Monday, February 26, 2007

Political theory in the West begins with the Bible

If the Bible is such a darn big deal, shouldn't it be an even bigger deal in Western political philosophy? Who took the "Judeo" out of "Judeo-Christian"? In late December, the question hung wonderfully over Mishkenot Sha'ananim, Jerusalem's distinguished guest house. Inside the complex, more than 130 attendees from nine countries milled about the colloquium on "Political Hebraism: Jewish Sources in the History of Political Thought."
Political theorist Yoram Hazony, of the Shalem Center, the 13-year-old research institute playing host, gently noted during opening remarks that their rising scholarly sun — political Hebraism — increasingly lit up Western political thought, revealing forgotten elements. In Carolingian France, Hazony noted, people spoke of "the New Israel," and addressed Charlemagne as King David. The Venerable Bede bore biblical notions in mind as he put forth the English people as a nation. English kings, some thought, should follow Deuteronomy before worrying about the Greek polis or Roman republic.
Plato and Aristotle may have been lost in the Dark Ages, Hazony continued, but the Bible was not. In contrast to the "German story," or canon of political philosophy, drafted in German universities, Hazony conjured, "Imagine political theory in the West as something that begins with the Bible, and continues with the English-Dutch adoption of the Bible, leading to the creation of the U.S. and Israel."
Yet, he pointed out, courses on the Bible's political ideas — the concept of a nation, the aspiration for international peace among independent nations, the subordination of a king to law, the notion of authority that does not arise out of rebellion — hardly exist. "One thing is sure about these texts," concluded Hazony about the books of the Bible. "They are overwhelmingly political." Political Hebraism. Mark the phrase.

Faith, a complex and personal phenomenon

By Stephen Stromberg The Washington Post Sunday, February 25, 2007
Religion, as the truism goes, is far more influential in American politics today than it was in the 1960s...A candidate's faith, like that of an L.A. high school student or anyone else, is ultimately a complex and personal phenomenon, even in the context of a highly centralized religious organization. My experience in Mormon congregations across the country has taught me that it is impossible to tell precisely how individual Mormons will apply their religious principles to their professional lives. And beyond encouraging hard work and honesty, the church itself is hardly definitive on the subject. Stephen Stromberg is a member of The Washington Post's editorial page staff.

This monumental choice given to us is taken out of our hands

Home > Editorial / Opinion Politics, not religion
By: Dan Nicastro. Issue date: 2/26/07
I'd like to start out by saying that I only really point to Christianity in this column, because it's what I know, and because it's the religion most utilized by politicians, not to devalue other religions, or the lack of religion. 'Christian,' in the sense of the political world, has been perverted into a rigid definition of Right vs. Left. "Christian Conservatives" have usurped religion and invoked God in order to justify a wide range of policy decisions, ranging from abortion, to gay marriage, and even to the federal budget. On the other hand, many liberals scoff at those who call themselves Christian, buying into the strict definition of Christianity that is espoused by Conservatives. These are not definitions that I, nor many others, subscribe to.
I consider myself a pretty devout Christian. I've gone to church since I was a little kid and remained active in my church until I left for college. I very firmly believe in the basic tenants of my religion and find myself thinking about God more often than I realize. I also consider myself a pretty devout Democrat, as I have been arguing against my more conservative friends since I was in middle school. I strongly believe that everyone is created equal and that everyone deserves equal rights. I believe that the job of government is to help its citizens, and not to increase the wealth of a select few. How can I justify my religious beliefs with my political beliefs in the context of the current battle taking place between religion and politics?...
Religion is one of the most controversial and contentious subjects that exists in the world today. I wrote seven different versions of this column because I couldn't figure out what I wanted to say and because I didn't want to offend anyone in the process. After starting draft number seven, I realized that religion is so touchy because it's probably the most personal aspect of our lives. It is really one of the only major things you are allowed to choose in your life. Gender, race, sexual preference, although somewhat debatable, are concrete aspects of person hood which are chosen by random chance. Choice of religion (or for that matter, the choice not to have a religion) is monumental.
Religion, whether we like it or not, is a defining force in this country and our ability to choose it helps to give us the power to define how we are seen by others, and how we are able to visualize the world. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to this choice because of its extremely personal nature. When people are allowed to usurp the meaning of religion and dictate what is right and what is wrong, as has happened in the current political climate, this monumental choice given to us is taken out of our hands.
The definition of Christianity needs to be taken away from those in government. While our nation is built on religious tradition, we are not a theocracy. By forcing the religious subject into the political world, politicians risk increasing religious intolerance everywhere. Christian does not just mean Southern Baptist, or Born Again, but it also means Mormon or Unitarian, just in the same

