Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

I Am Not a Strange Loop

I've been lingering on the theme of non-intuitive truths for the last couple of days, and just by strange coincidence Douglas Hofstadter's new book, I Am a Strange Loop, goes on sale on Monday. Hofstadter did more than anyone to popularize Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, which is a widely-accepted proof that there are some truths that cannot be proven (or disproven) within the realm of any formal logical system. Ever since he won a Pulitzer Prize for Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Hofstadter has been the patron saint of head-twisting paradoxes, especially those related to consciousness.

Good news! Hofstadter is finally going to get down to business and really drill into the question of consciousness.

Bad news! Hofstadter calls consciousness a "mirage." D'oh!

I suppose I should read the book first before passing judgement. (I just placed my order.) But I find it aggrevating when people use such ephemeral language to describe what is actually the most obvious truth which we can directly apprehend. The one thing that we know for sure, more than anything else, is that we are aware. Another Douglas H. spent most of his life demonstrating to people that our apprehension of awareness was more fundamental than anything else we knew. Mirage, my ass.

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Friday, March 23, 2007


Last night I heard Dick Gordon interviewing Marion Downs, the 92-year-old author of Shut Up and Live (You Know How), a guidebook for living well into old age. At first the interview was exactly what you'd expect it to be: the interviewer has a perpetual smile in their voice, an overly supportive tone that is reserved for children and old people. The woman tells stories from her life in a clear-but-paper-thin voice. And the theme was pretty much what you'd expect: an upbeat, you-can-do-a-lot-when-you're-old inspirational.

What was a little different here was the usual, "Aw, shucks I don't know why I lived so long" humility about one's age. Ms. Downs was (I think, quite rightly) insisting that this is going to be a common thing: "You don't realize it yet, but YOU are going to live to be ninety-two, and you need to prepare for it." I guess everyone hopes for a long life, but in the moment she said it I realized that it was most likely true, and not necessarily the blessing one normally expects. "Once I passed seventy-two, the age both my parents died, I didn't know what to do. I had no map. I thought I was supposed to die then, and I didn't. I had to find my own way."

Dick Gordon, sensing now that perhaps his guest didn't require the usual deference, asked a real question: "Why? Why should I prepare for old age? You didn't, and here you are." And she gave a practical answer: "Well, I was very athletic, and physically active my entire life. That prepared me." It gives my daily exercise more significance, when I realize that I am not merely warding off the extra pound or two, but preparing for a life that could go another fifty years.

And though her core advice was a chestnut I've heard a million times, she said it as one with authority: "Be here now. That's what really matters. Live every moment fully, 'cause you only come this way once." I think this is the gift of diminishment, the advantage of outliving your egoic notions of how your life ought to run. Eventually you stop thinking about your self, and just start to pay attention to life.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Consciousness Ensnared?

The New Yorker recently did a story on Paul and Patricia Churchland, two philosophers who have worked together on the mind-body problem for all of their 37-year marriage ("Two Heads," by Larissa MacFarquhar, February 12, 2007). The Churchlands are avowed materialists when it comes to the consciousness question -- they are so sure, in fact, that consciousness is identical to the brain that they look to neuroscience to provide an explanation for the apparent mind-body dualism. This is somewhat unusual, even among materialists and especially among philosophers of mind, who do by and large believe that the brain gives rise to the mind, but who don't like to entangle themselves in the squishy and seemingly arbitrary complexity of a living brain.

The Churchlands are attacking the non-materialist, non-reductionist views of mind, especially those articulated so well by Kenny Felder in his "Are You a Robot?" lecture. Those arguments run something like this: no matter how complex a computer gets (and the human brain is an exceedingly complex one) it still doesn't explain what consciousness is. Doing lots of really complex operations in no way necessitates the rise of a subjective observer who witnesses those operations happening, and is aware of the witnessing. That awareness of thought and experience is, to the subjective observer, completely irreducible. It just is. That's what leads meditators and mystics to conclude that consciousness is what philosophers call a "primative," a fundamental building block of reality itself. This line of thought is also the bedrock of my own personal theology, so I take this question very, very seriously.

The Churchlands critique of this line of reasoning runs like this: OK, you can't imagine how a mechanistic brain gives rise to experience. So what? The history of science is chock full of truths that were unintuitive and completely unimaginable until scientific disciplines and knowledge evolved sufficiently to make sense of them. At one time, it was perfectly obvious that the world was flat, and no one could imagine how you could explain the experience of earth and sky any other way. And yet, eventually, that "obvious" truth was eventually overthrown, and everyone takes for granted their current concept of a round earth. Consciousness is just another phenomena that will eventually be explained. To argue otherwise -- "I don't believe it because I can't imagine it" -- is to essentially argue that ignorance is absolute, and is indistinguishable from the position of those who would have killed Galileo for suggesting the world was not the center of the universe. It is the same sort of reasoning creationists use to establish the existence of God: "I can't imagine how such a complex world could come to be without a Creator; therefore, there must be a God." To which most scientists reply: "No, that doesn't mean there must be a God. It just means you have a pretty lousy imagination."

