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.

Nice Nihilism

I recently read James Steinhoff‘s review of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (2011) by Alex Rosenberg and it got me thinking. I consider myself a form of nihilist and I’ve noticed that many people are shocked by the notion. It seems like our culture has a phobia about nihilism. So to temper those fears, Rosenberg puts forward the idea of “nice nihilism”.

I don’t see why we need an apology for nihilism. Think through history about the people who have been killed or injured in the name of Nothing. Now think of the people killed in the name of some belief. Let the believers apologize if they want. Nihilism gives me no anxiety.

I consider myself a nihilist because I make a conscious effort to hold no fixed beliefs. I can watch the sun rise six days in a row and “believe” that it will rise on the seventh. But this isn’t a fixed belief, it’s just memory and understanding. I definitely do not hold the fixed belief that the sun will rise forever. As a matter of fact, I know this is impossible.

Many people assume nihilists are automatically immoral. They have no grounds to do so. I recently read a moronic tweet asking an atheist why he doesn’t just kill and rape anyone he wants? The atheist responded, “I do.” Of course he does, and so do I, because normal people don’t kill or rape. Let’s disambiguate the term nihilist from “asshole” forever. A better synonym for “asshole” would be “fanatic believer”.

Rosenberg takes a staunch materialist view of everything, it seems. He thinks that matter and energy and strict causality created all of reality, and that absolutely everything can be answered by physical facts. I find this ridiculous on a few levels. At exactly what point in history did science gain all the answers? It is a perfectly true fact that science has never had all the answers.

In the early days of the Newtonian revolution, everyone thought his system was The System. Of course Einstein proved that he was completely wrong. Sure, Newton’s theories were a huge jump forward owing to their usefulness, but let me just reiterate, he was wrong. The idea that there is some absolute space and absolute time is pure fiction, false to the facts of the universe. To assume physics will ever have all the answers is to disregard history with a faulty intellectual hubris. Not surprising since Rosenberg believes history is meaningless.

Everything that science has illuminated, it has done so through the human nervous system. There are no cold, hard facts sitting out there in a vacuum. Everything we understand about reality happens as a result of some nervous system interacting with the universe, of which that nervous system is a part. We can talk about the material basis for thoughts and feelings, but in order to express the uniqueness of each individual, we need something more.

Every one of us lives in our own unbelievably complex semantic environment. We interact with symbols, languages and feelings all the time, and all of these experiences become uniquely related to the observer. Even contemporary material science recognizes the effect of the observer on an observed physical system. Of course life loses meaning and purpose when you only consider the material side of reality. The semantic side is full of meaning, and inextricably linked to everything we know or can know about the universe.

Somehow Mr. Rosenberg thinks he can speak for the universe by eliminating the human experience. Then again, I haven’t read his book. I’ve only read the review. Anyway, it’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.

I liked the bullet point Q & A that outlines Rosenberg’s position, so I’ll just give a quick rundown with my first reactions for your reading pleasure. Naturally snappy answers to big questions are oversimplified.

Is there a God? No.

“Yes” or “No” doesn’t matter much to me without any attempt to define God.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

Physics itself says nothing. Physics is the name human beings have given to our own scientific observation of the universe. But even physicists don’t agree. There is still no fully developed model of our universe that doesn’t contain huge contradictions. Loop quantum gravity, string theory, etc., are not compatible. Even the Big Bang is just a theory, and one that no monolithic scientific community can get behind. To assume our current science is on the right track to discover everything is ridiculous. As our powers of perception continue to increase there will be always be more unknowns in the universe.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

The question is a teleological error. Teleology, the doctrine that final causes exists, is nonsense to most modern philosophers, so the question is a silly one. The answer is correct though.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

I dare Rosenberg to define the word “meaning”. If he chooses to define his words with other words, and to define those words with still more words, he will eventually come to either a circular definition or ambiguous nonsense. Meaning is a function of the semantic structure of some human experience.

The term meaning is related to the level of abstraction taken into consciousness. Rosenberg wouldn’t admit that his book is meaningless, while most people should agree that a kitchen sink has no ‘meaning’. Meaning involves a cohesive structure of symbols, interpreted through a nervous system, reason, emotion, intuition, etc. As a writer, I consciously create meaning through the manipulation of symbols. Meaning is what we make it.

Of course if he’s talking about some objective meaning for all of life, I agree there’s no master plan at work here outside of our own.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Yes. Good call.

Does prayer work? Of course not.

On this point he is actually wrong. There have been numerous studies that show results from prayer and meditation. Even if prayer only serves to focus one’s attention on certain concerns, it has had an effect. This type of answer reeks of dogmatic atheism, a fanatical belief which I have no time for.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?

Are you kidding? Once again, asking ambiguous questions, making no attempt to define the topics, and writing them off. Forgivable in this short-form index.

