be an very uncomfortable place to be in. Sound unlikely? Robert Pirsig, who wrote "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values" was driven insane by his philosophical investigations which all began when he realized that in spite of all his education, that he could not come up with a definition of quality (Try it. Better? Better than what? And by whose standard?).

chrisroy said...

Wow! Thanks again for blowing my mind...I took a 6-year break from the net, but kept you in the back of my head as a comfort...I guess I needed a fresh look at the Druid perspective- which is reassuringly long term- with the recent events having piled up as they have...!
Anywhich, do you think the warm feeling you get in your gut/heart when you " look" at a loved on is an event, or is that a representation?Still

patriciaormsby said...

@Inohuri, I am developing a whole philosophy centered on cosmetics, which I do not currently use, but I ought to, because I am turning into a frightening old bag. It's for others, because I don't look into mirrors very much (rude in certain instances), but maybe I ought to. Does that make any sense?

Bill Carson said...

The first Harry Potter movie was called "Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone", but the studio made them change it to "Sorcerer's Stone" because they thought no one would go see a movie with philosopher in the title.

Ray Wharton said...

"Can you, by any act of consciousness, make that coffee cup suddenly sprout wings and fly chirping around your computer desk? Of course not. (Those who disagree should be prepared to show their work.)"

Yes, but as a consequence of my method there is no way to create a representation of my work.

Just before reading today's post I watched a movie I hadn't seen before by the man I figure to be the greatest living artist. Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo. Knowing that Greer isn't a movie lover, I won't insist on watching it too strongly, but I think there is a charming detail worth mentioning in the context of epistemic modesty. Like many of Miyazaki's movies which are directed to children, Ponyo follows a child, Sōsuke, living in a more or less modern world, who (as children are apt to do) encounters a realm of fantastic miracles, after meeting a magical gold fish who he names Ponyo. The story is clearly inspired by The Little Mermaid in some of the basic themes, but only in a very loose sense. What is relevant to epistemic modesty is the way that the adults in the world react. For a five year old child a talking fish that turns into a little girl and controls powerful magical forces is just another interesting surprise, but in American stories it is generally taken for granted that the adults will resist something so strange happening. Not adults from a Miyazaki world! A fish that turns into a magical child is just another inexplicable charm, and by the way would she like a sandwich? This interest me greatly in all his works, that adults in his stories treat the fantastic parts of a child's life as common matter of fact things, and basically carry about there day. This is, in the light of the topics here discussed, a great lionizing of epistemological modesty... besides can you prove that my coffee couldn't have flown away, or that a goldfish born of a wizard and a sea goddess couldn't fall in love with a little boy? How would such an experiment even be preformed!

Importantly, the modesty to accept the flabbergasting need not become an excuse to reject the inconvenient. Continuing to treat what we think we know, what has habitually, traditionally, or hereditarally worked as good enough until we have cause to doubt it is essential. Doubting every settled thing because a miracle might falsify it cheapens miracles. Besides there is a great depth of what has worked before (feel the will implied... worked) is needed to represent at all. Another poster already mentioned the massive filtering of data that ever makes it to the conscious mind; that filtering is deeply connected to representation, it is a massive rejection and pruning of data. Modesty is the willingness to let go of a filter if something happens, something wondrous, that suggests, hints, there may be data worth considering behind that representative filter.

A camera can represent the image by excluding all light from the film that is not on a perspective path way between the film surface and the represented surface... but many a find sensor has been developed by investigating a disturbance in another instruments readings.

On the other hand if we go sampling data pell-mell that we have receive guidance to ignore we are very unlikely to get anywhere particularly useful; the chinks in the representation are loose enough and numerous enough that there is room for anomalies, omens that is. If you follow omens that cannot be explained, but which shine with a significance there is a vastly better than random chance that an insight will be encountered.

Nick Nelson said...


I want to say that over the 6(ish) years that I've been reading your blog, you have inspired me again and again to read more philosophy and to look more closely at rejected knowledge, and while it has lead to many frustrating conversations with friends and associates, I think I'm a better person for having that exposure, so I thank you for that.

Also, philosophy may not be prominent in popular culture right now, but there is a nice little cottage industry of philosophy podcasts out there for anyone who likes that medium. I personally recommend The Partially Examined Life, which also has a website with a fairly lively community of fellow enthusiasts, and The History of Philosophy Without any Gaps, which pretty much does what it says on the tin.

And speaking of cyclical theories of history, I feel like now is the time for anyone who, like myself, may have become frustrated trying to explain these ideas to the people in his or her life, to make another go at it. With the election of Donald Trump and the rise of numerous other populist groups across the West, there is ample evidence that we are indeed transitioning into Caesarism. The internet is awash with people crying out that they just don't understand what's happening anymore, so now seems like a particularly good time to plant that seed.

aNanyMouse said...

Thanx for your reply about wobble.
Does the increase in the ability to detect subtle variation have much causal relation with the increase in the ability to control confounding variables?

JLouis said...

My explorations of philosophy during and after college have been food for a wisdom-starved soul. Thank you, JMG, for the courageous attempt to rejuvenate the essential timeless quest for truth.

I have had difficulty with two propositions appearing recently in this blog, however. 1) I understood you to say a couple of weeks ago that evolution is nothing but adaptation to changing environmental conditions. Essays by Stephen Jay Gould and others have led me to believe there's a lot more to evolution than that, much of it counterintuitive and deliciously mysterious. 2) I think you are asserting in this blog that awareness of "reality" can only be in terms of abstract representations that are created in our minds out of sensory inputs. The writings of Henri Bergson (Creative Evolution), C.G. Jung, and others have suggested to me that human perceptual and cognitive systems, as finely tuned products of billions of years of evolution, are in some ways intimately and directly involved in the "outside" world.

This brings to mind Alfred Korzybski's discipline of General Semantics, of which I have been a longtime student (and which I am glad to see reflected in your posts from time to time). Korzybski's book Science and Sanity prescribes greater awareness of different levels of mental representations, or abstractions as they shape our personal takes on reality. Highly abstract concepts can lead to a kind of language-induced insanity if they are not traceable to direct, verifiable experience when confusion or stress arise.

Plato wrestled with the same question of our essential connection with reality in his cave myth, which portrayed humans as prisoners in a cave that projects only shadowy reflections that they take for reality. If Korsybski had used a cave metaphor instead of the abstraction-ladder metaphor, he might have characterized the human condition in a more hopeful way, however. His correctives might have been tools for breaking our self- and culturally-imposed chains and begin taking steps toward the cave entrance--through which we catch occasional glimpses or intimations of the bright light of truth We never break out into the open of course, but we learn with each step that being happily "in touch with reality" is a lifelong process, a matter of degree that we have at least some control over.

heather said...

Re. Epistemic modesty:
At some point in my graduate education I was required to attend a seminar on effective participation in academic exchanges. (Sigh; another 90 minutes of my life I'll never get back...) One of the presenter's points was that women tend to use more tentative language in presenting their ideas than men do, couching them with "I think" or "It seems to me", which is apparently bad since then their ideas are taken less seriously than if they had positioned their claims more aggressively as bold statements of fact. It occurred to me at the time that the former was in fact a more precise and scientific way of presenting ideas, acknowledging the embedded perspective. However, I kept my ideas to myself, wanting only to escape the room as quickly as possible. Or maybe that was just me being overly tentative.

I think the world today has far too many people making aggressive claims without considering the limits of what they actually know or can know. And the idea of different causal stories about a single effect simultaneously being true seems important too, with many people shouting different narratives at each other about how we got to where we are, and assuming differing narratives mean at least one party is wrong or lying. I'd love to see such philosophy in popular public discourse again, especially if it crowded out some of the other, er, content. I assume the Lakeland Republic's newspapers and radio programs have regular philosophy segments? Maybe lectures at the library, followed by refreshments and discussions?
--Heather in CA

mgalimba said...

Well that settles it, I definitely find you most charming when discussing philosophy.
And I completely agree: science really is just a subset of the humanities/rhetoric/topoi for all of its blustering claim to being All That. Well it is a marvelous method and certainly better than straight up willful ignorance, but science carries with it an immense pile of epistemological baggage going back to Descartes and, before him, Jehovah himself, which limits what it, science, is capable of experiencing. Why it's only recently that it's been allowed for animals to be conscious again. And even the tiniest child knows that.
As far as the question: do we really experience anything that is not a representation? I'd say yes. Giving birth to a baby springs to mind. The representation adequate to that experience has not yet been invented.

jessi thompson said...

Archdruid Greer,

Thank you so much for covering this topic. I agree that philosophy is neglected in our culture, to the detriment of society. I have always wanted to study it (well, since I learned it existed, which was in college, sadly), buy hadn't yet found the time. I look forward to your essays so I can learn more!

Jessi Thompson

lordyburd said...

Dear Mr. Greer
You wrote, "James, and yet Schopenhauer makes a very strong case that we have access, in a certain sense, to the thing-in-itself: something that isn't a representation. So the box with the beetle in it arguably has a lid that can be opened. More on this as we proceed. I would agree with Davidson, by the way -- causation is storytelling, and different stories can point to the same moral."

So, If I read that correctly, are you saying that the 'thing-in-itself' rather than just being an after-the-fact attempt to explain that sometimes representations become dysfunctional, can be directly experienced, the way I experience my thoughts and dreams?

Vesta said...

So all we ever know is just a sketch, or an outline, or a thumbnail, or whatever metaphor, since all that we know is by limited by perception and understanding. Then the only 'real' description is the thing itself, and since we can't ever be that thing, we can't ever fully know anything. Somehow comforting to me that this ignorance is inevitable.

Juhana said...

Interesting essay, and it is treading waters that are not familiar for me. Change to learn something new, good!

On the sidenote: I met this couple from London, which is moving into Finland. The guy has same kind of background as myself: working class past, then studying into expert position. He has never read ADR, so your views are not distorting his lens of perception. He told me about build-up towards Brexit. According to him, it happened approximately like you described it here.

Influx of immigrants has eaten away almost all benefits from normal blue collar jobs. No more overtime pay, less bank holidays, less anything that helps you to rise your family with one or even two salaries. At the same time, wellfare class has become antagonistic towards working class. In London area, where everything costs too much, it's easier to meet your basic needs if you are "dependant", but then you have to live in pretty lawless areas.

Migrants also work long days, up tyo sixteen hours per day. They do that maybe four years, then go back to their homeland with all the savings and live oof it like royalty. English workers are forced to do the same, but of course they cannot save their money and live later carefree life. For them, it's long days year after year, and they get to see their families only during weekends.

There was much more, but you get the point. I talked with a person from blue collar background, and he proved with his words your presumption. UK working class was well aware about THEIR INTERESTS. They voted largely because they wanted no more to be violated. Mainstream media portrayed it as somekind "victory of nazism and xenophobia", but it was just groups of people fighting for their interests. That is largely what is behind rise of right-wing populism, and all these left-leaning liberals should remember that when shouting empty hate words like "racist! fascist!ignorant xenophobes!" into the face of other people, with other views.

John Michael Greer said...

Nomadsoul, so? If he's mutilated himself mentally to the point that he's no longer capable of self-examination and emotion, what credentials he's got for that state don't interest me in the least. It's still horrifying.

Christophe, fascinating. That would not surprise me at all.

Patricia, excellent! There are many more than two mutually incomprehensible cultures in the US just now; it's simply that the one that's mostly monopolized the institutions of political and cultural control has suddenly lost a few of those to one of the others, and is having a very hard time dealing with that!

Physimytht, ahem. There are only so many hours in a week, and I'm already giving as many of them to blogging as I can spare. Thank you for the compliment, though...

NomadicBeer, good. Of course our representations are a good working model of the world; our ancestors have had a couple of billion years to work out how to come up with models that improve their chances of survival, after all. Notice, though, that this implies that those models are useful...not true. For example, we screen out vastly more information than we process, because it wasn't the kind of thing that helped social primates survive on the African savannas. Watch a cat staring at something that you can't see, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that there are whole realms of reality we never get around to noticing, because doing so didn't improve our ancestors' chances of survival.

As for multiple models, of course! We'll get further into the nature of those models, though, because they're much less independent than we seem. Watch the way you think of protons and other particles, for example, and odds are you'll notice that you're basically using a metaphor derived from pebbles, marbles, and other small hard things -- which a proton is not...

Matt, ah, but "knowledge" is simply a label that can be defined in many different ways. Is there something that's not a representation that plays a significant part in our world, and is a part of everyday experience for us? Stay tuned... ;-)

Kutamun, cryptic and funny. You can't make a hommelette without breaking the Primal Egg!

Beetleswamp, funny. That's a great story, and useful, too.

Breanna, that's an argument that's been made for a good many thousands of years, and yes, it's not hard to find evidence supporting it. Have you tried experiencing your consciousness directly? If not, give it a try -- look at something, say, and then try to be aware of yourself looking at the thing. What are you perceiving?

Escape, yep. Progress =/= improvement...

Leo, hmm. I think I know what you're saying, but I'd welcome a few more words on the connection you see. Put it down to Aspergers syndrome...

syndaxvuzz said...

The first significant thought that arises in my mind as I'm reading your post is, where is the dividing line?, what makes "out there"? It wasn't quite as apparent when you referred to the window, but when you referred to the coffee cup ... ok, so then I follow it back, through my hand and optic nerve to the amorphous black emptiness ... , yeah, so what is "out there"? It somehow implies an "in here". Now I'm wondering if there is a dividing line. But anyway, your work has definitely enhanced my life over the years and I greatly appreciate it.

John Michael Greer said...

Greg, excellent. Yes -- if the theory of evolution through natural selection is correct, as I believe it is, then the human mind evolved for the purpose of finding food and mates and dodging predators, not for the purpose of understanding the truth about the universe, and it's therefore prima facie more likely when we examine the universe that we're projecting mental habits suited to finding food and mates and dodging predators onto the inkblot patters of the cosmos, rather than actually finding out the truth about it. This is one of the many ways that scientific materialism is self-refuting.

Roboslob, this painting comes to mind!

Kevin, topics can be considerably more subtle than that. Consider the following statement: "government derives its powers from the consent of the governed." That's not a statement capable of logical or scientific proof, but in a democratic (or would-be democratic) society, it's a topos, a statement of a consensus that's generally accepted and so can be used to ground discussion of political issues. With regard to Robert Pirsig, oh, granted -- you could have taken Nietzsche as another solid example. I'll be talking about that further on; for that matter, I've discussed it before, under the label "the barbarism of reflection." More on this as we proceed!

Chrisroy, the warm feeling -- and emotions generally -- are surprisingly complex. We'll get into that as we proceed. Step by step!

Bill, yep, and they were probably right.

Ray, good. One of the things to keep in mind is that part of the process of representation seems to be hardwired, but other parts are culturally specific and are picked up, like language, in the course of infancy and childhood. Our current habits of representation here in the US are very tense and brittle, and focus to a remarkable degree on rejecting the marvelous; I gather that in Japan, that's much less the case.

Nick, you're welcome and thank you! I'm glad to hear that the internet has helped philosophy geeks find each other and regroup. As for cyclical history, you'll hear no argument from me -- we've got another round of accurate predictions making themselves felt in every day's headlines, so now's the time to make the point again.

Mouse, since both are consequences of increasing technological complexity, yes, I'd say so.

JLouis, adaptation to changing conditions can take strange forms. There's no reason to assume that only the minimal, apparently rational adaptation will be the one that comes out of the intricate interplay of genetic variability and natural selection! The point I want to make is that it's a massive mistake to confuse evolution with progress, to assume that evolution is headed toward some goal, or to try to use evolutionary schemes to prop up fantasies of impending human godhood or the like.

With regard to representations, I think you may be missing my point, because it's not just a matter of abstractions. Your concrete sensory experience of a coffee cup is constructed by your mind out of the thin stream of fragmentary data you get from your senses, using a variety of inherited patterns and acquired memories as templates. Abstraction comes later in the process of cognition, after you've already formed your representations -- and I agree that Korzybski's work is extremely useful for reining in some of the common problems with abstractions.

John Michael Greer said...