The Churchlands don't really have a compelling explanation of mind; they just don't want people to assume that all truths must be intuitively compelling to be acceptable or true. And I think that's a perfectly legitimate (and troubling) bit of epistomology to wrap your head around. You can't assume that you will recognize the truth when you first meet it. Nor can you assume that the mysterious and irreducible will stay safely mysterious.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Faith and the unintuitive

I've been mulling over the role of faith in spiritual life. "Faith" is an irksome term for pretty much everyone. Skeptics see it as the religious person's "get out of jail free" card, a blanket justification to believe whatever you please. The esoteric, mystical spiritual traditions tend to see faith as the consolation prize of religious life; you can take God on faith, but if you're really hard-core you'll seek out a direct, personal, unmediated experience of the divine. And even the contentedly religious have trouble with the concept, since it is never directly addressed in the scriptures, and used to cover a range of sentiments and intuitions.

Faith can, in fact, be used in almost entirely contradictory ways. Some people refer to faith as the core, inexpressible intuitions of their being, the a priori revelations of their consciousness: "I believe in God, I have faith in God, because it just seems right to me. I can't imagine a universe without a God." But, when the rubber hits the road and the shit hits the fan, exhortations to "have faith" are usually implying that the object of faith is unintuitive and not at all obvious: "I know it seems right now like life has no meaning and God is absent, but you have to have faith that things will work out." So . . . is faith the recognition of the intuitively obvious, or the conscious acknowledgement of truths that aren't obvious?

C.S Lewis was wise enough to point out that the answer was: both. We have occasions of beatific revelation, when God is obvious and real, when peace is tangible, and truth is easy. And yet, those moments don't last. Then we are struggling to remember what it was that we experienced, and to carry on with our lives as if that point of view were still present. Even if you decide to only trust your own experience, you will be struggling to remember and live by your insights from day to day. "Faith" is really "faithfulness" -- that is, being true to what you've already found to be true. "Faith" is when vague intuition and aspiration are put to work in the real world.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Who is Fleet Maull?

The Self Knowledge Symposium will be hosting Fleet Maull, a Buddhist priest who served time in federal prison for drug smuggling, and who went on to found the Prison Dharma Network and the National Prison Hospice Association. It's going to be unusual because we are showing a documentary film that some SKS students produced about Fleet, The Prison Sutras, and then do a videoconference with Fleet to answer questions from the audience. It's our first big experiment with distance learning, and I'm really excited about the possibilities it could open up for us.

So I was trying to tune up our verbiage for him for the marketing:
For years, Fleet Maull lived a double life. Half of the time, he was a Buddhist meditator, attending intensive retreats and seeking enlightenment. The other half of the year he was a drug smuggler, moving cocaine from South America into the U.S. When he was caught and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison, his spiritual practices of mindfulness and compassion was galvanized by witnessing the suffering of his fellow prisoners. Fleet went on to found the National Prison Hospice Association, to provide dignity to those dying alone in prison, and the Prison Dharma Network, to provide Buddhist mediation instruction and support to

Come see The Prison Sutras, a documentary film produced by two SKS students about Fleet's life and work, and talk with Fleet Maull himself via videoconference after the showing.


Monday, March 19, 2007

Final Exam

I had a dream, and it felt significant:

I was a student of some kind, and I was going through the library near the end of the term. I think I was returning textbooks that I would no longer need. I run into my German instructor, who happens to be Ms. Amelie, the kindergarten teacher at Emerson Waldorf school. She says "hello" in a bustling, business-like sort of way, and informs me that I need to take two exams right now, in the library. The first exam is very hard, she said, and she said it in such a way that implied she thought it was unfairly difficult. The second one was longer, she said, but not so bad.

So I have to take these tests . . . but I realize that my three-year-old son Malcolm is here with me. How am I going to manage this? Mal is sitting at a table, totally absorbed in some books, so I think that maybe I have a chance. I start into the first test, and it's the sort of test where they give you entirely new material to learn and then test you on it. And it's all local dialect stuff -- weird alternative vowels for things you knew before. The new material keeps going on, and I never seem to get to the actual questions.

Then I realize that it's nearly noon, and for some reason I need to make an appearance at chapel for some kind of brief service. (I guess it's that kind of school.) And so I'm racing down the halls to the chapel, realizing that Malcolm is still in the library, and who's looking after him? I realize at that moment that I haven't eaten, either, and I'm facing the prospect of a long set of exams on an empty stomach. The entrance to the chapel seems to go through the buffet line of a cafeteria. A woman minister of some kind is near the front of the line, and she suddenly turns around, grabs a male student by both hands, and launches into some kind of prayer for his soul. The student, spooked, pulls away and dashes into the chapel. The minister says, "Nuts. Lost another one." As I push passed her into the chapel myself, I say something like, "Yeah, you can't just grab 'em."

