Category Archives: cognition

Where There is No Vision, the People Perish.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  Heard this often in my youth and realize now that referred to those who don’t see and understand the world as I did at that time.  There is vision and then there is “vision” and learning this lesson requires as step one, realizing that at very best we “see” through a glass darkly.  To put that in more human terms, we “see” only in accordance to a deep-seated need to “see” the world that we are accustomed to.  For example, in my youth in the state of Arkansas, I clearly saw that “Negroes” were not as intelligent and virtuous as were white people.  “It is obvious,” I’m sure I told myself.  What I failed to understand then is the dictate from my culture which mandated that I saw “Negroes” in this way and that seeing them in such a manner fulfilled my personal and tribal need to have someone that was beneath me on the social ladder; they were “the other” in my early life.  The irony of that was that my family was close to the bottom of the ladder itself the first decade or so of my life when those values were being imprinted.

Obtaining vision requires a capacity for paradox, realizing that we see only when we realize that we don’t see, that we see “only through a glass darkly.”  This paradoxical capacity introduces us to the experience of “the other” and awareness of our existential loneliness.  We are all very much alone in this world and it is only through the illusions of cultural contrivance, the object world, that we can superficially connect with others and pretend that we have connection.  And this “pretense” serves a very useful function in this very necessary world of appearance; but it is only when we venture beneath the surface, beyond the pretenses of our persona, and flirt with what W. H. Auden described as the, “unabiding void,” that we can enter the meaningful realm of spirit in which a more genuine connection is possible.  You might even say that our tippy-toeing near or into the void, “scares the hell of us”….or it least it can…as hell is living one’s whole life on the surface, failing to answer the famous question of Jesus, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul; or, what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

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AN AFTERTHOUGHT — What prompted this post is a story in The Economist about the state of Oklahoma and its egregious lack of vision.  Their “lack of vision” so closely parallels the obscurantism of the Republican Party in my country. Here is a link to that story:

https://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21736102-low-teacher-pay-and-severe-budget-cuts-are-driving-schools-brink-whats-matter

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Vaclav Havel and Epistemic Closure

Epistemic closure and close-mindedness has been one of my “obsessions” in the six years I’ve been blogging.  There is no doubt that this is because I have spent my life in that prison and this “blathering” is my feeble effort to talk/think/write my way out of it.  But this effort is teaching me that there is no escape…or as Sartre put it in his short story, “No Exit,”…for we are confined to live in the world of appearance where we can only at best, “see through a glass darkly,” trusting that there is some, “Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  And I do have faith in that Divinity but the “faith” and the “Divinity” itself is of a different stripe than the one I was presented with by the happenstance of birth.  Accepting this world of limitations is slow and tedious and one is always dragged there kicking and screaming, for the ego wants to cling to the illusion that it is completely in control.  Accepting life in this world of incomplete knowledge…”seeing darkly”…is what I think the Biblical “fall” was about, the “fall” from the Uroborous of innocence into the world of cognition.

In the following quotation from Vaclav Havel’s 1986 book of essays, “Living in Truth,” we see his description of the, “post-totalitarian state” that he lived through in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980’s, leading to the Velvet Revolution which he led in 1992.  By the term, “post-totalitarian state” Havel was referring to a subtle form of totalitarianism which purports to no longer be totalitarian but only because the system of bondage has become systematized so finely that it is not readily recognized.  It brings to mind an observation made by psychologist B.F. Skinner who, in his book, “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” declared that the most pernicious form of slavery is one which is so subtle that it does not breed revolt.  In Havel’s description we find a description of epistemic closure on the group level which closely parallels the epistemic closure of the individuals who have been consumed by “group think,” a dark cloud with whom they have a symbiotic relationship.  (I will address the individual dimension of this problem in my next post.)

The post-industrial system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on.  This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies, government by bureaucracy is called popular government, the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class, the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his or her ultimate liberation, depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical election become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views, military occupation becomes fraternal assistance.  Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything.  It falsifies the past.  It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future.  It falsifies statistics.  It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus.  It pretends to respect human rights.  It pretends to persecute no one.  It pretends to fear nothing.  It pretends to pretend nothing. (pg. 44-45, Vaclav Havel, “Living in Truth.”)