Heather, thank you! Exactly; one of the major driving forces behind the blind rage and incomprehension we see across the political landscape today is the inability of most people on all sides to notice, in terms of my metaphor, that much of what they're yelling about is mud splattered in their own windows. I recall what Oliver Cromwell said when he was confronted with yet another bunch of religious fanatics convinced that they and they alone understood God's will: "I beseech you, gentlemen, by the bowels of Christ, consider that you may be wrong." Epistemic modesty can be one of the few alternatives to internecine hatred. As for the Lakeland Republic, it takes a bit for a philosophical culture to get rolling, but it's entirely possible that a first handful of philosophy clubs are springing up in Lakeland cities, meeting in library meeting rooms to talk about the subject.

Mgalimba, well, I haven't had the experience in question, but remember that your sensory experiences are also representations, assembled by your mind out of the fragmentary input of your senses. That said, I'll be arguing next week that you're on the trail of something important...

Jessi, you're welcome and thank you.

Lordyburd, not quite. It can't be experienced the way you experience thoughts, mental imagery, sensations, etc. -- but you'll find that you literally can't experience anything at all without it. Stay tuned!

Vesta, good. Yes, it has its comforting aspects.

Juhana, thanks for this. That was my working guess based on the few working class British people I'd met, and also from watching the historical cycles turn. It's good to have it confirmed!

Syndaxvuzz, good. How do you know that there's an "out there" at all? That's not a rhetorical question, by the way, and poking at it can lead to some very interesting places...

inohuri said...


Cosmetics not needed. Philosophy alone suffices.
Beauty comes from within.

Facercizes. Make a variety of weird faces using all of many facial muscles. People have fixed expressions and the face collapses accordingly. Fixes my whistle marks.

Silicon, the mineral before it is messed up by chemists. I use Eyebright Herb powder about 1/2 teaspoon per day. Do not use toxic horsetail. Silicon is part of the collagen / connective building process. I literally start to fall apart without it.

If I keep changing the way I am I will try the Senior Center to see if they throw me out for looking too young. I would refuse to show ID to the younger couch potatoes.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I'm only halfway through your post and I don't know when I'll have time to comment with any substance, but I predict that this segue into philosophy will give you no respite from the commentariat. You might not hit all time highs, but for the folks that have been following you for a while this is not dry and esoteric errata.


Mean Mr Mustard said...


"Thanks. I was a bit panicked that you would go off into stuff I can't understand. This looks familiar enough to grow from."

Speak for yourself..! :-( Time for a sabbatical!



Spanish fly said...

'What’s more, that level of interest in the subject had been pretty standard in the Western world for a very long time.'

I've read somewhere (i'm not sure) the enlightened scholars used to be coffee lovers (XVIIIth century). Maybe some philosophic and politic new ideas were born at cafeterias 200-300 years ago.
Since then, there has been a good friendhisp between caffeine and brainiacs, isn't it?

. said...

Juhana's description of the effects of recent immigration rates applies equally to Ireland and, like the UK, the real pressure point is the capital - Dublin. And the mass migrations haven't even started properly yet...

JMG, what should a country like Ireland do about its unrepayable national debt. We spend 20% of our tax take just on servicing the interest on it. Its 200 billion because we nationalized all bank debts.

There's no political climate to default although I expect that's what will and must happen during some future economic crisis. We have no negotiating chips whatsoever. We're like the smallest kid in the yard who'd like to negotiate with the gang of 10 much bigger kids who steal our lunch money daily. We rely on tax dodgers, offshorers and multinationals with sweet tax deals for employment and tax income so we can't say boo to them.

Yet there's no real public recognition that we're in a pre-bankruptcy state and how we should prepare ourselves for that. We still spend taxpayer money on things like 1 million Euros for an Irish Arts Centre - in New York. Or a cycling club to encourage people to get exercise (why you need money to set up a cycling club is beyond me). Meanwhile we have an absolutely barbaric public health service that leaves children needing operations in long term pain.

My work on organizing a new political party is bearing fruit. Although nobody likes the tax policies which I took from Retrotopia. Too soon for that here I think. But this debt is a noose around our necks (and of course individuals still have huge mortgage debts, full recourse, from the bubble).


Albatross said...

Hi there Mr. Greer,

Awhile ago I found this interesting diagram. A Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies. Hope it'll be of interest.
Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies.

Myself I'm a philosophical novice but a decade ago I did read Daniel C. Dennett's "Darwins Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life". It thundered through my mind. Definitely changed my outlook. I also do deep meditation on a regular basis. There's a great relief in placing oneself in a situation where one plainly does not have to think as no thought arise ... for a while. A good contrast to the very demanding cerebral activity neccessary to understand a jota of any advanced discussion.

All the best, / Juri Aidas

(Hm? I tried to preview my comment but got error 303? Hm?)

KL Cooke said...

Terrific essay--please keep it up.

Kristoffer Kavallin said...

I am suprised that there is a so much talk, both from the host and also the commenters here, about the lack of interest in philosophy.
I personally am deeply drawn to such subjects, although I have had difficulties absorbing them. That I now get this wisdom served in a style I find easy to take in is pure joy!
Since I have this (perhaps irrational) belief that I am that much different from the rest of the readership, so I have a hard time imagine comments or reading to drop.

Cherokee Organics said...


Oh, my poor brain is spinning, because I always considered that our eyes and brains were as much a part of the "out there" as is all the other stuff that is actually "out there" as well, and so from that basis it has never been a concern for me. I include the stuff that cannot be seen too. Are you suggesting that it should be a concern?

Since you are discussing representations of reality and the philosophical underpinnings for that point of view, just imagine for a brief moment (!) that you are discussing this concept with Conan the Barbarian who is having trouble understanding how a representation is any different to a story (or other accumulated human experience) of something that is "out there". Conan is confused and argues with you that if he were to strangle you - in a friendly way of course and that that action would definitely not be a representation despite your protestations to the contrary. What would you say to avoid that unpleasant representation?

And where do stories fit into the larger picture? I often see a logical failing in many of the comments here over the years where people demand specifics or cherry pick data thus avoiding the larger story which looks at the whole and is by its very nature a bit hazy on the specific details. I hear and understand the stories, but I'm not totally convinced that many people do, or the stories that those people do know are no longer functional given changed circumstances, where perhaps they were quite functional in the past. I've been contemplating one of those recently - which I am definitely not an adherent of - and that is the get big or get out story, which fails more often than not, and yet the story has many adherents.

Are those concerns even covered under philosophy?

Is part of acceptance of the philosophical stance of epistemic modesty the ability to walk away from a dysfunctional narrative when it is a perfectly valid option to do so?

This is fascinating stuff and thank you very much for taking the time to discuss these matters as they appear to me (in very brief glimpses as I’m scared to look too closely) to be gnawing quietly away at some of the foundations upon which the house of Industrial society sits upon.



Spanish fly said...

Mmm...John MG, what do you think about neurosciences? I've been told (reading my country's popular science magazines) that there are signs (in some experiments) that not only "things out there" are shaped and "rebuilt" by our brains, but also that mind and self as unities, in themselves are ficticious. Accourding these astonishing informations, conscience is only a heap made of feelings, sensations and thoughts that run on bio-chemical and electric flows inside the brain.
I think these theories are difficult to agree with puerile materialism " a la De Grasse.

LunarApprentice said...

Well, I like your foray into philosophy. When you mentioned 'Topics', that set off a bell, and I pulled down my abridged Aristotle, and yes, in Organon, there is indeed a section, called "Topics". It actually consists of 8 'books' or chapters, though my edition contains only the first. I never looked at this before, and now I'm wondering if this is something I need to explore. Are there other classical authors who discuss Topics? I'm wondering if I need an unabridged Aristotle.

Also, do you plan on revising 'Paths of Wisdom'? Or am I recalling that you're coming out with a 2nd ed of 'Circles of Power'?

Vince Busch said...

I never found that bar, bookstore or all-night coffee joint. Until now. There is no doubt a limit to what we can know, but for the time being each of your blogs blows me away. Knowing that there is much knowledge that you don't yet know also creates a sense of modesty. Recommendations for further reading always welcome. Many thanks for doing this!

@violet - in spite of the above limitation, or possibly because of it, I believe you are right.

Erick Lavoie said...

'Le Phenomenon Humaine' should be spelled 'Le Phénomène Humain'.

Cheers from a French Canadian,


Karim said...

Greetings all!

"there really does seem to be something out there that gives rise to the data we assemble into our representations"

A few years ago when a friend and I discussed some of those things, we came up with an expression to sum up the above "The common externality". It denotes that there is something out there, outside of our minds that exits independently of us and yet we know next to nothing of it!

"is there anything we experience that isn’t a representation?"

Will power as Ray said but self awareness also?

Emotions also could be thought as not being representations: Joy, sadness, pleasure, pain. They don't represent anything though they can be associated with certain form of sensory data. Joy, sadness, pleasure, pain are, full stop. They come in different modes for sure, but they are.

Concerning story telling that are useful but not true, it seems to me that science also is like that: it isn't necessarily true (it does not mean that it is false either!) but it is damn useful! One day I was explaining to an optics student Huygens' theory of secondary wavelets and how one can derive the laws of reflection, refraction and diffraction from it when it dawned to me that all this theory is just a story, it isn't true!!!!! but it is very useful!!!!

Finally, Although I agree that we discard a lot of information gathered by our senses, I am not too sure about the mere 40 bytes per second of information the conscious mind can process. I have never seen this figure published in journals or text books, references might be in order. Thank you.

Karim said...

Nick, we are now, and have always been, able to slip out of the bonds Plato mentioned and find our way up out of the cave into the sunlight. See you there!

If I were to speculate: Pure reason, mystical experiences, introspection? Would these be the ways to slip now and then out of the cave and into the sunlight? Please give us a good hint....

Phitio said...

Dear JMG, you should really read some of Bernardo Kastrup books, about what is (or could be) really "the reality" on the ontological level.

Maybe a reading or two on his blog could help.

Boiling all down: all that we can experience is what it is: mind.
There is not really something "out there". There is only mind, the conscious part, the obscured part (also called unconscious) and the mind at large, in which every coalescence is "separate" individual,self-aware portion: like a wirlpoool in the water seems an distinct object in water, but it is simply an arrangment of water.

Jbarber said...

Your "window" analogy has described philosophy in a way I can finally understand! All my previous brushes with the subject have left me feeling like it's all a jumble of meaningless words too dense to understand. Now I am intrigued; perhaps my earlier thoughts about philosophy came about because I was not aware of it's development timeline. I want to understand more, and read some texts in order of development. Could you suggest an introductory reading list?
Speaking of reading, I was able to do some readings suggested by your previous post on filling out our own education. I read parts of The Iliad (much more enjoyable than I thought it would be); Lovecraft's "The Mountains of Madness" (much hyperbole and near-hysterical language); and am about to tackle The Discourses of Epictetus. Thanks for the inspiration.

David, by the lake said...


Thank you. I was attempting to use the platform as a vehicle to inject alternative ideas into the collective awareness (and I believe I had some success, as I was receiving the occasional upvote for some of my posts) but the more vehement reactions made that practice a challenge. Apparently, to suggest that we proactively relinquish the empire or dismantle the excessive centralization we've developed within our national system is anathema of the highest order. Moreso, that we might develop a more self-reliant economy. (Sigh) But it is ok. I have a garden to plan and a community to engage. And I still have this forum here :)

Robert Honeybourne said...

We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality... comes to mind

What an interesting topic and I look forward to reading as it develops

Two elements that spring to my mind are foolish scientists who believe they have 'truth' when what they have is a very good model in a huge framework. Incredibly powerful and growing - but a model. As with Newton to Einstein; stunning changes - where the cleverest new models usually allow the old model as a breakdown case. So Einsteins model predicts Newtons when the velocities are low etc
The possibilty of things being overturned at any time; exciting to be the one to do that

And the foolish layman in any topic who thinks he knows best
If people don't 'believe' in science then why are they using a microwave, a plastic aeroplane, and having a stent fitted under fluoroscopy
They use technology and dont see the underlying science

The question of whether there is an 'out there' was cunningly avoided by Heidegger who maintained the 'world' as the world of human concern, and the earth as the physical stuff. A 'mug' in my world for coffee is - whatever is out there. The coffee, the milk, the china vessel... probably all exist... but may not BUT for sure my tea break exists! In my world

Science on this score is in our world, and is as correct as the level it has reached consistently to itself. Whether air lifts the aeroplane or a hidden elastic band matters not, provided the thing lifts at takeoff - according to plan


Sven Eriksen said...

This thing you keep referring to that we can perceive which is not a representation, does it start with "w"? ;-)

Kio Smallwood said...

Thought provoking article, thank you Archdruid!

My wife suggests that the experience that is not a representation may be suprise.
Not the memory of suprise, because that is obviously subject to interpretation, but the origin of the suprise itself.

Suprise is indirect evidence that there is something to be suprised, that there must be something that is interpreting the incoming imperfect sensory information and trying to integrate that into it's internal representation. The internal representation is only visible when it conflicts with the reality that the senses present. Suprise is the sensation of your world-view being updated.

People who are consistently ready to be suprised also need humility, a quality that is essential in a good scientist! Unfortunately intellectual arrogance seems to always be at the forefront of public debate about science in the United States.

I think some view the experience of suprise as crisis, which is why you see narrow-mindedness and arrogance as defence mechanisms. This will make the inevitable suprise as their world-model has to be updated all the more traumatic.

Daniel Najib said...

In unrelated news, I just read that you are going to be a guest speaker at the Call of the Morrigan retreat in Connecticut later this June. I was already considering going, but now I definitely have to go and find a way to travel there.

Koukos Arduinnas said...

Looking very much forward to this new series! What I personally find interesting, is also exploring the gap between how steady-state societies, such as native Australians or some native American tribal societies, view the world surrounding them along with the narratives and memes they derive from this versus how civilization building, growth-oriented societies view the world. Which parts of philosophical traditions are grounded in a particular type of culture, which parts are recurring patterns of thought through-out human forms of society? I often wonder whether the difficulties and inability of modern western societies in steering away from a destructive impact on our natural environment are partly grounded herein. I also notice, that even if we develop an appetite to stray away from western narratives, we still seem to have a strong affinity for the philosophies of other civilization-building cultures such as those of the Indian subcontinent or ancient Greco-Roman cultures. For one, it is rather difficult to get a picture of non-civilized world-views since they seem mostly oral traditions, for the other secondary sources are scarce, maybe we believe they are unsophisticated, not worth our attention? I really would love to hear from members of such traditions what there philosophical traditions are and how they impact their societies. (PS. I use civilized/civilization in a more basic meaning: societies creating nation states and cities. Not as a judgment of value, etc.)

Maria said...

When I read " The most we can do, most of the time, is to see what representations do the best job of allowing us to predict what the next series of fragmentary sensory images will include" I started thinking about divination. When I look at, say, Tarot cards, I'm using a set of representations with which I'm familiar to help me sort through a lot of sensory data to get to what's most important for me to know in a given time frame. It's really no different from seeing that the weatherman predicts snow and preparing accordingly. But of course, one is labeled "science" and the other one is not.

It occurs to me that if we are using representations, it is best to choose them wisely or they will be chosen for us. I think I'm in the process of un-choosing a lot of what's been chosen for me (for most people in our society, really), and I look forward to help in the process with this series of posts. As always, thank you.

Fred the First said...

Our 16 year old gave this as an example of representation - I look at the wall and say the wall is gray. Is it really gray? It is what I would call gray, but someone else doesn't see exactly what I see. I label it gray and then tell others it is gray. Then they look at the wall and they see a color I call gray but they see not what I see but something else. Using their experience, they either agree with me or call the wall another color. We could then agree about the wall color or disagree about it.

At this point the 14 year old interrupts and says - That wall obviously isn't gray, it's green.

To which the 16 year old replies - That's my point! (and then followed 10 minutes of arguing over what color to call the wall)

When you wrote last week JMG that you were going to cover Kant, I immediately thought you would jump to Kant's idea of morality to "only do that which you would have other's do". People have been upset in the comments about how they've been treated by other people in the comments and that seemed like a natural next post.

