Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Shape of Time

Trying to have a conversation about the issues central to this sequence of posts, to make use of an apt if familiar metaphor, is rather like trying to discuss the nature of water with fish.  The ideas that play the largest part in shaping our experience of the world and of ourselves are so deeply woven into the act of perception itself that we rarely if ever notice them until we run face first into their limits.

Even suggesting that there are ideas woven into the act of perception, for that matter, gets a blank look much more often than not. Most people, most of the time, think and act as though the things that they experience with their senses and sort with their thoughts are objective realities “out there,” and pay no attention to the generations of careful research that’s shown that what we perceive is a cooperative project in which external stimuli, the biologically defined structures of our sense organs and nervous systems, and the culturally and individually defined contents of our minds all have roles to play.

There’s good reason for that lack of awareness.  Patterns of thinking, like patterns of action, are most efficient when they don’t require conscious attention. Just as you can’t really become skilled at playing a musical instrument until you no longer have to consciously move every finger into position on the keys or strings, you can’t really use a way of thinking about the world until it slips below the surface of the mind and starts to structure how you experience other things.  Pay attention to the way your mind works when you wake in dim light in an unfamiliar room, and the vague shapes around you take time to turn into recognizable furniture, and you’ll get a sense of the way this affects your awareness of the world; learn some cognitive skill such as plant identification, and notice the shifts in perception as foliage changes from a vague green blur to a galaxy of legible patterns, and you’ll get a sense of the same process from a different angle.

The difficulty with this otherwise helpful process comes when the unnoticed ideas you’re using to frame your experience of the world no longer tell you the things you most need to know. Wilderness tracker Tom Brown Jr. tells a story in one of his books about a group of students who were learning plant identification, and were out with Brown on a herb walk. Brown stopped them at one point along the trail, pointed to a plant, and said, “What do you see?” The students all correctly named the plant. “Get closer and take another look,” Brown said. The students did so, and confirmed that it was, in fact, the plant they’d named. After several repetitions, they were almost on top of the plant, and it wasn’t until then that the rabbit that was nibbling on the plant leaves bounded away, startling the students. They had been paying so much attention to plants that they hadn’t seen the rabbit at all.

The same thing happens in far less innocuous ways when the unnoticed ideas aren’t simply the product of a weekend workshop’s focus, but provide basic frameworks for the experiences and the thinking of an entire culture. The cognitive framing that I called the shape of time in last week’s post is a case in point. Most people, most of the time, don’t notice that all their thinking about past, present and future is shaped by some set of unnoticed assumptions about time and history.  The assumptions in question usually come out of some fusion of culturally valued narratives and recent experience—not a bad idea, all things considered, unless events begin to move in ways that a fusion of culturally valued narratives and recent experience no longer explain.

It’s easiest to understand this in practice by taking an example that’s as different as possible from the common habits of thinking today; fortunately, the history of ideas has no shortage of those. The one I want to introduce here comes to us courtesy of Hesiod, one of the very first ancient Greek poets whose works still survive. He lived in the eighth century BCE in the harsh if beautiful hill country of Boeotia, halfway down the eastern side of the Greek peninsula. That we know of, he wrote two major poems, The Origin of the Gods and Works and Days, and the latter of these sketches out a vision of the shape of time that was to have a great deal of influence long after Hesiod’s day.

It’s a vision of relentless decline. For Hesiod, the zenith of human happiness lay in the distant past, in the Golden Age when the old wise god Kronos ruled and the earth produced crops without human labor. Since then, age after age, it’s been all downhill:  the Silver Age of folly and ignorance, the Bronze Age of merciless warriors, the Age of Heroes immediately before Hesiod’s time, and finally the bitter Iron Age when misery and hard labor are humanity’s lot. In his vision, it’s not going to get any better, either: eventually the last frail scraps of goodness will go whistling down the wind, infants will be born with their hair already gray.  Then Zeus will destroy the humanity of the Iron Age as he destroyed the inhabitants of the previous four ages, and the story ends. If the Golden Age was scheduled to return after that, Hesiod doesn’t mention it.

To some extent Hesiod’s model is the human life cycle, seen from the perspective of an old man looking back on life in a hard age: happiness in infancy, folly in childhood, war and passion in adolescence, hard productive labor in adulthood, and finally the miseries of old age and death. Still, there’s more to it than that, because Hesiod’s vision of the shape of time was a tolerably good reflection of the history that part of the world had experienced in the centuries just before he lived.

Two thousand years before Hesiod, prehistoric Greece had been the home of a lively assortment of village cultures making the slow transition from polished stone tools to bronze. On that foundation more complex societies rose, borrowing heavily from contemporary high cultures in the Middle East, and culminating in the monumental architecture and literate palace bureaucracies of the Mycenean age. Those of my readers who have some sense of the rhythms of history will already know what followed: too much clearcutting and intensive farming of the fragile Greek soils, made worse by the importation of farming methods better suited to flat Mesopotamian valleys than easily eroded Greek hills, triggered an ecological crisis; most of the topsoil of Mycenean Greece ended up at the bottom of the Aegean Sea, where it can still be found in core samples; warfare, migration, and population collapse followed in the usual manner, as Mycenean society stumbled down the curve of its own Long Descent.

That’s the past that defined Hesiod’s vision of the present and the future. Those of my readers who are up for a challenge might consider trying, for a few moments, to fit their minds around that vision—to try to sense what it would have been like to see history as a long and bitter descent, and to imagine that view of things not as an interesting speculation or a theory, but simply as the way things are, the way they have always been and will always be.  Think about the way the world would look to you if humanity’s best years were in the distant past, the future held nothing but a long trajectory of decline ending in extinction, and your chances of relative happiness depended on being smart, tough, and intensely aware of the downside risks in every choice you made.

Hope is not a virtue in such a world. Whether or not Hesiod invented the story of Pandora’s box, he’s the source from which every later version derives, but there’s a detail you’ll find in modern versions of the tale that is not in his account. The usual version these days is that when all the plagues and curses in the box flew out to afflict humanity, Hope remained behind as a kind of consolation prize. In Hesiod, it’s not a consolation prize, it’s the nastiest of the curses that Zeus put in the box, the enticing delusion that things will get better when they won’t. Early Greek poets liked to use fixed adjective-noun pairs—the rosy-fingered dawn, the wine-dark sea, and so on; when the word “hope” appears in ancient Greek poetry, the adjective normally assigned to it was “blind.”

That’s the world in which Hesiod lived. The point that too many of his modern interpreters don’t grasp is that his attitude, and the practical implications of that attitude which filled the verses of Works and Days—distrust the new, rely on traditional wisdom, aim for modest goals, keep a year’s supply of grain on hand so you don’t starve—were better suited to his world than, for example, our faith in the limitless potential of the future would have been. In an impoverished tribal society scrabbling for survival amid the ruins of a far more complex culture and the long-term impacts of ecological collapse, accepting the reality of decline and the likelihood of further trouble to come was a better strategy than any of the alternatives; in the language of evolutionary ecology, it was adaptive. It’s unlikely to be an accident that visions of time like Hesiod’s are very common in the hard times that follow the collapse of major civilizations.

Now of course Hesiod’s bleak vision is far from the only alternative to the vision of progress that defines the shape of time to most people in today’s industrial world. For a third alternative, consider the distinctive way of thinking about time that’s common to a great many tribal societies around the world. In this vision of the shape of time, everything important took place in illo tempore—in the Dreamtime, as the Australian aboriginal term has it, the time when animals lived and spoke like people and the powers who defined the cosmos traced out the patterns that humanity would follow ever after.  In this way of thinking about time, all of the history that mattered happened long ago, and is chronicled in the mythic narratives that the elders recite to children so that they will know the right way to live. Each event since then, whether it’s part of the cycle of the year, the cycle of a human life, or what have you, simply reiterates and reflects some feature of that original time.

I have no idea if this is still the case, but when I was growing up, there were any number of children’s novels set in “primitive societies”—that is, cultures that experienced time in the way I’ve just outlined—which focused obsessively on some imaginary individualist who turned his (or, very rarely, her) back on tribal custom via one triumphant innovation after another. Those stories were very flattering to the sensibilities of readers in modern industrial cultures, to be sure, but they missed nearly everything relevant to the tribal cultures in question. By the time a society following a hunter-gatherer or village horticulture ecology has inhabited a given bioregion for a few thousand years, it’s a safe bet that the people in that culture will have tried all the available options, figured out which ones work and which ones don’t, and enshrined that hard-won knowledge in stories, customs, and taboos, the normal technologies for passing knowledge down through the generations in societies that don’t have writing.

In such a context, innovation is rarely a good idea.  The resource base that would be necessary to deal with subsistence failure or ecological instability simply isn’t available—the ability to store food over the long term doesn’t come in until the invention of grain agriculture, so nothing as substantial as Hesiod’s year of stockpiled grain stands between a hunter-gatherer or village horticultural society and starvation. The innovator who introduces the bow and arrow to a people used to hunting with spears thus might be dooming them to starve to death when the new technology proves too successful at killing game, and wipes out the herds.  In that ecological setting, an understanding of time that wards off such potentially lethal possibilities is adaptive.

Let’s look at another example, drawn from among the cyclical cosmologies that emerge like clockwork in literate urban civilizations, once they’re past their adolescence and start paying attention to the traces of earlier civilizations around them. There are dozens of such cosmologies, some of which have been discussed at length in these essays; the example I have in mind this time around, though, is the traditional Chinese version, which guided historical thought in China from archaic times straight through to the 20th century.

The basic theory of the Chinese science of time is that events are guided by many different cycles, some faster and some slower, some influencing one dimension of human life and some shaping another.  The cycle of the seasons was one of these; the cycle of human life was another; the cycle of the rise and fall of dynasties was a third; there were many more, each with its own period and typical sequence of events. Just as no two years had exactly the same weather on exactly the same days, no two repetitions of any other cycle were identical, but common patterns allowed the events of one repetition to be more or less predicted by a sufficiently broad knowledge of earlier examples.  On a much broader scale, all cycles of every kind could be understood as expressions of a single abstract pattern of cyclic change, which was explored in the classic Chinese textbook of time theory, the I Ching—in English, the Book of Change.

Most people in the western world who are familiar with the I Ching at all think of it as a fortunetelling book, full of obscure oracles accessed by flipping Chinese coins or, for the cognoscenti, sorting bundles of yarrow stalks. Back in the day, that was the kindergarten level of I Ching practice. The masters of the Book of Change recognized that each of the 64 hexagrams was an abstract representation of a  particular stage in the unfolding of a cyclic pattern; each hexagram could turn into any other hexagram under the right conditions; and the goal of study was to be able to contemplate any given sequence of events, identify what pattern was in process just then, figure out where it was going next, and get there first. This wasn’t a purely philosophical pursuit by any means—many Chinese martial arts rely on the I Ching as a basis for strategy, and “getting there first” in this case involves bringing a fist or a foot up hard against the opponent’s vulnerable spots.

Like the other shapes of time we’ve discussed so far, cyclical cosmologies are highly adaptive in their own historical context. They emerge, as I’ve already suggested, in mature literate civilizations that have access to the records and ruins of older societies.  Whether it’s Chinese scholars pondering the rise and fall of dynasties, Chaldean priests mulling over the fates of the kingdoms of the Mesopotamian plain, Roman Stoics sketching out the rhythms in which Greek city-states flourished and fell, or early 20th century European historians recognizing familiar patterns in the historical events of their own time,  students of the cycles of history recognize that the past has lessons to offer the present, and use a sense of cyclic change to guide their efforts to understand those lessons and put them to work.

Does that make cyclical cosmologies more accurate than the others we’ve just considered?  Is the circle the true shape of time?  It’s hard to see any way in which those questions could mean anything. What I’ve called the shape of time is an abstraction, a convenient model that sums up the way that events seem to unfold from the standpoint of particular people in a particular historical situation.  Abstractions of this kind are tools, not truths—you might as well ask if a hammer is factually accurate. It’s nonetheless true that different tools are better suited, more adaptive, to different situations. If you live in a society struggling to endure in the wake of cultural and ecological collapse, Hesiod’s vision may be your best bet; if you live in a society that has a stable relationship with its bioregion but very few resources on which to fall back in time of trouble, the Dreamtime cosmology will likely be a better choice; if you live in a society that has a literate historical tradition, and want to use that resource to help you duck some of the troubles that overwhelmed earlier societies, the cyclical approach is the tool you need. Other situations have other tools better suited to them—the handful of shapes of time I’ve outlined here are only a few of the many options that have been tried, with more or less success, over the span of recorded history.

One of the others is of particular importance to our broader theme.  If you happen to live in a society that has stumbled across an energy source of unparalleled abundance and concentration, a source so rich that the major economic challenge faced over the course of three centuries is that of finding enough ways to use it to replace human muscle power and the other, far more limited energy sources of less lavishly supplied eras, then a vision of time as endless progress is going to be your most adaptive choice.  That’s arguably the main reason why belief in progress has become so deeply entrenched in the collective imagination of the industrial world:  for more than three hundred years, much more often than not, it worked.  During that era, those people, companies, and nations that gambled on progress by and large did much better than those that bet their money and other resources on stasis or decline.

As the fine print says, though, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and a shape of time that was highly adaptive to some particular set of historical conditions can become maladaptive when the conditions suddenly change. Ancient Greece went through such a shift, beginning a century or so after Hesiod’s time, as the reopening of trade routes closed since Mycenae’s fall made it profitable for Greek farmers to turn hillside acreage over to olive orchards and vineyards for the export trade. By the beginning of the sixth century, as Greek wine and oil flooded markets across the eastern Mediterranean and brought a corresponding flood of hard currency and imported goods back home, Hesiod’s harsh but functional views stopped being relevant, though it was many years more before that lack of relevance was really processed by the Greeks. Another millennium passed before the old pattern repeated itself, and the civilization of classical Greece stumbled down the curve of decline and fall toward a dark age that Hesiod would have recognized at once.

The central theme of this blog, in turn, is that the same sort of transformation is happening in our own time, but in the other direction.  The shape of time that governs nearly all contemporary thinking in the industrial world, the vision of perpetual progress, was adaptive back when ever more abundant energy supplies were being extracted out of mines and wells and poured into the project of limitless industrial expansion. The end of the age of cheap abundant energy, though, makes that shape of time hopelessly maladaptive, and a galaxy of assumptions and ideas founded on faith in progress are thus well past their pull date.

Since most people in the modern industrial world aren’t even aware of the role that faith in progress plays in their thinking, their chances of adapting to the end of progress are not good—and certain habits of thought the civil religion of progress has inherited from older theist religions make the necessary adaptations even harder than they have to be. We’ll discuss those next week.

136 comments:

GuRan said...

"The shape of time" - shorthand for the understood relationships between the events of the past, present and future; and the meanings of those relationships?

Anselmo said...

The mentality of the Viking settlers in Greenland established before Eedad Little Ice Age and who lived by cattle ranching and agriculture, did not allow them to adapt to changes in the environment that ensued. The result was that the settlers died of starvation. But the Indians Inhuit the opposite happened.

They could have learned from the inhuit some of their techniques, which would have helped them to survive. But they did not.

Possibly influenced by the utter contempt that the Vikings felt about the inhuits.

John Michael Greer said...

GuRan, it's a bit more general than that. Does time have a direction, a general trend, an undertow? To Hesiod, it did, and the trend was toward the worse; to believers in progress it does, and the trend was toward the better; to believers in cyclic time, it does, and the trend is toward the repetition of previous patterns. Those are examples of what I'm talking about.

Anselmo, good. The Norse settlers in Greenland understood the shape of time in a way we'll be discussing next week, one that fixates on conflict between good and evil, and that very likely predisposed them to their fate. More on this soon!

Stonymeadow said...

i recall precisely when and where my notion of 'progress' was challenged; Cairo, 1991, from my journal: "Cairo archeological museum. The King Tut exhibit was quite impressive. The quality of the jewelry and other object d’art was quite high, much higher than other “old” jewelry I’ve seen. Again, my conception of civilization being mostly “upward and to the right” and getting better was challenged. Many times since then, the artistic and engineering skills of societies has not even come close to the Egyptians!"

Andrew said...

The thing I am really worried about is that some of the bigger mistakes our society is practising, will be the "common" and "traditional" knowledge of the future, burdening our descendants even more with our fallacies, and if this happens, it will be very, very difficult to escape these pattern, too.

We can allready see this in third world countries, where people spend their money on baby formula where breastmilk would be healthier, safer and cheaper, where people are developing all kinds of diseases because they are adepting to "modern" diets and hyper medicalised childbirth is taking its toll.

Andrew said...

For this proces, I purpose the Expression "Poisoning the well of Wisdom" or "Poisoning the well of Knowledge", because that is what is happening, to the misfortune of future generations.

morenewyorknews said...

JMG
I was thinking about how can countries retain technological knowledge in days of collapse.
Take one example:Setting up of Petrochemical complex manufacturing host of chemicals like PE,PP etc.
The technology developer needs a well trained staff of researchers and technologists numbering anything from mere 500 to 5000.
Then contractors who transform technology in papers to actual plant need even more.
The plant operators need minimum of 1000-5000 trained people.
As anybody who worked in building new plants knows,diverse skills are required at various stages.Some part of the knowledge is always hidden and NOT WRITTEN IN HANDBOOKS.So the specialists have more knowledge about different aspects of plant.
The complete knowledge of petrochemical technology is distributed among so many people,no single human being can hope to master it in one lifetime.
When any one of the link goes awry,the whole technology collapses.If technology developer can't get contractors,the plant will never be built.
This is what happened to russian shipbuilders.After a gap of 20 years,russians can no longer build aircraft carriers or submarines.They can't even repair ships built in days of USSR.
So anybody who believes technology works like clockwork,every time,any place will have to revive their assumptions.Technology survives in very fragile environment.It requires trained manpower,finance,market demand and political stability.A short economical/political/environmental disturbance can wipe out many years of knowledge.

luna said...

Hi JMG - When I first became "peak oil aware", I remember I tried to read everything I could get hold of about the issue. One of the things I read was the Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins. I sailed though the chapters on climate change, energey depletion, the problems facing the industrial world and the need for action, and it all seemed to make a lot of sense.

I then got on the the "hearts and minds" chapter, about visualising the positive future that could arise if the right action was taken. This chapter included fictitious newspaper pages full of happy-ending stories and smiling children. I know the point of it was trigger action by inspiring people rather than just frightening them, but I found it a complete and utter turn-off.

I find it difficult to explain why in so many words, or put my finger on it. Maybe I just smelt a rat - it was a deep-down feeling that this is not how it's going to be, the reality will be much more complicated, and I recoiled against it (even though I'd had similar hopes myself prior to this!)

In the light of this week's post, perhaps my reaction was just a gut feeling that dreaming of a rosy future is really not a good idea at this point. I'm aware of your reservations about the Transition Movement, but I'm just wondering if you have any further psychological insight on this particular point?

Lizzy said...