“Logical Lunacy” Besets All of US (illustrated by cartoon)

 

Image may contain: 8 people, people smiling, text

 

W. H. Auden bemoaned having to put up with the folly of, “a logical lunatic.”  In this cartoon is illustrated a dimension of a rational mind that is meticulously “rational” as long as you are confined to the premise, “I support Trump.”  If you do not support Trump, you will “see through this” and understand the implicit “logical lunacy” of the reasoning process demonstrated.  HOWEVER, this same “splinter in the brain” besets us all and leads to the “lunacy” we witnessed last night when the U.S. Senate could not pass a bill which led to our government shutting down.  There is a tendency with us all to believe only what we want and refuse to consider there is another way of looking at the world.  It is only when both sides of a disagreement can trot out some degree of “meta-cognition” and recognize this that compromise can be found.  When this cannot happen, the opposing sides “hunker down” and draw swords, emphatically declaring, “I’m right!  You’re wrong.—it is always easier to see the “logical lunacy” of the “other guys.”

AN IMPORTANT AFTER THOUGHT–It is so much easier to see the “logical lunacy” of the other guys!

Marilynne Robinson on Subjectivity, Dissent, Rationality, and Faith

Marilynne Robinson is one of the most astute social critics and feminist writers in our contemporary world.  In the current edition of The New Republic she has an article about Martin Luther and the dissent that he introduced which led to the Protestant Revolution.  She points out that Luther was a very conflicted soul, certainly “haunted” and driven by forces he was not aware of, but appearing at a ripe moment in history and has proving to be a pivotal figure in Western Civilization.  I also can see how one could even argue that the direction he led us was not even in the best interest of mankind, given our present day capacity to allow “dissent” to become such a way of life that even a “rational” body like the U.S. Congress is anything but rational.

Even in her youth Marilynne was a thoughtful sensitive soul, very “aware” of her own subjective experience and the world in which she lived, even that of flora and fauna. The following is from an article in Christianity Today magazine about Robinson’s keen spiritual sensitivity.  The writer pointed out that she developed a keen sense of observation, including the Ineffable, recalling that she could sense God’s presence there long before she had a name for him. “I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me,” she writes, “barely restrained, and I thought everyone else must be aware of it.” Perhaps they were, but in a culture in which “it was characteristic to be silent about things that in any way moved them,” the young Robinson was, in her deepest experiences, alone.”

“There were mentors, though. She remembers her grandfather holding an iris blossom before her, quietly commending its miracle of form, and the “patient old woman who taught me Presbyterianism,” offering Moses’ burning bush and Pharaoh’s dream of famine as wonders to contemplate. In their reticent attention, both mentors gave Robinson a way to stand before mystery and gradually behold it. “It was as if some old relative had walked me down to the lake knowing an imperious whim of heaven had made it a sea of gold and glass, and had said, This is a fine evening, and walked me home again.”

Her subjective “aliveness” is best illustrated in her first novel, “Housekeeping” in which an Aunt cares for two young nieces and leads them into her eccentric, “hippy” world of myth and magic.  One of the nieces eventually rejects this life for the “normal” while the other takes off with her aunt for a vagabond life of adventure in an ethereal world of which most of us are oblivious, where distinctions are nebulous.  The most memorable line in this novel for me is, “Emptiness can blossom into all the compensations it requires.”  Robinson knew, and still knows, that the realm of the imagination holds riches untold for humankind if we are but willing to find the courage to venture there, allowing our intellect to be refreshed by the energy that lies there.

Here is the context from, “Housekeeping,” in which the aforementioned quotation occurs, “For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing-the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

New Years Thoughts About the Perils of Thinking.

“Dear Creator, Help me let go of everything I think I am, to make room for everything I really am.” This is a Facebook post this morning from a local poet (Taos, NM), Lyla June Johnson, who is a very gifted soul and is a passionate spokeswoman for Native American issues, spirituality, and social activism.  This woman “gets it” and does so much more quickly than I started the process of “getting it.”  Here she puts on the table a core issue that I’m wrestling with in my life, “we are not what we think.”  This is part of what leads me to use the bumper sticker wisdom so often, “Don’t believe everything you think,” realizing that beliefs are merely thoughts and are readily seductive with self-serving whims of the ego.  Sure, welcome the thoughts that flow into and through our mind but occasionally take pause, mull them over, and we might learn that these “beliefs” could be a bit less certain than our ego wanted them to be.

