Monthly Archives: September 2009

What good are books?

Graham Harman recently posted on a topic near and dear to my heart:

Just now I entered that Bains book into my catalog, and saw that I own a total 1,614 books. It’s a large number, though certainly not in the big leagues of book collections of people in my age group.

It occurred to me that although they were once my dearest possession, that is now far from being the case. In fact, I wish I could snap my fingers and turn most of them into pulp. I’d really rather have them on an electronic device than in paper form, where they are simply a burden on my mobility.

There are a few exceptions, of course. Either books that special people gave to me, or ones that I read with an especial impact that is tied in memory to the physical copy of the book rather than just to the book as an abstract content that can be reprinted at will. If I had to flee the proverbial flood or nuclear power accident, those are the ones I would take.

He makes a valid point. Once you accumulate enough books, they tie you down and become costly and inefficient to move.  What good are books then? For me, the power of the book lies in its ability to serve as an external symbol of knowledge and wisdom. When I look at my book collection, I am presented with a visual representation of my accumulated knowledge and wisdom. I can trace my intellectual development and reflect on what I have learned over the years. The twists and turns of my intellectual  interest become visually manifest in a material form. My book collection is literally a symbol for my mind. If died tomorrow and someone wanted to know what ideas shaped my life and thought, delving into my book collection would be the most direct route.

A BBC News article recently reached a similar conclusion when asking “What does your bookcase say about you?”

“Books somehow reflect an aspect of our personality that people don’t easily see. I have a friend who has a reputation for being an ice queen, but when I went to her place, I noticed all these cheesy romantic novels in her bookcases.”

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On the importance of smoking

The world today is divided into smokers and non-smokers. It is true that the smokers cause some nuisance to the non-smokers, but this nuisance is physical, while the nuisance that the non-smokers cause the smokers is spiritual. There are, of course, a lot of non-smokers who don’t try to interfere with the smokers, and wives can be trained even to tolerate their husbands’ smoking in bed. That is the surest sign of a happy and successful marriage. It is sometimes assumed, however, that the non-smokers are morally superior, and that they have something to be proud of, not realizing that they have missed one of the greatest pleasures of mankind. I am willing to allow that smoking is a moral weakness, but on the other hand, we must beware of the man without weaknesses. He is not to be trusted. He is apt to be always sober and he cannot make a single mistake. His habits are likely to be regular, his existence more mechanical and his head always maintains its supremacy over his heart. Much as I like reasonable persons, I hate completely rational beings. For that reason, I am always scared and ill at ease when I enter a house in which there are no ash trays. The room is apt to be too clean and orderly, the cushions are apt to be in their right places, and the people are apt to be correct and unemotional. And immediately I am put on my best behavior, which means the same thing as the most uncomfortable behavior.

Now the moral and spiritual benefits of smoking have never been appreciated by these correct and righteous and unemotional and unpoetic souls. But since we smokers are usually attacked from the moral, and not the artistic side, I must begin by defending the smoker’s morality, which is on the whole higher than that of the non-smokers. The man with a pipe in his mouth is the man after my heart. He is more genial, more sociable, has more intimate indiscretions to reveal, and sometimes he is quite brilliant in conversation, and in any case, I have a feeling that he likes me as much as I like him. I agree entirely with Thackeray, who wrote “The pipe draws wisdom from the lips of the philosopher, and shuts up the mouths of the foolish; it generates a style of conversation contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent, and unaffected.”

A smoker may have dirtier finger-nails, but that is no matter when his heart is warm, and in any case a style of conversation contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent, and unaffected is such a rare thing that one is willing to pay a high price to enjoy it. And most important of all, a man with a pipe in his mouth is always happy, and after all, happiness is the greatest of all moral virtues. W. Maggin says that “no cigar smoker ever committed suicide,” and it is still truer that no pipe smoker ever quarrels with his wife. The reason is perfectly plain: one cannot hold a pipe between one’s teeth and at the same time shout at the top of one’s voice. No one has ever been seen doing that. For one naturally talks in a low voice when smoking a pipe. What happens when a husband who is a smoker gets angry, is that he immediately lights a cigarette or a pipe, and looks glum. But that will not be for long. For his emotion has already found an outlet, and although he may want to continue to look angry in order to justify his indignation or sense of being insulted, still he cannot keep it up, for the gentle fumes of the pipe are altogether too agreeable and soothing, and as he puffs the smoke out, he also seems to let out, breath by breath, his stored-up anger. That is why when a wise wife sees her husband about to fly into a fit of rage, she should gently stick a pipe in his mouth and say , “There!Forget about!” This formula always works. A wife may fail, but a pipe never.

