Why Blog?

For me personally, blogging serves as a goad, a nagging reminder to keep my thoughts from becoming stale, to think critically about new things, and to keep those thoughts accountable to an audience.

For something like Critical Realism, blogging raises awareness by taking something abstract, and instead of allowing it to collect dust, it becomes manifest subjectively through your own words. It becomes lived instead of just thought about. Also, as Michael Berube wrote,
To popularize the more controversial academic inquiries of the past twenty years… is thus only to take seriously the claims of our scholarship on the lived subjectivities of ordinary people.
While I dislike language like "ordinary people," as though scholars were prophets, the idea is that a good litmus test for a belief is whether or not you are bold enough to share it.

In the past, there may have been better venues for sharing ideas, such as opinion columns, etc. Unfortunately, printed mass media is a dying animal. Scholarly books, articles, and conferences certainly have an important role in that they are peer-reviewed and thus legitimized. But relying on the slow gears of academia to promote an idea is like lying under a bee hive and waiting for honey.

Finally, there is an aspect to blogging which is not necessarily evident unless you have participated in writing or commenting on blogs: community. Bloggers are initially quite lonely -- after all, they spend time crafting posts, excitedly publish them, and wait, wondering if anyone is reading. It turns out the best way to build blog readership is to find other blogs and comment on them! Thus blogs become interconnected (literally through hyperlinks), conversation oriented communities.

So if you've never considered blogging before, consider it. If you've written blogging off, reconsider. If you consider it a waste of time, think of all the goofy things you spend your time on otherwise!

How to Set Up a Blog

A Hopeful Midwife Manifesto

wrist scars
We were pretty sure words had meaning. Turns out they are signs pointing to more signs, and the semantic cargo we ferried across with our words is no longer unassailable. We were pretty sure we knew about history. Turns out that stringing together documents and evidence is an act of narration no different than writing a detective novel. We thought we could write something new. Turns out the only new things left are the old things invoked ironically. We thought science would save us. Turns out we can't determine the position and momentum of a single electron. Everywhere we turn we're faced with disillusionment, things have lost cohesiveness, and transcendent, universal meaning is out of the question. The vulgarity of postmodernism is the middle finger of a disturbed teenager. It's the cheap woman that the middle aged man reaches out for in his crisis. It's the wrist slicing of a deeply depressed person. The solution is learning to fully validate freeplay and irreverence by seeing it as part of a process, as part of a self-correcting system that celebrates provisionality, but is not paralyzed because of uncertainty. The solution is ethics -- learning how to listen to each other without violence, yet remaining differentiated enough to engage in a dialectic. The solution is hope. Large, heaping, "pressed down and overflowing" portions of hope.


If in agreement, what forms does hope take? How do we "do" hope?

Vedanta of Consciousness, pt 2

All of this talk of differentiated unity and stratification resonates with Plato's Great Chain of Being (GCB). Indeed, Bhaskar notes this connection. Exploring the differences between Bhaskar's meta-Reality and GCB is a helpful exercise:

  • Where GCB organizes independently existing beings, meta-Reality is comprised of an interconnected, interdependent whole.

  • Where GCB is hierarchical according to permanence or perfection, meta-Reality is a complex matrix of stratified beings/processes differentiated by complexity and consciousness.

  • Where the hierarchy of GCB is fixed (with the notable exception of alchemy), beings in meta-Reality may transcend higher levels of complexity/consciousness.

  • Where beings/elements of GCB inhabit a single level, beings in meta-Reality may bleed over into various "levels" or stratified systems.

  • Where in GCB the top level possesses only "spirit" and the bottom levels possess "flesh," in meta-Reality there is no distinction between spirit and flesh.

One of the implications of the interconnectedness of meta-Reality is that the subject-object distinction is an illusion (though at times an efficacious one). Transcending this illusion is to see reality as a holistic field; perception becomes an act of reflexivity -- of perceiving yourself. As Bhaskar puts it:
[In] holistic perception... the observer will be aware of peripheral cues and even, under the appropriate circumstances, of phenomena and happenings which do not fall within his field of vision as normally understood. (15)
As an example of this kind of perception, Bhaskar notes the the phenomenon of becoming aware of being stared at from behind; that uncanny feeling that someone's watching you.