This is really interesting. I agree with what Stonymeadow says. Further, if you look as well at the way we're incredulous, patronising, about works done in ancient time, e.g. Stonehenge, the pyramids ("They're so clever! How did they do this?" etc) it's the same.
I've been to several of the caves in France and Spain where there is ancient art. And you know? It's sophisticated. I certainly couldn't do it, and I can draw and paint reasonably well. When you think about it, why on earth would anybody want to show the work of "average" craftsmen or women. I went to the British Museum a month or two ago and say the "Ice Age Art" exhibition of prehistoric sculptures, engravings, displayed with modern pieces (Picasso). You couldn't see too much difference.
It doesn't really fit with our idea of progress, of us being the best there's ever been, so we just continue to smile knowingly at it.

Yupped said...

I think you are right to emphasize how strongly the overall narrative of progress shapes thinking and interpretation of events, certainly on a macro level. As you say, it is a huge and largely unconscious filter. And it is quite addictive - looking back at the arc of industrial history since the 1970s you can discern a kind of massive huge primal scream of rejection of the resource limits that were becoming clear about that time. And so now we'll all be kicked out of our unconscious habits much more painfully than if we'd all decided voluntarily to wake up.

But I have to believe on a personal level for many people that this faith in the American Dream view of progress is starting to crack now, or has already cracked, especially if you are living in the rust belt or a smaller town in rural area of the US. If you are a long-time resident of Detroit, for example, you are probably adjusting your relationship to hope in a better material future about now.

But we still need hope on a personal level, or at least a motivation for happiness. I do find a lot of hope in the idea and practice of a simpler life as being more deeply rewarding. Or at the very least just perfectly adequate and enjoyable. And dealing with reality as it is is also very grounding and satisfying. But you have to kick out the illusions first.

M said...

The rabbit story reminds me of this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ahg6qcgoay4


I think another aspect of Progress that makes it so pernicious is how it is enmeshed with our ideas of liberty and rights, never mind what havoc these "rights" of ours wreak on civilization at large. Just one current (very minor) example would be the furor over the NYC law curtailing large soft drinks. Maybe someone has the right to drink all the soda they want, but society is running out of money to pay for their diabetic care. Since people no longer act on their own to protect the commons, it must often be legislated (though I realize this is not going to help much in the long run either).

Along the lines of the costs of "Progress" to society, I picked up an early 70s essay reader, Economics of the Environment [1972, W. W. Norton]at a garage sale recently. It's almost depressing how many good ideas were floating around 40 years ago. I'm looking forward to getting a copy of E.J. Mishan's The Costs of Economic Growth, which seems it may have a lot to say about Progress.

I'm also looking forward to attending the Sustainable Life Skills course and the first two days of the Age of Limits conference at the end of the month. Hope to meet a few fellow followers of this blog as well as the author. Happy spring to all in a spring zone part of the world.

Richard Larson said...

This weblog ended, er, well. Points made. I imagine you were referencing the Greeks of today, this minute even.

This Hesoid must make for interesting reading, right in line with what I would consider more the reality, based on the entire human time-scale terms. Everyone in the western world born after WW2 has no idea of what life is really like, taken over this time scale, and even the Archdruid can only surmise based on all his readings. It will be hard to adapt even having the awareness of Hesiod, me thinks.

I'm going hook and line fishing. This type of fishing matches one of the larger point you made. Other than the general patterns, like spawning in their ancestral spots, one can not expect to catch the same fish in the same spot the same way every time. The fish swim around and you have to figure out where they are and how to catch them, and that doesn't work much of the time either.

As in most things, one is going to have to rely on luck. So figure that out. Ha!

Phil Harris said...

JMG
I like your examples of screening and selection of perceptions. I remember learning plant disease symptoms from what had seemed a homogenous background. After initial confusion they appeared as if by ‘magic’ and became obvious. And once, conversely, because I was in a hurry with usual priorities I walked twice (!) directly across a dead rat that had been deposited in the sitting room overnight by our cats. (I must have ‘seen’ it to tread over it.) Our eldest child came through a few minutes later to tell me it was there.

Thanks for taking us back to Greece & Hesiod. We know some things these days that others learned the hard way when they ended up in some very 'path dependent' places! Wine and olive oil ship edible carbon and some useful phyto-nutrients, and not very much of the soil nutrients: reasonably sustainable and high value agrarian trades.

I am interested in another shape of time, time the healer, which like sleep the restorer, re-organizes memory. Fallow the earth long enough, and climate willing, soil fertility is restored. It was part of an ancient system in many places. Even in America when settlers cut all the wood and exhausted the soil and moved on, the second growth grew up behind them. The result was never quite the same as the original inheritance, but it seems to have been something.

best
Phil H

Jeffrey said...

[i]If you happen to live in a society that has stumbled across an energy source of unparalleled abundance and concentration, a source so rich that the major economic challenge faced over the course of three centuries is that of finding enough ways to use it to replace human muscle power then a vision of time as endless progress is going to be your most adaptive choice.[/i]

We are peaking down into descent sitting collectively on top of a now declining but still enormous resource base where only the tiniest percentage of energy is really used for utility, most of it being used as you said indulging in ways to replace human muscular power. I see this non utility use of energy like an extravagant peacocks tail that is miles long.

As resource constraints disrupt this extravagant use of energy we will be forced to go through the painful process of prioritizing remaining resources more for utility than extravagance.

In the category of extravagance I put the belief in progress that will take us to the stars and all those other myths. But as energy use goes from extravagance more to utility I can see us collectively still holding on to a certain optimism of progress but just redefining this from shooting to the stars to focussing on making things work in a sustainable way here on our planet.

What is being constrained is extravagance, not utility of energy use. I am therefore not sensing that we are entering a major inflection point where the dominant paradigm will shift so much as seeing this paradigm get confronted with a more realistic set of objectives of what will define progress.

rylan said...

Overall, very interesting. Some of your brief historical references assume a depth of knowledge i do not have so likely i'm missing some meaning, but still there was much here that worked for me.

I do wonder if there is not some natural patterns at play here. That there is some tendency for movement, a tendency for periods of expansion and contraction. But beyond that it becomes what we make of it, how and even if we ride on natural patterns, and how we adapt to our changing environment.

I had never really been aware of how perpetual progress had mistakenly been assumed by the "group mind" as being a natural pattern. Understanding this many things fall into place, the scary part is how this is another component on how much control the "group mind" can have on us.

Sixbears said...

Having grown up in a dying mill town, I never bought into the whole limitless progress things. Those around me who did just looked foolish. Progress was for other places.

My home town has less than half the population it once had. Remaining jobs pay less than the old mill jobs did. Plenty mistakes were made along the way as the town searched for more of that progress. Money went into now vacant industrial parks. Once the grants and tax breaks went away, so did the companies.

I always had hope, but a hard eyed flinty hope that saw the way things were and where they were going.

Larry said...

As usual I enjoyed this week’s blog; there are insights there one doesn’t find except in the dustiest of the old volumes.

There was something in the back pages (C10) of April 30th Wall Street Journal that I thought would be of interest to your readers and apropos of this blog. The WSJ had a negative article on fracking, which might have been a first for them. The writer (Liam Denning) estimates that Hess Oil spent about $1,140 million for leases and drilling in the Texas Eagle Ford shale, received about $100 million in cash from the oil/gas extracted, and then sold out their position for $265 million resulting in a loss of $775 million or 68% of their investment.

However, as the title of the article is Hess Shows That Timing Really is Everything with Shale, the article implies that poor execution was the reason for the failure of the project, not that the concept itself is of dubious merit.

Steve Morgan said...

On the upslope of the Hubbert curve, the shape of time mimics the resource base available. On the downslope the same is true, though the new religion is the anti-religion of earlier days. At the crest of the wave, though, where we are now, seems to be an interesting time for the shape of time. At this crest we look around and notice so many other times when peoples have crested other waves, only to return to the troughs again, as we will.

The meme seems to be spreading, though, about the adaptive shape of time. I've read several stories of people in the US lowering expectations for material wealth, leaning more in Hesiod's direction than Jiminy Cricket's, and my personal interactions mirror the same. The tough part seems to be getting over the sense that it's some kind of betrayal to believe in the anti-religion of Progress's vision of time, rather than the escape-valve of apocalypse.

In my own mind, the Golden Age came for my parents' generation of baby boomers. My father taught high school for 40 years in the same Rust Belt city, and he well remembers the days when teenagers would graduate and walk right into a good middle-class job making more money than he did in any of a dozen factories across town, buy a house, get married, and start saving up for a little cabin on a lake up north to take the kids fishing on vacations. All of that is long gone now, and the changes in mind wrought by those changes in opportunity and landscape are a major reason why I agree that the future of America is happening today in places where Progress has already been stripped of its valuable materials and shipped to China for recycling.

Thanks for the interesting fodder for reflection, JMG, and I'm looking forward to next week's installment.

russell1200 said...

Anselmo seems to be confusing two native groups involved with the Vikings. This confusion is understandable because this is the way the story is written by European/American historians who don't understand the far north social dynamics of the time.

The first natives that the Vikings ran into were the Dorset. They called them something like "Skraeling". They were the people of the Canadian/Alaskan far north before the arrival of the Eskimo. The Eskimo were much more aggressive than the Dorset, and supplanted them except for small cul de sacs, until the remnants were eventually done in by European disease much much later. The Viking/Greenland inhabitation occurs during the time of this change.

Given that the Dorset were conditioned to a Northern climate, and still lost out to the Eskimo, it seems rather unlikely a small group of Norwegians/Danes could have done better.

It doesn't mean that the Norwegians weren't pigheaded and stubborn, it means that the cultural suite needed to thrive in a competitive environment is a complex mix that is not easily imitated. A group as tiny as the Norwegians would have had better luck trying to join the Eskimo (unlikely) than imitating them.

Zach said...

John Michael,

Nicely done - I like the taxonomy of time shapes you've laid out here.

Looking forward to next week - I'm guessing you're hinting at either Manichean dualism, apocalyptic endings, or some combination of both. Time will tell if I'm right. :)

It occurs to me that Christianity is dogmatically committed to only two propositions:

1. "He will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end." In other words, whatever the shape of historical time is, at some point ("soon") Christ returns to end the current shape of it and institute something new.

2. As a prelude to that apocalyptic ending to history, we will experience "Peak Evil."

And until then, keep busy about your business.

I think all of the models you outline this week can (and have) been fit within that framework.

Ironically, the one that fits least best is that of perpetual progress! (At least in my assessment, and I know I am not alone in this.) I suppose the fact that it's been so adaptive for the last several generations explains its appeal to Christians who ought to know better.

peace,
Zach

P.S.: Ha! Word verification "itoesnd apostle"

NH Peter said...


I truly enjoyed your post this morning, it is a masterful presentation of a very difficult set of concepts. I also very much look forward to your treatment of theistic religion’s influence on these same concepts next week. Great stuff!

I find myself teaching this material from time to time (and intend to borrow from your presentation, with credit of course!). When I do so I cover the same forms you have mentioned, though often already conflated with theistic influences (I might change that, but we’ll see what you do next week!). I think this is a bit of a tangent to your main argument, but there is a third form I treat and I wonder if you think it is a useful addition and if you have any ideas about its presentation. So in addition to “linear” forms of time (progressive and regressive), the “cyclical” form, I also talk about time as “point” to refer to the more difficult and often esoteric presentations of time by some philosophers. Zarathustra’s compression of time into the moment is a good example, so also the dissolution of time in Taoist and some Zen writings, and to some degree in the Platonic dialogues, perhaps also Rousseau’s Reveries. This form of time has limited social or political value, hence probably remains tangential to your argument, but as I said, I am interested in your thoughts here.

Many thanks for your generosity!

-p

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Speaking of perception, there seems to be a disagreement of what sort of curve best fits the data. The believers in progress see an exponential uptrend. The peak resource analysts see a gaussian curve. The students of history favor sine curves, with repeated peaks and valleys. Anthropologist Diamond sees a sawtooth curve with repeated ascents and sudden collapses. If one wants to take a longer view than human history gives us then we have to account for periodic meteor impacts on the earth which make evolution look like the kind of curve that believers in progress favor, only that when the meteor hits, progress is wiped out and gets to start again from a reduced field of genetic resources.
Given that what most of us know best is what we experienced in our own lifetimes, deciding what sort of curve best fits reality depends on whether we have spent most of our lives on an up slope or a down slope.
Our present predicament seems to be that our culture can't decide whether we are on a temporary or more long-term down slope. In the political arena, the argument translates into whether we should spend our resources trying to bring the upslope back or whether we should try to figure out how to make the down slope less painful. Actually, at the mainstream level there isn't even any discussion. What talk there is of how to deal with a long downslope goes on on forums such as this one.

JP said...

"Is the circle the true shape of time?"

No.

The open spiral is the true shape of time.

And there is a non-local telos. A logos. A tao. However, it really can't be "defined". Because words don't work. It can certainly be seen, I suppose. And understood.

History might not repeat itself, but it sure does st-st-stutter sometimes.

I love being an amateur meta-historian.

You can work with or work against the undertow.

Or ride it along if it's going where you want to go.

My current working concept (always subject to change) is that the undertow can be understood using higher mathematics.

Which provides the framework. The constraints.

People fill in the rest.

I mean I can say that you need mirror symmetry and Calabi-Yao manifolds, but does anyone really care?

And ultimately the question comes down to determinism and freedom.

The only constant is that there are always constants and variables.

Both/and.

In any event, the most important question to me is kind of a question of Spengler.

Is human nature such that a high culture can only really exist for about a millennium before the ideas which gave rise to it are played out? It's been unrolled like a flower, bloomed, and died.

People can riff on ideas for a time. And then that time is over.

What I'm personally most interested in with respect to the stories of the tribes, and how information is stored with an illiterate people, is one particular story that I saw on a television show once.

It was about one of the remaining tribal peoples during the 1980's/1990's and they had some sort of story about visitors from another world.

The problem was that their story was apparently describing where the visitors came from being a binary star system in which one of the stars was a neutron star.

Last time I checked, tribal people didn't know about the gravity differential between neutron stars and regular stars.

Either somebody planted that story for giggles to mess with tourists or information was encoded in their story.

Denys aka Mommy said...

One of the ideas of progress in the west has been equality - we can equally do the work available - which is a very handy concept when there are so many jobs to fill in a growing economy and in many of the jobs, the people are interchangeable. It doesn't take any particular unique talent to serve fries, scan products at the register, and work in most cubicles.

This idea of equality isn't in many other cultures and times of history. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of the hardest things for us to adjust to was the rigid ideas of what place/role there was for each person in that society. If you were a mother, you were home raising children, cooking and cleaning. There was no discussion about how women could do the work of men, probably better, and men would chip in to do work at home. To propose such an idea to the people we lived with caused such a fit of laughter, one felt like a real fool.

So I can't help but wonder, if there isn't a reason for a lot of progressive ideas such as gay marriage, equal pay for equal work, and free public education for all - progressive ideals which completely benefit the corporate capitalist system of growing size can capacity - are all these progressive ideas just going to fade away? What do you think?

EnergyLens said...

I have been perusing Henry Adams "A Letter To American Teachers of History", which I find quite entertaining. In his attempt to lay the basis for Entropic History he he notes the proximity of the formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (1850) and the publication of On The Origin of the Species (1859) and sets the perspective of the physicist/degradationist against that of the darwinist/evolutionist noting that "society has the air of taking for granted its indefinite progress towards perfection..." ... the Darwinian view was more useful from a social perspective.

It is the tension between these two perspectives since the mid-1800's that I find so intriguing since there have been many attempts since that time on through the Limits to Growth and up to the present to essentially question the growing strength of the civil religion of progress.

I was pleased to see you discussing various narratives in the language of evolutionary ecology as adaptive or maladaptive. This is exactly how I have attempted to present our present social relations and globalized economy to my friends and family, as fitting in a "high-energy niche" and very likely maladaptive to a low energy future.

It would be very interesting to read a narrative of history that takes into account the various "shape of time" narratives (psychologies) with more focused attention to the energetic/resource base and the entropic forces set in motion by man's social arrangements.

Adams: "From the physicist's point of view, Man, as a conscious and constant, single, natural force, seems to have no function except that of dissipating or degrading energy. Indeed, the evolutionist himself has complained, and is still complaining in accents which grow shriller every day, that man does more to dissipate and waste nature's economies than all the rest of animal or vegetable life has ever done to save them."