A couple of questions - are you going to go as far as Wittgenstein? And why do you think the Germans seem to own the basis of modern philosophy. The kids and I were wondering if it was the impact of Napolean's invasions in some of the German territories or the early industrialization in those areas. We honestly didn't try to research it on our own and I'm being lazy in asking you rather than look for myself. We were curious though.

econojames said...

I'm already loving this series.

I can't help but be reminded of Geoff Dyer's novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, in which the main character, while goofing around with another character, makes up a new Hindu god named Ganoona, who will apppear, when he appears, in the pouch of a kangaroo. Ganoona, he explains, is "that which is not everything else." A few pages on, he adds that "Ganoona is also that which is everything else". I think the answer to the question you pose at the end of this week's blog entry is "Ganoona". You're welcome.

Slightly more seriously, I think that something we experience without representation is joy, just before the awareness of joy; contentment, just before the awareness of contentment; even anger, just before the awareness of anger. Anything really, that can't be measured, metered, quantified, compared: that's what's real. That should frustrate Dr. Tyson.

Violet Cabra said...

@ Justin,

What a fascinating point and insight! I definitely need to meditate on it some more

Bill Pulliam said...

Really? You can't make that coffee cup sprout wings and fly? Here, let me introduce you some little things that the scientists call "psychoactives."

Seriously, I have found that some psychoactive have effects similar to the stationary wheel or mystery shapes in the unfamiliar bedroom "illusions." Sometimes you feel like you "see" the process of representation in action, and see how it easily it is diverted into a completely different representation from the same sensory input.

When I was young one would see graffiti like "Nietzsche is pietzsche" on university bathroom walls. I suspect this is not so anymore...

Steve from Lakewood said...

Physics has a logical structure, and by implication all physical science is based somewhat on a formal logical structure. That does not mean it is all encompassing--consider merely the irrational we see (always in others of course) in human thought. Science is based on epistemology--which I have heard describe by a physicist of some note as getting by on insufficient information, e.g., the probability nature of quantum theory--and with rare exception (Einstein's theory of relativity) does not describe nature directly, i.e., is not based on ontology.
I know a number of PhD physicists who go to church or other religious observance. For them there is more than that which is capable of formal logical understanding. And it ain't just insufficient data or incomplete theories.

Helix said...

JMG: Re "Taken seriously, though, epistemic modesty requires some serious second thoughts about certain very deeply ingrained presuppositions of the cultures of the West."

Where were you when I was in high school? The fact that this isn't taught in our schools ranks up there with the absence of any serious financial instruction from our curriculum as a major failure of our education system. I mean, if your curriculum never even addresses the "topic" (in its more modern sense) of how you know things, it's hardly surprising that we produce people who are challenged when it comes to critical thinking and who hold iron-clad prejudices that are impervious to reasoned examination.

Kobo said...

"Can you, by any act of consciousness, make that coffee cup suddenly sprout wings and fly chirping around your computer desk? Of course not."

This isn't an attempt to prove otherwise, more an inquiry. What if you have a mental 'condition' so that you do see colours, shapes, etc that are not 'there'? While it might not be a deliberate activity it does show that the representation of what is out there can be fluid, no? How do we tease out from that understanding that some representations are indeed discrete?

Caryn said...

As a preschool teacher, one of my little students' favourite books is the story of the 7 blind mice investigating the strange "something" that has wandered into their pond. "It's a pillar", "No, it's a snake", "a fan", "a rope", "a broad cliff, "a spear". Only together can they surmise an elephant. My kids want this story at least 3 times every day and they delight in the mice getting it wrong and finally 'seeing' the whole. We've also done the 'looking through the window vs. looking at the window, especially in the rain and they love that too. They love having their perceptions challenged and changed.

I won't presume to extrapolate what this says or means.

@Patricia: I heartily agree, as an expat arguably 4 times over - to function and live in a new and different culture shifts one's perceptions radically. Living in a new place is easy, it's that hump you have to get over to understand where they're coming from. The proverbial 3 stages of expat adjustment: 1) My new culture is right, everything we did back home was crazy!", 2) "My old culture is right, everything they do here is crazy!", Some things here work better here, some things back home work better, we are just different & that's OK"; Acceptance.

Especially at first, it's very helpful to find fellow expats to discuss, laugh at and note the differences - like the 7 blind mice.

Thank You again, JMG. I really look forward to next week!

Ray Wharton said...

This is a very interesting thread. I am starting to think that one of the most important limits on representation is economic. I don't know the exact thermodynamics of information theory or anything like that, but I know that a sophisticated figuration can only exist by way of an immense amount of calibration and tweaking.

Sometimes I help my Dad with loading bullets, and trying to adjust the load for optimal accuracy. This is very enjoyable, because though I am not an excellent shot, when firing bullets which are more precisely calibrated, you can more quickly calibrate your own aim. A poorly loaded bullet might have about 1 arc of uncertainty on each shot, so you cannot determine what of your own actions are affecting the shot beyond the resolution, unless your mind can gather together the data set of a vast number of shots. If your bullets (and gun, scope, weather, etc) are all carefully calibrated a fraction of a bullet diameter at 100 yards can be felt as relating to ones own muscle tension, breath, or even level of tiredness in the eye. Factors which would be lost to the noise if the bullets themselves aren't predictable enough.

This is a experience I contemplate when considering the foundations of representation. For accuracy in representation, which we have strong reason to believe humans are capable of to a high degree in sufficiently contingent topics; five bullets one hole is persuasive in that light. But it requires a way to remove noise from getting into the representation. Every method of removing a particular source of noise from fiddling up a representation for a particular purpose is overwhelmingly loud in the context of countless other representations. The idea that life is overwhelmingly bright with evidence and that representation itself is away of, at its simplest, filtering out amongst that evidence evidence which is actionable, or at least interesting, and also (going deeper) of amplifying details of particular import, (in intensity, like an active radio does to the faint energy of radio signals, or in duration like various kinds of memory).

In this post I have been offering representations of representation, like the targets from the firing range where there are holes in the paper, and notes of which power load produced which grouping. There is an economy of representation, and when you have to load each bullet by hand, and need several shots just to narrow down noise from the scope to the barrel, or the bullet, before even getting to the details of the unique properties being tested that economics comes to mind.

This economic consideration is a major factor I think in the success of Eastern Mindfulness. Cool the self representing system down to decrease noise in the system, conserve that energy, and let it manifest in habits of presence and mindfulness. It is a very promising move. Similar of course to Western Meditation where the thoughts that aren't part of a particular purpose are quieted.

Some materialists mistake the limits of consciousness as being specifically the limits of what resolution can be attained by zooming in (oi, reductionisms) the limits are more profound than a fuzzy microscope image. The limits are also the challenge of comparing data to be able to reach conclusions about general things. Also the limits correspond to the intentions and the resources of the subject in ways that are hard to represent in a picture with any significant resolution.

anthropismos said...

Is there room for epistemic modesty in predictions of ecological doom?

I personally think we're headed for an ecological crisis, and that we misunderstand (as a society) the dangers of reliance on fossil fuels, but the one formal brush I've had with paleoclimatology back in my undergraduate years left me deeply skeptical of global warming alarmism, which has been subject to many of the same issues you (correctly) attribute to pharmacy above. In fact, I believe over reliance on global warming has handicapped the ecological movement, abandoning concrete concerns about air and water quality or agricultural policy or carrying capacity for schemes which seem primarily about opening up new exchanges for bankers.

Donald Hargraves said...

This takes me back to my college days, when I decided to take a stab at Philosophy as a way to figure out what was true. Rather quickly I ended up with "The outside world exists, after all I can't be making everything up out of nothing – and my life dekcus bad enough back then that I knew I couldn't be (a) God" and little else for Metaphysics.

So I went on to Epistemology – and that part of the story shall wait, as I do not wish to run ahead of you at this point.

Gavin Harris said...

JMG, so good to see that start of this sequence of posts. My wife is currently studying for her masters degree in psychology and one of the subjects is the history of psychology, which starts with the Greek philosophers and moves forward. One of the earliest concepts she studied was around the nature of perception and how it is the brain/mind that provides its interpretation of the data that the senses provide - representation as you describe. The example that she provided was that we don't perceive colour, colour is a purely arbitrary concept applied by the mind as it creates its representation of the world. Hence when people have a disagreement over whether something is blue or green, both are simultaneously 100% truthful and 100% wrong. This was most classically demonstrated by "that dress" meme that was so huge on the internet a while back. Once you know how, then you can see it both as black/blue and white/gold by a effort of will and choosing which colour to look at first. Another example is hallucination. The eyes are sending the same signals back that they've always done, but the brains interpretation of those signals has changed.

Something that isn't representation? Are we back to where you started with Descartes and "I think therefore I am"? We can doubt everything that we perceive, but we cannot doubt that the perceiver exists. Well with the exception of those who wonder if we are all simulations in some cosmic computer. Or perhaps, Epictetus, and the fact that we only control/are responsible for our actions and our feelings?

RE: Scientists. I've always believed that true scientists should be open to possibilities. A great deal of scientific thought is classified as "Theories" for a reason. Too little is provable. Things once believed to be true are over-turned on a regular basis. Unfortunately it seems that my ideal of a scientist is as rare a beast as your ideal philosopher.

Gavin Harris said...

@nomadsSoul - re: Gary Weber - what you have just described is a zombie. Someone who is soulless. Incapable of introspection. Zombies may suffer less but only at the expense of their humanity.

Eric S. said...

I am looking forward to this series, (and it looks like this blog and the Well of Galabes are about to start stepping on each other's toes in interesting ways).

In this week's essay, you said: "When philosophical traditions hit their epistemological crises, accordingly, some philosophers accept the hard limits on human knowledge, ditch the metaphysics, and look for something more useful to do—a quest that typically leads to ethics, mysticism, or both. Other philosophers double down on the metaphysics and either try to find some way around the epistemological barrier, or simply ignore it, and this latter option is the one that most Western philosophers after Kant ended up choosing.”

This reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother the other day. I was calling her and checking up on her life, and she, rather out of nowhere asked me what metaphysics meant. I began going through the basic underpinnings of metaphysics in philosophy, gave her some brief overview of various ideas on metaphysics from Aristotle, Kant, Hume, and so on… and my explanation just confused her a bit more. When I asked for the context, and why she wanted to know, she said that in her book club, when she was talking about some hip pain she was suffering, one of the members told her that she should “try metaphysics,” by which that person obviously did not mean “do some deep thinking about the nature of reality.” She had later started going to a church she liked and was fitting in at that was branding itself as a “metaphysical church” (ever since my father’s death, she has started to venture out of her fairly sheltered Christian fundamentalist background into other avenues of thought outside her purview (including picking up some occult writing and your own Learning Ritual Magic and Paths of Wisdom), so she’s in a state of absorbing a bunch of new avenues of thought that she had simply not thought about in the past, and for her the word metaphysics was a new one that she was receiving in two starkly contrasting contexts.

The whole exchange brought to mind the fascinating habit in modern language of applying the word “metaphysics” not to the field of philosophy that it encompasses, but rather to a variety of mystical practices (or even simply unusual ones) ranging from alternative medicine to meditation to The Secret, and even trickles down somewhere into the world of bigfoot hunting. I believe you’ve mentioned that phenomena in your own books before (usually to draw a line between what someone sees when they go to the metaphysical section at a bookstore and what philosophers actually mean by the term), but I’ve thought very little about the process that brought about that linguistic transformation. Was that basically a result of that epistemological barrier carrying the terminology of philosophy away from philosophy and into mysticism?

Macando said...

Much more erudite than Bruce, Bruce, and Sheila, the
Australian philosophers, JMG. I can detect a hint of
your Taoist roots in your "epistemic modesty." That term
went over well with my facebook crowd. You are being quoted
by my epistemological friends.

Thank you,


hapibeli said...

Hahahahahahaha! My wife and I await further erudition. :-)

mgalimba said...

Yes, and then there is the star-fish that has no brain and no eyes (well its skin is its eyes) but takes actions which can only be considered intentional/conscious (see Sy Montgomery's The Soul of the Octopus or, if you want to seriously geek out, the feminist particle physicist Karen Barad's Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning).

"This is an animal without a brain. There is no res cogitates agonizing about a postulated gap (of its own making) between itself and res extends. There is no optics of mediation, no noumena-phenomena distinction, no question of representation."

The point being that animism is far more rational than we've been led to believe by our monotheistic cultural conditioning, here in the West anyway. But then animism makes for an exceedingly poor foundation for motivating the crew towards empire-building, natural resource over-exploitation and other such cyclical games.

Gavin Harris said...

JMG - apologies for the comment swarm, but there was one more thing that has struck me as I've been reading the comments and your replies and I wonder if it is relevant to the discussion. That is that at a couple of particularly stressful "emergency" points in my life I have experienced what I described internally as a separation of cognition, mostly because I'm trying to label something that I find hard to articulate and have few parallels. At these points I have become aware of multiple "me"s. An emotional me that is reacting to the situation and largely oblivious to the other "me"s. While at the same time there is a calculating me observing the emotional me and the situation and attempting to come up with a solution. While a third, observational, me is expressing surprise at the fact that there are multiple "me"s and is fascinated by what is happening. All three exist at the same time and in parallel, though not for long before they collapse back into an "action" me as my mind has decided what to do and is now following that plan.

Dammerung said...

It never ceases to amuse me that despite logical positivism not even getting out of the gate before spectacularly detonating itself on its own first premise, it's still the default metaphysical opinion of the learned classes (so-called) today. Well! At least my degree in philosophy made this week's post easy to read, even as it's netted me little else. Philosophy led me more surely and swiftly to mysticism than Bible study ever did. One is, of course, free to attempt to plumb the depths of the mystery as deeply as one wants, but the mystery has an active, seemingly conscious way of proliferating even more mysteries the more deeply you look. Those who hope for a irreducible limit to this process seem to have learned nothing from history, but I suppose you never know.

Gavin Harris said...

Or - argghh, sorry brain working overtime now - is it similar to meditative teaching where you are told to be aware of the thoughts that your mind throws up, but not to hold onto them and allow them to pass?

Mary said...

JMG, I have essentially zero background in Philosophy, beyond 3 experiences: an Eastern Philosophy class in college; a Sartre play (No Exit?) after which my philosophy student-roommate asked "What did you think it meant?" "Hell is other people." "Very good." And finally, the Vonnegut quote presented by Snoopy from the Peanuts cartoon: Socrates said "to be is to do," Sartre said "To do is to be," Sinatra said, "do-be-do-be-do."

That said, I very much enjoyed this essay.

You've discussed reality vs representation in essays past. I've had the experience you describe of waking up and seeing abstract colors and shapes before I've had a chance to recognize/name them. And, as I described here once before, the experience due to a bout of reactive hypoglycemia while reading, to a class of watching words turn into undecipherable squiggles on a page. And then, after I was supplied with jelly beans left over from a lab the day before, watching them turn back into words.

So at least so far, I'm able to follow the gist of the discussion! Looking forward to the series...

Bruce Turton said...

Contemplating Plato's Cave metaphor for a little while, and using the "chair" concept as a starting point, I eventually came to a different conclusion: I needed to sit!! It was the act of sitting my butt on something for needed rest that ushered in the "chair", whatever its shape - from ground to antique, which I was forbidden to use.
I have considered that the "working class" revolt evidenced in Brexit and 'Trumpism' stems from the lack of agency experienced by my class. Indeed, even in benevolent Canada, the 'revolt' was seen many years ago, in the late 1980's, in the working class revolt at constitutional reform called "Meech Lake" (much to the surprise and dismay of the literate classes who could only see that centralization was the be-all and end-all of progress).

Roboslob said...

Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe.

avalterra said...


Thanks so much for going down this road. I am certain it will be very enjoyable. A few things in no order.
1) Coincidentally my 17 year old came home from school yesterday announcing he wanted to be a philosopher. Tragically he is old enough and smart enough to know this is not currently a profession so we are discussing related fields.
2) Speaking of cyclical history, apparently Steve Bannon (Trump's senior adviser) is a 4th Turning believer.
3) Bob Heyn - if you see this, I am guessing Carleton College? What year? I am class of 1986.


Vedant said...