Is there free will? Not a chance!

Hmm. It’s tough to define consciousness, but among its criteria is the ability to apply different responses to stimuli. The more responses an organism can have to a given stimulus, the more conscious it is. This is a very reduced and ambiguous definition, but broadly acceptable to my mind. Strict determinism makes a lot of questionable assumptions about why different reactions would be given to the same stimuli. Chaos Theory and quantum effects might form a material basis for an answer, but that level of reality is effected by observation.

It’s very easy to feel from daily experience that the decisions we make come from thinking and not because of material, deterministic factors. To say that thoughts are only the results of electronic impulses is to completely disregard the human experience, to disregard quality over quantity.

What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on before, except us.

To be fair and literal, nothing ever just goes on as before.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

This may sound controversial, but I agree. I do not believe in moral absolutes, and as there is no such thing as a teleological expert, all moral systems are of equal value. Obviously going around killing people isn’t helpful to oneself or anyone else, and so is simply stupid. I do agree with his assumption that people are naturally inclined to be good and nice.

Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

I more or less agree here. I think personal happiness is a good goal for life, and everyone’s personal happiness is connected with mine.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.

To quote the creed of Hassan-i Sabbah “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” Sabbah was the founder of the Assassins…so he’s probably not a great example for “nice nihilism”.

What is love and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.

Huh?

Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

History is a collection of data on the experiences and interaction of organisms similar to myself. If I can glean anything about what motivates people to act, I can apply this knowledge to my own decision-making process.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with (2-3).

I have no reaction to this one.

 

P.S. I was reminded of a scene from The Big Lebowski that highlights the absurdity of this phobia towards nihilism. Three extortionists threaten to cut The Dude’s nuts off. Walter refers to them as Nazis but he is corrected by The Dude – they’re nihilists. Walter gets serious and says, “Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, but at least it’s an ethos.”

iTunes vs. Kabbalah

The post this week is a Battle Of Unrelated Things. iTunes is a modern technology, a software for personal convenience. Kabbalah is an ancient soft technology with religious, astrological, alchemical, and ontological implications.

iTunes

The modern world wants music at its fingertips. Technology has made this possible, affordable, and easy to use. It’s simple – why wouldn’t you want the ability to listen to your favorite music any time you like? Music can pass the time, can act as background to our day, or can offer us artistic insights and emotional experiences depending on the attention we’re willing to devote to it. Music is a fundamental human expression, and considering the unending variety of available music, there should be something for everyone.

iTunes was a transition for me. I was used to putting music on my PC and organizing it into file folders, then importing the music into a Windows Media Player playlist. Of course when I got my Mac I switched to iTunes and immediately felt cheated of the ability to organize the files myself. Of course I could organize things myself, but iTunes does things slightly differently.

iTunes is made to be very user friendly. It’s handy because it organizes files into an efficient working order. It doesn’t bother the user with a transparent view to its processes. When I drag my songs into it, I can listen to them immediately. I can change all the data about the song right in iTunes and it will reorganize things along its own lines. Then I can sort and arrange my music by song title, artist, genre, release date, my personal rating, the number of times I’ve listened to the track, and so forth. iTunes handles the mystery for us and offers us slick, efficient functionality. This shrouding of processes allows us to “get to the music” straight away, which is exactly what makes it so popular.

iTunes and the digital music revolution has likely changed musical media forever. Our children, and especially our children’s children, will probably have a hard time understanding that people used to spool magnetic tape through a machine, keep 12″ vinyl discs stacked on shelves, or had cases and cases of CDs in racks on the wall for use in a dedicated machine. The musical experience is now much more direct, more accessible, and more convenient on every level. Though sound fidelity in digital media is less than most previous media technologies, the popularity of MP3 players and iTunes has proven that people are willing to trade this gap in quality for convenience.

Kabbalah

Kabbalah is a mystery school that came out of Judaism. Christians have their gnostics, Muslim’s have their Sufis, the Buddhists have their various vehicles, and all religions seem to have curiously secretive “inner orders” that separate the esoteric from the exoteric.

Hebrews didn’t have a numerical system like the Arabs, or even the Romans, and didn’t need our familiar decimal system to do complicated mathematics. So they used their letters to denote numbers. Thus in Kabbalah every letter, and every word has a numerical equivalent (by adding up the number values of the letters). They started to wonder if it “meant something” that the word they used in the Book of Genesis for “Messiah” had the same number as the word “Serpent”. They might have blown this off as a coincidence, but when they looked more deeply into the material they noticed all kinds of odd and amazing equivalences. Some believe the Bible was written as a type of Kabbalistic code with a secret inner meaning for those initiated into Kabbalistic mysteries. We can argue this, but cannot prove it either way.