"...man is a bottomless sink of waste unparalleled in the cosmos, and can already see the end of immense economies which his mother Nature stored for his support."

~~~

Thank you for exactly seven years of Thought-provoking Thursdays (or Weekly Wisdom Wednesdays, if you prefer - I can't stay up that late).

Villager said...

Excellent post!

Whether I happen to agree with all your points or not I almost always come away with an enlarged historical view of the world and for that I am most thankful.

The last truly earthshaking event happened about 2 billion years ago when an archeon ate a cyanobacteria that refused to die and later become what we now call mitochondria. This amounted to a permanent change in the ability of the new cells, the eukaryotes, to capture and utilize energy.

I would say that the introduction of the "perfect" machine - the computer - has changed the calculus of human existence in much the same way. Suddenly, as Knuth was fond of saying, "Cooks were gentlemen." Humans can memorialize their techniques in silicon and the result has been an explosion of what I will call "complicatedness" rather than complexity. This has allowed pursuit of heretofore impossible techniques.

I refuse to use the word "complexity" because I reserve its meaning to that defined by Robert Rosen in "Life Itself." Complexity arises when feedback loops occur between and among the many "models" of any given level of existence. Complicatedness is just a mess that only a machine can understand. Complexity can be modelled but not programmed.

I'm agnostic about the future though I tend to think life will get worse for most of us and much better for a few. The process of "reverse adaptation" has already simplified Americans to the point where we simply don't have the cognitive skills to model our real physical environment in a manner that promotes survival.

But surely the introduction of a crystalline machine that can unerringly pursue a skein of instructions all the way from here to Mars into a society of marginally intelligent hairless apes busy dumbing themselves down by the month is going to restructure our world in ways I don't find appealing.

I really don't know what I'd do if I were in my twenties. Glad I'm not.

Glenn in Maine said...

Greetings, I can claim I think that my personal conception of the shape of time corresponds more to Hesiod’s than the modern myth of Progress. The energy crisis of the early ‘70s had a profound impact on my outlook, as I sense it did yours. I believe we are nearly contemporaries (I was born in ’64), so at a very early age I was conscious of decline. I looked backwards towards an ideal (not to say golden) era that lay in the pre-WW2 past, when things were better by virtue of being more authentic. I later understood that was my way of rejecting the suburban lifestyle and all that went with it. I did not climb aboard the back-to-the-land bandwagon, though tempted, nor did I ever buy into the techno-wonder gadget-obsessed culture that seems to prevail today. We are living what can be described as a sustainable urban homesteading lifestyle, along the lines of The Integral Urban House (again from the ‘70s). I always assessed any situation from the standpoint of energy scarcity, wondering how a particular project/place/structure would fare when the electricity was gone or the oil ran out, well before I ever heard of peak oil, which was in the ’98 SciAm Campbell article. I can report that it is entirely possible to exist in contemporary society while maintaining these views. It’s a contrarian outlook, but the notion that today is better than tomorrow, and things are as good as they ever will be materially speaking, is actually quite liberating. Such an approach is critical to living deliberately, that is, in the moment, which doesn’t necessarily imply lawless abandon (as in Defoe’s ‘Account of the Plague Years). Living with less by design isn’t as difficult as it sounds once you embrace the fact that contraction is the reality, not expansion, so the only choice is to take Thoreau’s approach and choose to be rich by making one’s wants few (to paraphrase Emerson).

SLClaire said...

Lots of good points raised in the previous comments. What I am wondering about is what happens to a society when its viewpoint of the shape of time is in flux? Suppose, for example, that youth are growing up in an environment in which the shape of time suggests a Hesiodian decline. When they were children, things seemed to be abundant, but now they and their age mates are all struggling and it doesn't look as if things will get any better. Meanwhile their parents and grandparents grew up at a time when progress seemed to be endless and still act as if it is, or at least it should be. It seems like a recipe for intergenerational conflict.

Juhana said...

"Distrust the new, rely on traditional wisdom, aim for modest goals, keep a year’s supply of grain on hand so you don’t starve" After reading this interpretation of yours how guy from 8th century BC thought I was like: Wow. That fella from Bronze Age thought exactly as I do. There is no new things under the sun... Later part of my sentence of course represents cyclical thinking, so it must be possible to believe in cyclical decline also :).

Creation myth around I Ching is rich and intertwined to actual book. Immoderate emperor Jou-Sin using mandate of heaven to indulge in decadence, to be replaced by minister of West, Wu of Zhou... There is plenty of drama and soap opera moral teachings surrounding birth of that book. Personally I think that paired trigrams with their changing lines are vague enough to offer consolidation in widest possible variety of situations... True recipe for best seller :).

Person using pen name "morenewyorknews" gave good point reminding how Soviet manufacturing know-how declined after unraveling of logistical networks. Soviet organizations always had hidden agenda of autarchy on their roster, because allocation of resources was made not by prize signals but political decisions, and getting enough resources outside crucial heavy industry was therefore chaotic process, dependent on grace and patronage of standing members of Central Comittee/Gosplan/Orgburo/Politburo, you name it. Pont being, they tried to be as self-reliant as possible, unlike manufacturers in the West. Still, during decade of chaos tons of silent knowledge was lost, and they actually had to bought it back from places like Finland after oil-fueled economy kickstarted mighty but rusty engines again. You can get the impression what it was like by watching news reels (I assume there are some floating around) about gargantuan skeletons of mighty plants stretching from misty horizon to misty horizon, and population experiencing demographic crash scavenging all they can... It was like being inside some German expressionist film from 20s. After watching some low-quality internet videos about that urban decay, take a minute to remember that West is no different, it was no sure winner in Cold War either, and wisdom of Hesiod hits home run.

Mary said...

Hopium is sweet, but the aftershock is brutal, so I no longer indulge.

2 seasons in the north. Chop wood and carry water until winter. Then chop water and carry wood. That is my life.

We're in a small, spring drought here in Maine. On the one hand I'm worried that it won't break and wells will run dry by August. On the other hand I'm grateful as it's given the opportunity to recover large swaths of garden lost to weeds when I was working/in school 18 hours/day. So after several weeks of daily shoveling and raking, both gardens are on the verge of total restoration.

Like the Greeks, I'm focusing this year's garden on value crops. Squash and potatoes are cheap up here. Eggplants, mixed greens, sugar snap peas, not so much. My eggplants -- first I've tried -- pushed their happy little heads above soil on May day and are heading toward the light as I write.

Also the warm drought brought opportunity to get the filly back under saddle a month early. Arabians remember everything you want them to forget, and forget everything you want to remember. Silly human forgot this most basic fact, and started the filly up too quickly in April. She smacked me upside the head quite literally, like any good Zen teacher would I suppose. Ouch, a quick backtrack to review all most basic basics, and the important reminder to be here now, because that's where the filly is. It is a delicate balance to ride as though she knows what she's doing, while remembering she knows nothing.

Happy Beltane, all. Mary

Bugmethx said...

We've been living off the riches of the colonies all these years. These riches are running out.

Even worse, our leaders have wasted what little we have left in colonial wars. But instead of double we got nothing.

Ares Olympus said...

I really apreciate these thoughts of different life strategies working at different times. And I like the idea of "living in two worlds" if a person can keep awareness of both the visible power systems and see the anti-world that exists in the shadows of power.

Its fun for environmentalists to look back to the 1970's energy (oil) crisis and say we (America especially) missed our opportunity to change path, and we choose Reagan's vision of greatness over Carter's moral conservation. And I've heard stories of people who went "off the grid" to wait for a collapse that never happened, so many came back and some of those are now the new urbanites who have decided community is a more sensible response to chaotic times. I was too young for the 70's but my current bet is debt-free city living is better than isolation.

Where the holes of the progress narrative fail for me is not in how much easy energy is left, which might yet be relatively large, is the amount of garbage we create. Composting is the smallest effort that still isn't quite mainstream, but it opens up a way of thinking that isn't apparently as long as someone picks up monster smelly garbage bins every week. So seeing the flow of materialism is depressing and also hopeful, because what we do is so monstrously wasteful.

I think also to William Blake's 4-fold vision, and seeing things from radially different points of view, single vision of self-interest and rational utilitarianism, double-vision which includes awareness of relativity of good, and that collective decisions can be done when every point of view is as the table, and then triple vision where people see a large enough vision to contain the needs of others, and cooperative spirit can lead. Finally four-fold vision that voluntarily seeks above all self-interest to see the world as it is, and gives us a chance to redesign our sense of place in the world to fit what is. Something like, that, and my bad attempt shows my limited understanding.

But so like the "off the grid" people of the 70's or preppers now-a-days, they learned more about their dependence, but there's also a high cost to trying to stand outside the system, to try to be "pure" so you don't need other people's good behavior before you act.

I also think of Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" whose flock lived in a garbage dump, while he sought higher things, to learn of the limits of seagull fight, and he ended up dead, but ascended. I didn't like Bach's cop-out of spiritual ascension, even if life really is a Matrix Video game so we can move on to level 2 when we die. I see JLS's quest for excellence like the Flock - extravagent and self-destructive. I don't care that he was selfish, but that sort of individualism, if it can't find a way to bring something back to a community of others, seems impotent to me. So its a stunted vision of ego.

I recently saw a TEDx speech The Science Delusion - Rupert Sheldrake, and appreciate his attempt to shake up science by challeging its core "dogmas", and with his pet theory of "Morphic resonance" to express a connectivity of life, that our minds are not just in our head, etc. Scientists generally hate it, and I fear speculation that can't be proven, BUT in Blake's vision, suggests the single vision of mechanical science fails us, and even if we can't know exactly what more there is, our models can break wider what facts we see and which facts we filter.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TerTgDEgUE

I definitely can see the threat that "hope" is also a curse, and yet maybe its a blessing as long as it helps us try to see things from different points of view before we fight to the death for a view that is too small.

The Primitive said...

This is beautiful. Of the many things that keeps me reading this blog week after week is regardless of if I agree with you or not, what you write changes my thinking and sets me off in directions that were otherwise unexplored. It's like a scheduled weekly A-Ha event.

Relevant to that, part of my perception of the current shape of time is the lack of time itself. I can believe it was adaptive at some point in the not too recent past to not focus too deeply on any specific ideas or thoughts. Maybe like with business, movement up and to the right can hide a great deal of sins. And in the case of massive progress, maybe reflection becomes a liability. It takes too long. Maybe it takes too much time that could be put to better use.

That has what your last series of posts has had me wondering. Are we, as a general society, capable of really hearing your message? Or is the shape of our time such that there is no space for it?

David James Peterson said...

Your post reminds me of this quote from the movie Office Space: “Ever since I started working, every day has been worse than the one before. That means each time you see me, that's on the worst day of my life.”


“…it’s a safe bet that the people in that culture will have tried all the available options, figured out which ones work and which ones don’t…” This reminds me one story in Jared Diamond’s book “The World Until Yesterday”. In the New Guinea Highlands, a missionary saw that one of the gardens on a hill had its water channels dug straight down the hill rather than horizontally across the hillside (like contour plowing). The missionary told them how to do it ‘correctly’ and the villagers re-did the channels horizontally. When the next rain came the entire garden slid down the hill and into the valley. In a place that receives 200 inches of rain per year the villagers’ ancestor had already found the best way to channel water, down the hill and away from the garden.

onething said...

It seems to me if we're going to have to go back to a much simpler way of life, we ought at least to wear better looking clothing. The stuff we wear now is so ugly.

Wouldn't it have been nice if while we had the power tools and equipment, we had left a legacy of built things even more fantastic then ever? Instead, it's all shoddy and plain.

I've spent quite a bit of time in the past few years dissecting the belief systems people hold. I got influenced by Huang Po. That, and some snippet about every age being aghast at the foolishness of prior ages, but oblivious to their own.

I took that as a challenge. Their was no delusion that we are somehow the exception. I knew that couldn't be.

In the end, I feel almost paralyzed at times with the situation. Is there any hope (escape)? Essentially, civilizations live in various collective dreams.

It's funny too, because human beings have such a powerful need to interpret reality, to know what's going on, so to speak, and so little ability to discern it.

Funnily enough, in Yahoo news today there is an article about 5 careers that are going to dwindle, and the main reason is automation and computer programs. Another light bulb goes off...squandering the last of our resources so some few can get a bit richer while there are not enough jobs to go around and people are willing to do the work of machines, heh, heh.

DeAnander said...

What I'd do if I were in my twenties...

I wonder about that a lot. Would I be full of vim and vigour, looking forward to a challenging future, eager to learn forgotten skills -- having a lifetime ahead to learn them properly instead of fiddling around as a middle-aged amateur without enough lifespan left to become truly expert at anything useful? Or would I be disillusioned, enraged and despairing, looking at the awful mess my parents and grandparents have left me? really dunno. Either attitude would be understandable.

Gavin Harris said...

Hi JMG. I believe that the events of the last few years have shaken a lot of people's belief in the "goodness" of progress. Unfortunately, rather than adapt their view, too many have fallen back on "faith". "If we believe harder, it will get better." Still the rise in prepper-style movements at least seems to acknowledge that, in some cases, people are aware that we are no longer moving up and to the right anymore.

dowsergirl said...

Hope is not a virtue, hope is blind? I have yet to meet a human that doesn't have some sort of a hope...for good or for bad.

And the difference between cyclical change and transformation could maybe be explained by the concept of cc as inevitable and transformation as what may be hoped for?

M: I like the idea of taxation for large drinks to cover health care costs.

Richard: Isn't luck a physical form of hope?

Yes, I am still hopeful.

derekthered said...

hadn't you heard? we have abolished time, it's all one time now, past, present, and future; it's all in the magic box.

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when from out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!

good stuff that. all gone now, driven out by incandescent light, package switching, and the glow of the monitor.

why should we fear the future, we've got all the time in world!

time is actually a very interesting subject, we say it "passes" but what exactly passes? this is the abstract concept you speak of. maybe time doesn't even exist, maybe the universe exists in an eternal moment, who knows? could be beets, could be peaches........

the supposed power we wield has definitely warped our minds, we live as if there's no tomorrow, because tomorrow has always been there, safe and snug in our own cocoon. i am always just amazed, and disgusted, when i watch science shows that describe what "we" will accomplish, whoever we is, all while half the world doesn't have a reliable source of drinking water.

do these observations paint a picture of the hubris you describe?

Bozack said...

Another very interesting post - JMG is providing a cognitive tool-chest that I think many of us will be using for a long time to come....

I suspect that Westerners do not have the cognitive tools that would allow them to view time in a cyclical manner - the Christianity that permeates our culture seems to encourage linear thinking with a definite end point: Armageddon, the Second Coming, 1000 years of chaos (or was it peace?) This applies both at a societal level and also at an individual level as we journey through our own lives towards either heaven or hell.

It seems to me that cultures with cyclical views, and possibly the idea of reincarnation, might have citizens who could more easily handle changes for the worse (or better) in the state of their societies or in their own lives....

Because of this limitation I think that in the West when we stop thinking that time is progress shaped we will have to switch to some "declinist" vision of the shape of time because this is the only other option available..and this transition period will be pretty painful.... Older people might be able to reconcile themselves to such a view as it mirrors their own person trajectory, but it seems that in the young it would likely breed anger or despair, a sense of having been robbed just by being born at the wrong time.... this in turn could lead to protest, revolution and war, the sort of jagged drops in the progress graph that Mr Diamond has suggested.... maybe the Occupy movement is a first stirring of what is to come?

I'm sure over time as we descend down the ladder of progress cultural forms that are adaptive will ease the transition and minimise harm but the transition between different views of time will be pretty messy...



KL Cooke said...

"...when I was growing up, there were any number of children’s novels set in “primitive societies”—that is, cultures that experienced time in the way I’ve just outlined—which focused obsessively on some imaginary individualist who turned his (or, very rarely, her) back on tribal custom via one triumphant innovation after another."

I can recall on in particular called "Fire Hunter," by Jim Kjelgaard,. As it happens it was about the guy who invents the bow and arraw, after first inventing the atlatl. He rejoins the spear throwing tribal group that had exspelled him for some sort of heterodoxy and saves them from starvation with his new technology after their fire drive methodology failed.

Kjelgaard painted with broad brush, of course, and the story ended before the extinction of the mega-fauna as a result of progress. Still, as a boy's adventure writer, he was first class, along with Armstrong Sperry. Somehow, I think you might be familiar with both gentlemen.

John Michael Greer said...

Stonymeadow, I had the same reaction to a display of Tutankhamun's treasures in Seattle in the late 1970s.

Andrew, that's possible in some cases, but most of the ways we do things nowadays can't be done at all without immense inputs of cheap energy, so I suspect that will be a minor theme once we get far enough down the curve.

News, that's a major issue, and one that I've been discussing here for years. It's one of the reasons that the recovery of old skills now, while we have time and resources to do the research, is so important.

Luna, I smelled the same rat the first time I encountered the Transition Town movement -- it was by way of a cheaply manipulative video presentation at a peak oil conference in Detroit back in 2008. A post I wrote some time later sums up my take on the psychology involved.

Lizzy, excellent! Human beings are human beings, and the ones who lived 35,000 years ago were just as smart and talented as we are -- they just had different circumstances and different goals than ours.

Yupped, I agree that the faith in progress is beginning to crack. As for hope, we've been raised to think we need it -- have you considered the possibility that we might be able to get by with courage instead?

M, see you at Age of Limits!

Richard, the logic of fishing is exactly the logic of cyclical history. You don't know exactly when, or whether, a fish is going to bite, but you can learn from experience that some things usually work much better than others.

John Michael Greer said...

Phil H., yes, that's another way of thinking about the shape of time. What does the idea of time as healer imply about humanity and its place in the world and time?

Jeffrey, yes, I'm familiar with that theory. In my view it massively understates the scale of the energy subsidies from fossil fuels that underlie every aspect of contemporary life.

Rylan, good! Our culture pretends to value originality, and so it's very hard to notice just how many of our "original thoughts" are simply rehashing the contents of the collective imagination. It's when you notice this that the doors start to open.

Sixbears, the old mill town where I now live is in exactly the same state, and belief in progress is wearing very thin here, too.

Larry, thanks for the heads up! The person who wrote the headline was quite correct: in a speculative bubble -- because of course that's what the whole fracking thing is -- timing is indeed everything; you need to get in early and get out before prices turn down, or you're just another one of the suckers that gets taken to the cleaners.

Steve, it's usually at or shortly after the peak of the sine wave that cyclical theories become popular among intellectuals, so we're right on track.

Russell, thanks for the correction.

Zach, those two statements are standard only in a minority of Christian traditions -- admittedly it's a minority that gets a lot of air time these days, but it's still a minority. You might consult the historic creeds of the churches -- the imminence of the Second Coming and the Tribulation are nowhere to be found in the Nicene Creed, for example. We'll be talking next week about where they came from.

NH Peter, I notice you left out one of the shapes of time I mentioned -- stationary time, the common tribal idea that events simply repeat the Dreamtime without going anywhere at all. Time as point is a fourth option, mostly found among mystics -- it seems to be something ordinary people have a hard time with. There are also other shapes besides these!

Wolfgang, exactly. The cultural mainstream is still stuck in the notion that time naturally moves in the direction of progress, and is scrambling to come up with one excuse after another to explain why this doesn't seem to be happening; out here on the fringes, by contrast, it's possible to talk in terms less constrained by popular mythology.

John Michael Greer said...

JP, if you're still talking about "the true shape of time" you haven't yet understood what I'm saying in this post. You might consider reading it again, and paying attention to my comments about abstractions as tools rather than truths.

Denys, it's implicit in the mythology of progress that certain social changes -- for example, toward more gender equality -- are hardwired into the direction of time, and so come about more or less automatically as we move further into the future. I'd encourage you to consider scrapping that idea, and seeing those social changes as things that happened because people worked hard to make them happen. Do you want those same things to continue into the future? If so, be prepared to work as hard to preserve them as the suffragists and the feminists worked to create them.