Interesting. Where I live , more and more people are rejecting religion for the exact same reasons as the ones you described as causes which will cause rejection of science by people, i.e. many of the religious leaders and their supporters want everybody to accept their beliefs because they are an authority(no layman is permitted to challenge them on any matter) while more and more people are able to see that behavior of religious authorities is the complete oppositie of the vary principles they preach to the public and this is at a time when good old political and financial gain has corrupted religious institutions to the core. Of course , history probably have many similar examples already. However, the reason I am mentioning this is because many people in my society have repeatedly pointed out that under label of "religion" , the institutions which were functioning five or six decades ago and the one which is functioning now are completely different, having nothing in common except label.( I believe you have made a similar remark about political labels,viz., Conservative-Liberals.) And I believe same applies to the science. The institutions which is functioning under the "science" label is completely different from the institutions which was functioning in time of Newton and Einstein. ( As per my information , Newton was not even termed scientist but was considered "natural philosopher" in his time.) Current institutions ,which uses lable "science" , fulfills job of protecting interests of corporates much more than the the job of advancing science(atleast in front of general public). Hence , public will start to perceive them as political institutions under the label "science" and their rejection will be due to same reasons as those which lay behind rejection of political institutions. Institutions working under label "economics" is already under danger due to the same reasons.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Dear Mr. Greer, et all - In the last couple of days, I ran across a cartoon one sheet which will provide a handy, dandy crib sheet as we explore philosophy. :-). Lew

Cavekid said...

As it happens, while I was reading this post I was sipping on some tea.

I contemplated my thermos for quite some time as I made my way through, until I got to the part of this post that discusses how the reality of my thermos is composed of my expectations (representations).

It was at that point that I realized I had been sipping on hot water for some 20 minutes, and had neglected to put in a tea bag. At no point in that time did I realize I was not, in fact, tasting tea.

Maxine Rogers said...

Thank you JMG for this interesting essay.

I hope to learn more about philosophy as we go on. I was inspired to look for something about Epicurus, a Greek philosopher much admired in the ancient world. Number 15 of his Principle Doctrines is a good one. "The wealth required by nature is limited and easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideas extends to infinity."

I hope you will find time to explore this philosopher's ideas.
Yours under the red cedars,
Max Rogers

Shawn Sincoski said...

I really enjoyed this weeks installment as well as the comments. Can't wait for next week. Waiting for the next batch of comments to arrive and your response to those comments. Also need more info on what it is called when you don't have the appropriate template to form a coherent representation of something experienced.

On a side note: I was supposed to be writing code this morning, but I found myself constantly glancing over at what I used to suppose was my coffee cup.

pipermichael said...

Thank you John Michael,
This is one of your best, to show the difference between the window and the outside, or as Plato said, the shadows on the wall of our reality?

You are always locked into the 'laws of physics', and I too, accept that a technology cannot steal from mother nature, but, perhaps, the Laws themselves might need a few tweeks?

For instance, Michelson-Morley, the most famous 'failed experiment in history', helped to lead to the foundation of relativity and modern quantum physics, do you agree? Ok. Then, what if, their hypothesis was wrong? What if there is no 'Luminiferous Aether', but perhaps, there is, a 'Dark' Aether, as a foundation of the magnetic force?

Is electromagnetics or magnetics, more of a 'fundamental' foundation of matter than Light? For what is Light? Is it fundamental, or illusion? Is the duality of the ancients more applicable to our reality, than the very concept of 'particles'? Are particles themselves, merely the Illusion ,as Einstein asserted...

What if, then, we go at it from the opposite direction, starting again at the 19th century? We arrive at a completely different place. We shall see if The Laws are inviolate or not, but, from my own experiments, you are correct, all is not as it seems, or especially, as we are told by 'authorities'.

One day, maybe we can talk on a more practical level, I hope so, but, experiments continue... results are encouraging, but not definitive, yet. Unfortunately, such things cannot be discussed openly without consequences, ridicule, and violent opposition, before it can be accepted as 'self evident'.

May The Force be with you.

A Rat in the Walls said...

"Epistemic modesty can be one of the few alternatives to internecine hatred."

This discussion helps make sense of something I've experienced in relation to politics.

I grew up in a rural area. Most of the people I knew owned guns, and most of the boys hunted with their fathers. Later I moved to the city for college. Most of my friends were very much on the political Left. I was too, at the time, and I mostly agreed with them (that is, with the Left) about issues like gun control. Over time, though, I noticed that the word "gun"-- not the physical object itself, but the word that represents the object-- had an entirely different meaning for people who grew up in upper middle class urban and suburban areas than it did for rural people. To the urbanites, the word "gun" was associated with urban violence, school shootings, and feelings of fear and danger. And also, I think, with rural people, and then by a chain of associations to traditional Christianity, which brings in a whole 'nother set of feelings-- persecution, repression, Pastor Bob preaching six days of creation, Ned Flanders... For the people I grew up with, "gun" has an altogether different set of associations-- family, fatherhood, tradition, recreation, dinner, liberty. And, of course, a caricature of urban liberals who despise rural people and their values. (In fairness, my experience is that this caricature is dead-on.)

When I realized this, a lot of things clicked into place. When people on opposite sides of America's political divide use the same words, they mean, feel, and understand altogether different things. Moreover, politicians know this, and deliberately use words with strong emotional associations in order to manipulate people. In a US context this becomes a strong argument for federalism-- We aren't all inhabiting the same mental world, so we ought to devolve power to a level which allows people to live according to their own values and perceptions. For whatever reason I've found that conservatives are much more receptive to that idea than liberals.

I am not sure if what I am describing is representation, or the next step removed from immediate representation-- the representation of a representation. But it follows that this would feed back upon immediate representation-- one's associations with the word "gun" must dramatically impact how one perceives and interacts with the actual object.

A Rat in the Walls said...

On another topic-- A lot of people seem to have trouble distinguishing between "A representation is useful" and "A representation is true." I don't understand this entirely, but I think part of the reason might be having only one set of representations, one model of reality to work with. You might or might not get to this, but my experience is that this is where 1. studying philosophy from more than one cultural tradition 2. practicing magic or 3. both of the above area very helpful. Studying another set of representations and then putting them into practice are probably the best antidote for the idea that useful=true, as you realize that there are more than one way to represent a given phenomenon, and that different representations can be useful under different circumstances.

Practicing qigong and studying Taoist philosophy, I find myself thinking and perceiving the phenomena I encounter in terms of yin/yang, jing-qi-shen, five elements, and other terms not found in sceintific materialism. There are times when I find this very useful, and other times when I don't find it useful at all. When I don't find it useful, I can shift gears, and use a different model of the world-- usually the model derived from the "Western Mystery Tradition," which is more or less my default. My experience suggests that any kind of spiritual or occult training amounts to learning to represent the world in a different way. It also suggests that practicing some kind of spiritual discipline can be a big step toward epistemic humility-- though often enough it leads to just a different kind of epistemic arrogance, as one discards one set of capital-T Truths for another just as useful and just as flawed.

johojo37601 said...

Thank you for the timely article; I look forward to your further postings in this topic.

Re “Philosophy itself, though, bears some of the responsibility for its own decline. . . . When philosophical traditions hit their epistemological crises . . . .”

In 1925, responding to philosophic crisis provoked by conceptual anomalies found in both relativity and quantum physics, mathematician, logician and metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead published a startlingly new approach to thinking about actual experience in the world: Process and Reality. (Anyone lacking depth of philosophical background but curious about his concepts may want to begin with Process-Relational Philosophy: An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead, by C. Robert Mesle, an excellent layman’s introduction to Whitehead’s ideas. For greater depth, at more challenging levels of effort, try Donald Sherbourne’s A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality.)

Whitehead’s view builds upon earlier efforts of Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz, Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced “purse”), William James, and Henri Bergson, among others (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) and generally is referred to as a philosophy of organism, or process-relational philosophy, or just process philosophy. Because Whitehead’s approach seeks to bring every conceivable topic into a single coherent mode of discussion and decision it also may be referenced as process metaphysics or even process theology.

Later philosophers, especially Charles Hartshorne (pronounced “harts horn”), have elaborated Whitehead’s initial effort into a comprehensive vision of human experience within the cosmos that rather than being haunted by the dualistic question of the “ghost in the machine”, dispels the notion of simple machine altogether by dispensing with any idea of inert matter.
In process philosophy, everything is at least minimally alive and thereby has at least some tiny degree of experience. In fact, all actual entities are of some level of vital complexity and are formed of combinations of simpler actualities of experience fostered by and among each constituent part. Each actual entity prehends or “includes” quality of feeling fostered by and among its constituents. Each entity also prehends, is partially formed out of its own prior moment as it changes — becomes — through each successive moment, accommodating to changes in its circumstances. Thus, even temporal change has a quality of quantization, successive moments, about it.

Actual entities become through successive moments of change, each of which emerges from and elaborates into the next state of its own actuality, freely elaborating its manifesting state, its next moment, in terms of the range of possibilities availed in its own particular circumstances. Successive states thus are only partially determined by actual circumstance; a degree of freedom, of self-actualization within the bounds of probability, avails as each successive moment enacts its own potentials out of the preceding moment. This freedom exists, at least minimally at every level of organization and levels of interaction become ever more complex via an organic scala natura that elaborates all the way to include the entire cosmos, where Divinity ultimately actualizes in a dipolar estate, in both the primordial nature of God and the consequent nature of God, an Alpha and an Omega. (Plato envisions such consequent nature of Divinity in his concept of World Soul. For more about Hartshorne see ; for more detail see Charles Hartshorne’s Creative Experiencing, as well as his Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method.)

Scotlyn said...

Hello, and here we go:
"...but one of the most challenging starts with a seemingly simple question: is there anything we experience that isn’t a representation?"

Apologies to your reservations about Terry Pratchett, but I am powerfully reminded of a pair of scenes towards the end of "Witches Abroad." Granny Weatherwax has discovered that her sister is terrorising a whole city by being its "Fairy Godmother" and enforcing the "happy endings" of a fairy tale sort. (She has a place in her "re-education" dungeons for bakers who can't be round & jolly and toymakers who can't whistle... You get the idea).

The plot partly turns on which of the sisters is the "good" one, and of course, which one will beat the other and save the city.

The pair of scenes I'm reminded of occur as each sister finds herself trapped between two mirrors, her image reflected back and forth, multiplied into infinity, with no escape unless she can identify which is the "real" her.

The "Good" [Bad] Fairy Godmother runs to and fro among the endless reflections, unable to decide, she cannot escape.

But Granny Weatherwax says, "this is a trick, right?" Pointing at her own chest, she is immediately free.

Bill Pulliam said...

I always chuckle remembering a little dialogue from the British sitcom "Coupling." The discussion is between two friends: Jane, an extreme narcissist, and Susan, a relatively "normal" person...

Jane: "My therapist tells me that other people aren't even real, they are just projections of my own subconscious."

Susan: "Um, Jane, he meant other people in your dreams!"

Jane: "Oh, dear, that is probably what he meant. How terribly disappointing!"

fudoshindotcom said...

Do we experience anything that is not a representation?

What a spectacular question! I can hardly wait to read your thoughts on it!

My off-the-cuff guess is that nothing experienced through our physical senses can be anything else. Which, I think, leads into non-physical experiences and whether or not human beings have the capacity to perceive anything without interpreting, and thus, altering it.

Ken Barrows said...

Maybe the belligerent scientific materialists think that philosophy is "the top of a cereal box" and religion is the "smile of a dog." Interesting to discuss but what else?

Mario Incandenza said...

It's worth noting that this disappearance of philosophy from the public sphere is especially a phenomenon of the anglophone world. In France, for instance, philosophy still gets a fair degree of the pop culture treatment, and is incorporated into the standard secondary school education. I think a major reason for this is the devolution of most english-language philosophy into "analytic" philosophy, an institutionalized discourse that models itself on the sciences and limits itself to questions that can be "rigorously" expressed (where rigor is construed as expressible in the terms of formal logic). This has accomplished two things, primarily: 1) it has produced a false, overly narrow conception of truth as that which is logically demonstrable; and 2) it has ceased to be able to speak to almost everything that is actually meaningful in experience. In other places (and, to be fair, still at the margins of anglophone philosophy), the existentialist and phenomenological traditions continue to drive a philosophy that remains engaged with actual living experience - though god knows the continentals are not immune to the trappings of academese themselves...

On another note, may I make a modest suggestion? Instead of 'epistemic modesty,' how about referring to is as 'epistemic humility'? 'Humility' is etymologically related to humor, and also humus - soil, the stuff of the earth. Also 'low stature' - that which brings us down to earth. It seems to me that a sense of earth - that it is our home, is that from whence we come and that to which we will return - is precisely the sense that our age characteristically lacks.

onething said...

James Jenson,

I'm having some trouble with your post. Not even entirely sure what my questions are.

“That's a part of why we reject the representationalist account of truth and knowledge: those accounts both essentially suggest that some representations are more faithful to the thing-in-itself than others, “

What 'both' are you referring to? Why do you agree with representationalism and yet that is why you disagree with representationalism?

“It seems that its main purpose is to reiterate that the world is an independent causal factor. “

What does it mean to say that the world is an independent causal factor?

What might a 'causal prediction' be?

Am I having trouble understanding your post because it is using a lingo that only the initiated can process?

Gottfried Wilhelm Melvin Hicks-Leibniz said...


is there anything we experience that isn’t a representation?

Can homo sapiens ever know the answer to that? Maybe we will have an instantaneous insight to that question upon death.

Then again, there is the 1/3 chance that we are living in a simulation (see Bostrom). Or even the chance that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. That there is no such thing as death, where life is only a dream. And, that we are simply the imagination of ourselves (see Hicks).

Psychedelic rants aside, I think it would be difficult to argue that the physical form -- our own organism -- at least in this representative reality, has no limits. And, so why would the macro-organism of the human form -- our civilization -- bear any different of a fate?

Or is it just a ride?

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

Interesting topic!
I tend to think of Neil D Tyson & his congeners as followers of 'Scientism' as well as possibly practitioners of the scientific method--The former being possibly a proto-religion, and the latter a tool that helps us understand how some things work.
Representation itself is a useful tool that we purposely use in many instances. Think about the false color schemes that are assigned to weather maps, radar, temperature maps of the surface of the sun, and the like. False-color mapping is a useful tool that allows us to make better use of the visual cortex to comprehend data-- So it makes perfect sense to me that we are less-consciously using Representations in all five senses as a way to help us navigate through our reality. Probably the major pitfall is in thinking that the map we 'see' is the same thing as the 'landscape' we navigate. I think you have mentioned before that this error crops up in other areas as well.
Keep up the good work JMG, and I'll look forward to the next!

Martin B said...

Never mind the true nature of a coffee cup, on the internet nobody knows you're a dog.

Personally I believe philosophers took a wrong turning when they stopped trying to answer the question "How best to live the good life?" and turned to the nature of reality and what we can know.

If we turn out to be holographic representations in someone's computer simulation matrix, so what? We'll still still feel the same way about things.

Nonetheless, I'll be following the philosophy series with interest. Always good to stretch the mental muscles a bit, and I trust JMG not to lead us over an existential cliff.

joe finn said...

Thanks for a nice condensation of fundamental issues involved in epistemology and metaphysics. In 2005, a well-respected scientist from a well-respected university dared to wade into such issues in none other than the hallowed pages of Nature magazine. And he got away with it with scant criticism! For the benefit of your readers who might be interested in a mainstream scientist who gleefully undermined scientific materialism in a highly-regarded science journal , I'll provide a link to the article.

Hidden Author said...

OT: As an admirer of your blog, could you explain what font, spacing, etc. you set for your blog and how? I'd like to imitate it!

111DFC said...

