Wordfail

Most of my favorite works of art deal with psychological, internal, and (if I may) spiritual problems. I might be in the minority on that, but it’s hard to tell. Most pop cinema and music seem to actively avoid these issues in any serious or thoughtful way, but my view may be skewed by massive PR budgets, while many profound works count on niche marketing and word of mouth.

Two nights ago I was working through an internal process during my meditation, essentially allowing my sensory inputs to drain out and empty, and it occurred to me (not for the first time) that many of these internal obstacles literally defy rational language. The scientific method is a beautiful tool for explaining and enhancing our understanding of our world, but when it comes to internal experiences, scientific language fails to capture the experience in any way I can relate to.

I can talk about the cessation of dialectical thinking, stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system or increasing respiration for lowering systolic blood pressure, but these descriptions are cold and say nothing about the end-user experience, despite their medical accuracy.

To speak about “turning the light around” captures more of the mysterious essence of the experience, even though this phrase provably does not describe what’s going on in my body. All language is in a sense arbitrary. If we can find language that more closely captures the experience, we should use it.

Scientists have been encroaching on this field for a while now, and with good reason. Some organizations like The David Lynch Foundation try to analyze meditation from a scientific perspective so they may explain it to rational people. This is totally laudable and seemingly essential these days. But I was always more affected by artistic interpretations of internal experiences, art forms that somehow poetically capture the ineffable nature of what’s happening, what it feels like to have internal revelations.

This is where I find uncompromising value in art. Art is the best conveyor of human experience, and exposure to it seems essential to me if we want to mature as human beings.

All communication is symbolic. The word “kite” is not the physical object called a kite. If the best we can do to symbolize an actual kite is to come up with a verbal grunt with sharp sounds on each end—a sound that is intrinsically meaningless—then we are at least slightly lame as a species. The word itself seems complete gibberish to someone without experience of an actual kite. But to watch a film of some kite-flying enthusiasts, or read about a child’s wonder as the wind pulls the kite down a sunny beach, is to learn on more than merely verbal levels.

This is where I cut a lot of slack for religious literature. There are a lot of religious books which, if taken literally, are absurd and stupid. But those books tend to elicit analogical and mystical interpretations that resonate with people in deep ways. Reading The Bhagavad Gita, I never once expected that the events depicted in it really happened. But I was moved by it, and I continue to find it beautiful.

This might be why I value “saying something” over simply making art for money. I am glad to fork over my hard-earned cash for a meaningful experience, and usually annoyed when I walk away from a movie or book thinking, “so what?”

I have written on this previously, if anyone is interested.

Reasoning Skills

I frequently see signs for something called the School of Philosophy. Usually the ads ask vague questions like, “Can philosophy make me happy?” or, “What is the meaning of life?”, and they’ll show a little person staring off into a bright white expanse. Though I never seriously studied philosophy in school I did take a class about reasoning skills. But philosophy has always interested me, so the advertisements usually catch my eye, though I always felt there might be something fishy going on here.

Then I saw this one:School of Philosophy ad“The Best Things In Life Are Not Things.” – School of Philosophy.

“Yes they are.” – Eric R. Schiller.

If I said, “The best doctors aren’t doctors,” someone should quickly respond, “then don’t call them doctors, idiot.” Using a word twice in the same sentence with two different meanings is very confusing. Maybe this doesn’t bother people, but it does bother people.

Language is our most fundamental tool for externalizing ideas. When language is used improperly it creates misunderstanding. This might be because language, improperly used, is a symptom of muddled thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there is value in a snappy slogan. Corporations like McDonald’s use them all the time. But McDonald’s wants you to give them money and eat cow. I expect more from a “school of philosophy”.

If you read any of the big philosophers, the first part of their major works generally define the terms they will be working with. The language must be unequivocal. Even where there might be confusion, differences in meaning must be strictly delineated. Otherwise ambiguities build up as you read, compounding the confusion until you’re left with a bunch of ineffective ideas and a headache (but a really toned brow).

This seemed like the worst kind of ad for any School of Philosophy, assuming the school aims to promote clear thinking. So I looked at the website, which is very vague. There is no hint of any real lesson plan. I did see pithy quotes from philosophers on the site, then read that “Writings and sayings of great philosophers such as Plato, Ficino, Shakespeare and others, set the stage for enlivened discussions based on personal experience.”

I then read that the school was founded in 1976 and later, in the 60s, was influenced by Eastern philosophy. This is not the only mistake on the site. They inspire no confidence in their ability to teach me clarity and wisdom. Besides, in my opinion, real knowledge comes from self analysis, not slogans.

But lo and behold, they do teach meditation. I soon discovered a strong undercurrent of Hinduism on the site.  It seems like a secularized, modernized, and disguised school of Hindu philosophy and I doubt it takes any serious look at philosophy at large, but grabs pieces that fit and ignores piece that don’t. I’m not terribly surprised.

This isn’t all bad necessarily. There’s value in learning the language of philosophy so we can think about these things fluently. But I wonder if $185 per course is worthwhile. Anyone interested in philosophy can go to the library and discover at their own pace for free. So what does that $185 tuition buy me?