The history and development of Kabbalah is unclear, but along the way each number/letter picked up a great deal of correspondences. For starters, the letter beth (our B) also means “house” in Hebrew, as every Hebrew letter is a word with a specific meaning. How could they avoid finding strange coincidences in their language now? The letter beth opens the Bible (the first word in the Hebrew Bible is Berashith), and the Bible houses the Word of God – that has to mean something, right? But then astrological correspondences made their way into the Kababalah lore, then magic and mysticism worked its way into the system (not necessarily in that order). Suddenly everywhere the rabbis looked they saw a sign from God (also known as YHVH = Yod Heh Vau Heh = 10 + 5 + 6 + 5 = 26).

The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, an elegant construction of ten sephiroth and twenty-two paths make up a symbol for the entirety of creation. Kabbalists studied the intricate connections and correspondences and found the symbol readily adaptable to all kinds of spiritual issues from astrology to ontology. The Tree of Life filtered out of Judaism and spread through the West, becoming Cabala for Christians and Qabalah for different mystery schools like The Golden Dawn. It’s hard to find many Western magical traditions that don’t use the Tree of Life as a symbolic basis.

As Kabbalists, or Cabalists, or Qabalists, study the meanings, correspondence, and connections of the Tree, they notice their brains start to work differently. Everyday symbols can take on universal or spiritual implications. Practitioners use the Tree of Life like a filing cabinet to sort personal experience, and the more they study it, the more they notice special or holy meaning in existence. Learning this system actually changes the rational brain, training it to look for esoteric symbols and find meaning for one’s personal mythos. (The Middle Path of the Tree, the most direct line to the highest, includes Malkuth, Yesod, Tiphareth, and Kether, 10 + 9 + 6 + 1 = 26 = YHVH. Coincidence?)

Light and Dark

iTunes and Kabbalah represent different philosophies completely, and only in part because they have nothing to do with one another. iTunes stresses the end result (the music) by keeping the underlying systems in the dark, out of sight, out of mind. Kabbalah is an underlying system for life, putting the sorting, cataloging, and interconnection into the light where we can see everything.

For those with a lot on the go – jobs, kids, school, and the whole hectic schedule imposed by contemporary popular culture – iTunes represents exactly what is needed in a modern tool. The intended function comes first, and the process is handled invisibly so people can get on with their busy days. Bless you Apple.

For those with cerebral or spiritual inclinations Kabbalah is a beautiful, endless world of thought that encourages analysis of the underlying processes that make up our very existence. Those into Kabbalah can dive into thought and swim forever in the mystery of life, God, and the Universe.

Though I couldn’t live without music, I have to give the BOUT to Kabbalah. Kabbalah inspires creative introspection and creative perception and increases the plasticity of mind. A good Kabbalist can argue anything, and avoids binary, off/on logic, favouring an inspection of connections and transmutation.

Plus, who doesn’t prefer vinyl as a musical medium?

 

From the album “Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy”

Some Antics

 

Malign Sign

This road sign confuses me. Granted, I don’t speak French. But why is that Lego-haired Ukrainian gymnast lying there like that? My friend thought it was Janeane Garofolo in Spanx. It’s nice when a sign or symbol is unmistakeable from the idea it represents. But no symbol can ever be the thing it signifies. And our whole culture is semantic. Even language is symbolism – each word finds a resonance in the mental filing cabinets of the audience.

But our whole catalog of symbolic knowledge pertains only to what we experience (be it physically, mentally, emotionally, etc.). Language that pertains to what is outside of our experience sounds like noise to us. Try to imagine a modern banker explaining a mortgage to an ancient Native American.

“Bull market out there Little Feather.”

“Bull?”

Many things that seem fundamental to us are contained to our little sphere. North, South, East and West lose all meaning once you’re off the planet. So do the words “up” and “down”. Immanuel Kant thought even space and time were an a priori condition of our consciousness – meaning without a human mind, space and time don’t even exist.

Aliens would probably act in a way that seems like noise to us. They could be doing things right in front of us without our being able to see them, let alone talk to or be abducted and probed by them. Fortunately if that was the case, we might just seem like static electricity to them.

It’s very loud out there in the world. In the cacophony of news, street signs, iPhones, OnStar, TV, and our own ongoing inner monologues, it’s a good idea once in a while to detach from all maps and symbols. That way the programs running through our heads don’t condition our perceptions of reality. (There’s a reason they call them television programs.) Sometimes to get back to tabula rasa you’ve got to blow your mind.

 

That’s why the band Spiritualized exists. And as a symbol, the name says it all. Click the “Huh?” to read about their new album and hear the track “Hey Jane”. I was fortunate to see them play the Phoenix Concert Hall in Toronto this weekend and the show was golden. I brought home the new double LP (on silky white vinyl) and I’ve enjoyed it at neighbour-scaring volumes a couple times so far.

It’s nice to look up from the map to see the beautiful countryside.