Very interesting post

It seems that the Science was, in its inception, a kind of "system of de-legitimization" of the "Old Order", in fact a direct attack on the established order of mythological-traditional roots, because, for example in its origin the object of scientific research was "celestial bodies" (planets and satellites) and not to solve any earthly or pragmatic problems (relation/cooperation between science and technology was a XIX century development), so they focused on problems more related to the "celestial order of things" which was the base of the worldview of the religious legitimacy of the old society, and the object of the sustained attack of science. An attack to the old "representation" as a way to get rid of its legitimacy, and then of the social order that is maintained by it

On the other hand the "Decadence of the West" in the beginning of XX century, have expressions in all the "representation of reality" as are the arts, literature, historic research, anthropology, philosophy, and of course Science

One must interpret the "Great Crumbling of Certainty" of the Science in the beginning of XX century as the same decadence phenomena of the West (in spenglerian terms, but this was also prophesied by Nietzsche)

At the end of the XIX century, with the seemingly unstoppable march of Science, everybody agree that it will give us The Total Knowledge and thank to this, finally we will achieve The Total Control of the world to fulfill the cartesian dream of being the Masters and Possesors of Nature, but then, in the first decades of the XX century this dream sinks with the works of Gödell, Türing, Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, and others

Suddenly Science lost its beloved fundations of Determinism, Objectivity, Realism, Locality and Completness, all at the same time (even if the scientific mainstream still do not fully understand the implication of this change 80 years later)

This decadence have been accelerated with time, and now we are in what I call "Dark Age of Physics" a true "Metaphysical stage" full of "dark entities" as dark matter, dark energy, black holes and "dark" multiverses, that seems to be like "angelical entities" that fulfill the same purpose of the old scholastics "celestial beings" in the explanation of reality.

The metaphor of the current mainstream science is Stephen Hawking who almost have no body, and who is like a cartesian "speck of consciousness"

For example the scientific consensus is that the "Multiverse Theory" is the right scientific answer to the "Fine Tuning Problem" of the physical constants, but by definition one universe is casually-isolated from the others (if not is the case, then is a remote part of other universe not a whole universe), and then it is impossible to have any clue of the existence of one from other "universe", so the multiverse theory is not a testable one (in the Popperian sense), so the Multiverse Theory: is a physic or a meta-physic theory?

And meanwhile the old Occam is in the corner playing with his razor and smiling at those meta-physics doctors who think that, in every second, zillions of universes are born in every quantum "choice" of the whole system

All of this will have huge synchronic changes in the future we even do not imagine

August Johnson said...

JMG - I learned at an early age that even the cheapest toy telescope forms an image that's much better than our own eye sees. Not only do we actually see a jerky sequence of images, we're putting together thousands of these bad images to form the image we create in our minds. We tend to think we actually see this wonderful hi-def panorama but nothing could be farther from reality. The image we see is only sharp in a small central circle and only there is it even in color. Then there's the missing "blind spot". Your brain even fills in "missing" information.

Here's a good representation of the image that's actually formed on your retina. Not too much what the world looks like that you "see", is it?
"Retinal Image"

The same things happen with hearing. There's an amazing amount of "signal processing" going on in hearing and seeing, before we get to see the results. A large amount of this processing comes to us "pre-programmed" and we also do a lot of unconscious programming. Then we can do conscious programming or "training" as we call it.

Think about how, when you see something unexpected, you first may not recognize it even though you know what it is. Then, after your brain has searched through many images/thoughts, you recognize it. Or, you first see something and mis-identify it until you've had time to do this same sorting. This all happens unconsciously.

Actually all of this processing takes place for all of our senses, even those that not everybody admits we have.

Ruben said...


References were already offered for 40 bits of information reaching our consciousness. The hyperlink takes you to The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size: Tor Norretranders

Further citations will be found within the book itself.

(Much of my work is on unfolding the implications if this cognitive limit. However, I am not aware of any studies on how much of our behaviour arises from SUBconscious processing. I think that is a very ripe area for policy and behaviour research.)

Kevin Warner said...

"Macando said...
Much more erudite than Bruce, Bruce, and Sheila, the Australian philosophers"

Is the Bazza school of philosophy's works to be so lightly dismissed then? And what of the metaphysical musings of Blue?

My thanks, by the way, to Ian R. Orchard for his fascinating post on how the brain stitches together images to create the illusion of movement. I had seen the same with helicopter blades at standstill whilst spinning but had dismissed it as an optical illusion created by the spinning blades. I now realize that the image of the blades at standstill were the reality and that the spinning itself was in fact the optical illusion. Now there is a life lesson.

onething said...


Hear! Hear!

"One of the presenter's points was that women tend to use more tentative language in presenting their ideas than men do, couching them with "I think" or "It seems to me", which is apparently bad since then their ideas are taken less seriously than if they had positioned their claims more aggressively as bold statements of fact. It occurred to me at the time that the former was in fact a more precise and scientific way of presenting ideas, acknowledging the embedded perspective. However, I kept my ideas to myself,"

I use those phrases all the time, and I think of it as deserving of more respect, not less, as it shows that I am a thoughtful and not a bombastic person. I've also long observed that men so often make fools of themselves with pretense of knowing more than they do and presenting their opinions more forcefully than the situation warrants. If the above is true, then perhaps women have a natural edge here. Actually, I already think that. I think that women tend to get cornered less often in excessive certainty as they are more willing to admit to themselves and others that they do not really know.

Patricia Mathews said...

Quote. Make of it what you will.

"Philosophers say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as once can see, rather naive, and probably wrong." - Richard Feynman

I wish I knew just what he meant by that!

Cabjoe said...

Perhaps one reason for the decline of philosophy maybe that university departments have moved away from what should be their overriding mission which is communicating to the public how the great thinkers can help ordinary people in facing and dealing with the problems of everyday life.

You may be interested in the work of Alain de Botton whose project The Book of Life is an attempt to distill this wisdom into something all of us can use.

Avery said...

Mario, excellent observation! Another thing to point out is that Americans have a fair obsession with news, and we seem to believe more and more that our destinies are determined by what the news tells us, rather than from philosophical underpinnings. When you go to any American airport, you'll find a store branded with the logos of news stations. America has no magazine like Charlie Hebdo that exists solely to mock our faith in narratives; it has no tradition of current events series like Japanese shinsho or German Taschenbücher that serve as extended meditations and allow us to step back from the intensity of the moment and reorganize our thoughts. The raw facts, like Bible verses being read sola scriptura, speak for themselves and control our lives.

It's to be remembered that when Kant and Schopenhauer wrote their classics, it was not in order to persuade philosophy professors, as there were only a few at the time. It was to convince the reading public about the fundamental nature of the world. If the reading public of Europe had put their entire faith in newspapers and discarded everything else, then the greats of philosophy might have lost all hope before they got started.

John Michael Greer said...

Team10tim, yeah, I'm coming to that conclusion.

Spanish Fly, hmm. Maybe the replacement of honest coffee with the stuff they sell at Starbucks has a role in the decline of philosophy, then. ;-)

.Mallow, you've basically got two options. One is an outright default; the other is to leave the Eurozone, redenominate your debt in your new currency, and let it devalue until it's small enough that you can actually pay it. (This latter is what Marine Le Pen is talking about doing if she wins the election in France, btw.) The situation you're in now is exactly the same one Ireland was in when it was part of England's empire: you're a cash cow for an overseas elite, who will proceed to milk you dry. It's just that it's being done with debt instead of guys in red coats...

Albatross, the 303 error is cropping up more and more often -- I'm guessing that Blogger isn't putting enough money into maintenance, or something. Even so, your comment got through. Thanks for the link to the Fallacy Files website -- seriously useful.

KL Cooke, thank you.

Kristoffer, past posts on philosophy have gotten lively discussion but a somewhat smaller number of page views than usual, so you're typical of the people who comment here, but not quite so typical of those who read and don't comment!

Cherokee, good! If Conan strangled me, I'd experience being strangled the way I experience every other sensory experience, as a representation assembled from sensory cues (pressure on neck, difficulty of breathing, Conan's face, etc.) until I stopped being able to process any representation at all. This is another reason why it makes sense to postulate a "thing in itself," because the processes our minds represent to us really do have consequences!

As for the place of narratives in philosophy -- Nietzsche discussed that in certain specific concepts, but I don't know of any extended treatment of it outside of some philosophically minded novelists such as Hermann Hesse, and of course they discuss it by telling a story...

Spanish Fly, as so often happens with science, the neuroscientists have gotten hold of a valid point by the wrong end, and they're making the mistake Nietzsche made fun of in the passage I quoted. If in fact our thoughts are mere productions of biochemistry, then our scientific theories -- which are thoughts, after all -- are mere productions of biochemistry, and so the claim that our thoughts are mere productions of biochemistry is itself simply a mere production of biochemistry!

LunarApprentice, in classical literature topics was usually discussed by rhetoricians, but I believe there's a fair amount of ancient literature on the subject. By all means get an unabridged Aristotle, though!

Avery said...

Patricia, if I had to guess, I would say Richard Feynman's vision of science was akin to Thomas Kuhn's anti-formal message in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, since Feynman was himself part of a scientific revolution.

In that case, what Feynman was complaining about was naive formalizations of the scientific method, not philosophy itself. This actually puts Feynman close to JMG's entryway from materialism to philosophy, although having read Feynman's memoirs religiously in my youth, I'm pretty sure he never considered this simply because he was never exposed to good philosophy.

Derv said...


I'm a bit surprised to hear this coming from a Neoplatonist! I haven't spent much time on the Well of Galabes, but I was under the impression all this time that we were philosophical cousins. I'm a Thomist and therefore Aristotelian, so there was always common ground there that I could very often perceive in your writings.

The conundrum that developed from Descartes, until it found its fruition in Kant, was (in my view) adequately resolved by later philosophers. I think that Mortimer Adler, for instance, and Edward Feser, provide strong arguments against the Kantian conclusion that we can never know reality as such (noumena).

The most distinctive difference between the Cartesian and Aristotelian view is how ideas are held in the mind and how they are used to perceive the world. To the Cartesian/Kantian mind, ideas are that which we perceive when we think or observe. To the Aristotelian, however, ideas are that by which we perceive. The distinction isn't minor; the first leaves the mind in almost total isolation, while the second means that ideas really are the windows in your metaphor.

Think of the first case. If we accept, per your example, that the coffee cup is merely a representation (even of a reliable, if fragmentary, primordial perception), then these same qualities apply to the supposedly objective scientific realities you referred to when arguing our perception was flawed. After all, the experiments by which we've concluded that the cup is a product of quantum field interactions (or particles if you prefer that version) is itself a product of our perceptions. We have all manner of references, in other words, but no understanding whatsoever of the referent! We can never escape the "trap," because any attempt to move beyond representation or assess them for flaws is itself reliant on representations with the same flaw.

Moreover, the object in our mind (call it an idea or the form, or whatever you like) that is a "coffee cup" is most certainly NOT the same form that the real coffee cup holds, nor do we have any means by which to even begin to grasp or assess that form. This means knowledge of the cup is a literal impossibility - the objects of our mind bear little to no relation (we can't ever know which) to the objects "out there."

But if instead our idea of the coffee cup (or the form) is actually apprehended by us - that the form that exists in a coffee cup and the form of a coffee cup in our mind are literally one and the same - then we CAN have knowledge of it. There is no conundrum and the problem was merely a product of our false assumptions.

It also presents one of the two solutions to the problem of the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" issue. One solution is that the "world" we "perceive" is just a product of our ideas, and therefore there will of course be a connection between our ideas of the world and our "perceptions." The other solution, though, which is a necessary position for virtually any scientific inquiry to have any meaning, is that our ideas of the world really are the forms that we find instantiated in the world. The reason our math about gravity and the actual orbit of the earth are in perfect harmony is because the second is merely a manifestation of the form of the first. Otherwise this problem is insoluble.

If you can't tell from my rant, I have a feeling I'll enjoy this most recent series. :) I've lurked for quite some time, but now we're in one of my passions, so I had to come out of hiding!

Thoughts? Rebuttals?

David, by the lake said...

This concept of epistemological modesty (or humility) really does hit home. To admit that I am limited in my understanding, not just by insufficient information (a soluble problem), but inherently limited by my physical, social, and psychological makeup. That is humbling.

John Michael Greer said...

Vince, thank you. You probably know lots of things that I don't, by the way -- it's simply that I'm enough of an eccentric that the stuff I've learned isn't common knowledge.

Erick, many thanks. I read French, but I don't presume to write it!

Karim, "the common externality" is quite a good phrase. I've also heard it described as "intersubjective reality" -- the world that's common to more than one subject. As for a hint, the answer is just a week away... ;-)

Phitio, that's a very ancient and common way of thinking about things. I propose to challenge it in the weeks to come, but Kastrup's got a long tradition on his side, no question.

Jbarber, that's a really good question. I don't know what's currently available in terms of introductions to philosophy; if I were to write a book on the subject, which I've considered, it would probably raise hackles all over the place, as I'd portray the history of Western philosophy as the story of a brilliant, daring, wholly understandable, and ultimately disastrous mistake -- the conviction that thoughts about things must somehow be more real than the things themselves -- and how that played out down through the centuries from the time of Pythagoras to today. More about this as we proceed!

Robert, that Karl Rove quote ought to be engraved on the tombstone of America's global empire -- and may well be. As for science -- does it work? Sure. So did a lot of theories we now consider dead wrong. Remember that any sequence of events can be explained by an infinite number of theories!

Sven, heh heh heh...

Kio, interesting! That's not the answer I had in mind, but it's an interesting point and one I'll want to brood over a bit.

Daniel, I don't do a lot of Neopagan events these days -- my interests and those of your standard pop Neopaganism don't have much overlap -- but I proposed a talk on "Sovereignty in the age of entitlement" and they jumped for it, so I figured it was not going to be your common or garden variety event!

Koukos, that's a very deep and complex issue, made even more so by differences in the ways that civilized societies and steady-state societies express their ideas. What takes the form of formally developed philosophies in a civilization generally takes the form of mythological narratives in a tribal society, requiring very different habits of learning and understanding! It's certainly worth exploring, though.

John Michael Greer said...

Maria, excellent! Exactly -- in the modern age of media, especially, people are constantly pushing representations on you that are meant to falsify and manipulate, e.g., "I'm loving it" as a slogan for tasteless mystery meat patties on a bland and mushy bun. The first line of defense is recognizing that you're experiencing representations and not realities, so that you avoid the trap of thinking that what's being pushed on you is the way things really are.

Fred, if your kids are getting into epistemological arguments, that speaks well of them, and of their father. With regard to Kant's ethics, though, we'll get to that -- but I'm sorry to say Kant will come out rather the worse for wear.

Econojames, quantification actually comes much later than representation; it's one of the ways we in western cultures force our representations into the straitjacket of abstraction. More on this as we proceed!

Bill, maybe your experience is different, but back in those far-off days when I dabbled in psychoactive compounds, I didn't have any more luck telling hallucinations what to do than I did telling coffee cups what to do after the drugs wore off. Sure, the coffee cup would do something after I ingested a certain number of bits of blotter paper, or of the interesting fungi that grew all over the campus of the first university I attended, but could I make it sprout wings and chirp? No -- it might decide to turn into fanged peanut brittle instead... ;-)

As for the graffiti, yeah, it's been decades since I last saw "Nietzsche is pietzsche but Sartre is smartre" on a bathroom wall!

Steve, of course science isn't ontological. That doesn't keep quite a substantial number of its publicists and cheerleaders from insisting on the ontological reality of scientific abstractions, you know.

Helix, ding! We have a winner. They don't teach basic epistemology in US high schools for the same reason they don't teach classical logic there: it's too likely that the kids will look at the rest of the swill they're being taught by Federal mandate and say, "this is complete malarkey" (or whatever the latest slang term for malarkey is these days).

Kobo, that's a valid point, and it points up the uncertain nature of representation. Close your eyes and press gently on your eyeballs with your fingertips, and if you're like most people you'll see odd patterns of light. Those aren't light in the usual sense of the word, and yet your senses represent them to you as though they were light. How much else that we think is "out there" in the world is a product of some other kind of misunderstood representation?

Caryn, children generally love to play with differences in perception and reality. It takes a lot of hard work to train them out of that, and make them insist frantically that one particular set of abstract interpretations of their own representations is absolute truth...

Ray, that's good -- not least because it points up the fact that representations don't have to be true in some absolute sense to be very, very useful.

andrewmarkmusic said...