EnergyLens, excellent! Adams is always worth reading, though he would have been less perplexed if he'd known in advance about Ilya Prigogine's equations, which show how entropic energy flow through an open system acts to increase the complexity of that system. That's the thing that makes Darwinian evolution work in a universe run by the laws of thermodynamics, of course.

Villager, computers don't build themselves, they don't power themselves, they don't mine the raw materials to make their own spare parts for themselves, and so on. They're simply the final hurrah of the age of cheap abundant energy, and will go away as the immensely complex and energy-hungry infrastructure needed to support them becomes too costly to keep running. Thus I don't think that the invention of computers is anything like a game-changer.

Glenn, you're ahead of the curve. In a couple of centuries, odds are that the attitudes you've sketched out here will be normal, and the notion of perpetual progress will seem bizarre to everyone but a few historians.

SLClaire, indeed it is. Hang on for the explosions.

Juhana, of course! The classical Hindu vision of time is one of cyclical decline: things start out with the golden age, decline steadily over time, reach the bottom, and then Shiva hits the reset button and the cycle starts again. It's Hesiod's vision, but with the end folded back to the beginning. Mind you, the more standard sort of cyclical theory sees half of history as decline, so there's room there as well.

Mary, and a happy Bealteinne to you as well. We've got asparagus, rhubarb, and evergreen onions up in the perennial beds, and peas, lettuce, carrots and bulb onions already up in the main beds -- and the local garden plant sale begins on the pedestrian mall downtown tomorrow.

Bugmwethx, of course -- that's what failing empires always do.

Ares, the thing about Sheldrake's theory that makes scientists burst into incandescent rage is that he's got experimental evidence supporting his theory of morphic resonance, and has been going around teaching people how to replicate the experiments and see for themselves. In effect, he's showing the gap between science as a useful system for testing hypotheses, on the one hand, and science as a specific set of beliefs about the world founded, like all beliefs, on unprovable presuppositions, on the other. Of course he's getting yelled at!

John Michael Greer said...

Primitive, a very good point, and one that I hadn't considered at all. You're quite correct, of course -- part of the shape of time in today's popular culture is that it accelerates -- thus we think we're so much busier than people fifty or a hundred years ago, and have so much less time to do things. I'll have to work that into the broader argument I've been developing, no question.

David, exactly. As a rule, any advice received from a clueless white guy from America ought to be ignored, anyway!

Onething, good. We'll be talking about the creation and dissolution of those collective dreams later on in this series of posts.

DeAnander, I'd be enthusiastic. I certainly was in the late 1970s, when it looked as though we were going to tackle these same changes in a deliberate manner, instead of waiting to have them forced on us!

Gavin, denial is a common response to cognitive dissonance. If the dissonance keeps getting louder, sooner or later most people give up the denial; the remainder generally wig out.

Dowsergirl, as I said, Hesiod's perspective is a very difficult one for people raised on progress to grasp. It's worth making the effort, if only to get a glimpse at how many of our own preconceptions are as arbitrary as his.

Derek, good. Hubris, as you no doubt know, may be neatly defined as the overweening pride of the doomed.

Bozack, depends on which version of Christianity you're talking about -- it's a much more diverse religious movement than most Americans realize. As for shifting visions of time, well, there's a reason why spiritualities that make use of a cyclical vision of time have been increasingly widespread in America of late.

KL Cooke, bingo! That's one of the ones I was thinking of -- I'd forgotten the title, though not the author, who was a major fave of mine back in the day. Somehow I missed Armstrong Sperry, though -- and Rosemary Sutclifff was more my style, by and large. I'll be talking about her fiction down the road a bit.

Leo said...

Wasn't the point of Christianity's view of history and the city of God to say secular history doesn't matter in the long run.

Also, if the scientific/technical paper contest is still running I have an idea. Combining Salt heat storage (or similar technology) and various solar collectors to make a solar powered restaurant or cafe.

Considering that Thermopolium had solid economic backing in Pompeii (1 per 60 people), it may well have solid economic backing in future cities. Kitchens are expensive after all. Finding a way to reliably power them with renewables would certainly be a good thing.

Phil Harris said...

JMG
Thanks as always for the thought you give to individual comments.

JMG wrote: Phil H., yes, that's another way of thinking about the shape of time. What does the idea of time as healer imply about humanity and its place in the world and time?
Well... "Time & Tide wait for no man" as the saying goes. Memory? Growing up with evidence of history as well as change all round me - and stories - and there were relatives living in mysterious rural circumstances in Southern Britain where the past obviously had worked differently - it became clear that much had been forgotten. This was attractive to the imagination, and sometimes perceptions sprung surprises. (Seems a bit like SF, but heading a different direction and finding new worlds still there.) This was exploration with rewarding discoveries. Our youngest daughter tells me she gets similar place-related 'insights'.

I am not sure about the big picture. I tend to go with the Greeks. Remember Mnemosyne and water issuing clear from the rock and "... favoured Parnassus - Where meadows flowered early - And Calliope began - The adventure to the sea"

Permaculture and a good breathing soil and the swallows returning to nest for another year all sound nice.

PS About the Nicene Creed: by then they had 300 years to get used to the idea. The Kingdom of God might be at hand, but He was not going to come walking down the road again anytime soon.

best
Phil

divelly said...

1.What makes a book fit the YA category?No eros?
2.Interesting the different tone of comments here vs. at Resilience.org!

JM said...

When our god of fossil fuels forsakes us will we sacrifice Mother Earth and sell our souls to the nuclear devil?

Yupped said...

Good point regarding hope and courage. Seeing and working with reality needs calmness, discernment, acceptance and practical action. Courage, steadfastness, is definitely a vital quality to help us along that path, especially when that path gets rocky. Perhaps a pinch of hope, and maybe a dash of curiosity can be helpful in getting us on the path in the first place? But perhaps not. Hope alone is just froth, of course, and most of us start reassessing our relationship to reality because of a painful upset of some sort. So, yes, more courage and less hope. Either way, I like sixbears phrase - "hard eyed flinty hope". Maybe that's what courage is.

Having said all that, getting one's relationship with reality right is the work of a lifetime, or maybe several depending on your beliefs. It isn't easy or quick. And it doesn't always work out well.

Iuval Clejan said...

Hey folks, don't forget about the post-industrial technology contest started by JMG a few months ago. Submit your entries! Here is mine:
http://culturalspeciation.blogspot.com/2013/05/kelvin-generator-for-electric-fence.html.

NH Peter said...

Ah yes, I did miss the tribal form of time. And now that you’ve pointed it out I realize again how deeply important and influential the quieter ideals are, and how too easily their voices can be drowned out by the exciting and aggressive ones! I see the tribal form of time in family traditions and also in the “way of work,” for example patterns of gardening or putting up firewood. My friend and I will defend the virtue of any heirloom axe against all modern comers, especially those whose heads and handles have been the most replaced! Family recipes have this same lore about them, no matter the quality of the meatball or pound cake! And I think the presence of humor in this mode of time is perhaps one of its greatest utilities. Hard to laugh when reading Hesiod or the New Testament!

I sometimes think that the tribal form of time was coopted by the philosophers, girded with intellectual virtues, and sent into the political arena as a champion for human sanity. The philosophers called this “new” form “time as moment.” A very useful tool when confronting the hubris of a politically motivated concept of time. Your thoughts on this idea would be appreciated.

Also, I’d love to consider a few more of these shapes of time you mention, any resources you can suggest?

-p

Bill Pulliam said...

I've been waiting and reading to see if anyone else would wander in to the same thought that occurred to me last week, but so far no one has used the "F" word, so I'll be the one to drop it.

First, though, about waves and spirals. I don't think these are qualitatively different than circles. The underlying arrow of time is taken as a given. Whether you see the course of history as progress, stasis, decline, or cycles, everyone has the experience of the shattered stone not reassembling itself, the young growing old, and the sequence of birth, life, death, regardless of how you feel about where the line goes after that death or before that birth. The sequential aspect of time is just kind of there. So when you add the arrow to a cycle, you get a wave or a spiral. A cork bobbing in the ocean traces out circles as the waves pass.

But I want to expand the ideas of waves and cycles, booms and busts, births and deaths to another level, but not quite to another dimension. If you look at the world, you see these waves and cycles at every scale of time, from inconceivably tiny subatomic quantum-level processes, to the formation and destruction of stars and galaxies over billions of years, No matter what temporal scale you view it at, you see the same complex pattern of jagged trajectories and complexly superimposed cycles. There's a word for this, brace yourselves for the aforementioned "F" bomb...

Fractal.

Fractals are shapes that have fractional dimensions. A line has one dimension, a plane has two dimensions. A line that is so complexly jagged that no matter how much you magnify it, it never looks smooth, has a dimensionality somewhere between 1 and 2. The same for a surface that is so intricately convoluted that you can magnify it until you are looking at the Plank Length, and it never flattens out. It's dimensionality is somewhere between 2 and 3. The jagged line has infinite length but zero area; the convoluted surface has infinite area but zero volume.

One of the features of Fractals is self-similarity. When you magnify them, they still look the same. Isn't this the way time is? If you look at the evolution of a species, or the rises and falls of civilizations over centuries, or the fates and fortunes of an individual person's lifetime, or the events of a single day, don't you see the same sorts of patterns reflected in each?

I think the inter-nesting of cycles of different periods is an approximation to this fractal nature. But to actually recreate it, you need an infinite number of cycles, with an infinitely broad range of periods.

onething said...

A JMG reply to Yupped:

"As for hope, we've been raised to think we need it -- have you considered the possibility that we might be able to get by with courage instead? "

This reminds me of one of the most beautiful nature films I have ever seen, called Winged Migration. (Netflix) It has almost no narration at all, but stunning music, while following the migrations of several of the larger bird species and what they have to contend with and the occasional tragedies that occur. A flock is flying, suddenly shots ring out and a couple of them fall from the sky. Whose mates were the fallen? How did their families feel as they kept on flying because they had no choice?

At one point during the film I was brought almost to tears as I realized the reality of their lives, from their point of view rather than my own of seeing pretty birds flying by, and the dogged courage they lived by.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, that's one of the shapes of time in the Christian tradition -- there are others that are sharply different. (We'll be getting to that next week.) As for the contest, please go ahead and write up something!

Phil H., "mysterious rural circumstances" sounds most intriguing!

Divelly, what gets books assigned to the YA category is pure marketing -- somebody at the publisher decided that's the label it woud get. As for Resilience.org, it's interesting to see that most of the comments there are arguing that this or that is the "true" shape of time, which suggests to me that they've missed the entire point of the discussion -- and then there's the Marxist guy from Eugene who's been throwing fits there since this series of posts began. Next week's post really ought to set him off; it should be amusing to watch.

JM, or will Mother Earth sacrifice us? Poking a grizzly bear with a stick is far more likely to bring harm to you than to the bear...

Yupped, it's central to the nature of courage that you don't know how things are going to turn out. If there was a guarantee, you wouldn't need courage.

Iuval, thanks for the note, and for the entry!

NH Peter, I don't know of anything in print on the shapes of time -- it may be worth writing a book on it one of these days.

Bill, that's a very good point -- most shapes of time can have either a fractal or a nonfractal structure, that is, they're either self-similar on all scales or there's one shape on one scale and a different shape on another. It would be interesting to study the differences that makes.

Onething, exactly. That's a very good metaphor.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, I'd like to thank everyone who's put something into the tip jar of late -- the support and encouragement are much appreciated!

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG to underline that these are merely models of time -- indeed, perhaps only attitudes toward time -- I note that both progress and regress can occur simultaneously.

Environment changes. People adapt.

A changing environment means that "the old ways" gradually stop working, and the virtues of the past become vices. Because people are clever, they start to abandon their old ways, to find "new ways" that work better in the new environment.

Traditionalists decry the descent into barbarism, and blame hardships on our immorality, when in fact, the hardships are caused by clinging to previous (and now inviable) adaptations to an environment that no longer exists.

At the same time, "immoral" adaptation to the environment as-it-is improves life for those who adopt the new ways that are more suited to the new environment.

At any given time, you can find two groups of people who are looking at exactly the same thing, and one group will call it decline, while the other will call it progress. They are both right.

GawainGregor said...

JMG,
Many thanks for the light.
I read somewhere the notion that time is an abstraction we invent to keep everything from happening at once. I have room to accept that there are infinite realities expressing simultaneoulsy beyond our perception. Chopping time into little pieces makes it more digestible I suppose.
I prefer the view Tolle relates, that there is only ever NOW, that the past is extinct and clouded by our interpretations; and the future never arrives, or when it does, it arrives as NOW and never as was expected. Things are never as bad or as good as we think!
I would suggest that the shape of time resembles a trumpet, or wellspring. On my better days I find myself patiently at the edge of the source.

Gawain Gregor

shrama said...

Dear JMG,

For sometime now, I have been wondering about the value of one heavily misunderstood concept i.e. the pursuit of truth. From an early age, I was made to believe that the pursuit of truth ought be the principal trait of all human endeavors. This happened partly because of heavy exposure to science and the religion of progress, and partly by way of various interpretations of the core Hindu philosophical ideas such as Advaitha, etc. These interpretations sought to put a distance between Hinduism and other "dogmatic religions" by taking it closer to the ostensibly scientific goal of knowing the truth. Needless to say all of this had a profound influence on how I shaped my activities and in retrospect the idea of pursuing truth was responsible for a fair share of my life's miseries.

It was much later that I began to see ideas as tools, models and approximations and those have found echo in your writings. I am not well read enough to know the historical roots of this idea of the "pursuit of truth". My sense is that all systems of thought implicitly assume that it is possible, by using their ideas, to know at least a slice of the truth and thus end up imbuing their ideas with some form of absolute validity. The notion that we can merely approximate the truth but never really know it seems relatively new to me. Do you have any insights on this?

Bill Pulliam said...

JM, JMG, and poking grizzlies... Mama Gaia has been amazingly resilient over the last 4+ billion years. I find it hard to believe we puny little bipeds could accomplish what asteroids, volcanic upheavals, and major changes in the energy output of the sun have failed to do during this time!

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG re: Fractals cont. -- of course a pure fractal is a mathematical construct; in the "real world" everything is going to break down at very large or very small scales. But fractal-like shapes are abundant in nature, from the archetypal rocky coastline to the head of broccoli. The idea of something like a compound fractal is interesting -- at one range of scale it shows one self-similar pattern, but at a smaller or larger scale a different pattern emerges. I can imagine zooming in on the rocky coastline, and then at a small enough scale it shifts into dendritic branching, and at an even smaller scale the tips of the dendrites become snowflake-like hexagonal branching. It would take a real mathematician (i.e. not me) to tell us if such constructs exist, have names, and have been examined.

Of course one other model of time, the quantum-mechanical multiverse, is inherently fractal and can't be understood in any other way. At each instant time splits into two trajectories, which themselves split again, creating a universe of unimaginably complex layering in space-time.

Another feature of fractals is that their infinitely complex structures commonly are generated by simple algorithms. These algorithms are often recursive (cycling back into themselves). So staying with the topic of the metaphorical shape of time, if it has a complex fractal structure, what might be the simple, self-referential underlying algorithms that lead to the repeating pattern across all scales, the unimaginably long to the incomprehensibly short?

Something I might suggest as worth contemplating along those lines (i.e. the fractal-generating algorithm) would be feedback loops and overshoot. Not proposing One Rule to Ring Them All, just something to ponder.

John Michael Greer said...

Joseph, good. That's the ambiguity inherent in all value judgements, of course. That said, as I discussed last week, the myth of progress specifies particular things that are supposed to increase over time -- the moral, scientific/technological, and economic versions of the myth each define the values by which progress is to be measured, and it's primarily when two of these forms of the myth are in progress that you get disputes over progress and regress.

Gawain, if that's the shape of time you find useful, by all means. Just remember that it's a useful tool, not a truth!

Shrama, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for bringing up one of the central issues of this discussion, well in advance of the posts in which I'll be exploring this. Not all systems of thought accept the belief that human beings can know the pure, unvarnished truth -- I'm thinking particularly here of Lao Tsu, who begins the Tao Te Ching with the crucial warning, "A process as described is not the process as it exists." More on this later on.

Bill, understood, and I wasn't thinking of very big or very small scales. You get some shapes of time, such as the traditional Chinese one, that are profoundly fractal -- every cycle is analogous to every other cycle -- and others in which one pattern applies to a certain set of processes but others follow a wholly different pattern -- think of Augustinian Christianity, in which religious phenomena from the history of the individual soul right up to the history of the universe follow a distinctive cycle of descent and recovery, but historical events in the fallen world are essentially random, having no distinctive pattern at all. That's what I mean about fractal and nonfractal shapes of time -- you could as well say self-similar and non-self-similar.

Justin Wade said...

JMG,
I have a simple exercise that can help fish see the water.

The idea is simple, draw three circles of different sizes on a piece of paper. The arrangement of the circles can be in any configuration the person chooses. One circle should be labeled the past, one the present, and one the future.

After making the drawing, think about why you drew it the way you did. Now think about different ways to draw the circles and what those configurations mean.

For instance, the progress minded folks may draw the three circles next to each other from left to right in this order, past, present, future, with the smallest circle the past and largest the future.

Hesiod might draw the same configuration, except with the smallest the future and the largest the past.

The tribal configuration may be something like all three circles drawn with the same center point like a bullseye, with the past the largest and the future the smallest.

The Chinese configuration may resemble a venn diagram of overlapping circles.

Etc. and so on. How do you model time, how do others.

Joy said...

When you asked us to think about different ways to think about time, all I could come up with were parallel universes and string theory, of which what little I know about comes from some dabbling in science books and science fiction.

Another blog that I enjoy, Diary of a Daoist Hermit, had a recent post which also wrestled with how we understand time. Most people think of it as "one damn thing after another", but he thinks of it as another dimension. He has some interesting thoughts on this, plus a recognition of the arrogant tendency of some to "dumb down" and dismiss any understanding of the world that doesn't fit into a 19th century materialistic reality.
http://tinyurl.com/bpyzkos

As to how Christians view the end of time: I used to be an evangelical Christian. In my church we did not dwell on the "end times", maybe because the rapture, the millennium, and such were not part of our tradition, but it was not difficult to be swayed by these interpretations as they were all over the Christian TV channel and tons of books and teaching tapes available in the Christian book stores. Most evangelical/conservative Christians poo-poo climate change and energy depletion because they believe that God placed all we needed on this earth, so it will last until Jesus comes. In other words, somewhere in the future after they are already in Heaven. (The common attitude of many is "Come, Lord Jesus...but not yet".) There are some that stress if we really are running out of oil, gas, etc., it means that Jesus is returning soon, since God would only have supplied the earth with what was needed for it's allotted time frame of existence. As peak oil becomes impossible to deny and the economy crashes, and things grow increasingly worse, I predict that more Christians (the ones who hang onto their faith) will adapt to this latter interpretation and use it as a sign for their Messiah to return. Expect apocalyptic cults to arise, Waco style communities, etc.

sgage said...

@ Bill, JMG, et al.

What the heck - no one else has brought it up, so I will. No discussion of "shapes of time" is complete without mention of Terence McKenna's Timewave Zero "theory". He very much considered time to have a fractal nature. But wait, there's more!

He managed to combine the I Ching, fractals, notions of progress, notions of novelty, notions of evolution, a very precise teleology, and probably a few other things that I'm forgetting. He even developed a computer model that ground through all this stuff (as evaluated by him), and confidently predicted that the world will end in... 2012. Whoops! He died some years ago, so did not have to re-calculate.

In his model, history isn't driven from behind, it is pulled from the future by some Attractor at the End of Time. All of history in his scheme is "the shock wave of eschatology". The Universe is a "novelty conserving engine".