Somehow I'm back at the library, ready to begin the big exam. Rupert Giles, the Watcher from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is handing me the big heavy leather-bound "Vampyr" tomb. Evidently this is supposed to be my test. The way he talks and looks at me, I can tell that if I'm the Chosen One, I'm supposed to be able to read this, and if not, I won't. I open to the title page and I can read it, though it seems more like a personal scrapbook, with pictures and ticket stubs, than any kind of mystic lore.


Richard Rose always said that the meaning of dream was in the mood of the dream. In this case my attitude during the dream was half panic, half resignation. It was obvious that I wasn't going to be able to get through all these challenges without failure, so I just braced myself for whatever was going to happen. I think that's becoming more typical of my stance toward life right now: I'm overwhelmed, but I'm just going to muddle through. I even thought of the Kobayashi Maru, the test which you are doomed to fail, which is all about testing your ability to perform in the midst of failure.

The dream touched on the conflicts and tensions between my work (the German exam), my family (Malcolm) and my spiritual duties (the chapel). My work feels like an endless series of learning exercises, localized and perhaps trivial in scope, which never seems to reach a resolution. Clearly I thought I might be able to swing work and family together, as long as family didn't act up. But spiritual duty called me away from both. In retrospect I feel a little guilty that I left Mal to go to chapel, even though I knew it was a prefunctory appearance on my part. That, too, seems typical of my current attitude towards the Work: I can't even remember, sometimes, why I do it, and yet I keep doing it.

The minister grabbing at the student . . . well, I guess my own group work with the Self Knowledge Symposium feels about as awkward and ineffective. Or maybe I think that I ought to make a lunge, take a risk to put pressure on the students, and risk them just walking away. I was sympathetic to the minister, I understood her absolute desperation to try to make some kind of meaningful contact with people, but I also understood why the student was freaked out.

And Rupert Giles . . . I think this was supposed to be an affirmation of my spiritual life. In the TV show, when Giles heaves out the tome and slams it before Buffy, it was symbolic of the heavy role that Buffy did not want, and yet was destined to undertake. And that's kind of how spiritual life feels to me right now. I didn't ask for this calling, didn't seek it out, and yet it found me. On the one hand, it's a pain in the butt. On the other hand, it is the fulfillment of a destiny. This is what I'm supposed to be doing. And (surprise!) it is so much more personal than I anticipated.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

High Bid

Janet and I went out to "The Rites of Spring" party for parents of the Emerson Waldorf School last night. It's a charity event, with a big live auction and silent auction on goods and services donated by parents and friends of the school. A few small psychological insights fell out of the experience:
  • I understand the whole notion of fundraising dinners and events now. If you want to make people especially generous, above and beyond their usual threshholds of generosity, you need to make them feel rich. And the best way to make someone feel rich is to have them dress up in their best clothes, go out to party with everyone in the community, give them something to drink, and glorify spending outrageous sums on things for the heck of it. For all of its low transaction cost and convenience, online fundraising will never compare to the glowing aura of irrational exuberance that surrounds a charity auction.
  • One of the community pillars had dressed in drag and was "Vanna White" for the auction, and it actually worked surprisingly well. I wondered for a while: "Why is that working?" Is someone behaving in utterly ridiculous fashion good for generosity? Well, maybe not, but it is good for loosening inhibitions. When someone behaves ridiculously, it gives everyone else permission to to go a little wild, too. Maybe it makes it just a little bit easier to raise your number. I've got to remember that, the next time I'm trying to make people go outside their comfort zones.
  • Going in to the auction, I had the preconception that the whole point of the auction is to have ferocious competition between bidders to stack up extra value to a given sale. But as I watched, there weren't that many hard-fought bidding wars. What I did notice, though, was that the auctioneer was very good at keeping the increments of bidding relatively high. If someone opened a bid at $100, he would have no trouble saying, very quickly, "Who'll give me $200!?" He could just as easily put the next bid at $150, or even $110, but it's his job to make that impulsive grab for the item go as high as possible. It probably added quite a bit to the average final price . . . which, of course, is why people hire auctioneers in the first place.
  • We got home really late, so of course I was completely off my usual mandated 10:30 pm bedtime. No problem with that . . . I could sleep in on Sunday. But then my day started with dealing with the kids, and then covering for Janet while she's at yoga, and then getting group work done, and it's halfway through the afternoon before I think, "Jeez, I haven't even blogged! I haven't even exercised!" And I felt a nudge of stress that I hadn't felt in quite a while, as I wondered how I would get those things done, and felt the fleeting temptation not to do them at all. Everything that routine had made effortless, now became an effort, once it was out of its usual context. It reminded me again of why the routine was so important; if you want consistent virtue, you have to make it as easy as possible for you to do the right thing. Its so much easier to do the right thing out of habit than to do it out of manifest conviction. "Lead us not into temptation," indeed.