Ha, thanks for this,JMG:) But if you cross the line and say Casper isn't real then I'm outta here:)
It seems our materialist philosophies are heading straight toward some hard limits; this seems to be erupting/irrupting many anomalies within our current matrix.
As for your representation question? Things that get experienced directly by the heart without being mediated by the mind: orgasm /musical orgasm like the great gig in the sky ( especially when listened to on entheogens/great art/transcendent literature, to name a few......

John Michael Greer said...

Anthropismos, exactly, and that's why you won't hear predictions of ecological doom here -- just predictions of crisis and accelerating decline. Epistemic modesty is perfectly compatible with saying, "Every time in the past these things have happened, these other things followed, and here's the evidence that suggests the same thing is happening this time, too..."

Donald, funny. I take it the only version of God you considered in those days was one who would scurry around fixing your life for you.

Gavin, the famous dress is a great example. I rather enjoyed the comic that put it into H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Color Out Of Space.

Eric, as far as I know, people started using "metaphysics" to mean "avant-garde spirituality" back in the 1920s, and I'm not at all sure what led to that borrowing. I recall with some amusement a self-described Metaphysical Library in the small Oregon town where I lived some years back, which got some books on actual metaphysics donated to it, and gamely stuck them on the shelves next to channeled messages and UFO books.

Macando, epistemic modesty is particularly important to Bruce, Bruce, and Sheila after the second bottle each, you know -- is that really a tap-dancing tyrannosaur, or is it just really bad D.T.s? ;-)

Hapibeli, stay tuned...

Mgalimba, a lot of living things have no specialized nervous system at all, and yet take deliberate action -- watch a vine climbing toward the sunlight and it's clear that there's purposive action going on. The evolution of the nervous system simply takes something that's common to all living tissue and specializes certain cells to take care of it, while other cells back off. The question that comes to my mind, though, is how on earth the scientist claims to know that the starfish doesn't experience a noumena-phenomena distinction -- did it say so? If its "brain" is coextensive with its entire body, it's still got to cope with the difference with the parts of its field of experience over which it has voluntary control, and the parts of its field of experience over which it doesn't.

Gavin, yep. It's a common teaching of occult and mystical schools, which after all spend a lot of their time dealing with the complexities of subjective experience, that this thing we each call "me" is a composite made up of various things.

Dammerung, yes, and we're going to talk a bit about logical positivism later on in this sequence. What's your favorite self-refuting logical positivist statement! I know, it's the last word in target-rich environments...

Gavin, you know, when you talk about your mind throwing up thoughts, the image that came to my mind was amusing, if messy... ;-)

Mary, glad to hear it. My goal is to get past the barriers of gobbledygook that surround philosophy and talk about the real issues it raises; let me know if I get too obscure.

John Michael Greer said...

Bruce, you're leaping ahead, I see -- we'll be talking about Plato's ideal chair (and the ideal rump it's meant to support) in due time.

Roboslob, and sometimes a painting isn't!

Avalterra, that sounds entertaining. I wish your seventeen-year-old the best of luck!

Vedant, that's a good example of the process by which experts put themselves out of a job. Yes, it's happening here to scientists and economists, not to mention the media, and for the same reasons you've outlined.

Lewis, funny! Thank you.

Cavekid, hah! A fine example. Thank you also.

Maxine, I already have, but yes, we'll get to him again when we move from epistemology to ethics.

Shawn, good! What you do when you don't have a template varies depending on your culture, your upbringing, your personal experience of life, and the degree of stress you're under at the moment. It can range from inventing a new template on the spot to wigging out and being hauled away to the nearest asylum...

Pipermichael, oh, I'm sure the laws of physics as presently understood have their limits. I'd be more interested in proposed alterations to them if the people who proposed those alterations weren't always trying to find some way to get nature to hand over more goodies...

Rat, those are excellent points. The distinction between the useful and the true, in particular, is one we'll be returning to several times as we proceed.

Johojo, yes, I'm familiar with Whitehead's process philosophy. It's not something I find useful, but I know there are those who disagree.

Scotlyn, I'm not a great fan, but the guy earned his success. As an answer to my challenge, hmm -- that depends very much on how you interpret that scene...

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, funny. That's reminiscent of the freshman student who learned about solipsism in his Philosophy 101 class and immediately went and told all his friends about it... ;-)

Fudoshin, stay tuned...

Ken, if they'd take the time to learn something about either one they might just find that they're wrong.

Mario, that's good to hear -- if it's mostly just in the Anglosphere, the rest of the world may not follow us quite so far down the road of collective stupidity.

Gottfried, what if I told you that there's something that isn't a representation that plays a constant role in your life, especially any time you encounter a representation? Stay tuned...

Emmanuel, of course. Representing something to ourselves in a different way is one of the basic tools of knowledge -- we do it every time we crane our necks to get a better view, after all.

Martin, the question of how to live the (or a) good life is where philosophers end up once they've grappled with the epistemological crisis, so yes, we'll get there.

Joe, fascinating. Thanks for the link!

Hidden, I just used one of the default settings provided by Blogger. On the scale of computer literacy, I'm down somewhere near the "See Jane run" level.

111dfc, I ain't arguing at all. I've come to think that one of the reasons that institutional science has adopted so many of the intellectual trappings of dogmatic religion is exactly that gap between the claim of authority and the collapse of certainty in science.

August, exactly! Thank you for the retinal image -- that's a very good teaching tool, and one I'll be using again.

Patricia, that would take a lot of unpacking. The core of it is that most philosophers of science aren't scientists, and their idea of what science is has about as much to do with the reality as, say, an introductory textbook on obstetrics has to do with the lived experience of childbirth.

Cabjoe, the question, of course, is who decides what the mission of a philosophy department is or ought to be. Thanks for the de Botton reference; I'll check it out.

David, yep, but it's also liberating not to have to pretend to be potentialy omniscient any more.

Andrew, your representation of Casper is as real as my representation of a coffee cup. The question of what causes the representation -- that's quite another matter!

John Michael Greer said...

Gwizard (offlist), I responded to your comment in detail last week. Please go back and check.

Donald Hargraves said...

A mighty fine smoke.

Ray Wharton said...

Epistemology is a representation of the process of representation. Science done well is very closely related to Epistemology, generating and refining topics, enhancing resolution. But there is a trade off between resolution and perspective in representation.

Epistemology, if successful, gives a representation which can help us estimate and value other classes of representation. But it must all connect to the other side. For years I was mystified by what Schopenhauer and Nietzsche meant, why it was tied to power or to life. Heidegger, for his great failings as a prose writer left me with 'care' as an alternative allusion to that which isn't represented. Similarly a Druid teacher (Reformed I believe) in the Colorado area taught the World as Care and Allusion... punning off the illusion of the Veil of Maya. Suffering is also beyond the representation, the odor of oblivion and chaos.

You say enough to be shhhhed with your comment about the life of Starfish JMG.

What is to representation as suffering is to wisdom?

Ray Wharton said...

Also since the general topic of philosophy is up, and since solipsism has been mentioned, this is a chance to share a poem a mentor of mine wrote while we were both philosophy undergraduates.

Candace said...

@ my nominees for what we experience with out representation would be being alive and time, but I am not a philosopher so I am looking forward to next weeks post!

Coincidentally, I am listening to the book "An Anthropologist on Mars" by Oliver Sacks. The first case is a man who is completely color-blind. He sees only grey scale, which was quite devistating for him since he is a visual artist / painter. It reiterates for me the point that what we experience has templates combined with sensory input. In his case he seems to have lost his color templates. His description of how differently he experiences the world is quite amazing. I'm grateful for the opportunity to learn about philosophy, I got a "c" in logic in college. Hopefully, someday I'll understand it!

Ray Wharton said...

“a philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.’” Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein was the last philosopher I studded academically. I found his later investigations very useful. On the whole there were certain (beetle) boxes that he unproductively refused to open, but mixed in with these limits are a good handful of nice aphorisms and some of the more comprehensive falsifications of the project of positivism, which ironically his early work had some guilt in starting. A.J. Ayer wouldn't have gotten so screwed up as he did if not for Wittgenstein's book from prison.

I bring this up because the metaphor of the shooting range and the function of philosophy continue to inform each other as I read the comments and replies. To fire accurately at great distances the scopes representation of where the bullet will land (the cross hairs) need to be adjusted to account for several possible fowling factors. But really it is a stunningly simply representation compared to those that we use day to day, just in order to walk! A sophisticated (as in sophistry) society lives and act under to guide of representations many many orders more complicated. Representations are used as justifications for countless essential or silly things, as case may be. Language, experience, history, and conditions changing all the time as they are apt to do those representations are always shifting, like a poorly mounted scope. But being far more convoluted in their inner workings, and in the explanations of their workings, keeping a societies culturally contingent representations requires constant skills maintenance. And to more sophisticated (screwed up by sophistry) the society is, the more up keep and maintenance is needed. Philosophy done well is an important skill for this work to be done competently.

To make things slightly more hairy, a scope isn't motivated to fall out of focus, mere chaos is introducing imprecision into the targeting. But where a representation falls out of calibration a blind spot is likely to open, and in that blind spot a niche where life can make a living off of the consequences of the faulty representation. What lives in that niche is prone to defend that niche, and has much more than mere chaos available to that end.

Why is philosophy discouraged, and by whom?

LL Pete said...

JMG, I'll walk with you a ways down that musty old philosophy road, but if you start venturing beyond any signpost marked "Supernatural up ahead", well, be prepared to show your work.

Armata said...

@ JMG and Mallow:

President Donald Trump has already come out and stated on more than one occasion that the European Union is little more than a tool for German business and political interests. Marine Le Pen said the other day "The Euro is not a currency, its a political weapon". I think they are both spot on.

As an example of Trump's point, consider how the EU forced Reichskanzlerin Angela Merkel's well-intentioned but disastrously misguided refugee policy on the rest of Europe. Several Eastern European countries, including Poland and Hungary, are openly rebelling against that policy and refusing to take in any more Muslim asylum seekers.

And check out this headline from the Spectator, one of England's leading newspapers:

The French election is now Marine Le Pen vs a collapsing French establishment

Like Lord Beria, I think it likely that Le Pen will win the presidency of Ecnarf. The post World War II order is visibly collapsing, especially with the rise of China to superpower status, the return of Russia to great power status and the rise of nationalist and populist movements around the world as a reaction to the failures of globalization. Once again, Oswald Spengler was right when he predicted that the excesses of the global capitalist oligarchy would end up sparking a revolt that would lead to its downfall and its replacement by Caesarism.

Jay Cummings said...

If you can find a better example of a scientific practice which has swung more wildly in reaction to political, economic, cultural, and social influences than nutrition, I'd love to hear it. As an organic vegetable farmer, I've never once met a nutritional guideline that beat common sense.

econojames said...


I was a little sloppy in my last comment adding the part about measuring, comparing, etc. I do realize that those come after representation, and including that part was needlessly confusing. I meant: nothing that could be measured, etc., after the fact. But I still think that the experience of (blank) just before the realization of (blank) has something to it, at least for me.

As an example - which I should have given the first time - I was walking at night a few weeks ago and stopped by a creek near my house to hear the water. I was thinking about how the water is the same water that has been evaporating and condensing and raining and flowing for as long as there has been water, and then I tried to stop hearing the water and feel instead the time that it, in some sense, represented. (So far, I'm talking about representation, I know...) I don't know how long I stood there, but I was eventually startled to "feel" that my hands and arms were dissolving - that's the only way I can describe it. I suppose one could easily call that a representation, but it seemed like a reward for feeling wonder, a being consumed by wonder. At least, before I realized I was feeling wonder.

No psychoactive compounds were involved. :)

mgalimba said...

@Koukos Arduinnas Try Robin Wall Kimmerer's book Braiding Sweetgrass for an Anishinaaabe/Ojibwe ecologist's narratives and memes

onething said...

"It was at that point that I realized I had been sipping on hot water for some 20 minutes, and had neglected to put in a tea bag. At no point in that time did I realize I was not, in fact, tasting tea."

Well, you know, that would just not happen to a coffee drinker.

Donald Hargraves said...

As to the question of my limiting any possible God to a constantly-active fairy Godmother, not necessarily. Just the idea that, had I been endowed Godly Powers(tm), I would have made my life better than it was – more prosperous, easier time finding a girl, better support system, wiser choice in majors – and since I couldn't, it was obvious that I wasn't a God in any sense. And even back then I had an intuition that whatever God(s) were out there could never by picked up on by the scientific, as no God worth the name could be provable via the scientific method. Statable reasons would take years to develop.

Peter Wilson said...

Fascinating as usual. It's intriguingly similar to the treatment that Robert Lanza gave to this topic in "Biocentrism", his relatively recent book which attempts to place life, or consciousness at the centre of science once more. The future of science and retaining the scientific method will be heavily reliant on many people undertaking similar exercises to ease off and back away from Dawkin style arguments.

Nancy Sutton said...

NomadsSoul - thanks for the Gary Weber info. Just a thought... regarding follow up comments, i.e., 'mental mutilaton', 'zombie', etc.... 'at the expense of our humanity'. I'm very curious as to the definition of'humanity' when related to this 'egoless' state. I doubt any definitions will be offered, but if they were, I think they would various ... and might explicate the reactions. Just a thought : )

John Michael Greer said...

Ray, then by all means shhhh! me. ;-) Schopenhauer and Nietzsche -- well, that's where we'll be headed shortly. Schopenhauer was a systematic philosopher, who happened to see the implications of a universal but generally unnoticed detail of human experience and built his system on that. Nietzsche, as I understand him, is a very different kettle of fish -- he's a critical philosopher, less interested in creating an account of things than in dissecting the process of philosophizing itself, showing where it got stupid, and suggesting how it might be dismantled and carried over to different foundations on which others could build. More on this as we proceed!

Candace, Sacks is really interesting, since he's studied the ways that the human nervous system impacts our experience of the world. That's certainly relevant to the inquiry we're engaged in.

Ray, that last question of yours has many answers, of course. I'd add: and for what ends?

LL Pete, like most Druids, I don't believe in the supernatural -- that is, in anything beyond or outside of nature. I have reason to think that nature is rather more commodious than today's crop of scientific materialists want to believe, but I see no reason to doubt that the ordinary processes of nature affecting physical matter and energy are anything other than what we currently know them to be, and I see good reasons to think that natural limits also apply to things other than physical matter as currently understood. More on this as we proceed!

Armata, I can see you grinning from ear to ear every time you type "President Donald Trump." As for Spengler, yep -- history's tossing up one clay skeet after another, and he's blowing them out of the air pop-pop-pop.

Jay, oh bright gods, yes. My wife is unfashionably plump due partly to heredity and partly to having been starved for the first eight years of her life -- long ugly story there -- and she keeps track of dietary idiocy as a form of self-defense against the legions of people who want to preach the One True Diet to her for her own supposed good. I've considered a post on the subject, though it'll get even more screams of outrage than I got by pointing out the role of class bigotry in current US politics...

Econojames, thanks for the clarification. That sensation of dissolving actually does point to something we'll be discussing at some length.

Donald, well, but you're assuming that the word "god" has something like its Judeo-Christian sense, and includes "godly powers" of the world-changing variety. There are deities worshipped by some polytheistic religions who can, or at least do, perform only one thing -- say, they cure you of scrofula, help with mother-in-law troubles, or what have you. Maybe you're that kind of god, and haven't yet had someone with scrofula ask you to heal him!

Peter, interesting; I'll have to check out Lanza's book. As for your broader comment, though, dead on target; Dawkins et al. are busy writing the death warrant of science through their intolerance and dogmatism.

mgalimba said...

Funny, JMG, your question reminds me of the famous story of Chuang Tzu and the fishes which I'm sure you know well but will quote anyway because it is quite droll though funnier in the original, of course:

Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were taking a leisurely walk along the dam of the Hao River. Chuang Tzu said, "The white fish are swimming at ease. This is the happiness of the fish."
"You are not a fish," said Hui Tzu. "How do you know its happiness?"
"You are not I," said Chuang Tzu. "How do you know that I do not know the happiness of the fish?"
Hui Tzu said, "Of course I do not know, since I am not you. But you are not the fish, and it is perfectly clear that you do not know the happiness of fish."
"Let us get at the bottom of the matter," said Chuang Tzu. "When you asked how I knew the happiness of the fish, you already knew that I knew the happiness of the fish but asked how. I knew it along the river." (Wing-Tsit Chan trans.)

patriciaormsby said...