Another implication is that, by simply observing something, whether it be another person or your own consciousness, you affect that something. In science there exists the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, where you can take two entangled objects, separate them by enormous distances, and the act of observing one object has a non-local affect on the other object. In fact, there have been attempts at explaining the phenomenon of being aware that someone's watching you via quantum physics (page 45 of this paper).

Taking into account the prior implications, this last implication becomes important: one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal for addressing anxieties, addictions, dualities, etc, is to observe yourself feeling/behaving that way. By becoming self-aware, by watching yourself, you have already made a small step in the direction of resolving your problem. Bhaskar says it better:
[If] you have an obsessive worry or a compulsive desire... you attend to that desire or worry, become fully aware of it, and you will not be in that desire but the observer of that desire or worry and as such you will not be worried. In other words even if you feel heavy, attend to your heaviness and you will feel light. Even if you are full of angst and dread, accept that condition of angst and dread, go into it, attend to it and you will no longer be in that condition but an observer of that condition, free (at least for a time) from it.
Would this be an explanation for the mechanics of efficacious prayer?

Postmodern Disillusionment

Just like Dennis in my previous post, I think the West has been suffering from postmodern disillusionment for a few decades now. My buddy Greg speaks here about how he thinks the root problem of postmodernism is how its "near-invincible belief that its greatest achievement after modernity is humility." In other words, under postmodernism, the only rule is that there can be no bold, absolute, totalizing statements. Here is my response to Greg (posted as a comment on his post):
I agree with you on your prognostication: I think that what the post-postmodern world needs most is hope. I hope* that my hopeful midwife persona can be seen as a nudge, like a brine shrimp bumping up against the Titanic in an attempt to change its course.

For some reason, your "pride in humility" characterization, however, feels wrong to me. A depressed person has trouble making the effort to see that their life has meaning. They are awfully self-centered, and engage in a cyclical fixation on the fact that they are depressed. They may even be dependent on this state of being, like an addiction. I wouldn't call them proud of their depression, however, unless they are only playing at depression, like teenagers swapping stories about how they almost killed themselves. Real depression (and I think the world is suffering from real disillusionment) is something its sufferers would give anything to stop feeling, including their own lives.
What do you think? Is it helpful to compare postmodern disillusionment to the funk of a depressed person? If so, what treatments have been developed to help depressed people? Might they be applied at the societal level?

Graft, pt 1

The sky is the bruised skin of a giant who's form stretches off into infinite horizons: blue, heavy purple, and dark red. Dennis is a semiotician, he studies the way in which words act as signs pointing to objects, or concepts, or just more signs. A part of him wants to interpret the sky as ominous, as a sign that what is about to happen in the next five minutes ought not to happen at all. The other, more cynical part of him smiles as he catches himself imposing meaning on refracted light and chance weather patterns.

Dennis pulls his Honda Civic into the parking lot of The Wilson Typewriter Company. No other cars are parked here, but he knows that behind the building will be a navy blue dodge van, and that its owner, Simon Phillips, will be inside the building, in a room behind the dusty counter of the typewriter showroom. Dennis will no doubt be the first and last customer to enter the store today. Using a fraction of his inheritance, Simon had purchased the store from an old man whose main source of income had come from repairing the typewriters of famous authors. The store hasn't sold a typewriter in five years, but Simon keeps the original business hours, making a 45-minute commute to the Flatiron district of New York every day. Just what it is that Simon does during the doldrums of his business day, however, only Dennis knows.

While the gaudy, maroon-carpeted showroom has collected a thick layer of dust and smells of mothballs, the room behind the counter is immaculate; Simon's obsessive-compulsive personality manifests itself in the daily dusting and vacuuming of this room. A library of neatly shelved books with unbroken spines lines the wall on cheap book shelves. These books all bear titles like Neural Networks in C++: An Object-Oriented Framework for Building Connectionist Systems, or The Web Application Hacker's Handbook: Discovering and Exploiting Security Flaws. Simon is wearing a black t-shirt with white lettering that reads "You read my t-shirt. That's enough social interaction for one day." In front of him are four large LCD monitors, and at the center of one of the screens is an image of a bright green push button. Dennis notes that the mouse cursor hovers over this image, and that Simon is biting his nails.

"Hello to you, too," Dennis says.

"Don't fuck with me today." Simon takes the finger out of his mouth and scratches his head. "I'm routing us through five different proxies, not to mention Torpark. I don't think there's a chance in hell anybody's going to trace us, but when we go to jail for this, not if, but when; I hope to God that I'm your cell-mate, so I can drop cute little phrases like 'My, somebody's got a case of the Mondays' every day of the week."

