A Freeway in Hell

My thoughts on the nature of our late capitalist society. The title should give some clue what I think of that! US 101 or I-80 as metaphor for our imperatives. Besides worrying about what sort of black hole we are speeding into, I like airships. One reason being the almost inescapble desire to have one to get out of a traffic jam!

Location: Sonoma County, California

Grew up a military brat, Californian-in-exile, reactionary libertarian-essentially spent the 70s on Mars, for I am hearing impaired and I did not know what the music was saying. Generally still don't unless I listen to it over and over or find the words captioned on a movie or somewhere on line. Came "back" to California to begin my adult life, have not lived elsewhere since. No regrets there despite our problems here. Have studied physics, more math than most human beings will ever need, worked on spaceship projects (well, one) at JPL. Lived with a wonderful disabled person who lives no more--L Natasha Littletree RIP October 2004. I have a life plan, just kind of vague on some of the short-term stuff.

Monday, March 17, 2008

From microcosms to the Cosmos

Yet another of Amanda's thought-provoking posts that are basically against religion as we know it prompted me to this reply (ignoring most of the replies earlier, as I have had much less practical Net access than I used to).

Then MA Jeff said
"Mysteries are to be solved, not worshipped."

Which stimulated me to this:

MA Jeff,

Here's an example of a mystery that might be solvable in a rigorously Western scientific paradigm, and might instead be a Mystery in the sense of "a useful human understanding that does not go into words:"

Traditional Chinese medicine, for example acupuncture, is a set of procedures that make no sense whatsoever in the context of our current scientific understanding of what the human body is and what sorts of physical entities exist in it. The whole approach is based on a theory of "winds" in the human body and indeed a general cosmic metaphysic that makes no sense whatsoever in our general understanding of anatomy, biology, chemistry, or even basic physics. Even if we suppose that the ancient Chinese stumbled empirically on subtle electrical or chemical gradients that their metaphors of "wind" suggest useful interventions in, it would be very strange if, given this hint, we haven't observed and identified these phenomena in our labs.

So well and good, the mainstream response of our medical establishment has been that all this is just stuff and nonsense, pure superstition. But I have spoken to at least one MD in person who thinks that there is after all some real utility in these traditional practices, and I have the impression that for decades quite a few Western medical practioners agree.

We can off the bat imagine a few hypotheses that might explain why the Chinese built up this approach over millenia and arrived at results that impress us; one I've already alluded to, that they have found objective physical phenomena--if so, we would do well to investigate and understand them in our terms and could presumably employ them much more efficiently by integrating these phenomena, hitherto unknown to us, with the aspects of medicine we have made so much progress in. But as I say, that easy possibility doesn't appear to be borne out by evidence--either any physical phenonmena corresponding to the Chinese "wind flow" concepts are very subtle, or the Western medical establishment (not just that of the USA but all the practitioners of Western-style medicine, everywhere in the world) have been blocked from looking. Or, of course, there are no such physical entities whatsoever.

So, maybe it is some kind of sophisticated placebo effect. Well, that's the usual explanation given for any possible demonstrated effectivness of any alternative approach to medicine whatsoever, whether derived from some authentic tradition or recently made-up New Agey stuff (such as Mesmerism was back in its day, for instance). Power of suggestion, nothing to see here, move along.

But if mere psychological game-playing can have objective health benefits, isn't that a potentially valuable set of phenomena to investigate? If we can will our way to better health if only we believe in a lot of mummery, how much better could we do if we could understand the presumptive interaction of interior mental states with physiology that, in our paradigm, would account for it, and develop our own integrated mind/body approach to health based on general understanding of medical science including this power of self-suggestion?

I suspect that there are many barriers to the possibilityof realizing such a goal, which go deep into the limits of what we call rational thought, because we haven't, as we flatter ourselves, hammered out our modern paradigm by having recourse to a simply superior, more correct, approach to thinking. We've improved on our methods under constraint, under the condition that we develop ways of thinking and procedures that are justified under a dominator paradigm. We have to guarantee in advance that the social hierarchy will not be fundamentally challenged, and that mandates that we maintain an attitude of contempt for outsiders, and thus limits the possible range of general advance. For every step forward on this path we have to give something up.

It's part of my general agnosticism that I don't know whether in fact there is some deep, inherent conservation of ignorance going on, or whether, as I hope, we can sidestep many of these constraints by getting away from the dominator paradigm that demands we see things in terms of superior and inferior people.

Personally, I have never witnessed anything that challenges my basic belief in the Western scientific understanding of reality; all the challenges to it I know of from outside are matters of rumor as far as I am concerned. But as a science student back in the 1980s and since then, I was keenly aware of the internal challenges to a simplistic positivism--decisive blows struck against the smug 19th century paradigm of science as straightforward progress of superior knowledge, including particularly the very disturbing findings that led to quantum mechanics, and the deepest blow of all, Kurt Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem, which struck right at the root of the very idea that a thorough, unshakable correspondece of theory with fact could be built up on a logical basis.