Full disclosure: I do NOT in any way subscribe to McKenna's rap on this. I'm just mentioning it for the sake of completeness, as another way of thinking about time, and for your possible amusement.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- thinking of those two instances.. The I Ching is a perfect fractal generating algorithm, simple and recursive. In the Augustinian view, one might say that the algorithm (i.e. god's law) is lost in the fallen world, hence the complex fractal shape is replaced by white noise. One might suppose that the fall created a barrier between god and the fallen world, leaving nothing but static and chaos.

Of course any metaphor can be pushed too far!

Nestorian said...

Just a note about the following words quoted by Zack:

"He will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end."

These words are in fact taken from the Niceo-Constantinopolitan Creed (usually referred to as the "Nicene Creed" for short). This is without a doubt the most important creed in the history of Christendom, as it sums up the late 4th century consensus about the Christian faith to which all forms of classical Christianity subscribe. As such, the words quoted by Zack express something that is integral and essential to the Christian faith, as understood in all its traditionally orthodox (i.e., non-“modernized”) variants.

As a former Roman Catholic who is a convert to Nestorianism, the tendency of the Catholic Church to downplay the significance of these words to the point of effectively ignoring them constituted one among several important reasons why I came to regard the Roman Catholic witness to the Christian faith as deficient. If these words are an integral part of the historic Christian faith, then not only ought any traditional Christian not be embarrassed about them, but she is actively called to understand the direction of history in light of her belief in them.

Also, here is a further historical note about the relation of the Nestorian Church to the development of the Nicene Creed that may be of interest to some: The 4th century conciliar consensus that led to the formulation of this creed as the most single important post-apostolic witness to the Christian faith includes the Nestorian Church. This is true notwithstanding the fact that from the Nestorian standpoint, the church councils at which the articles of the creed were formulated and promulgated were not "Ecumenical" or universal, as they are regarded by all the forms of Roman Christianity (which includes the Eastern Orthodox, the so-called "Monophysite" Churches, and all of Western Christianity in both its Catholic and Protestant forms).

The Nestorian Church is the only form of Christianity that arose originally in a non-Roman political and cultural milieu. In its inception and early history, it was indigenous to the Parthian Empire, east of Rome. As such, the Nestorian Church regards the Councils of Nicea (325 ad) and Constantinople (381 ad), where this creed took its final form, as local Roman events - to which, however, they gladly lend their assent of faith, thus rendering the Nicene Creed a truly universal expression of historic Christianity

onething said...

The pursuit of Truth as a life ideal takes courage. The courage to think for oneself and the courage to discard ideas as new ones present themselves that are closer to what you are seeking. Somewhat late in the game one comes to the awful realization that truth is even more elusive than you had hoped, that you might have to live for the foreseeable future with much uncertainty...and it takes courage to allow these thoughts.
It is the nature of Truth that only those who put no other gods before Her can hope of attaining real insight into reality.
Indeed, one sees over and over again that resistance to truth is a main problem that slows society down in solving problems or advancing science, and it is generally cowardice at the root.

The majority of people who say they are seeking truth really only have sufficient fortitude for a small dose, which finding, they stop. Truth can be, probably most often is, like climbing a mountain. It seems odd that you will accept truths provisionally until better understanding comes, knowing that today's truths are not exactly Truth - but simply closer, from which higher vista one can plan further ascent.

And so it is that people may find a slightly better truth, perhaps discarding one religion in which they clearly see flaws, and running into the next one, slightly better.
If the search has caused pain perhaps one has held too dogmatically to one's expectations of success, or to what one has already attained.
Faith, humor, and relaxed expectation are good companions for this mountain.

onething said...

If time is a fractal that just seems like a more complex circle. I'm hoping for a spiral.
I'm intrigued by the Hindu (and perhaps Egyptian) view that we go from a golden age down and then back up again. Hesiod's view would have arisen from being aware that society had once been better, higher, and that everything best was in the past.

Yogananda's guru spoke of this cycle of the ages as being caused by consciousness of men being dimmer or brighter. And so I thought, what is consciousness, and how does it operate? What is light, and why are there metaphors using light to describe certain souls who seem to bring light to the rest of us? Why do we struggle so to see? We see so dimly, it is just a glimpse here and there, but the next dimension is so close by.

What if our consciousness needs good light to see just as our physical eyes need good light to see, and what if we (the solar system?) have a cycle of greater darkness and greater light, just as a day cycle has a dusk and a dark and a noontime? Isn't nature full of cycles?
I'm speaking here of a "spiritual" light but it really is physical, only in a deeper dimension, down below the Planck length most likely.
I am hoping for springtime, or dawn.

Cathy McGuire said...

I’ve been thinking a lot about the shape of Time recently, while observing the seasons, and also being aware of my “season of decline”. And rereading the ancient Near East sagas, with their huge cycles of time, also has focused my attention on it. And then, when I speak to friends and family, and hear the implicate faith (as you mention) in “upward and onward” as if there is no other choice (ironically, more faith as there is less proof – could that be because everyone is getting used to not having a clue about how things work??) I remember the first time my concept of linear upward procession was challenged: as a teen, reading the Norse sagas and their Ragnarok – it was a horrible sensation, thinking that everything would just end in collapse! Lost that concept in the busyness of young adulthood, but Peak Oil and climate change brought it back – now it seems insane to think there’s some easy, technological way out of this! And as you say so well, if they don’t realize their underlying perception/assumption, then trying to discuss details is fraught with misunderstanding. So, I simply watch and wait for any opening… not easy. But the concept of cycles does help me tremendously – seeing that we are in decline, but thinking perhaps there will be another beginning after this end. Not a given, nor anything I’ll see, but I hope it will be so. And continue to adjust my life to minimal consumption, maximum cooperation with Nature.

MawKernewek said...

Following on from what @shrama said, my recollection of being taught quantum theory as part of a university physics course was this: that the Schrodinger equation and the wavefunction were models that provided a mathematical way to successfully predict the results of experiments. We were encouraged not to worry about the philosophy of it, whether the wavefunction is a physical reality etc.

Another area of physics that touches on the shape of time is relativity, it turns out that different observers will disagree about whether two events are simultaneous. Though even in relativity, time can't go backwards.

Punctuated equilibrium is another shape of time from science, apparent stability/cyclicity giving way to a relatively sudden change to a different state. We are in this kind of predicament with climate, the collapsing levels of summer arctic sea ice extent mean that albedo-driven positive feedback will cause further ocean warming and melting of land ice, the only uncertainty is how long it takes to melt out.

Hal said...

I'll be interested to see what you're going to have to say about Christianity, because the words Zach quoted come directly from the Nicene Creed that I stand up and recite almost every Sunday. Now, in my relatively open-minded church, I would not hazard a guess as to what percentage of congregants draw popular end-time eschatology from it, and what percentage considers it as a relict metaphor, but we are a small fraction of the Christians in this southern town, and I'm pretty sure the percentages in the Baptist and Presby churches would be very different. (And let's not even mention the "Endtime Encounter" church I pass a couple of times a week over in Indianola...)

Anyway, my point is that the eschatology that some take from those words are by no means recent or fringe beliefs in the church, at least as I see it most days. I'm aware that there has always been a more learned inner system of beliefs, which Alan Watts talked about. An "esoteric" church within the larger church, which he claimed exists in all religions. He pretty quickly gave up on practicing that within mainstream Anglicanism, but then, he was doing his work during the 50s and 60s, and those weren't the best times to be trying to work within tradition. The "shape of time," or at least the near-term future, has turned out to look a lot different than what it looked like back then.

The form of Progressivism I'm seeing in my church these days are around the work of Phyllis Tickle and a few others, and which she calls the "Great Emergence," and the body of activity that others talk have called the "New Monasticism." Pretty good Wikipedia article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Monasticism

For my part, I have had an uncomfortable feeling that the former is interesting and well-meaning, but mostly wishful thinking, and your exposition on the religion of Progress clarifies a lot of what I have been feeling. OTOH, I find the latter to be a pretty refreshing and, dare I say it, hopeful sign.

JP said...

@Bill:

"The idea of something like a compound fractal is interesting -- at one range of scale it shows one self-similar pattern, but at a smaller or larger scale a different pattern emerges. I can imagine zooming in on the rocky coastline, and then at a small enough scale it shifts into dendritic branching, and at an even smaller scale the tips of the dendrites become snowflake-like hexagonal branching. It would take a real mathematician (i.e. not me) to tell us if such constructs exist, have names, and have been examined."

It's not so much a "compound fractal" as it is a "more-dimensional" fractal than standard space-time.

To me, this is what string theory is attempting to accomplish, although those who play in such mathematics don't quite realize that they are looking for the "fractal of this universe" so to speak.

Which is why I always come back to a specific Calabai-Yau manifold as the undlerling fractal for this particular universe (assuming, of course that there are other universes).

From wikipedia:

"Particularly in superstring theory, the extra dimensions of spacetime are sometimes conjectured to take the form of a 6-dimensional Calabi–Yau manifold, which led to the idea of mirror symmetry."

This means that as the manifold is deployed (or unrolled) in lesser dimensioned space-time, it appears to be different fractals depending on the scale and positioning, but it's still the *same* fractal.

It's the old "sphere" traveling through "flatland". As it passes through the plane, it starts out as a point, grows and grows until it becomes an enormous circle, and then shrinks back to a point.

To the residents of flatland, it's a strange point that becomes a circle and then becomes a point again, but from the perspective of three dimensions, it's simply a unitary sphere that never changes.

With respect to the issue of "spiral" I like it because you can move both *up* and *down*. What is the long descent but a trip *down* the spiral?

To me, this is where Spengler led me, in the sense of High Culture as fractal.

What is the religion of progress but the underlying fractal of the ever arising civilization period as it is unrolled in Faustian civilization?

This is where I find the concept of the holographic universe interesting.

Four-dimensioned space-time would simply be the projection screen upon which the more-dimensioned movie of this universe is projected.

sgage said...

@onething:

"The pursuit of Truth as a life ideal takes courage."

And not just courage It also takes stamina. Conclusions are what happen when one becomes tired of thinking. I try to think of my "conclusions" more like resting spots, while I gather my strength for the next leg of the journey...

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- perhaps a refinement is in order. It isn't so much the mythology or religion of "progress" as it is the mythology or religion of "unbounded progress."

"Progress" or "regress" is inherently a value judgement. Progress is good; regress is bad. Even Hesiod didn't think that the decay of the world from a Golden Age was a good thing.

A law of nature is that "all good things come to an end."

Where the mythology of progress you've been describing makes its fundamental mistake is not in saying that we've been making progress according to this or that set of values, but in denying this basic law of nature -- in trying to rewrite the history of the universe so that it is a tale of unbounded progress, from the beginning, into eternity.

richard said...

Not knowing is my lot.
Truth is my siren.
Making peace with my lot,
is my good fortune.
Now speech is my trickster,
as Coyote times on.

onething said...

Nestorian,

I grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and I take a bit of offense at your saying that it is included among the Roman.
I rather would say that the Roman is a broken off branch of the East...for example, of the original 5 patriarchal sees, 4 are still Eastern Orthodox. The 5th is Rome.

Not that the influence of Rome was not great. It seems to me that the church of the east recovered, though.
If those two councils you mention are not regarded as universal by the Nestorians, how is that so when they were not separated until 431?
Are the Nestorians the same or similar to the Copts? I have been to a Coptic Church, and felt completely at home there.

Phil Harris said...

Truth and all that.
I can see the point, but I make a distinction. It rather depends on what you have to go on, but the habit of 'truth-telling', rather than search for the 'truth', if it can distinguished from talking to annoy people, can become a habit of mind. It can lead to trouble but also, given sufficient reflection, to accepting all those uncertainties and caveats necessary in order to at least sidle up to reality.

Yesterday's truth telling is usually different from tomorrow's, so one does need to keep some kind of records for comparison (not necessarily written records but evidence of one kind or another). The process might even tell us something about time with the capital T, but I am not up to that. There seems to be some kind of aesthetic involved?

best
Phil H

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...


@ Bill Pulliam - WRT your comment:
8x
Of course any metaphor can be pushed too far!
x8

True dat.

For instance:
From http://www.timecube.com/

8x
Einstein Was ONEist Brain.
Try My Belly-Button Logic.
x8

Well ok then, I'll just...


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whig_history
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_return
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-Archimedean_time
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hopi_time_controversy
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time-space_compression
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronological_snobbery

?!What the hey!?

When I turn around now I can see out the back of my skull...

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

I was really struck by irishwildeye's observation in last week's comments about the auxiliary answer to the question of peak energy, "I'll be dead by then." The Religion of Progress is sufficient to describe many features of our current arc, but I think another Enlightenment heritage with enormous power at this moment is Individualism.

That got me thinking about a binge of witchcraft research I once did after taking a class on shamanism. There is a peculiar symmetry between the way that stable subsistence societies like those of Greenland and a whole spectrum of Bantu and non-Bantu Africa define witchcraft, and what we in the West have come to define as the natural prerogatives of the imperial individual.

I tried to synthesise this with some research I've been doing on neoliberal capitalism, which has been the dominant model for the Western economy and polity since about 1979, and has presided over the arc largely under discussion here. The post is called:

"The Crucible of Neoliberal Capitalism."
http://thesacrificinganimal.blogspot.com

There is a crucial question that has been hovering in the background for me through all of this. Thus far JMG, you've been discussing the history of ideas as a set of subsistence tools, meta-narrative implements for securing the means of biological homeostasis at a given historical moment and ecological niche. That's a fantastic and effective way of thinking about pre-industrial religious and philosophical narratives, but it also strikes me that, prior to the disaggregation and specialisation that has so characterised modernity, these narratives were also supposed to advance a picture of human flourishing, and the way you might aspire to it in the structure of your life and the conduct your relationships.

I'm personally a 65/35 agnostic about the prospect of sharp downslope/ingenuity and innovation puzzle something out (I have a friend who intends to devote his fortune to space mining if his start-up idea takes off). But regardless of which way it goes, I'm really dissatisfied with the modern Western narrative of what human flourishing, happiness, well being, eudaimonia, etc. consists in.

I value the way we prize individual creativity and innovation, and I'm eager to hold on to elements of that in whatever future comes down the pike, but I'm radically unhappy with our tendency towards solipsism and consumption at the expense of relationality and contribution. We are maniacally focused on what you can TAKE. And although I think the individual must have a certain autonomy as a pre-requisite to this, I also believe the pulp of life is in what you can GIVE.

In other words, this discussion has been almost exclusively about methods and modes of securing the material basis of human flourishing (which the contemporary West makes contingent on a MASSIVE product substrate—to its sorrow). And it's been wonderful and stimulating.

But human flourishing itself is found in that ethereal tissue of relationships, loves, creations, and contributions that happens after we secure the means of biological homeostasis. The contemporary binge-consumption model must be predicated at least partially not only on an inadequate cognitive apparatus for modelling our historical and ecological niche but a desperate poverty in our ideas of how to live well.

I have difficulty not assimilating our material crisis to the spiritual or philosophical crisis that I've seen carry so many members of my generation into internet binging, drinking, hard drugs, and eventual suicide or overdose. The increase in incidence of depression and suicide in particular is frightening to behold, statically as well as anecdotally.

(I am, in fact, in my early twenties, and yes I can confirm that it seems like a less pleasant time than most to be in this age bracket.)

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, a useful exercise! Thank you.

Joy, thanks for the input. I'm familiar with the "God gave us as much petroleum as we need" argument -- I'd be interested to hear those who believe it defend the claim that Jesus approves of today's lifestyles of gargantuan extravagance and waste, given the rather different testimony of the Christian Bible.

Sgage, it's definitely a distinctive shape of time! I also respect the fact that McKenna made hard and falsifiable predictions about the future. Mind you, he was wrong, but that's the risk you always run.

Bill, that seems like a perfectly workable way of looking at it.

Nestorian, are you familiar with preterist interpretations of the prophecies of the New Testament? That and other traditions within the broad realm of Christian religion do not share the more common belief in an imminent, physical Second Coming. I'm quite aware, of course, that those traditions are heretical from your standpoint, but they do exist and have, and have had, a significant role in that end of the history of ideas.

Onething, there we'll have to disagree. Capital-T Truth, as I see it, is not something that human beings can know, and moving from one small-t truth to another does not bring us closer to Truth in any absolute sense. (That was one of the central points of Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions -- science does not get closer to truth, it simply generates models that are more useful for making sense of whatever phenomena are considered most important at a given period in history.) Furthermore, I would dispute the notion that truth, or any other virtue, ought necessarily to come ahead of all other concerns. To name only one example, when your elderly aunt asks you what you think of her new hat, truth is a needless brutality!

Cathy, that's exactly why I talk about cyclical change -- in the kind of historical period we're in just now, it tends to be an extremely useful tool.

MawKernewek, good. In all three cases, you've got a scientific way of thinking about the shape of time that is not usually applied to our everyday experience of time, and in all three cases, I'd argue, at least part of the reason is the conflict between those shapes and the shape of progress, which is the preferred default option these days.

Hal, as I mentioned to Nestorian, I'm aware that a belief in a physical Parousia in historical time is common to a great many Christian churches; my point was simply that it's not universal. As for the Emerging Church and New Monasticism movements, no argument there -- the former is far too reminiscent of other religious movements of the overly comfortable, while the latter is an extremely promising sign.

Joseph, of course "progress" is a value judgment -- the shape of time defined by the religion of progress is that time moves in the direction of whatever the believer happens to value. As I pointed out last week, that can cover some very diverse territory! Hesiod, and a great many others who shared his inclination, argue that time moves away from what they value. Belief in progress, as I have described it, is not a belief that progress occasionally happens; it's the belief that history has a bias toward it in favor of progress. That's what I've been saying all along, you know.

Heraclitus the Obscure said...

JMG,

I realised that what I just said was not entirely clear and perhaps is unhelpfully framed, in that it sort of critiques your magnificent pure bred, beautifully groomed, well trained dog for failing to be a cat.

What I mean to say is that, I hope at some point in the future you might be willing to spend a little time on the question of our current meta-narrative's inadequacy not only for making the best of our historical and ecological circumstances in the quest to secure homeostasis and physical comfort, but also its curious inadequacy in giving us the tools to feel useful and satisfied once we have secured those things. This is not what you are doing here, but it's a question that presses just as hard on today's twenty-somethings if not harder, at least in my experience.

It's not for nothing we've seen a rash of complaints about American literature since WWII being nothing but an extended wail over the miserableness and dysfunction of those middle class families that achieved the material American Dream. Neither is it a coincidence that so many seem to be anticipating an age of economic hardship and capital letter Social Problems with a curious relish, as a sort of spur to spiritual growth. Those anticipations are certainly naive and misplaced in many ways, but there is a substrate of something true and important from which they grow.

It's not just that the American Dream is slamming headfirst into the tough realities of a finite planet, it's that even for those who—from the outside—have achieved its material substance, even for the much despised 1%, the parousia escapes them, like the green light on the end of Gatsby's dock. They find themselves enslaved to the impossible horizon of genuine material fulfilment. Those who have 'made it' often deserve our compassion more than almost anyone. Which raises much stickier and more spiritual questions, which I certainly understand your being reluctant to deal with, given how dreary and politicised any such talk has become.

At any rate, please forge ahead with this magnificent dog. The cat can wait.


onething said...

JMG,

When I said you can have no other priorities before truth, I meant nothing so petty as blurting out one's mind in conversation!

What I mean is that seeking truth generally runs up against one's comfort level at some point, and there people compromise.Seeking truth involves courage, stamina, and often, sacrifice.