Without realizing the limitations of believing in our rational formulations, Truth which is an elusive process and not an accumulation of factual knowledge can lead us into folly.  Novelist Hermann Hesse noted this when he wrote, “My story isn’t pleasant, it’s not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.” We will inevitably be guilty of this “dishonesty” if we can’t practice the self-reflection, i.e “meta-cognition” noted here for the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, “Reflection requires that the plain opposition of positive and negative be left behind. Thinking is not content with the abstraction of mutual exclusivities, but struggles to conceive of a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories.”  We must learn to occasionally find the capacity to, “think about our thinking.”

“A Punch in the Gut” from Tom Robbins

My religious background has given me an appreciation for the “prophetic function” in which “outliers” in a culture have the gift of seeing what others cannot see and being so brazen as to announce it.  Reiterating what I’ve said before, I think that in our present day this “prophetic function” often appears from the “outliers” who are artists, musicians, and writers.  Religion does not offer us this “prophetic function” in most cases as it is so often a tool of the culture, having imbibed of the essence of the culture and became a purveyor of its values.  I stumbled across the following wisdom from novelist Tom Robbins on Facebook this morning, cutting right to the heart of so many of our country’s deep-seated issues:
Have you risked disapproval? Have you ever risked economic security? Have you ever risked a belief?… Real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s clichés…Curiosity, especially intellectual inquisitiveness, is what separates the truly alive from those who are merely going through the motions….Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won’t adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet.

“Real courage is risking one’s cliches” really is a punch in the gut.  We have no idea we are merely mired in a world of cliches until we find the courage to toy with the notion that maybe we are.  And we always are more so than we wish to think.  Poet Adrienne Rich once noted, “Until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.”  This is true individually and collectively.  Our country at this present historical moment has an opportunity to look at some of its most pernicious assumptions.

 

 

Hamlet’s Wisdom for Our Political Impasse

Shakespeare had wisdom relevant to the political impasse of my country. He realized that human nature often leaves us trapped in a cognitive grid, i.e. being “lost in our head,” which W. H. Auden described as the world of a “logical lunatic.” In the following passage Hamlet is in deep anguish and pines for his mother to listen to him, listen not merely be “waiting” until he finishes talking:

(Hamlet, speaking to his mother, Gertrude)
Leave wringing of your hands. Peace. Sit you down
And let me wring your heart. For so I shall
If it be made of penetrable stuff,
If damnèd custom have not bronzed it o’er so
That it is proof and bulwark against sense. (i.e.feeling)

Gertrude was wringing her hands with her own anguish and guilt over her son’s misery. But Hamlet, consumed by rage…teeming with “mother issues”…would not give her any mercy and asked her to take a seat and let him “ring her heart.” And Hamlet knew he could, for he knew that with his murderous rage he was able to, “speak daggers to her, not use them.”

But Hamlet’s creator, Shakespeare, knew that Gertrude was like all humans, insulated with a thought-world shaped by “damned custom” that had “bronzed o’er” her heart so that it would prevent any affect which would allow genuine listening. “Damned custom” is a necessary gift of human culture, to fill our heads with contrived thinking designed to help us function in our tribe which means to minimize the influence of “bothersome” affect. But if the “bronzing o’er” is done too completely, then one is not capable of listening to anyone but only in interpreting what is heard in terms of a medley of pre-conceptions and premises. Without that “proof and bulwark” being in place, listening to the anguish of another person would prove too painful so culture provides us platitudes such as, “Oh, it will pass” or “My, I know how that feels” or, “Oh hell. Why don’t you just get over it,” or, “God knows what is best.”

In the current political situation this denial system leads to the “hunkering down” phenomena in which some, when faced with contradictions and absurdity in their stances, merely assert their beliefs with greater emphasis. This is because core beliefs are seen to be under attack and these “core beliefs” …always to some degree unquestioned assumptions…are not subject to question. And, of course it is this morass of the unquestioned that harbors “material” that is deemed too painful to address.

“They call it Reason, using light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.” Goethe