The School of Philosophy is not for profit. And according to their website, all their instructors volunteer their time. So where does the money go? With no diploma and no course text, it seems that the money goes into the pocket of the person hired to collect it. After paying, the registrant is allowed to sit in on discussions between other students and instructors. So what are the qualifications of the instructors? It appears they are all former students.

Curious, I clicked “Registration” button. The message I received was “Fatal Error”.

Touché. The site seemed to have collapsed under my piercing scrutiny.

I definitely agree with meditation and yoga as a road to knowledge and wisdom. You might point out that yoga came from the ancient Hindus. But that doesn’t make Hindu philosophy right. To believe that would be to make the philosophical error known as a syllogistic fallacy. “I believe yoga works (A). Yoga comes from the Hindu tradition (B). Therefore I believe the Hindu tradition (C).” This is false logic. Reasoning skills!

So if you’re interested in learning about philosophy, go to the library before you shell out $185. The internet is such a repository of knowledge we can learn almost anything on our own, even meditation techniques. Or better yet, just send me $100 and we’ll talk over coffee.

 

P.S.

If you’re interested in “living in the now” so the universe can rain gifts of bliss down on you, sit still and take notice. Last night was possibly the best meditation of my life. Today gifts of free music rained down all day. So full-screen these beauties, sit back, and open up to the mystical transmissions of Yo La Tengo, David Bowie and Roy Montgomery.

YO LA TENGO

 

DAVID BOWIE

 

ROY MONTGOMERY

 

Centrifugal Farce

[It's a bad pun, I know. This post is early because I'm seeing Antibalas tomorrow night. - ERS]

Early in university a lifelong friend and physicist told me that centrifugal force didn’t exist. I shook my head and made him repeat it. Maybe I should have figured this out on my own, but it was something I was taught and I never questioned it. Remember that grade school experiment where you wheel a bucket of water around and no water falls out? Of course no water falls out, that’s centrifugal force! Well guess what, there is no measurable radial force acting outward from the center of the orbit.

Even more mind blowing was the fact that just the opposite is true – objects traveling in circular paths were subject to centripetal force which draws them in toward the center of their orbit instead of outward. This seems to contradict experience, but it’s true and provable. We don’t notice it because we don’t have the sensory capacity for it. Usually we’re distracted by the other forces at work.

It turns out that centrifugal force is actually just a name that’s been given to the apparent outward force, which is actually caused by tangential momentum. If you let that bucket go, it doesn’t fly away or toward the center of its orbit (your shoulder), it continues on a straight path at a tangent to its orbit, ninety degrees to the radius (subject to gravity if you’re trying this on Earth). But the continual drag of tangential momentum, the inertia of the payload, levied against the constant circular pull of your arm really does feel like a force traveling outward from the center.

And because tangential momentum always figures in orbital paths, we can actually talk about centrifugal force meaningfully, even if it doesn’t exist or is only a linguistic convenience. The concept of centrifugal force is false but meaningful. It comes to mind that there might be other false but meaningful ideas in use daily.

Euclid laid down the rules of geometry as we know it. We regularly refer to lines, angles, corners, squares and so forth, but there is literally no straight line or perfect circle in nature. We can always look just a little closer to find a flaw. Hell, quantum physics tells us that if we zoom in to a small enough scale, things are fundamentally amorphous and fuzzy. But we can still use the principles of Euclid’s geometry to do useful things within our fuzzy world. There are other kinds of geometry that are equally valid but are simply not as popular.

Utility drives our language. Human beings have needed different concepts for different times, so language has developed over our entire history. Animals running through the forest need to be differentiated so I can communicate that the animal salivating behind you is a tiger, not your neanderthal wife. Inuit languages have many words for snow, Sanskrit has many words for inner states, and the language of politics is full of bureaucratic bullshit.

Concepts don’t have to be true to be useful. The Ptolemaic system made sense to them back then, even if it’s laughable by today’s standards. That’s something to keep in mind when scientists get pompous – two hundred years from now people will be shaking their heads and saying, “Can you believe how primitive their understanding was?”

“[A}ny hypothesis, however absurd, may be useful in science, if it enables a discoverer to conceive things in a new way; but … when it has served this purpose by luck, it is likely to become an obstacle to further advance.”

Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy

This is kind of like the placebo effect. When subjects in drug tests are given sugar pills with the standard accompanying medical ritual, the drugs often work because people believe they will. In fact, they often work better than the real drugs. If we can convince ourselves of the validity of a proposition, we open ourselves to its functionality. This is why I don’t like to trash talk religions and belief systems. If it works, use it. As John Lennon said, “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right, it’s all right.”

Interestingly, we don’t need to consciously believe something for the placebo effect to work. Our subconscious or unconscious impulses can do the work for us. In fact there’s no need to hold on tightly to beliefs. After all, we can believe something and be wrong. And if we identify ourselves with a belief system, we’ll tend to clash with opposing belief systems. But its more useful to take what we need, use what works, and move along on our own orbit.

Get yourself into the head-space of someone who believes something you don’t. It’s a fun experiment. And let someone prove one of your beliefs wrong. That’s not so fun at first, but feels better in the long run. Either way, it’s growth.

[Note: By reading this post you are subject to The Schiller Effect, which obligates you to buy a Schiller a beer the next time you see him or her. Something with a decent hop bill too, don't get cute.]