But as to the rest of what you say, I am flummoxed. I did hint that it is doubtful if we can come to the end of the search for truth, at least in these human lives. But to say that no attainment gives any advantage? That one might not get better at discerning both truth and falsehood? That one person might not be a whole lot better at it than another? One might see through some falsehood, and see a pattern in that falsehood, and then be forever immune. Is that little t truth not then leading to a higher vantage point from which to analyze reality? What are you pursuing here if not a level headed and analytic understanding of world events?

Is there no such thing as wisdom?

Lars Hill said...

I'm reminded of a lovely little book I read years ago about the "Dark Ages". It turns out the Dark Ages were not so dark. There was a system of law with roving judicial characters. Raising the hue and cry and not having someone come to your aid resulted in punishment. The church was not central to the village. Rather the priests were hired to fulfil a function but weren't central. It was a long, stable time. This seems to have been an era in which people lived in balance with their environment. Perhaps because there was no growth we call it "Dark"??

KL Cooke said...

Heraclitus

"I tried to synthesise this with some research I've been doing on neoliberal capitalism..."

Good essay.

Lidia17 said...

It's not only cultural, but circumstantial. The author of this FT piece talks about the quality of time as experienced by the increasing number of people who live paycheck-to-paycheck as opposed to the perception of time by those with deeper resources to hand:

"…history does not go in a straight line, or proceed homogeneously. If you were to ask wealthy Americans to visualise the future, they might well describe it as a carefully calibrated road along which they expect to travel. But if you ask poorer Americans, who are scrambling from pay check to pay check, they are more likely to perceive the future as a chaotic series of short-term cycles. Economic polarisation, in other words, creates different cognitive maps, and also creates, of course, those subtle shifts in spending patterns that the big data experts in consumer goods companies now want to track."

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/f5763610-b2bb-11e2-8540-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2SHInpjkq

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I really enjoyed your description of the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime provided an important perspective and guidelines on the ecology and interactions between plants, animals and the environment. It also provided clear warnings, not to be dismissed lightly. Our current relationship to the Land here is dysfunctional.

Your observation is very clever as we do think in terms of stories, I certainly do, and I regularly use metaphors to explain complex concepts to people as part of my paid work. Even the ancient Greeks had their morality tales. It is a credit to their ancient culture that they are still read.

Perhaps it is as you pointed out many months ago to me that every end is a new beginning? Perhaps even the changes that we now face - it is still eerily warm and dry here for autumn - mean that we are now, or soon will be, in a new Dreamtime?

Time to me is sort of like spaghetti (I’m hand making pasta tonight) as it travels in all sorts of random directions and everyone perceives a different start and end point. Have you ever noticed how often that Hubbert's curve matches so many other representations of life experience? I've even seen marketing people discussing it as the product life cycle! The universe seems to be in the grip of entropy and it is a constant force. I work hard here to produce a surplus with most of the systems here and people always seem a bit dumbfounded by this.

It is really interesting reading about your growing experiences so many thousands of kilometres away. Lettuce, peas, rocket, mustard are all just now becoming edible. I understand why spring is the lean time in your location. Did you know summer here is the lean time here? It must have been a shock to the convicts when they were dumped here all of those years ago (in the middle of summer).

PS: Contact with the local seed savers group has produced some interesting results and I now have over 30 varieties of garlic growing here plus I’m getting access to some really well acclimatised open pollinated varieties of edible plants. People who garden really love sharing, I even provided a visitor recently with a bucketful of good soil from here with which to inoculate their own garden. What impressed me was that they asked if they could take some soil.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Johan,

Experiment and try stuff, not all plants and fruit trees hate wet feet. For vegetables and herbs, I'd go up, not down. Raised beds and hugelkultur beds will all act like wicking beds in your environment. It'll also save you the trouble of watering in high summer.

There's plenty of sub surface water here too, but the plant roots need to go down at least 2m (about 6 1/2 foot) which is a big ask for short lived vegetables. I found a local patch of forest infested with comfrey so I'm going head off there in the next week or so to take some cuttings and plant it in the orchard and cottage garden (which is here for the bees, who are all very happy). Comfrey has very deep roots which pump up water and nutrients from deep down.

I keep trying different things here to see what works. There are still fresh tomatoes on the vines here at the moment, so you never know what your area can produce.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi DeAnander,

Thanks for the comment last week. It was very perceptive and 100% spot on. People no longer understand the need for such prudence.

Yesterday was spent bringing in the firewood and splitting the larger chunks into more manageable sizes. So, I hear you.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Juhana,

I can't dispute your comment last week and it sounds very common sense.

As a comparative, I would suggest that a single year fallow and another with green manure would probably be about one year too short here - at a minimum. Still you probably start with better soils.

However, such systems are only one part of the whole. They produce grains and/or meat for consumption. There are many other edible plants that form part of your diet (well, I hope so anyway) that you may want to consider and these do not tolerate soil disturbance.

I would suggest that the best lands for producing grains in Finland are now being utilised by industrial agricultural systems and these will need a few years to transition to organic (old time) methods before they are as productive as the traditional systems could possibly be.

Also, you mention foraging for food in your forests. It might be worth pondering how old your forests are? Regrowth forests (ie. younger than 100 years) don't generally support much of the original diversity they once had.

Also, another thing comes to mind. When your plot of land is laying fallow, where are all of the weedy / pioneering plant species going to come from? Does surrounding farmland support these? What about the surrounding forest?

It is a worthwhile exercise to find a patch of organically farmed land that is laying fallow and count the number of species growing in it. The more species the better. I can count (but not identify) about 60 species here in the herbage.

Bees are under some serious stress in Europe too because of the varroa mite (which originated in Asia and was introduced when someone tried to cross Asian and European honey bees, well done) and the general war on weeds! Plus commercial beekeepers are really hard on their colonies. What sort of pollinating insects live in your area?

Once we were richer.

Plus, historically Finland has been subject to successive famines. Have you thought about what the causes of these were? It is like bushfires here, it has happened once, it will happen again.

Regards

Chris

Phil Harris said...

JMG
You said it much better than me: JMG wrote:
" Capital-T Truth, as I see it, is not something that human beings can know ... when your elderly aunt asks you what you think of her new hat, truth is a needless brutality!"

A small further thought about Science. Sometimes as scientists we think we have explained something - at least better than our colleagues - only to find reality has an unexpected sense of humour and does not actually take sides.

Still we have learned stuff; and some of it could survive and be extremely useful. Some limits embedded in scenarios, as you have pointed out more than once, can be calculated, and even quantified in advance. These calculations are unlikely to be overturned by sudden changes in the Laws of Physics as observed to now. For our limited understanding that could be ‘True Enough’.

best

Phil


John Michael Greer said...

Richard, nicely put.

Phil H., good. Yes, it comes down to aesthetics eventually; we'll get to that as we proceed.

Heraclitus, am I following you correctly -- what is considered normal, healthy individualism in today's industrial nations equates to antisocial magic in several tribal cultures? If so, that's fascinating. As for visions of human flourishing, that's something we'll get to a good deal further on, after we settle some points about the nature of values.

Onething, the oracle at Delphi said that Socrates was the wisest of the Greeks. Why? Because everyone else in Greece thought they knew something, and he alone recognized that he knew nothing. Wisdom is not the same thing as knowing the truth; as I see it, at least, it starts with the cold awareness that we can't know the truth -- all we can do is create models of our experience that more or less seem to explain part of the cosmos around us. In my view, that existential modesty is the foundation of wisdom, as it is also the foundation of tolerance and compassion -- you'll probably have noticed that those who think they know the unvarnished truth tend to be very deficient in these latter virtues. All this will be coming up for discussion later on in this series of posts.

Lars, excellent! In fact, we'll be talking at some length about why the dark ages were dark, and who darkened them, in a couple of weeks.

Lidia, fascinating! Thanks for the link.

Cherokee, "time is like spaghetti" -- now there's a shape of time I hadn't thought of! My mind leaps immediately to wonder what the sauce and the meatballs are...

Phil H., no argument there -- a good model that allows successful prediction is worth having, and worth preserving. You don't have to mistake the model for the truth to recognize that!

Myriad said...

Ever notice how much the nature of time resembles that of a monotheistic or deistic deity? It's intrinsic to the universe (omnipresent), necessary for every sparrow's flight, and yet we can experience it only subjectively. It represents all cause but has no cause; there is nothing in the equations of physics that state that time must flow, only what changes any such flow will bring about. It's inexorable, as close to omnipotent as can be (moving mountains, laying the mighty low, bringing forth wonders, and so on), yet it might not exist at all.

Which suggests that this discussion of the Shape of TIme is also, in disguise, a discussion of beliefs about the divine plan (or agenda of heaven, loom of fate, etc.).

Avery said...

With regards to: "when I was growing up, there were any number of children’s novels set in “primitive societies”..."

I can't tell you if that's what kids are reading today-- as far as I can tell, they are reading utter nonsense-- but the bestselling adult novel of the past two decades, The Pillars of the Earth, is precisely this kind of story set in medieval times. I had to drudge through the main characters single-handedly inventing all the early modern techniques of entrepreneurship and socio-economic development, including even a system of loans and debt, which would have been called "usury" in a real medieval village. And this book was meant to teach us what went into building a 12th century cathedral. It really seems like the wisdom of the past is totally out of our reach sometimes.

Isis said...

JMG said:

"Capital-T Truth, as I see it, is not something that human beings can know, and moving from one small-t truth to another does not bring us closer to Truth in any absolute sense. (That was one of the central points of Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions -- science does not get closer to truth, it simply generates models that are more useful for making sense of whatever phenomena are considered most important at a given period in history.)"

You know, I wish somebody had told me that when I was a teenager. At the time, I reached a (reasonable enough) conclusion that science can never lead us to the capital-T Truth, and from there inferred (less than reasonably) that science is a useless pursuit. I therefore tried to minimize the amount of time and effort that I devoted to the study of physics and other sciences, and instead, I focused on math (which offered a higher degree of certainty), and eventually earned a PhD in the subject. Now, I'm pretty sure that math is more suitable than science for someone with my talents and sensibilities, but even so, I wish I weren't quite so ignorant about fields that are, after all, relatively closely related to mine. Alas, the Archdruid Report did not exist back when I was in high school. ;-) Oh, well...

jeffinwa said...

@Joseph Nemeth said,

A law of nature is that "all good things come to an end."

I think that "this too shall pass" says it better ;=)

I had an inspiration once that "it's all happening somewhere all the time"

Still trying to figure out what it might mean but it fits comfortably with me.

Edward said...

JMG wrote: "I'm familiar with the "God gave us as much petroleum as we need" argument -- I'd be interested to hear those who believe it defend the claim that Jesus approves of today's lifestyles of gargantuan extravagance and waste."

These lifestyles are often the result of "Prosperity Theology" which is the idea that it is God's will for believers to be "blessed" with material wealth, and you can acquire worldly things by "having faith" for them.

That would certainly qualify as child-like faith.

For those who are convinced that we are in the end times, any circumstances - even contradictory circumstances can be seen as a sign.

Edward said...

Human perception of time seems to be broken out as moments. I have memories from 40-50 years ago but can not recall all the things that happened in between. When we "recall" these memories, we bring them back to the present as if we are experiencing them all over again. Often there is an emotional element to these memories, and bringing back the memory, brings back the emotions so that the entire incident is relived. I suppose that this is adaptive in an evolutionary sense.

The idea that time is a continuum seems to be a product of our more recent technological culture in which time becomes a commodity.

Edward said...

@Phil Harris:

"Limited understanding that could be True Enough" reminds me of something that an old engineer mentor told me many years ago: "It's better to be approximately correct than to be exactly wrong."

That advice has served me well. Having a "feel" for how things work is more reliable than the latest computer models and the risk of "garbage in, garbage out."

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

onething and JMG,

Here I go on the subject of truth again, but here's the way I look at it: Truth-seeking is less like shooting an arrow or two at a target in the distance and more like a bunch of archers in an inner courtyard of a castle lobbing a volley of arrows over the wall at an invading army.

The arrow-target model has a problem: to really relate to our actual experience of reality we would have to add that the archer is blindfolded and spun around before taking the shot at a target he has never seen and never will see.

To my mind the volley model has the advantage of including three aspects of truth-discovery that are often neglected:

1. its essentially social nature, starting with the social nature of language, without which there are no beliefs to be true or false at all,

2. its reliable-but-fallible nature: many of the arrows will hit, and we can confirm this by the screams of the wounded and dying, but we can never be quite sure which are hits and which are misses, and

3. its nature as a coping strategy: our brains were selected primarily because they let us deal with the world around us, not because they let us Pursue Truth(tm).

Bozack said...

Some links that relate to the general theme of the religion of progress (sorry if they have been mentioned in the comments already):

If progress is a religion then TED talks/SXSW are major religious festivals, so it is interesting to read the the sceptical closing remarks of Bruce Sterling from SXSW:

http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2013/04/text-of-sxsw2013-closing-remarks-by-bruce-sterling/

There also was an interesting article in Foreign Policy pointing out some of the problems of techno-utopianism:

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/04/29/the_singularity_of_fools?page=full

onething said...

JMG,

We seem to conceive of truth seeking differently and are thus talking past each other. A real truth seeker cannot be dogmatic, although they might start out that way. You see that Krishnamurti said truth is a pathless land.
My impression is that Socrates sought truth earnestly for many years before he arrived at the realization that he knew nothing; such realization is not for the beginner.

Kieran O'Neill said...

An interesting data point related to progress (and science) as points of faith: the New York Times recently ran a poll, with the following question:

"If you HAD to choose ONE, which of the following domestic programs would you be willing to reduce in order to cut government spending?"

The responses were as follows:

Education: 7%
Roads, Bridges, & Other Infrastructure: 29%
Science & Medical Research: 16%
Aid to the unemployed and poor: 29%

Now it's maybe a poorly designed question, by lumping in medical research with science, but this seems to be saying that the average American cares more about scientific research than about bridges not falling down or the poor being taken care of.

Stonymeadow said...

part 1/2

You can read his brief description of the book:
www.iainmcgilchrist.com/brief_description.asp

or his diverse background in literature and psychiatry:
www.iainmcgilchrist.com/index.asp

or the (free, pdf) intro to the book:
www.iainmcgilchrist.com/The_Master_and_his_Emissary_by_McGilchrist.pdf

I've only read the intro to the book, and watched the 2 videos below. you can watch ~half hour video where he explains his ideas on the brain: Iain McGilchrist - The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbUHxC4wiWk

or, a longer presentation, where he talks about the impact this divide has on society, and talks about how our current society is on the wrong path and headed towards more bureaucracy: Iain McGilchrist @ Schumacher College: Things Are Not What They Seem
www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXiHStLfjP0

i think his ideas are a pretty good description of why various groups are so blind to the problems with their ideologies. Eg, why the banksters/politicians/realtors couldn't see the housing bubble, why the Keynesian economists think printing up more little green slips of paper will make us wealthier, etc. It seems to fit a whole variety of things i've observed about why people ignored obvious warnings over the last decade, to why modern architecture is so ugly. We really are an insane society!

Going further, some argue this has a spiritual dimension. Maggie Ross (pen name for Martha Reeves) is a 30-year professed anglican solitary, book author, and blogger at ravenwilderness.blogspot.com

For many years she spent half the year in remote alaska, and half the year teaching theology at oxbridge. (I would classify her as a theologically liberal Christian.)

She argues that that McGilchrists' work supports her contention that contemplation is being lost in the church with deleterious consequences. As I understand her arguments, what McGilcrist discusses as the right hemisphere function is what christianity would term 'beholding'. And while 'beholding' appears 1300 times in the new testament, more modern translations leave it out entirely. According to her, the 'golden age' was in the twelfth century or so, and since that time, the church has lost it's contemplative perspective, and hence it's ability to properly interpret it's own scripture. A brief post about this is: Language Matters:
ravenwilderness.blogspot.com/2011/05/more-language-matters.html

For those interested in going deeper, two papers (both in multiple posts on her blog) related to her ideas and McGilchrist are titled: Manchester Talk May 31, 2012:
ravenwilderness.blogspot.com/search?q=Manchester+Talk

and Exploring Silence:
ravenwilderness.blogspot.com/search?q=Exploring+Silence

Stonymeadow said...

part 2/2

on a much less academic level, in terms of application, there's a fascinating 3 hr documentary done by the BBC, “the big silence”:
-----
the big silence
topdocumentaryfilms.com/big-silence/

Abbot Christopher Jamison, a Benedictine monk, believes that he can teach five ordinary people the value of silent meditation, as practised by monks in monasteries, so they can make it part of their everyday lives.
He sets up a three-month experiment to test out whether the ancient Christian tradition of silence can become part of modern lives.
Christopher brings the five volunteers to his own monastery, Worth Abbey, before sending them to begin a daunting eight days in complete silence at a specialist retreat center.
Journey into the interior space that time in silence reveals. They encounter anger, frustration and rebellion, but finally find their way to both personal and spiritual revelation.
Will they make silent contemplation a part of their everyday lives? How much will their lives be changed by what they have discovered in their time in silence And will Abbot Christopher’s hope, that they will discover a new belief in God, be fulfilled?
-----

(It's also available on youtube).
www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_zDtdYu3mA

Maggie Ross, had this to say about the series :
-----
No Place for Silence
ravenwilderness.blogspot.com/2010/11/no-place-for-silence.html
As I was away over the weekend I missed the third episode of 'The Big Silence' on the BBC, so I've just watched it on iPlayer here in the library, my old computer at home not being up to the task. It was a well-done series, I thought; but Jamieson's sadness and puzzlement at the end about people's alienation to putting what they had found in silence into traditional words and church structures seemed the only disingenuous moment. He was right on when he pointed to the relationship between silence and the evolution of doctrine, but oblivious of how those doctrines have been divorced from silence, twisted, and used to beat people up, keeping them immature and dependent, narrowing the parameters of what it might possibly mean to be human.

How can Jamieson stand the conflict between what deep silence teaches and what being a Roman Catholic forces you to assent to? Does he just glaze over, tune out, the way so many RC monastics do when confronted by contradiction (as opposed to paradox)?

I'm a professed religious and my sympathies are all with the alienated. Organized religion has become so embarrassing that it's not surprising people don't want to be associated with it. I'm not willing to use the fossilized language, either, not unless it's ringed about with explanations and caveats and provisionality. Some of it can still be useful, but only as it is understood in its wider relationship to silence and as it is restored to its relationship to silence and, most of all, as it yields to silence.


-----

i think some of the above ideas are related to your topics so far re: mental models. And depending on exactly where you're headed with the current series of posts, i think some of the other information may be of use to you or others as well. (and if i'm mistaken, my apologies for being off-tangent.)

i guess is all boils down to pascal being correct:
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” ― Blaise Pascal

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Thanks. Yeah, people look at their lives so differently that it is sometimes beyond my comprehension. I can certainly empathise with them, but understanding their motivations and perceptions is pure guess work.

As to the sauce, well that's easy: Alfredo (parmesan) and the meatballs, hmm, well perhaps that would be an unexpected turn of events here. Ortolana (market gardener) would be closer to the truth!

Seriously though, people are only ever one part of the equation. The animals and plants all have something to say on the matter of time too.

The ants build mounds around their nests when it's going to rain.

The bees only ever send out their scouts and foragers when it's going to be above 10 degrees (50F).

The smaller birds warn of the approach of bigger more predatory birds (or call out when they see a snake).

The shrubs die back when sub surface water is low, only to bounce back later when the rains come.

Some plants grow in more fertile areas and indicate better supplies of water and nutrition.

Some plants die back at the turn of the seasons.