Thank you for the tip on eyebright. They don't seem to have it here in Japan, except as an alpine plant--and no word there on its uses. I understand silica is in cucumbers as well, and each spring there is a type of horsetail the Japanese traditionally eat. There seem to be no toxicity issues with this species.
One of the big uses of eyebright seems to be against conjunctivitis, which becomes a problem in the dog days of summer for me. But now that I think of it, there is an "eye medicine tree" here, and I know the location of a grove nearby.
Regarding face exercizes, the Japanese TV has been wonderfully helpful. (I have such a mobile face, it terrifies small children here--make up would probably only make it worse.) Recently, they told us how to deal with "bulldog face" by regularly stretching the platysma band of muscles stretching from the chest to the jaw. It does seem to help.
When I went through menopause a few years back, I noticed an immediate difference in my skin quality. I looked into the possibilities of hormones for that, but they were quite frank, saying the equivalent of "Get over it, you bag! You're destined for wrinkles and nothing will help!" A little while after that I found cinnamon mentioned for boosting collagen in the skin. It was recommended to combine two parts turmeric with one part cinnamon in enough oil (I use coconut) to make a paste, and add a bit of salt or sugar to make a scrub and apply that once a week (careful--it stains).That seems to help.
A baby-faced senior police lieutenant in Thailand told me about a form of ginger called "plai" there that does wonders, so I'm adding that now too.

Mean Mr Mustard said...


I always chuckle remembering a little dialogue from the British sitcom "Coupling." The discussion is between two friends: Jane, an extreme narcissist, and Susan, a relatively "normal" person...

Jane: "My therapist tells me that other people aren't even real, they are just projections of my own subconscious."

Susan: "Um, Jane, he meant other people in your dreams!"

Jane: "Oh, dear, that is probably what he meant. How terribly disappointing!"

Hmmmmm.... But would an extreme narcissist ever admit error, or concede even a minor point?



patriciaormsby said...

@Armata, it'll cheer you to know that every time my Japanese husband sees President Trump on TV, he shouts, "Gambare, Biff!" (Go, Biff!)

Cú Meala mac Morrígna said...


Offtopic, and I don't frequently have much time to comment as I'd like, but Daniel's remark on your appearance as a speaker at the Call of the Morrígan retreat prodded me to speak up. I've never made it up to the retreat, for a variety of reasons—the distance between North Carolina and Connecticut being primary among them—but as a dedicant of the Morrígan I've been very interested in attending since I first heard about it several years back. Unfortunately, this year some more than unpleasant events have come up in my life (some, symptoms of some of the latest bout of Long Descent-related crises, some...less so) that make my ability to attend this year even more unlikely still. All the same, my appetite is whetted all the more when you say you intend to give a talk entitled "Sovereignty in the Age of Entitlement"! I've been thinking a lot about that very thing over the past year or three, as my political views have been kicked from the Left and Right into something utterly unrecognizeable in contemporary political [m]iscourse*. I'm well aware of the valuable separation between the spheres of politics and religion, and by and large I try to keep those things distinct. However, examining the concept of Sovereignty, as well as the role of the Morrígan (and the service of Herself) in political, civil, and social life is difficult to avoid, and it's something I've had a lot of difficulty coming to any kind of definite conclusions on. It's made a lot more difficult by the fact that virtually all of the prominent Morrígan devotees of which I'm aware are very firmly entrenched in Leftist activism (and frequently ground both concepts equally firmly in the defense of liberal identity politics, without expanding beyond that narrow band), and so dialogue and guidance can be hard to come by without winding up lost in a Puritanical echo chamber—an environment I find deeply uncomfortable even when I agree with the basic ethical premises of the people with whom I'm talking. Generally I've been finding myself called to be a stalwart and vehement defender of what might be inappropriately referred to as the middle ground (a territory that may in fact no longer exist, as denizens of both the Far Left and Far Right—themselves terms with rapidly diminishing referential relevance—claim to inhabit it); what I mean by it is civility, polite dissensus and exchange of ideas, and compassion and empathy for one's ideological opponents, contrasted with the demonization of them (honestly, I can't think of a more effective means of disarming and defeating an enemy; usually it either transforms them into an ally, or conjures such a flustered display of rage that they cease to be so much adversarial as they become a source of amusement). The middle ground thus defined seems to be far more besieged, endangered, and in need of defense than any other I know of.

I'd be deeply grateful to hear (or read) the contents of your talk, if it's possible to share with interested but impoverished parties. I'd be very nearly as interested to hear an account of its reception!

*By the by, I was greatly attracted the other week by your description of what you referred to as the alt-center (though I wonder about that name as well), and I greatly look forward to your post on the subject!

gwizard43 said...

JMG, you wrote:

"Gwizard (offlist), I responded to your comment in detail last week. Please go back and check."

I went back and checked, and then double checked - I see no posts at all from you from the point of my comment onward. There are two comments that cite my post, but neither are from you. I also searched for 'gwiz' and see only those 3 instances. Please verify.

Would you mind having another look? I wonder if blogger somehow ate your response to my comment?

Donald Hargraves said...

If you're right about me being a God with an odd power, it would probably have to be towards the comforting and consoling of physically handicapped women (personal experience...).

On the other hand, there's always the idea of a God just experiencing life as humans do, either for kicks or for a purpose. It's a key point of many forms of Gnosticism (and of the Attraction Science practice, where it is taken to its logical extreme in A Course Of Miracles), was a major movement in many religions for many years (the Greeks had multiple versions of this) and the Christian version takes the story to an intriguing point by telling of a God who becomes a mason and/or woodworker, obeys his Mother and Adoptive father up to and including the starting point of his ministry, hangs out with thieves, fishers, tax collectors and former whores, and gets betrayed onto death by the most respectable of his disciples (Judas. Ponder that for a while.).

And as for "for kicks," The movie Dogma takes on that concept in a way that's actually quite frightening in that it implies that God (in the movie God is one, and is She when not slumming) could be neutralized to the point of being unable to stop the destruction of the earth. That (the) God(s) could destroy the world (or even allow the world to be destroyed, per Der Ring des Nibelungen) makes absolute sense, that the world could be destroyed with (The) God(s) unable to do anything to stop it...

(and do note that I call myself a Believing Agnostic. I believe that any Gods worth worshipping will be unable to be contained within the scientific method, and in worship or spellwork one must keep that caveat in mind – otherwise you're going to be mad if/when you don't get what you want, when you want it, the way you want it.)

Mark Mikituk said...

Great start John, and I am very much looking forward to the continuation of this new series!

heather said...

Thanks. I think it's safe to agree that our culture still expects men to be more certain of themselves and women to be less assertive. Male dominance games and female relationship-building and so on. That said, in considering my own acquaintances, I think I probably know a roughly equal number of male and female blowhards. In fact, the single most fact-independent arguer I've ever known was my own mother, in my childhood. It was universally acknowledged in my family that no one ever won an argument with her, regardless of their faultless evidence or perfect reasoning. She simply would not be convinced away from her own opinions, and would argue them beyond all reason, to the exhaustion of any opponents. Now she has greatly mellowed as she has aged, to the point where one can actually have a reasonable exchange of opinions with her, with listening on both sides and points acknowledged. I'm not sure of the cause of the transformation, since I moved away decades ago and didn't witness the day-by-day change, but it's probably something I should explore with the rest of the family, since that would be a valuable process to be able to replicate, or at least encourage! Perhaps it's simply a case of wisdom coming with age, in which case I can only hope for a similar gift for myself as the arthritis and crows-feet creep in.
--Heather in CA

Scotlyn said...

Well, JMG, in my estimation, the story is a representation of a metaphysical insight, as well as a playful meditation upon it.

As I see it, Granny is not pointing at her chest in the physical body sense, but at what you might call the WILL-ful heart of *her*.

It helps to understand that Granny's character is the embodiment of Will. She always knows where *she* is, she devotes time and practice to "getting her mind right", she has a highly developed " First sight" (the ability to see what is really there - a much harder thing than the "Second sight" which only lets you see what isn't there). As she strides out to see what the world is doing and decide what she is going to do about that, it is evident that the source of her magic is her will, aided by her assiduous practice at keeping her world-viewing "window" (as per your own usage in this post) sparkling clean.

Whereas her fairy godmother sister is, perhaps an embodiment of Representation. Her relationship to story is Procrustean. All life's messy detail that doesn't fit must be eliminated. The source of her magic is the set of mirrors that ultimately traps her.

PS - I am drawing the words Will and Representation from your previous post on Schopenhauer, and hope it is not cheating. I found that post very thought-provoking, and therefore have a sense of where this miggt be going. On the other hand, though that post has continued to inform and challenge my thinking, I have tended to find corroboration for its insights more in fiction and some less travelled corners of science than in philosophy itself.

redoak said...

JMG, great post. It is not often that I finish a bit of philosophical reasoning with hearty yes and the very sweet realization that I am not alone, thank you for that. To you and Bill, the last piece of Nietzsche graffiti I saw went like this:

"God is Dead! -- Nietzsche"

followed by a carefully penned:

"Nietzsche is dead. -- Kaufmann"

MichaelK said...

I was at a pretty swell dinner-party the other day, the only kind of 'party' I like, and I sat next to a professor of history, (hope this isn't too off topic) anyway, he rediculed the entire idea that history was cyclical, or like a big, big, wheel. To him it was just a 'fashion' that came around now and then and was soon swished aside by real academic historians, who knew better. The cyclical theory or model of history was 'nonsense.' I suppose one could call his outburst a defence of the modern 'philosophy of history.' I thought he was being a tad... dogmatic. Not that I dared say this of course, as my wife had just kicked me under the table, something she does a lot at these kind of parties.

There's something about the idea that histoyr might resembles a wheel turning that upsets an awful lot of people. I offered that the Roman Empire did seem to rise and fall, didn't it? He looked at me with something close to contempt. That was 'nonsense.' It never happened! This surprised me somewhat, as I've seen the ruins with my own eyes. I dunno, perhaps he was having a bad day.

I thought of a compromise a truce, a peace feeler, as my shins were beginning to hurt, and that was no 'representation.' Perhaps the wheel of history was really turning, but it wasn't static. It wasn't a potter's wheel. It was a wagon wheel, moving forward as the same time as it was turning. Which is what wheels often do after all. Useless, that I was, to quote Yoda. All I got was a black and dirty look.

Ben Johnson said...

JMG - About two years ago, my wife and I were driving home from my parents house (i know, driving is bad). It was later in the evening, so only streetlights and houselights illuminated the road. We were traveling down a street that I have walked on, ridden a bicycle and driven on as long as I've been able to do those things. My wife was talking about something which I had turned all my attention, and so I paid little mind to the world outside of the car. As we came to a stop sign, I looked up to see where we were. I looked south down the the street, directly at a set of apartments that I have seen all my life (and for six months Maryann and I had lived in), and I couldn't piece together where we were. The buildings of the complex were just slabs of color illuminated by artificial light, and the road and houses that lead towards the complex appeared to be an unfamiliar, vaguely menacing dark tunnel. It took a few seconds for me to re-assemble the landscape into places and objects that I recognized.

Amusingly enough, while I distinctly remember that moment of confusion, I can't for the life of me remember what my wife and I had been discussing.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Et All - Someone called for recommendations of books on basic philosophy. There's "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy" and "Philosophy for Dummies."

(Can you imagine how hard it was to recommend these books when I worked in bookstores and libraries? Without inferring that the customer was an idiot or a dummy? I'd have to kind of sidle up to the titles. "Mmmm. There's a book in a series that I think you would find helpful. I did. Even went out and bought a copy for myself." That worked. Usually ... :-). Lew

Dammerung said...

Incidentally... I've been thinking about your suggestion to write about the history of chan culture and my relationship to it. I figured I could only do such a thing in an autobiographical, gonzo journalism sense, but I haven't been able to get even 5000 words into it. With fiction it's easy. I've written 4 novels (unpublished and alas probably unpublishable due to their militant insistence on thumbing their nose at any kind of cultural, moral, or genre norm) and I could pound out 12,000 words in a single session with those. One event sets up the next sets up the next. With fiction everything happens in order and makes sense. Trying to write a personal history of chan culture is striking me as borderline impossible; too many influences develop in parallel to disentangle them into any kind of sensible order. 500 words into why anime became so important gets derailed by the role of video games and vice versa.

John Michael Greer said...

Mgalimba, Chuang Tsu's always worth a quote. I wish I knew more about the competing philosophical schools in China before and during his time; I've had the sense more than once that he was satirizing some of the modes of debate common there.

Cu Meala, after the event, I may see if there's a venue where I can publish an essay based on that talk. I expect at least some of the attendees to storm out of the space in a blind fury, but that's just one of the services I offer. ;-)

Gwizard, I take it you didn't click through to the second page of comments. It's there -- yes, I just checked on that.

Donald, er, "contained within the scientific method"? I'm having a little trouble parsing this. Do you mean that gods can't be experimented with?

Mark, thank you.

Scotlyn, fair enough. Not knowing the characters, I was kind of adrift.

Redoak, funny. Kaufmann himself cited a sequence that went something like this:

"God is Dead -- Neitszhe.

Neitzche is Dead -- God.

Nietzsche is misspelled -- Kaufmann."

MichaelK, when people trot out the claim that cyclical theories of history are just plain nonsense, I like to give them a superior look and say, "Why, yes, that insistence always becomes popular at this point in the historical cycle." It irritates the stuffing out of them.

Ben, that's a great example! Thank you.

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

Careful folks. Any thought form when codified lends itself to group think over time. As an interim remedy may I suggest we continue the discussion through the medium of interpretive dance?

Varun Bhaskar said...


I love this topic already. I grew fairly annoyed with the barrier early in my study of post classical western philosophy, since most schools in India spend their time discussing ethics and mysticism. I'm disappointed to say that at a certain point I largely gave up on western philosophy since it seemed to be most chasing its own tail. In college one philosopher buddy of mine kept asking me to prove that the universe as I perceived it existed, which was his way of arguing against certain ethical positions I took. I responded by kicking him in the shin. I was wearing combat boots at the time. Consequences count as topos right?



James M. Jensen II said...


I'm having some trouble with your post. Not even entirely sure what my questions are.

I just wasn't terribly eloquent, I'm afraid. I was trying to keep things terse for the comments section, I think.

“That's a part of why we reject the representationalist account of truth and knowledge: those accounts both essentially suggest that some representations are more faithful to the thing-in-itself than others, “

What 'both' are you referring to? Why do you agree with representationalism and yet that is why you disagree with representationalism?

The "both" refers to the representationalist account of truth and the representationalist account of knowledge. Those arguably are the same thing, but that's what came out when I wrote it.

“It seems that its main purpose is to reiterate that the world is an independent causal factor. “

What does it mean to say that the world is an independent causal factor?

I simply mean that the world can cause things to happen independently of our desires or intentions. In other words, we don't simply create our own reality.

What might a 'causal prediction' be?

This was my exceedingly ineloquent way of saying "predictions of what will happen (understanding that different theories may describe the same prediction in very different ways -- e.g. neuroscience might talk about brain states and nerve impulses while folk psychology might talk about motives and actions, but if it works out to the same thing in practice, they've both valid)."

Am I having trouble understanding your post because it is using a lingo that only the initiated can process?

More like you're having trouble parsing my own idiosyncratic brain-ramblings.

James M. Jensen II said...

While we're on the topic of philosophical jokes, my favorite is in the form of a test question:

"2. List three beliefs of eliminative materialists."

Raymond Duckling said...

This is off-topic, but interesting: Scott Alexander's "Considerations on Cost Disease",

An excerpt: "Imagine if tomorrow, the price of water dectupled. Suddenly people have to choose between drinking and washing dishes. Activists argue that taking a shower is a basic human right, and grumpy talk show hosts point out that in their day, parents taught their children not to waste water. A coalition promotes laws ensuring government-subsidized free water for poor families; a Fox News investigative report shows that some people receiving water on the government dime are taking long luxurious showers. Everyone gets really angry and there’s lots of talk about basic compassion and personal responsibility and whatever but all of this is secondary to why does water costs ten times what it used to?"