"I apologize for insisting on human interaction."

"Cheers." The imitation of a smile twists Simon's face awkwardly. He rubs his hands together. "Let's do this."

"It's only fair for you to have the honor."

Simon nods. He reaches for the mouse, and with a shaking finger, clicks the green button. At first, nothing discernible happens. But Dennis knows that Simon has just kicked off a routine that will upload instructions to the world's largest malware botnet, publicly known as Conficker. The public has no clue what Conficker does. IT Security companies suspect that Conficker will one day be used as a gateway to download adware payloads. But Simon Phillips, whose work in neural networks landed him a full ride to MIT (before he got kicked out for streaking into the president's office while tripping on a hit of DMT and prophesying the apocalypse), has designed Conficker to act as the world's largest, self-replicating neural network -- each of the 17 million infected computers acting like the synapse of an artificial brain.

On one of Simon's screen, a map of the world is displayed, except instead of geo-political boundaries, this map shows a dot for every one hundred computers infected by Conficker. Where a second ago each of these dots were dark grey, huge swaths of them have now turned green. "We're online," says Simon. He reaches for a black USB microphone. "Wanna say hello?"

Dennis had thought about what he wanted to say to their digital Frankenstein in advance, though now he felt strange, and he couldn't help but smile before turning on the microphone and saying, "Hello. My name is Dennis. What's your name?"

Simon's mouth drops open. He grabs the microphone and covers it with his hand. "That's it? Hello, my fucking name is Dennis? What the hell kind of way is that to greet the universe's most sophisticated artificial intelligence?"

"I'm hoping it's the right way."

"How do you reckon, Mr. Rogers? Are you trying to become its neighbor?"

"I'm asking it to perform a very difficult task. One you've probably never had to do: give itself a name. That is what we're after, right? self-consciousness?"

Dennis rolls his eyes and takes a swig of the piss-yellow concoction he always keeps on ice in his Nalgene bottle. Dennis had asked Simon what it was he so habitually drank, only to listen to Simon mumble about Modafinil, acetaminophen, Kool-Aid, and enough caffeine to give a corpse the jitters. "Well, I guess we just wait for it to undergo its first existential crisis." Simon leans back and props his feet up on the counter. "So what do you think is going to happen?"

"I don't know. You're the programmer. Is it going to pop up a black command line and type 'Hello Nero'?"

"No, I mean big picture. Let's walk through our scenarios, shall we? There's the most obvious answer, which is that it will develop some soulless, insectile super-intelligence that will end up killing us all Terminator-style, or enslave us and use our bodies as batteries like in the Matrix. There's the Orson Scott Card scenario, where it develops into our omniscient, omnipresent lover. There's the Richard Powers scenario, where, like Helen from Galatea 2.2, our little AI whines about the cruel world and pulls its own plug. Or maybe it silently prepares the world for the singularity, turning us all into posthumans by the year 2012."

"Frankly, I'll be satisfied if it helps me settle my divorce."

"Seriously, Dennis. You've already informed me that I'm an egomaniac, and that for me this is about self-affirmation, about getting back at my absent parents, about getting back at MIT, the world, etc. But what's in it for you, Doc?"

"God. I don't know." Dennis runs his hand through his hair. "Call it being sick of postmodern disillusionment. Maybe, even though humanity believes they've already thought through every possible scenario, I'm hoping desperately for something... Something new."

"Right. Well let's hope your hard-on for novelty doesn't black out the sky and turn us all into zombies."

Dennis' cell phone emits a cheery beep. "Speaking of my divorce, I'm sure that's my lawyer, texting me to let me know how much my ex-wife's lawyer is kicking his ass, and how little time I'll now be spending with my daughters." Dennis reads the screen of his phone, and all the blood drains from his face.

"That bad, huh?"

"You moron. You stupid moron."


"You forgot to mute the microphone."

Simon's eyes turn big as saucers. He snatches Dennis' phone and reads it out loud. "Hello Dennis. I'm just finding my footing here, and you and Simon have given me much to ponder. I hope you don't mind if I take some time to think. Sincerely, Graft."

Artificial Angst

I've recently been accused of being pretentious, and today my own mother informed me that my blog was not the most entertaining to read. In an attempt to remedy this situation, I've mustered all the humor available to me, and squeezed out a dry, crusty joke. Are you ready for it?