So it goes on and I'm unsure what my contemporaries see as time unfolds.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I've just uploaded a new video update of all of the various goings on here:

Fernglade Farm - Autumn update

You can even see the dreaded water tank that took so much effort to excavate in.

Regards

Chris

Les said...

Re: accelerating time

When you combine Bill Pulliam's "underlying arrow of time" with the notion that "the only constant is change" (one of the fundamental tenets of Progress), it's easy to see where the idea of accelerating time comes from.

My late father-in-law had a theory that went like this:
A year looks like an eternity to a four year old, because a year is a quarter of their life. A year looks much shorter to a seventy year old, because it is one seventieth of their life. Time seems to accelerate as you get older.

When one considers the totally egocentric way most people look at the world, it's completely obvious that their lives are busier now than they used to be and, by extension, much busier than people who lived in earlier times.

After all, how long did it take an Elizabethan sailor to circumnavigate the globe, a feat that can be achieved in a little over 50 hours in a commercial jetliner (should you be crazy enough to try)?

Mind you, the "less busy" aspect of the comparison would only make sense to someone who has never had time working a sailing ship - where there is some downtime, but the busy times are more than slightly hectic, not to mention life threatening...

If you're truly looking to pass a dreary afternoon, you can go and find “Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past” by Douwe Draaisma, a professor of psychology in The Netherlands. Mind you, he takes more than 200 (IMO badly written) pages to reach the same conclusion Morris Owen managed in a paragraph, so maybe there are better ways to spend your time.

Cheers,

Les

Phil Harris said...

My goodness; “like the green light on the end of Gatsby’s dock”… that takes me back, thanks to @Heraclitus. It is no consolation that it was as relevant in the 1960s in Britain when I first read that book as it was in the original Jazz Age. Then we followed it up with that one word of wisdom “Insurance!” in ‘The Graduate’: scary stuff indeed.
I am glad JMG said:
“Heraclitus, am I following you correctly -- what is considered normal, healthy individualism in today's industrial nations equates to antisocial magic in several tribal cultures? If so, that's fascinating.”
The intervening years for me have seen many examples when I can only say, we seemed spellbound. It actually felt like that, even in some personal and normal social relations. There are ways through, however, and I am looking forward to the coming discussions.
best
Phil H

Nestorian said...

Yes, I am familiar with and have made a study of the Preterist interpretation of Daniel, Revelation, etc., which locates the concrete historical fulfillment of biblical prophecy fully in events that occurred within a generation or two of the rise of Christianity. This view is widely held within the more conservative precincts of American Protestantism today as an alternative to the equally widespread Dispensationalist Futurism.

In addition, Reformation-era Protestantism advanced the so-called "Historicist" interpretation, which correlates biblical prophecy to the entire span of history between the first and second comings of Christ. The Historicist approach was very convenient to Luther, et al., in that it made it easy to assign the papacy to the role of the "Whore of Babylon" in Revelation 17.

There is also the so-called "Idealist" interpretation, which regards the symbols of apocalyptic prophecy as real metaphors insofar as they describe the essential nature of the ongoing drama of the battle between good and evil in history, but as misleading and illusory metaphors insofar as they are held to correlate in an exact way with concrete, particularized historical events. The recently resigned Pope Benedict XVI would be an example of a leading theologian who holds largely to such an Idealist interpretation.

In one combination or another, the Futurist, Preterist, Idealist, and Historicist interpretations of the apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible represent the full range of possible interpretations of this literature by any one who affirms faith in classical (i.e., non-Modernized) variants of Christianity. (There is, of course, also a fifth mode of interpretation that regards these prophecies as mere illusions and fantasies of fevered human imagination, but such an hermeneutical approach is not available to those who maintain Premodern forms of allegiance to Christian beliefs.)

My point with regard to the words from the Nicene Creed quoted by Zack is that they are an important testimony to the prominence of Futurist interpretations in the early Church. In fact, the explicit presence of the words “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” has made it impossible for both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches to maintain anything other than a Futurist interpretation of at least the Second Coming of Christ itself – much as both these Churches would have sorely liked to dispense with Futurism of any kind, as it constituted a continual source of embarrassment over the course of the many centuries following the fatal Constantinean political compromise that both Churches made in the 4th century, and is an even greater embarrassment to them today.

Moreover, the fact is that the considerable majority of ante-Nicene Church Fathers were maximalists in their futurism. For example, if one picks up writings by Justin Martyr (mid-2nd century); Irenaeus of Lyons (early 3rd century); Hippolytus of Rome (early 3rd century); or Lactantius (early 4th century, and one of Constantine’s tutors, if I remember correctly), the resemblance between their thinking and that of modern Dispensationalism is quite striking. Indeed, even early writers who have a reputation of being strident Anti-Futurists, such as Origen (early 3rd century) have in fact left behind a literary legacy that contain decidedly robust elements of Futurism.

I know it is nothing more than an historical curiosity to almost all who read this blog, but it is nevertheless a fact that the central core of Dispensationalist Futurism has by far the strongest foundation in Christian Tradition of any of the four modes of apocalyptic interpretation delineated above. At the very least, Dispensationalism should be cleared of the charge of inventing something totally new in Christian history, for it is a false one.

Edward said...

More about time as a commodity:

In the United States, our perception of the world has a major time element. Think about all the expressions we use: saving time, wasting time, giving time, taking time, buying time, making time, getting behind, catching up, ASAP, getting paid by the hour, etc. & etc.

"Progress" can be measured by the reduction in time for completing tasks.

Going back to the analogy of fish and water, for Americans, the calendar and the clock are the water that WE swim in.

A person who goes on vacation at a place where the pace is slower is like that person who wakes up in a strange dark room.

I'd suggest that the American shape of time is a stream of blurred objects like you see out the side window of a hemi-powered SUV that will pass anything but a gas station.

JP said...

@Jeffinway:

"I had an inspiration once that "it's all happening somewhere all the time"

Still trying to figure out what it might mean but it fits comfortably with me."

Everything always happens now.

In fact, as I have gone through life, I've noticed that it's always now.

One of my other problems is that wherever I go, there I am. I just can't get away from me, no matter how fast I run.

JP said...

I suppose that one of the odd properties of time is that the future always casts a shadow on the present.

Which would be consistent with Mr. Organics's points that:

"The ants build mounds around their nests when it's going to rain.

The bees only ever send out their scouts and foragers when it's going to be above 10 degrees (50F)."

In any event, I don't think that one of the issue of time is that time is a continuum.

It's that we are continuums.

thulensis said...

Thank you, Archdruid, for your illuminating overview of these metaphors for perspectives on time.

Because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I am contributing two more notional shapes of time, faulty ones which may nevertheless bear mentioning.

First, “Klimmen en dalen” (Escher, 1960) or Penrose stairs time: Progress (or decay etc.) is endless because the perspective keeps getting switched around, such as by Winston Smith's tampering with history or by repeated changes in value judgement. This could be viewed as circular time in denial or with deficient epistemology, cf. the sayings of the French, Russians, and English, etc., according to which “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.

Second, consciousness-only-of-this-moment time, or “goldfish memory”: My stomach hurts now, hence all of life is miserable. I was just given a lollipop, now everything has always been great. This is time-as-a-moment without a sense of perspective. Advertisers encourage people to think like this, cf. Clotaire Rapaille's aphorism that “the reptilian brain always wins” meaning that consumers can be manipulated to purchase things against their better interest.

Up to a degree, the old man who views time as a process of decay because of his own personal experience can also be viewed as misrepresenting time because he isn't transitioning his point of view to his sons and his daughters' sons et cetera. A rose will bloom and then will fade, and in due time other roses are there again.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JP,

Thanks for understanding.

Many people in our society ignore the present circumstances and conditions in favour of a strong belief in a brighter future. The animals here don't do this as they live today and yet still have one eye on the future.

The bees clearly produce and store honey as a winter feed source and will quite happily kill off most of the drones if those winter stores ever get low.

Farming organically means you have to chuck your lot in with nature so you only ever have a rough guide as to what the next season will be like. Uncertainty and chaos seems to be the norm.

Hi Phil,

"The Graduate". I never quite understood the end of that film. They won their freedom, but what did they win? They looked lost and without a rudder and I was not even sure that they got the outcome they were looking for. It all seemed a bit spur of the moment and reactionary. My gut feel is that it was a metaphor for freedom, but in reality they cast off one yoke and put on another.

You can get the mental image - without too much work - of the puppet master pulling the strings of the puppets saying: "dance and sing for me individuals, dance and sing". It's really a bit like the Monty Python skit in Life of Brian, "we're all individuals". Yeah, sure.

Regards

Chris

latheChuck said...

JMG wrote: "it starts with the cold awareness that we can't know the truth -- all we can do is create models of our experience that more or less seem to explain part of the cosmos around us."
While "explaining" is a practice as long as history, I prefer to pursue models... that predict part of the cosmos around us. The difference between explaining and predicting is most commonly and sharply demonstrated with the evening business report. Daily movements of stock indices are always explained, but there's never a prediction of what strategy will dominate the next day's activity.
I can "explain" that my ham radio components operate on the containment of a mysterious smoke, for once the smoke leaks out of them, they no longer work. On the other hand, I have a model of electrons sloshing back and forth from one end of an antenna wire to another. I know that a certain length of wire corresponds to a certain frequency of resonance, and that resonance is important to efficient radiation of signals. So I cut the wire to a calculated length, and communicate (as predicted).

Óskar said...

Re: the Greenland Norse

I think the Greenland Norse have been unfairly characterized in the comments above by Anselmo and JMG. The image of the stubborn, unadapatable and racist Vikings in Greenland has most likely been popularized by Jared Diamond's Collapse. Scholars specialized in the topic have criticized his writings and pointed out some of their errors, particularly his claim that the Greenland Norse did not eat fish.

For one thing all the North Atlantic colonies, as well as the Norwegian motherland, traditionally practiced fishing; so it really should take a mass of evidence to prove that the Greenlanders did not eat fish. Perhaps Diamond's claim partly derives from a biased desire to prove a point and partly from a failure to account for the social context: land-based food (meat and dairy) held more prestige in both Icelandic and Greenlandic society, since power and wealth primarily came from land ownership. Fishing was available to everyone, meaning that the poorer you were the more you had to subsist on fish. The bishopric of Gardar, where more meat would have been consumed than in poorer households, has naturally been studied most by archaeologists, and Diamond often refers to evidence from there.

Keep in mind that the Greenland colony persisted for nearly five centuries. During at least four of those centuries it was in contact with the outside world, particularly with Iceland. The reasons for its eventual disappearance are still unknown. A number of areas within Iceland were also abandoned sometime between 1300 and 1500; even the reasons for that process are not fully known but Icelandic scholars have gradually come to favor a varied explanation taking both social and environmental developments into account. The same is likely true for Greenland. Pinning the supposed failure of the Greenland Norse (despite their staying half a millenium in a harsh and remote environment) on some unique lack of adaptability is not really helpful for understanding the topic.

As to their view of time... "good vs evil" may be one feature of it but I would also say that there was a cyclic view in Norse paganism. In the Völuspá (ancient verse describing the creation and eventual fate of the world), the follow-up to the terrible Ragnarök is that the world is reborn more beautiful than ever. Mankind and the gods also come back and live in a state of bliss. The last verse describes the ominous appearance of a "dark dragon"; this can be interpreted in many ways, though to me it implies that evil is also reborn, thus completing the cycle. Now, the Greenland Norse did of course also become Christian, which likely affected their view of time in some ways. Finally I would add that Iceland, faced with increasing environmental degradation, poverty and backwardness, eventually developed a strongly "Hesiodic" view of time. I would expect that the same occurred in Greenland as it faced its decline.

P.S. I'm a native Icelander studying geography and history. I would refer to Kirsten A. Seaver's The Last Vikings as an example of a recent scholarly title contradicting the popular view of the Greenlanders.

John Michael Greer said...

Myriad, that's a very good point. I'm suddenly wondering how many other fundamental categories of thought are basically surrogates for divinity.

Avery, thanks for the tip. This is one of the reasons I urge people to read books written before they were born -- it's one of the few ways to get out of the feedback loop that pumps the conventional wisdom of pop culture endlessly back around into our heads.

Isis, you can always add some basic facility at a science to your repertoire, you know! I've long thought that it's vital to learn something completely new and unfamiliar every few years, and learn it thoroughly -- that's one of the few ways to avoid the mental fossilization that otherwise sets in during middle age.

Edward, I keep on thinking of some guy or other who said that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Clearly the person who said that is not someone in whom these, er, Christians are interested.

As for your point about memories and moments, good -- that's true, and worth remembering. Not all shapes of time are continuous!

James, your point 3 is to my mind the most crucial. The fact that a mental model is adaptive does not make it true.

Bozack, thanks for the links! The FP article is particularly interesting to me, as that's the house magazine of the Council on Foreign Relations and thus a good barometer of what a significant faction of the US political class thinks.

Onething, nah, we disagree with each other -- which is fine; that's the point of dissensus. As for Socrates, though, not so: he spent his career trying to teach young men to recognize that they knew nothing. Clearing away pretensions to knowledge was the first step in the Socratic and, later, the Platonic path.

Kieran, fascinating -- though it would be interesting to see the actual questionnaire; slanting questions to get the answers you want is a fine art these days.

Stonymeadow, I certainly agree about silence -- I need a couple of hours of silence and solitude a day in order to function -- but McGilchrist seems to be using an old and largely discarded model of the brain; the split-brain theory was popular for a while in the 1970s and 1980s, but to the best of my knowledge, later research has shown it to be far too simplistic. I wonder if he cites Julian Jaynes "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" -- that was an earlier attempt to explain the history of religions by way of split-brain theory.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, true enough -- nature has her own shape of time, and it's a good deal more complex than anything the human mind can track. Many thanks for the video -- that tank looks worth the effort!

Les, I've encountered your father-in-law's theory before, and find it puzzling, in that a day doesn't seem to go by any faster now than it did when I was young. Maybe that's because I avoid activities (such as TV) that consume time and give nothing back; I don't know.

Phil H., I've discussed the weirdly trancelike quality of modern consciousness here before. Heraclitus' point is something beyond that; he's not saying that we act like people under a curse, he's saying that we act like the kind of people who put curses on others.

Nestorian, good -- but that makes my point even more forcefully; the prevalence of Preterist and Idealist interpretations of apocalyptic passages in the Bible makes it clear that, as I said to Zach, a literal interpretation of the Second Coming as an event located in the near future is by no means a non-negotiable part of Christian faith. That said, your point about Futurist interpretations and Dispensationalism is quite correct: a great many Christians, since very early times, have in fact embraced the same belief that motivates today's "rapture ready" fundamentalists. To my mind, this shows the ease with which the human mind reinterprets spiritual teachings in the most crassly material of forms, but of course your beliefs may differ and your mileage may vary.

Edward, good! All good points.

JP, the shape of the self is just as contentious an issue as the shape of time...

Thulensis, very good. To quite a significant extent, current notions of progress are motivated by the lollipop factor: people just now have plenty of lollipops, therefore the process that gave them lollipops is good, and the thought that this same process has horrific consequences in the not too distant future is unthinkable because, well, we've got lollipops!

Chuck, a valid point. You'll notice that the relative popularity of predictive vs. explanatory models is subject to a great deal of variation depending on, among other things, who gets to benefit from the predictions.

Óskar, fascinating! Thank you for the correction.

Stonymeadow said...

Re: “McGilchrist seems to be using an old and largely discarded model of the brain; the split-brain theory was popular for a while in the 1970s and 1980s, but to the best of my knowledge, later research has shown it to be far too simplistic.

JMG, i think you dismissed the info too quickly as being 'old news', based on what my terse writing rather than perusing any of the links.

McGilchrist notes that the original hemisphere models of the brain where too simplistic. He incorporates the new scientific studies. From what I can tell, the brain science section of the book is reviewed positively. The second part of the book talking about how this brain science has affected western culture (not just religion) is the part that has garnered some criticism (and some praise as well.)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Master_and_His_Emissary#Reception

in his talk (and i assume included in his book), he talks about how people act differently if one or the other sphere of the brain is disabled. Eg, when shown a tree and asked to draw it, the drawings are different based on which hemisphere is disabled. With the right sphere deactivated, they draw just a single branch; with the left sphere deactivated, they a draw the whole tree but without much detail in the branches; with both hemispheres active, they draw a tree with both the full structure and also the detail. You can see one diagram of this in the following review of his talk:
http://s33light.org/post/32415734074

i just discovered it, so i haven't read it yet, but there's a 100 page look at his work (condensed from 608 page original book):
http://www.thersa.org/action-research-centre/learning,-cognition-and-creativity/social-brain/reports/the-divided-brain

Re: "I wonder if he cites Julian Jaynes "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" -- that was an earlier attempt to explain the history of religions by way of split-brain theory.“

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicameralism_%28psychology%29
“In his book The Master and His Emissary, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist reviews scientific research into the role of the brain's hemispheres, and cultural evidence, and he proposes that since the time of Plato the left hemisphere of the brain (the "emissary" in the title) has increasingly taken over from the right hemisphere (the "master"), to our detriment. McGilchrist, while accepting Jayne's intention, felt that Jayne's hypothesis was "the precise inverse of what happened" and that rather than a shift from bicameralism there evolved a separation of the hemispheres.[34]”

Shortly after originally hearing about the book, i stumbled across an article about architectural myopia, which seemed to support this same view of a detailed view of the world with an in-context view of the world. A commenter on the article also noted it seemed to be supported by McGilchrist's book.

An excerpt from the article “architectural myopia”, altho there's more discussion at the link, describing how the architecture training encourages this "out of context" view, and how architects even override their own congnative dissonance of their own feelings when they experience a modern building.

http://permaculturenews.org/2011/10/20/architectural-myopia-designing-for-industry-not-people/

1. Seeing the World Differently.
[....] Laboratory results show conclusively that architects literally see the world differently from non-architects. Not only do architects notice and look for different aspects of the environment than other people; their brains seem to synthesize an understanding of the world that has notable differences from natural reality. Instead of a contextual world of harmonious geometric relationships and connectedness, architects tend to see a world of objects set apart from their contexts, with distinctive, attention-getting qualities.

Juhana said...

About this doctrinal conversation about Christianity. Have to say that doctrine leaves lot to interpretation there... And when remembered that the triumph in the fourth century AD of a brand of state-sponsored Christianity was the thing originally narrowing down even wider disarray of opinions,it makes you wonder...

Four decades after the Nicaean Creed in 367, bishop of Alexandria called Athanasius wrote to the churches under his command. In his letters, he prescribed 27 books to be considered to constitute a "New Testament". Simultaneously, Athanasius said that all gospels not included in his canon were no longer to be read, NEVER. Just for example, gospel of Philip is one of heretical texts giving quite different picture about same events.

It is probably easier to forget this bewildering soup of differing interpretations of same event if person lives in New World, far away from original birthplace of this religion. If you live closer, and belong to Catholic branch which actually has held all sees around original places of wonder, this historic clean-up of differing opinions by command of Roman emperors (mostly from Constantinople, I mean)is harder to miss... I am NOT challenging authority of religious scholars, just reminding that human being is fallible creature in all aspects. Cultural integrity brought by ancient traditions and faith is beyond doubt, but there are deep undercurrents of differing interpretations going at least from 4th century AD to this very day. Which opinion won and which opinion lost was mostly decided by power-hungry, politicizing emperors of authoritarian regime known as the Roman Empire. Like I have said time after time, human being is unable to understand actual reality beyond imminent, touchable one. For more complicated things, we only sculpture crude images of them and call them the Only Truth. Mystical core remains pure, but our boring fights over doctrinal purity does not. I am happy just with cultural continuity, being man of mostly practical mind, but things should not be oversimplified.