-Lin Yutyang, The Importance Of Living


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Carl Sagan – Intergalactic philoSonic Musings (featuring Stephen Hawking)

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The Tree of Life and Historical Consciousness

It is videos like this one that make me think the naturalistic mythos is far more profound than any Biblical or theistic alternative, namely, because it actually happened, and also, because of its transformative effect upon self-understanding. From the bottom of history we have climbed our way into the hazy light of thought and mindedness. We have learned how to explode our self-knowledge through metaphor and modeling but have not yet seen the limitations inherent to the model/phenomena structure. The world is mapped exquisitely by trained methodology but when turned upon the mappers, models and metaphors will always fail to full capture something that is always changing, always a potentiality. Our culture has stepped out of the darkness only to have swiftly forgotten that we were both grown in darkness and phylogenetically constituted by dark mindedness. We were given the gift of narrow focus but too often we lapse into thinking that what our spotlight of attention unveils is the whole story. As Julian Jaynes puts it,

Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.

It is endemic of our society to be ignorant of our historical roots. As a total community of thought, we have not embraced the historical constitution of our experience. However, by reflecting on our evolutionary origin, humanity can learn that our biological limitations are both our greatest weaknesses and through self-knowledge, our greatest strengths. Weakness, because we are not as free from habit as we would like. Strength, because knowledge of those limitations is our greatest gift. By heeding the Socratic imposition to fully know ourselves, we can know the boundaries of our humanity and maintain a humble attitude. But knowledge of a boundary always implies another side, another potentiality of being.   Self-knowledge both expands our strength while exposing our finitude and it is this duality between fragility and strength that enriches the naturalistic mythos beyond that of more fantastic, less humbling narratives. It builds character and social cohesiveness to fully understand both the brutality of natural selection and the functional strength of human community.

So while everyone readily takes advantage of our cognitive gifts to dream about the future, few expand their horizon of historicity back more than a few generations. But if one stretches this horizon billions of years, novel possibilities of understanding emerge. The mortality of it all is discomfiting but the sheer momentum of human possibility it inspires uplifts the soul. We have come so far and are always already arriving on the edge of future possibility. After all, there will be (I hope) some point in the future when our children’s children, and their children’s children, are reflecting on this time as a determined causal contingency that was merely a stepping stone to their own historical consciousness. And today this thought itself opens up new stones to step on. In the Words of Dream Theater, “Our deeds have traveled far; what we have been is what we are.”

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The German Anticipation of Kuhn

The real ‘movement’ of the sciences takes place in the revision of these basic concepts, a revision which is more or less radical and lucid with regard to itself. A science’s level of development is determined by the extent to which it is capable of a crisis in its basic concepts. In these immanent crises of the sciences the relation of positive questioning to the matter in question becomes unstable. Today tendencies to place research on new foundations have cropped up on all sides in the various disciplines. – Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927)

…in science it happens every few years that something that up to then was held to be error suddenly revolutionises all views or that an unobtrusive, despised idea becomes the ruler over a new realm of ideas; and such occurrences are not mere upheavals but lead up into the heights like Jacob’s ladder. In science the way things happen is vigorous and matter-of-fact and glorious as in a fairy-tale. ‘People simply don’t know this,’ Ulrich felt. ‘They have no glimmer of what can be done with thinking. If one could teach them to think in a new way, they would also live differently.’ – Robert Musil,The Man Without Qualities (1930)

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Strange World

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The Fallacies of Faith

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