And to make this comment not a complete waste, may I point out that this week's article is so unlike my highschool philosophy classes. What I recall is a bunch of crazy greeks making unknowable statements as if they were in a fashion contest. Then the wisest of they earn eternal fame by claiming to know nothing at all. The ones that came afterwards seemed bizarrely preocupied with categorizing things for the sake of it, then came 2 Christian saints masquerading as philosophers and everything gets even murkier after that, except for the fact that at least no one seems to be making the "everything is fire, no wait... everything is water" sketch anymore.

What I have learned today is that looking at the history of philosophy in chronological order seems like a pretty bad idea. In contrast with this work, it looks like the difference between grade school history (rote memorization of names, dates, and places) vs high school history (taking the time to analize the social forces that were driving historical events). Which source would you, - JMG or the readership, - recomend as an introductory text for that kind of more adult study of the subject?

onething said...

Ray Wharton,

"What is to representation as suffering is to wisdom?"


grisom said...

Patricia, JMG, Avery — I'm currently reading The Feynman Lectures on Physics. I can't recommend Feynman highly enough as a point of contact here. He agrees with everything JMG says above, and is also one of the most respected physicists in recent history, much beloved by people like Dawkins, deGrasse Tyson, and so on.

Avery has it right: the specific philosophers Feynman is taking potshots at are (as he sees them, at least) not at all like obstetricians, but more like men pontificating on the subject without having ever set foot in a delivery room. Probably someone familiar with the history of philosophy of science could name the philosophers or schools he's referring to.

Anyway, here are some quotes relevant to this week's post:

From Lectures 8 and 12:

'Perhaps you say, “That’s a terrible thing—I learned that in science we have to define everything precisely.” We cannot define anything precisely!

Any simple idea is approximate; as an illustration, consider an object, … what is an object? Philosophers are always saying, “Well, just take a chair for example.” The moment they say that, you know that they do not know what they are talking about any more. What is a chair? Well, a chair is a certain thing over there … certain?, how certain? The atoms are evaporating from it from time to time—not many atoms, but a few—dirt falls on it and gets dissolved in the paint; so to define a chair precisely, to say exactly which atoms are chair, and which atoms are air, or which atoms are dirt, or which atoms are paint that belongs to the chair is impossible. So the mass of a chair can be defined only approximately. In the same way, to define the mass of a single object is impossible, because there are not any single, left-alone objects in the world—every object is a mixture of a lot of things, so we can deal with it only as a series of approximations and idealizations.'

Patricia's quote comes from Lecture 2, where he explains what he means (lightly edited for length):

'Nature, as we understand it today, behaves in such a way that it is fundamentally impossible to make a precise prediction of exactly what will happen in a given experiment. This is a horrible thing; in fact, philosophers have said before that one of the fundamental requisites of science is that whenever you set up the same conditions, the same thing must happen. This is simply not true, it is not a fundamental condition of science. The fact is that the same thing does not happen, that we can find only an average, statistically, as to what happens. Nevertheless, science has not completely collapsed. Philosophers, incidentally, say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong. For example, some philosopher or other said it is fundamental to the scientific effort that if an experiment is performed in, say, Stockholm, and then the same experiment is done in, say, Quito, the same results must occur. That is quite false. For example, if one of the experiments is to look out at the sky and see the aurora borealis in Stockholm, you do not see it in Quito; that is a different phenomenon. If we take a pendulum on a universal joint, and pull it out and let go, then the pendulum will swing almost in a plane, but not quite. Slowly the plane keeps changing in Stockholm, but not in Quito. The fact that this happened does not bring on the destruction of science.'

Eric S. said...

"as far as I know, people started using "metaphysics" to mean "avant-garde spirituality" back in the 1920s, and I'm not at all sure what led to that borrowing."

That timing is awfully close to around the timing that the world would have finished chewing on some of the topics we're discussing in this series, since it would have placed it directly in the aftermath of the crisis points that you are discussing right here. In the 1920s, the world was still reeling from Nietzsche and those consequences were seeping into the public consciousness. You pointed out at the end of this essay the role ignoring the limits of human knowledge had in backing scientific rationalism into its present corner, and you mentioned that one of the products of embracing those limits often involves embracing ethics or mysticism. The embracing of the philosophical language by a counter-movement that was by and large a reaction to the hubris of scientific rationalism may suggest that the appropriation of that language has a good deal more to do with the topics at hand than it seems on the surface.

onething said...


So you don't believe in the supernatural. I wonder in what sense you mean that. This is an area of semantics I struggle with in addition to the word 'spiritual.' I surmise that these terms, especially supernatural, come from the fact that there are things outside the ken (most of the time) of our bodily senses. Thus the idea that there are separate realms called spirit, which you either have faith in, experience of, or deny.

So I came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as supernatural. But that does not preclude me from believing in the primacy of consciousness, my own soul, or the divine. It's just that it's all one big reality system. Nothing outside of it. So the quest for knowledge, especially the philosophical and scientific quests, are to me searches for what nature, or existence, contains.

Of course, there are different planes and maybe the divine mind is transcendent in the sense that physical matter need not always manifest - that could be cyclical - but all things arise from and out of the divine.

Scotlyn said...

Here are my own thoughts in words that may not be the right ones... With inspiration from Varela & Maturana (autopoiesis); Donal D Hoffman (conscious agents); Bose, Darwin and Trewavas (plant intelligence); Suzanne Simard (mother trees); Lynn Margulis (bacterial intellugence); Barbara McCkintock, James Shapiro (DNA intelligence).

Hoffman defines a "conscious agent" as the entity which can experience/decide/act (this triad seems to touch on "representation" via the experience leg, and on "will" via both the deciding and acting legs. Hoffman reckons that the "world" for any conscious agent is a composite of all other conscious agents acting on different levels, which collectively presents resistance to the experiencing conscious agent's actions upon that world. Composites of two or more agents can act (for all intents and purposes) as a single conscious agent, and life is indeed full of examples. (Think bees & hive). Our eucaryotic cells are bounded communities whose origins lie in various encounters and mergers of simpler agents, our multicellular bodies are communities of cells and tissues. We and other organisms are communities which may make up bigger conscious entities such as ecosystems.

It seems to me that *I* am a composite "conscious agent" , a sort of egregore arising from the (mostly) concerted actions of many conscious agents functioning at different levels of resolution. As such *I* am mostly aware of myself as a unit of purpose and action (agent) moving this human multicellular body. I am mostly NOT aware of the micro-level agents which consciously (to them) but unconsciously (to me) beaver away at the million and one tasks involved in digesting my food or processing my thoughts. I am mostly NOT aware of the macro-level agents of which I am a tiny part, which circulate wind and water, bend and stretch the earth and engage in concerns of which I can imagine little and know nothing. But if I get glimpses from either end of the resolution scale distant from that which *I* habituate, these may feel strange, supernatural, out of the ordinary.

And what a unit of purpose and action (or agent) must "represent" to themselves is the meaning of the resistance they encounter as they purposely move about the world. Other agents, other wills, at high or low resolution, make up everything - certainly everything that stops us or requires us to adapt and change our purposeful movements.

Not very good philosophese, but as best as I've worked out for myself so far. Apologies for length.

gwizard43 said...

JMG, you've blown my mind again - we have MULTIPLE comments pages?? I'd missed that, somehow. At least I know how I'll be spending the next few weeks!

Thank you for your response. You asked a question in it and I want to give you (and Cherokee) an answer.

"I could see a point to asking everyone to tone things down here, in the hope that the habit might spread. My question for you, though, is this -- are you willing to accept the same limits you're asking me to place on my alt-right readers? The comments page here has also seen denunciations of Trump and his supporters, you know, just as heated as the denunciations of liberals you've quoted. If I ask for, and enforce, a stricter level of civility than before, that'll fall on all sides, not just on the alt-right. Are you prepared to tolerate that?"

I am 100% willing to accept and tolerate a standard for all that takes us back to compliance with the posted policy, of which I am vociferous support.

Note I singled out Armata mostly because of his many egregious comments - that clearly violated posted policy - in one comments section. I have not seen anyone else on right or left engage in that sheer volume of violations.

(And BTW, I also find Dammerung's posts quite interesting and do not recall seeing his comments as bullying)

Now, it may interest you, and Cherokee (whose comments I've been reading and enjoying for years, and hold in high regard), that I am not the leftist activist type that's been assumed or asserted. I suppose that because I spoke up against bullying by the right, I'm presumed to be doing it from the left.

On some issues I agree with what we think of as the left (in particular, enviro-issues and issues of social and wealth inequality), albeit the non-establishment left (I'm a fan of Zinn and of Chomsky's critique of the imperialist nature of US foreign policy for example, not so much of some of his other positions), but I can tell you I've been vehemently opposed to political correctness since it began - and I'm old enough to recall that beginning. I have in my life been a registered Republican, but have never been a registered Democrat, and in fact I have never voted for a Democrat in my life. That said, I've voted for very few Republicans. My political philosophy simply does not fit into the neat little boxes offered by contemporary politics. I'm more likely to cite Illich, Ellul or Roszak than any of the contemporary left or right political thinkers. And I very much resonate with much of what has been said here about Burkean conservatism - in fact I suggested to you, JMG, that you take a look at Crawford's latest, which impresses me, because I believe you and he share considerable philosophical ground over toward the right.

So all of this to say: it's not leftist ideology that inspired me to make that comment. It was a reaction to seeing this bullying. And the most egregious example - IMHO - was Armata's machine gun set of blatantly bullying comments in a single blog post.

Now, JMG I do recall seeing multiple hysterical e-mails from the folks on the left here - but IIRC (and I could be wrong), most of those were actually directed at you, or at Trump, and not *directly* at other commenters, which is what caused me to call out Armata.

I think this makes a difference.

That said, and back to the main point, I think your standard of 'courteous comments' and 'polite discourse' are a large part of what has made this blog not only stand out, but also encourage the kind of deeply intelligent and thoughtful contributions we see here on a routine basis (scintillating is the word I would use), and I have sadly (IMO) seen less 'scintillance' in recent months due, IMO, to the degradation I outlined in the comment last week.

So, yes, absolutely, I'm for fair play and courteous commentary from all sides, and I for one would be immensely grateful to see you call for all sides to tone things down and eschew the name calling.

Avenbury said...

Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I thought this might be of interest:

It is an overview of how inflation-adjusted costs in many fields (medicine, education, housing, etc) have massively increased over the past few decades, while the quality has in most cases declined. Meanwhile of course, wages have largely remained stagnant. It nicely illustrates several points you have made here over the years.

Rad said...

I read a book a few years ago that helped me see one of my windows: Bright Sided: How positive thinking is undermining America by Ehrenreich. When I finished the book I felt my world had shifted. I had always been a card-carrying optimist, never realizing optimism was blinding and paralyzing me. This perspective change allowed me to finally accept my psoriasis was going to continue getting worse unless I actually did something about it, and I did cure it after doing a few months of research. And also, now I am not optimistic about the future. I just heard of Green Wizardry last week and really liked the book and plan to practice it :)

I have become increasingly skeptical of science. I do like the scientific method but it will never be pure. It is more like a religion at this point, and it is a dark art. We are summoning demons that we won't be able to put back in the box. Recently, my friend who is an Atheist and Scientific Materialist was super excited about the news that they might be able to wipe out an entire species of mosquitos using genetic engineering. This is literally Genocide! He thought it was worth it. But who gets to decide which species are wiped out? I know I won't have a say.

I also find the increasing focus on all diseases being cured by genetic engineering disturbing. For one thing it increases how helpless people feel about their health. There are some literal genetic diseases, but that is a small percentage. Most health problems are from malnutrition, food toxins, environmental toxins, lack of sleep, disrupted circadian rhythm, addiction, etc. These things trigger epigenetic changes. I'm not going to begrudge someone with cancer seeking genetic intervention. But seriously, science is not researching the right stuff. I won't trust science much until money, big egos, and special interests are taken out the equation.

It is important to realize we are always looking though a lens and there is no way we can be truly objective and to have some humility. But I hope for a day when we value human intuition over computers, they are not smarter than us.

Armata said...

This has been a fascinating post and equally fascinating discussion. I can't wait to read the other posts in this series. I have been amazed at how much I have learned here since I came across this site, from the posts, from reading the comments from other participants and getting feedback on the comments I have posted.

Thanks for this and thanks to everyone who comments here, even the ones I don't always see eye to eye with. Too many people live in a bubble these days and avoid even considering points of view that disagree with their pre-existing biases.

Caryn said...

@Eric S. & JMG:

Just a funny note to share:

Eric said:"...The whole exchange brought to mind the fascinating habit in modern language of applying the word “metaphysics” not to the field of philosophy that it encompasses, but rather to a variety of mystical practices (or even simply unusual ones) ranging from alternative medicine to meditation to The Secret, and even trickles down somewhere into the world of bigfoot hunting."

According to my 16 year old high schooler, son & his friends: the latest hip buzzword is now "Whoa, that's Meta!" as in metaphysical. Where 'cool' no longer means only a temperature and 'epic' no longer means only - a big long saga - the word metaphysical shortened to 'meta' is about to enter a whole 'nother transformation in popular culture! LOL

To JMG & fellow commenters: I'm at the same level in philosophical education as Mary - actually grateful that the essay and discussion thus far is pretty much accessible, so many thanks to you all. I'd only say, the concept of representation, looking through an imperfect glass, is also reminding me of our earlier discussion and my reactions, (my representation?) of abstract art. No idea how to articulate that or what to make of it, so I'll just enjoy the comments/dialogue and chew on it awhiles.

Patricia Mathews said...

I love the phrasing "How much is what's out there, and how much is what's on the window? Or for that matter, the result of imperfect eyes. "Hey, look! That curtain isn't ivory, it's hard white! Now that a cataract has been removed." "Hey! The world is brighter and with harsher colors and the moon in the night sky is a single object, and there are no rainbow halos around the stoplights." Oh, you can back that metaphor back into the mental realm so easily How many philosophers' mentalities were like Vincent Van Gogh's eyesight?

John Michael Greer said...

Dammerung, my suggestion is to go stream of consciousness for the first draft. Hammer it out at top speed with no editing, no second-guessing, no attempt to direct the flow, "Shadilay" playing at top volume in the background and kyphi incense rising before a statue of Kek next to the keyboard. Make it one long primal scream. Later -- days or weeks later -- take the file and go to town cutting and pasting, allowing your outline to emerge out of the process rather than trying to impose an order on it from above. The result may make Hunter S. Thompson's prose look like Jane Austen's, but that sounds appropriate given the subject matter, doesn't it?

Varun, good! I hope, after you kicked him, you said, "prove to me that you felt pain."

James, okay, that's funny. Thank you.

Raymond, that article's making a crucial point, of course -- and it's good to see people actually talking about, ahem, why medicine in the US costs so absurdly much. (Cough, cough, kleptocratic profiteering, cough, cough.) As for philosophy, the Greek philosophers are hideously misrepresented in most history of philosophy books -- one of the many ways we maltreat the past to make the present look good. The Presocratics were literally inventing the possibility of analytical thought from the ground up; of course their first attempts were just as clumsy as, say, Descartes' first attempt to doubt everything -- but see it in context and it becomes visible as the tremendous intellectual adventure it was. No, I don't know of a philosophy book to recommend -- I'll have to see if I can find something.

Grisom, thank you for this. Yes, I have a pretty good idea which philosophers he has in mind!

Eric, fascinating. You may well be right.

Onething, purely in the sense that I don't think there's anything that is over or above ("super") nature. In Shinto, there's a very useful habit of talking about the context of existence as Daishizen, "Great Nature," and to see this as surrounding and defining the existence of the kami (deities) as well as everything else. That's very much my take as well -- I see the order of nature as including all things, including those that our Western cultures label as "spiritual." More on this as we proceed!

Scotlyn, that's certainly one way to talk about it, starting from the viewpoint of the environmental sciences.

Gwizard, fair enough. Since you're willing to see the request you've made applied generally, and not just to people with whom you disagree, I'll consider it.

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