This is one major reason that any denunciation of people and their beliefs based on the idea that they are just stupid and ignorant of simple facts that we, the more enlightened, know better than they do, always rankles me. Human beings produce stupidity in abundance, but I always suspect that underlying any obstinate adherence to something that seems clearly wrongheaded to me is a social reason, a choice of allegience to a different system than mine. And I ought to know even if they don't acknowledge, that my allegiences, and I presume theirs, are in the end arbitrary and neither I nor they can prove, in some objective way, one is superior to the other.

The actual process of "proof" is nothing of the sort; it is the total outcome of the interaction of all people and things. The thing to do is be fair-minded and reasonable by one's own lights and struggle, in an ethical way, for outcomes in concrete cases, and let each person resolve their philosophical and metaphysical issues as they see fit outside those contexts.

For me, it has been important to make a leap of faith and suppose that in fact, there is an objective reality going on, that different beliefs are in fact more or less correct about specific matters, and that there is in principle a superior way of understanding everything relevant going on in particular cases--a way superior to anyone's understanding in any case. But also that no one is guaranteed in advance to bring that superior understanding to the case, in fact what we do positively know is that we are all immeasurably ignorant and in the end wrong about everything.

None of this is provable.

Suppose it turns out that there is always going to be a tradeoff, in the matter of things like Chinese traditional medicine versus approaches that make sense to Western medicine--that we never catch in our theoretical net what makes their approach work, and yet acknowledge that it does work, for reasons we can't explain? That would be an example of a Mystery, something that has an answer in the sense that if you drop one set of beliefs and adopt another way of thinking, you get some benefit, but there is no reconciling the two in words or mathematics.

My sense of how things work suggests that we will always be able to make progress by "solving mysteries," as you say, by refining our understanding of things to account for ever-widening sets of phenomena. But at the same time, there will always be things beyond the understanding of any particular system, or meta-system formed by reconciling older systems, and some of these things will always be matters of immediate consequence at least to some people at any given time.

And so I think it is foolish to simply adopt a superior attitude to people whose beliefs just don't make sense.

And it is a trap to assume we fully understand their errors, just because we have a pretty good explanation for them in our terms.

Earlier you said
for instance that it was clearly nonsense to say that "God is the Universe seeking to understand itself," because you, MA Jeff, already know that the Universe is just a conglomeration of mindless stuff that clearly therefore is not capable of understanding itself, nor even seeking to.

But even on the basis of assuming as fact the presumption that right now, the Universe is indeed just a mindless set of random stuff, well, here we are, pieces of the whole universe, with ambitions to understand not only ourselves but everything around us we can discover. I have already said that as a matter of personal faith, I don't think we will ever achieve that goal, but I also think we will never give up on the pursuit as long as we exist. Why would it be unreasonable to suppose that even if we go extinct in the near future, as seems all too likely right now, that elsewhere in this universe, in the future or possibly already in the past, other people might not exist who have similar ambitions and avoid destroying themselves, thus launching and carrying on an indefinite project to bring more and more self-knowledge to this originally mindless and meaningless stuff? Indeed, why dismiss the possibility that in fact there is meaning and even self-knowledge that we have hitherto overlooked? As a matter of personal faith I disbelieve we will ever own that knowledge in totality, and perhaps the ultimate existence of it that I also believe in is just a vanishing point, a non-existent projection of efforts by various intelligent beings in this cosmos to understand as much as they can in the time they make for themselves.

Perhaps in fact all such attempted systems of knowledge will prove incompatible, mutally meaningless, perhaps even mutually indetectable. That is in fact what seems to be a reasonable prediction based on your hard-headed assertion that the Universe is currently meaningless and it is nonsense to talk about it knowing itself--if so, then our own attempts to find or "make" meaning are ultimately futile and useless.

I've admitted before on these threads--if my recoiling from that prospect, which I find very bleak and daunting, and embrace instead of the notion that there does exist some ultimate meaning that we can never own in full but is there anyway, that provides some ultimate common ground between all of us--if this makes me a coward and intellectually weak, so be it.

But that is how I do hear the tone of many of you, who seem so sensible and humane otherwise--that here is where the hard steel of the brutality of the dominator paradigm shows in your own spirits; that you too are clinging to a mode of thinking and reacting that demands conflict and the subjugation of others to your own superiority.

Whereas I believe that in the end, our very lives and all our hopes for the joy we all perceive is in some sense within our grasp, is in fact the great Mystery. We will never own it by any kind of formula--we must, for our own sakes, loosen our grip and make risky leaps based on no certainty whatsoever. Because everything that seems certain assures us that in the end we are all doomed.

I believe that the reason we live at all is thus the greatest Mystery.