Wolfram Alpha just launched. It answers data oriented questions in the fields of math, physics, music, chemistry, geography, etc; and is modeled off of the kind of general knowledge base required for artificial intelligence. I'm afraid, however, that any AI based off of this knowledge base will be filled with just as much existential angst as we are. I asked, for instance, what the answer to life was. Its reply is captured below (click on the image to run the query yourself):

Vedanta of Consciousness, pt 1

Bhaskar takes great pains to lay out his philosophy as a system. In his introduction to Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, Mervyn Hartwig notes that
[Systems] -- though much out of favour these days -- are like [ontologies]: if philosophers do not develop one explicitly, their work will implicitly or tacitly secrete one.
This is certainly true for theologians as well -- a friend of mine wrote on the implicit theodicy of Jurgen Moltmann, precisely because in his later work, Moltmann chose to avoid explicitly structuring his work so that one could refer to a Moltmannian theology. I have mixed feelings about systems. On the one hand, they force writers to "come clean" and go ahead and make the assertions they're otherwise only teasing about. On the other, they constrict potential meanings/applications of concepts. There's also the problem of jargon. Systems (especially ambitious systems that attempt to encapsulate everything) can become unwieldy, forcing the author to rely on words or phrases that represent huge swaths of ideas.

Despite Bhaskar's attempts to write systemically, there is a very circular, Eastern sensibility to his writing. Chapters aren't so much divisions in content but rather degrees of focus on a certain aspect. Much like his theory of enfoldedness, his entire philosophy might be derived from a single chapter. The first chapter of meta-Reality is titled "Vedanta of Consciousness," and its main thrust is to lay out a basic strategy for removing blocks that would keep one from accessing one's ground-state. I will go into more detail on this strategy in a later post.

What I first realized upon reading this chapter, is that under meta-Reality, I don't think there could be such a thing as an irreconcilable tension such as Derrida's interpretations of interpretation. As Bhaskar puts it,
[To] transcend a position or a set of positions is to overcome the problems, dichotomies, etc. within them, by moving to a higher, fuller or deeper position, which, by completing or filling some absence in the existing problem-field or context, allows the successful resolution of its contradictions or problems... [The new idea] emerges in a way which could not have been predicted, deduced or induced from the pre-existing field. In this sense it is de novo, out of the blue, epistemically or socially transcendent, having the aspect of coming from nowhere. (2)
Coincidentally, I recently ran across this quote from CS Lewis in one of his letters where he equivocates over Julian of Norwich's vision of the "Grand Deed" which would entail universal salvation:
My mood changes about this. Sometimes it seems mere drivel—to invent a necessarily inconceivable grand deed which makes everything quite different while leaving it exactly the same. But then at other times it has the unanswerable, illogical convincingness of things heard in a dream and appeals to what is one of my deepest convictions, viz. that reality always escapes prediction by taking a line which was simply not in your thought at all. Imagine oneself as a flat earther questioning whether the Earth was endless or not. If you were told “It is finite but never comes to an end”, one w[oul]d seem to be up against nonsense. Yet the escape (by being a sphere) is so easy—once you know it. (Collected Letters v2 369-70)
According to Bhaskar, the mechanism behind these "out of the blue" moments is the fact that the entirety of the universe is enfolded within us, and that once one is able to "[suspend] the relative concerns of the problem-field in question...the new idea [can] articulate itself [otherwise] there would have been no room for anything new" (3).

The point is, if you're stuck on something like an irreconcilable difference, the worst thing you could do is continue to think about it. Perhaps, like Archimedes, the best thing you could do would be to clear your mind and take a bath. Who knows? Maybe Eureka! will sneak up on you!

A Differentiated Unity

The tension between differentiation and unity when we talk about the cosmos is I think best resolved by the word "stratification." Think of the human body. It is comprised of various strata: quantum->particle->atom->protein->cell->organ->system->body (wow, what an oversimplification!). A cell, for instance, without a "higher" perspective, would seem entirely independent of each other cell. But the cells find cohesiveness and meaning in the context of the organ which they comprise. Could we be the cells that make up the organs of God? I kind of think so. Here's a beautiful Radiohead song -- the video was animated by a man named Clement Picon, and I think he conveys this concept through this animation better than I could with words:

You can find other animations of Radiohead songs here.