@Cherokee Organics: It is just that deathly dependence between petro-chemical industry and agriculture that really worries me. Food production is on totally unsustainable foundation right now, has been from days of Green Revolution. We can survive without stereos and cheap plastic junk made in other side of globe, but having agriculture that depends on non-renewable resources is recipe for disaster. Fortunately, here in my country, there are many good things that agri-biz model has not displaced...yet. Most farming is done in (relatively) small-scale, family-based farms. Field sizes are actually not that big, field are regularly split by forest areas. Forest and field areas are sharing same space, and inter-pollinating on the way. No corn fields from horizon to horizon here, you can walk through almost any field in relatively short time. But fossil fuel dependency, it is here of course... Fallowing works very well here, and life cycle of meadow phase includes bewildering array of species, both plant and animal. Famines you mentioned... It is cold here, man. Really, really cold. Bad harvests just happen because of that. That is reason why hunting is even today national hobby here. Got to have those skills. There is not even word in English to translate our deeply meaningful word for survival skills in nature..."erätaito". You have to have skills to pay your family's bills, or leave the stage. Living through winter here without fossil fuel input is hard for anyone. Explains a lot about national mentality here... No joyous living of Mediterranean style to be found here, except among lost generation of twenty-somethings, who have got it all easy way until now... They will suffer horribly when it comes obvious that this current recession IS the new normal, and it is going to worsen.

Chris Travers said...

Just a note about the story of turning one's back on tradition. I think the error is a bit more subtle than is evident from what you write. In particular, traditional cultures tend to be relatively dynamic and innovative in their own way, but they innovate differently.

One interesting data point here (besides Victor Turners works on Ndembo ritual) is in comparing La Tene swordmaking techniques to Roman equivalents. The La Tene craftsmen were far more traditional than the Romans, but they developed, over hundreds of years of steady effort, the methods of ironworking that would win out in terms of weapons through the first half of the Middle Ages.

The two things you have to remember is that early iron was significantly worse for tools than late era bronze was. It had the major advantages of being cheap and locally available however and so while the Romans focused on mass production of weapons, the La Tene Celts spent their effort trying to make weapons like their older bronze ones. In essence the Romans looked at the new material and said "how can we make weapons in new ways?" while the Celts looked at the new material and asked "how can we make weapons as good as the ones we are used to?"

Over hundreds of years you can see the La Tene smiths going from trying to apply bronzeworking techniques to iron (with no success of course) to developing case hardening and early steel, which was used in making heterogenous iron/steel swords.

The first error in the story of the individual who turns his back on tradition is this idea that traditions are static things. The second is that they don't innovate. They do, but they assume (rightly I think) that the people who have mastered the old ways are the best at creating new ways. It is the innovation of Homer or Pindar instead of the innovation of Longsfellow or Whitman.

The question (which I think is what you are asking here) is what is the relationship between the past and the future? We are told from when we are young that we should break free from the past, and there are countless ways we (in our society) use this to victimize people. To this question, perhaps, it is best not to have only one answer.....

Chris Travers said...

I want to also add my $0.02 about the Greenland Norse.

From what I have seen regarding the Greenland Norse, we don't really know what happened to the colonies. Did they get wiped out by the Innuit? Did they intermarry and get absorbed? It is hard to say.

What is pretty clear however based on what is known is that what doomed them as a Scandinavian culture was their dependence on wood particularly for shipbuilding as well as construction, and the fact that the increase in ice in the North Atlantic made this very problematic.

Mr Diamond for example suggests they build opulent cathedrals, but the cathedral in Greenland was basically no different than a dwelling or a barn except that it had a bell imported from Norway (I guess that must make it opulent). Cut off from trans-Atlantic trade and possibly even from harvesting wood in the New World, the Norse Greenlanders as such could not have survived long. The real question is what happened to them and whether the story ended like that of John Franklin or Roald Amudsen.....

Isis said...

JMG said:

"Isis, you can always add some basic facility at a science to your repertoire, you know! I've long thought that it's vital to learn something completely new and unfamiliar every few years, and learn it thoroughly -- that's one of the few ways to avoid the mental fossilization that otherwise sets in during middle age."

That's certainly true, however, the truth of the matter is that a science is not on the top of my to-learn list. The main reason for my regret is that my high school taught exactly two things well: math and physics. Everything else was busy work and largely a waste of time. I made good use of the math program, but for largely misguided reasons, not of the physics program. That opportunity is now gone. I could recreate it for myself if I wanted to badly enough, but at least at this stage of my life, I'm prioritizing other things.

It so happens that I've mostly used foreign languages for the purpose that you cite, namely the avoidance of mental fossilization. It helps that this is something that I also thoroughly enjoy. I've studied four in my life, two starting as a child, and two starting as an adult, and I speak them with various degrees of fluency (from very basic to native-like). I find that, at any given time, I can make room for one serious intellectual commitment that is independent of my professional work, but if I try doing more than one, it quickly becomes counterproductive. The balance may be different for other people, but this is what it is for me. Well, there are quite a few things that are independent of my professional work that I'd like to learn, and learn thoroughly, but given the fact that it'll have to happen one (and no more than one) at a time, chances are that science will remain simply a missed opportunity of my adolescence.

On a note that is completely unrelated to the above, but much closer to the subject of your post, I was wondering if you were going to say anything about what gives people with radically different perceptions of time a sense of purpose. I can see fairly easily what might give a sense of purpose to the believers in Progress, and also to those who see time as a cycle or have a vision of Dreamtime, but I'm having a really hard time envisioning what might motivate someone with Hesiod's vision of relentless and inevitable decline to move forward. Other than perhaps crude sexual desire, what might motivate such a person to bring children into this world? I'd be grateful if you could shed some light on that.

Phil Harris said...

JMG and All
I am glad Oskar wrote his piece on Norse Greenland. Inuit continued (?) and I wonder about their history - presumably there is archaeology?

It made me think of St Kilda’s Gaels who were finally evacuated to Great Britain in 20thC. The Arran Islanders similarly were removed by the Eire government round about the same time. I understand St Kilda became afflicted (‘visited’) in the 18thC with a smallpox epidemic and with a particular soil tetanus that was a killer thereafter in childbirth. Hard-line missionaries arrived in 1825. Though Kilda was partly renewed by immigration after the 1723 smallpox epidemic their health seems to have declined.

Islands and isolated populations, it seems however, can continue to thrive for very long periods if there is food from the sea. I guess Diamond is wrong about quite a lot of things.

Hi Chris @Cherokee
You will be glad of that water tank - lot of work of course.

'The Graduate' was so long ago I have forgotten most of it. I think we recognised it as a view of the 'sea' in which we little fishes 'swam'. There was no escape back then unless we had understood stuff a lot better than we did - pretty bleak?

best

Phil H


JP said...

@JMG

"JP, the shape of the self is just as contentious an issue as the shape of time..."

When I discuss this with Bob Godwin (everyone's favorite unknown off-road theologian) he keeps coming up with the self as best represented by a multi-dimensional phase space.

Whereas I tend more toward a discrete Calabi-Yau manifold for each person. A pattern of thought at least. Ideally speaking. Or at least as how we live here.

In any event, everyone is different and yet everyone is the same.

Constants and variables.

But in any event, your culture generally provides boundary conditions for how you are going to express yourself, so to speak.

Plus, as you are already aware, people generally don't think their own thoughts.

It was fun arguing with a scientific atheist about this once.

He kept coming back to consciousness as a Bose-Einstein condensate.

In any event, my problem remains that everywhere I go, there I am.

NH Peter said...

Couple of pennies on this question of truth.

JMG wrote:

Onething, the oracle at Delphi said that Socrates was the wisest of the Greeks. Why? Because everyone else in Greece thought they knew something, and he alone recognized that he knew nothing. Wisdom is not the same thing as knowing the truth; as I see it, at least, it starts with the cold awareness that we can't know the truth -- all we can do is create models of our experience that more or less seem to explain part of the cosmos around us. In my view, that existential modesty is the foundation of wisdom, as it is also the foundation of tolerance and compassion -- you'll probably have noticed that those who think they know the unvarnished truth tend to be very deficient in these latter virtues. All this will be coming up for discussion later on in this series of posts.

I have come to the conclusion that there is a subtle but very important problem at heart of philosophy regarding this formulation of truth seeking. It can be found at the center of the esoteric or “mystery” teaching of the Platonic Socrates from the dialogue titled Symposium, the only dialogue about the gods. Socrates relates a vision of truth seeking in this dialogue that uses erotic love as the most useful and accessible analogy for the movement of the soul towards wisdom. Eroticism is described as both goal oriented and resourceful, and painfully aware of the absence of its object. For the sake of analogy, the erotic love of a beautiful woman or man is experienced by a clear understanding of their beauty and desirability, and by the awareness of their absence, distance, etc. It doesn’t matter if the man or woman is completely out of your league, so long as the remotest possibility remains the erotic desire will seek some path to success.

However, the knowledge that no such person exists is destructive of erotic passion. In philosophy this is experienced by the subtle and slow advancement of provisional truths and limitations regarding the possibility of wisdom. Also, in a funny way, by the increasing assertions of the value of philosophy by philosophers (consider only Aristotle, who should have known better!). Eventually this can lead slowly towards those heaviest thoughts of Zarathustra and the antagonism between knowledge and life that inspired much of Nietzsche’s writing, and of course worse things as well.

The point is subtle. Is there really so much difference between “I know I know nothing” and “the truth can’t be known?” I think somewhere above there was mention of the first puzzle of the Tao “The Tao that can be spoken is not the real Tao.” Of course this was not meant to be read “the Tao cannot be known.” It does mean that the puzzle of knowing the Tao is not going to be easy.

-p

Óskar said...

I realize the discussion on the Greenland Norse is mostly off-topic but perhaps JMG will allow a reply to the last few comments.

The idea of fighting between the Inuit and the Norse has always struck me as a misconception that outsiders from more populous and warmer countries would be prone to. Up here in the far north, nature has always been more threatening than other humans, and mass fighting has historically been rare. It's a cinematic idea really, perhaps easier to entertain because of the warlike image of the Norse and the alienness of the Inuit hunters.

Even once the Inuit had migrated south to where the Norse colonies were placed, they settled on the outer parts of the fjords, while the Norse lived deep within the fjords. They were barely competing for the same resources, the Inuit primarily being hunters while the Norse were pastoralists and part-time fishermen. They probably did have hostile encounters occasionally, but I wouldn't be surprised if more Norse were killed by other Norse than by Inuits. On the other hand there is evidence of friendly relations. Norse artifacts, particularly metal tools and weapons, have been found in both Inuit and Dorset camps within Greenland and in the Canadian Arctic. Inuit items have likewise been found in Norse ruins. It makes a lot more sense that the groups would trade with each other, given that they had very different skills and specializations. Depictions of the Norse in Inuit art also usually show them as farmers and fishermen, not warriors.

However I don't doubt for a second that the Greenland Norse looked down on the Inuit.

As for the dependence of wood, yes it was likely an issue but possibly not as much of a life and death issue as has often been supposed. In Iceland, it's a popular idea that the country was crippled by a shortage of wood for shipbuilding; it's a lesser known fact that there was enough driftwood for all the basic needs of building houses, boats, tools and furniture. Imported wood was more of a luxury desired by the elites for various types of "opulence" as per Diamond's comments on Greenland churches (which are correct I guess). But opulent churches are of course not needed for survival, so lack of imported wood for luxuries did not doom Iceland, only frustrate its wealthier inhabitants.

Now, I don't think the inner fjords of Greenland get as much driftwood coming their way as the shores of Iceland, so that solution would not apply there. There are however very interesting Icelandic annal entries from 1347 stating that a ship arrived with a shipment of wood from "Markland", after drifting off course. No further details, as if that were a wholly unremarkable thing. "Markland" is believed to be the coast of Labrador. The implication is that the Greenland Norse harvested wood from the North American forests. This is in fact also supported by studies of the wood used in their ships: it's mostly larch, which does not grow in Greenland.

sgage said...

@JP

"In any event, my problem remains that everywhere I go, there I am."

You might as well get used to it, because it gets worse... you never had an experience when you weren't there, and you never will. You are eternal!

Bruce The Druid said...

The concept of Dreamtime, is a bit more complex than presented. From "Voices of The First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime" by Robert Lawlor:
"For the Aborigines, time is absorbed in the cycles of birth, growth, decline, and renewal of the living creatures that inhabit a particular place. The eternal aspect of time, the Dreaming, is also absorbed in the actuality of space and is identified with the untouched enduring formations of the earth." (241)
The Dreamtime is not simply an event that happened in the past, but a continuing ongoing event, accessed through the living creatures and geographical features of the landscape. Creation did not occur only in the past, but is a ongoing process.
I was underwhelmed by the description of Aboriginal culture as "static". I am not sure if the modern English language possesses the cognitive category to adequately describe the Dreamtime properly.

JP said...

@sgage:

""In any event, my problem remains that everywhere I go, there I am."

You might as well get used to it, because it gets worse... you never had an experience when you weren't there, and you never will. You are eternal!"

My thesis remains that I had a beginning, but I have no end.

And not only am I immortal, but I'm distinctly non-omnipotent, and non-omniscient. And I'm not always even driving the bus, so to speak. I mean, I have enough trouble operating this equipment, let alone getting anything done.

Master time and space they said. And whatever else it is that I'm here to do.

Yeah, that's only going to take eons.

I suppose that it's fortunate that I have eons.

Granted, it's not like I have anything better to do than achieve my purpose.

And we're all here to do what we're all here to do.

So I wander around doing whatever it is that I'm doing. Even if it's often clearly not what I'm supposed to be doing.

JP said...

@Bruce:

"The Dreamtime is not simply an event that happened in the past, but a continuing ongoing event, accessed through the living creatures and geographical features of the landscape. Creation did not occur only in the past, but is a ongoing process."

Most people miss that point.

The ongoing process of creation, that is.

It's pretty obvious once you think about it.

Kind of the the metaphyical equivalent of 2+2=4.

Although the other issue is that anything multiplied by 0 = 0.

So, don't traffic in nullities because you're always going to end up nowhere.

And then you have to start again from the middle of nowhere.

onething said...

NH Peter,

Thank you for your thoughts.

As to Socrates, I wonder at what age he realized he knew nothing? I suspect that it came to him after his youth, after he experienced, as you say "the subtle and slow advancement of provisional truths and limitations regarding the possibility of wisdom".

If this is true, then there is value in the pursuit of truth. On the simplest rung, are the people who have never questioned their belief systems, and wouldn't even think of doing so. Then you have those who think of pursuing truth, and of those only a few will push that pursuit past the earliest discomforts, in which truth might make them uncomfortable in some way. And from those last, a few might begin to realize the size and nature of the problem, coming to the suspicion or conviction that they cannot ultimately know the truth. And if this is, as JMG states, the beginning of wisdom, then surely the pursuit of truth is of value.

I have certainly thought of erotic love as a good analogy for the soul's journey toward the divine; I'm having to rethink that a bit to use it for the pursuit of wisdom, but they are very close.

Can you explain a little what you mean about the antagonism between knowledge and life?
I'm afraid I have to confess I tried to read Nietzsche and couldn't seem to get into his communication style.

I do not think the two statements are the same, and as to whether the truth can't be known, that is a definite statement that almost contradicts the former statement. If I know nothing, what do I know of all the possibilities in the cosmos and for the future of my being? I am not sure but I suspect that when JMG says we can't know ultimate truth, he means that is our situation now and here.

As for the opening verse in the Tao, that seems like a slightly different point. The Tao that can be expressed in language is not the thing in itself, is what I think it means.

That problem at the heart of philosophy is exactly what I'm arguing about, isn't it? I tend to have faith that if there is a desire toward some end of paramount importance, there must be some utility in pursuing it.


NH Peter said...

Onething,

The historical Socrates remains hidden from us behind the veil of his chroniclers, primarily Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. I think a case can be made that the young Socrates was not nearly as modest in his claims for wisdom as we find in the version created by Plato. Consider only the impetus for Aristophanes scathing critique in the Clouds or even Plato’s hints in the Parmenides. Certainly wisdom relies on hard-won experience to some degree.

As far as I can tell, the western “dialectic” philosophical method arrives at wisdom through an exhaustive critical analysis of all claims for complete discursive knowledge. This method attracts a certain type of soul that enjoys the competitive exercises of learning. Ultimately that can be a serious problem, as many of these young philosophers can grow quite ugly as they become more confident in their abilities. Consider reading Plato’s Theaetetus for a discussion of the nature of the philosophical soul.

The conflict between knowledge and life is one way to articulate nihilism. Nihilism is a pathological condition of the soul. The nihilist is convinced that there is no basis in reality for our moral and intellectual aspirations. They are convinced that truth is an illusion with the purpose to advance the power of the individual adherent. Conviction in this knowledge becomes destructive of the moral and intellectual life of man because this knowledge undermines our commitment to the value of our aspirations. We live in a culture deeply informed by a nihilistic and proto-nihilistic intellectual tradition, so I am sure you are familiar with the above description. Incidentally, nihilist thinking can be traced back to the very beginning of our western philosophical tradition: it is not a new or particularly modern problem. It has, however, become a much more common world view in the last 50 years or so, and that is probably a significant weakness in our “social capital” as we enter the long descent.

I’m okay with your formulation of the Tao puzzle, just keep in mind that as a puzzle it is more of an invitation than a conclusion.

Here’s another puzzle for you. How do you know what ends are of “paramount importance?” Consider this: part of the problem of nihilism is found in the nature of those moral and intellectual aspirations. It just might be that we’re erotically barking up the wrong trees!

-p

onething said...

NH Peter,

I should mention that I have done no formal study of philosophy although consider myself to be of a philosophical bent. I've declined to wade through quite a few philosophical treatises once I found that such and such a philosopher came to conclusions that seemed nonsense. Descartes, I read, deliberately tortured dogs (causing him to lose his wife) because he was sure he knew that, lacking souls, they could not really feel pain since there was really no one in there, so to speak. He may very well have come up with some clever thoughts, but why bother tackling someone's ideas when he was capable of such stupidity?

What you describe of nihilism is just an intellectual form of depression. I haven't come across such a negative tradition in the eastern philosophies; perhaps it does exist. What are its ancient root causes in the west? As to it becoming a more common world view, it fits in with atheism and scientific materialism. As for me, I have a very strong sense of the value and reality of morality, even for atheists.

By ends of paramount importance, I refer to the existence of God or consciousness as a primary reality, an understanding of nature and our place in it, the relationship of consciousness to the body, what we are, that sort of thing. I'm not sure I see where nihilism relates as a real concern?

Lilith Aurora said...

Good post. I'm a new reader here, but have been going through your posts at a fast rate, JMG. I know this one is far from current, but I had to share:
I remember confronting my own perception of time when I was about thirteen. One of the few teachers I had ever encouraged critical thinking, and one day a particularly insightful promoter of it asked the class how they imagined the passage of time, and everyone but me insisted it was a foward moving straight line, while I raised my hand in an attempt to explain that I saw it as cyclical. I can't remember how or why I came to such a divergent concept to my peers (possibly due to an early interest in astrology and the cycle of seasons/ages/processes implied within - of course it's anyone's guess why I automatically agreed with those assumptions when introduced to them), but I do remember how alienated and baffled I felt. First, there was incredulousness and outrage: I knew I was right and couldn't imagine how they'd all think differently. Second, self-doubt when I realized I was in a very small minority. I was shocked at the unanimous agreement within the culture around me. I wonder if my classmates would have all agreed that time brings overwhelming improvement, as well. Probably.
Had I agreed with the majority in that class, for whatever reason, I doubt I would be able to enjoy your post or agree with it as much. Swimming among the majority (to borrow your metaphor) makes it almost impossible to even see which way the group is moving, let alone pause to contemplate how they're floating.