Children of a marriage between money and culture

Artful Seduction HIMANI DALMIA The Times of India 26 Feb, 2007
When the scions of a business family start disappearing into the corridors of art and literature, concern about the business empire is coupled with confusion about how this could come to happen. Today, my family consists almost entirely of writers and academics. How is it that all the children born to my grand-father, the industrialist Ramkrishna Dalmia, from his wife Saraswati either became or married scholars? One of his daughters was a writer whose partner was India's then leading poet, S H Vatsyayan; another is a professor of Philosophy; yet another, a professor of Hindi at the University of Berkeley, is internationally renowned in the field of South Asian Studies; and a fourth is a pre-eminent art historian with many books to her credit. As the male heirs, his sons were never presented the option of drifting into academia. Businessmen they became, yes, but they also wrote on the side. And whom did they marry? One, an academic who is today a Commonwealth prize-winning novelist and, the second, a lawyer and educationist. Were these marriages in fact the expression of a repressed love of culture? If yes, where did this love come from? Logically, from my grandmother, a Hindi poet and Sanskrit scholar. But why did a semi-literate man from a small town in Rajasthan seek her out for marriage and why did he similarly seek out three other educated, cultured women.
According to Pierre Bourdieu, economic capital alone does not make class. Education, skills and knowledge create 'cultural capital' while networks and institutionalised relationships provide 'social capital'. These lend a power and influence that cannot come from money alone. It is in search of such 'symbolic capital' that the wealthy buy works of art, found educational institutions, become members of cultural committees and start trusts that give away literary awards. This is what converts the merely rich to the truly elite. In early capitalistic societies, once traditional systems of patronage had broken down, this was also what gave the artist a place of importance. The merchant needed the artist because the latter signified a life romanticised as both aristocratic and free from bourgeois taboos.
The 'seduction'of business families by the arts can lead to both significant contributions to culture as well as greater pride and significance for the family. American business dynasties like the Rockefellers, the Du Ponts and the Mellons are now as well known for their contributions to culture and society as for their business accomplishments. Successive generations have presided over the decline of their business empires but have been actively involved in art, academia, scientific research, politics and liberal education. Paul Mellon, for example, is remembered today for his extraordinary collections of art and rare books, the billions of dollars he gave away to museums, and his passion for horseracing.
In India, the Sarabhai and Shriram families have followed a similar trajectory. Despite his illustrious business lineage, Vikram Sarabhai became one of India's leading scientists and married the celebrated classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai. Their daughter Mallika also became a dancer. The Shriram family is today one of the foremost patrons of culture in India and Vinay Bharat-Ram has created a niche for himself in the world of Indian classical music. The process of negotiation between money and culture is complex and perhaps also contains the solution to my family mystery.
My grandfather belonged to a poor merchant family. Making pots of money could not compensate for an upbringing that had not prepared him for high society. He found himself at the pinnacle with a small-town woman as his spouse. He himself had a questioning mind. So, when he decided to marry again, he chose women who could bring cultural refinement with them. The first of these was highly educated, smoked and wore chiffon, lipstick and high-heels. She refused to be ruled by her husband and the couple decided to part ways. Once bitten, my grandfather now searched for a more balanced proposition. He approached my grandmother's father and said that Saraswati was just right for him: she had studied Sanskrit, was highly educated, wrote prolifically but also respected tradition. His next wife brought with her the culture of Lahore, then known as the Paris of the east. His last wife was a writer who went on to become well known in the Hindi literary circuit and win national awards. It is the women, after all, that bring up the children. A mother who inculcates a love of art in her children could well spell trouble for a business family.
Other branches of my grandfather's family faced no such conflict and remained committed to their businesses, which prospered exponentially as a result. My grandfather's brother Jaidayal did not marry a woman with cultural inclinations. Their children may have patronised the arts as a business adjunct but did not directly participate in them. How-ever, the offspring of Ramkrishna Dalmia from his later wives were born to double messages: one, to join the family business; and two, to value culture and creative expression. The cultural influence was too strong for his children to escape and was compounded manifold by the arrival of their spouses.
The next generation — that of my cousins and me — is the recipient of the 'cultural capital' my grandfather invested in. It leads to much inner conflict, certainly, but it is a fortune in itself. We are the children of a marriage between money and culture and therein lies the resolution of apparent contradictions: concerts and writers'seminars will be held while people in business suits walk in and out, all amidst the income tax case laws in the family bookshelves and the Sanskrit shlokas inscribed on the walls of our home.

Friday, February 23, 2007

This is a place where I might like to spend more time

New Wine in Pondicherry Will Yaryan Sunday, January 14, 2007
Early this morning I read the story of the wedding at Cana during our prayer service in the meditation room at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram's New Guest House, under the watchful eye of large photographs of Aurobindo and his chief disciple, the Mother. It struck me that the new wine created by Jesus from purification water was the wine of divinity, of the Spirit, that Rumi speaks of when he praises the lover who drinks to excess. At first Jesus is reluctant, for he says it is not yet time. But his mother persuades him to help the wedding party when they run out of wine. And it is this gesture of help that moved the presiding priest at Notre Dames de Anges, where we went to the 8:30 "high mass" in English, to speak of the sins of globalization and the needs of the poor.
We leave Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it is now officially called) in an hour for a short drive north back to Mamallapuram to attend the classical dance concert held outdoors next to Arjuna's Penance, the dramatic bas relief of everyday life here that was carved 1300 years ago. After the concert we return to our luxurious hotel in Chennai, the Radha Park Inn, for a final night and day in India before the pilgrims go their separate ways, most home to San Francisco, but me to Thailand and Kay back to Shantivanam. I've just received email from Sr. Barbara and learned that British Airways lost ALL their bags. Sr. Michele's missing bag turned up at the Chennai airport but her new bag with a complete new Indian wardrobe has now gone missing. The security checks get worse and the airline baggage service declines drastically. The Terrorists need not lift a finger to hasten the collapse of Western civilization!We've had a delightful time in this bastion of French culture, taking walks along leafy tree-lined boulevards (all named "rue" this or that) past elegant villas owned no doubt by retiring French civil servants. The promenande along the waterfront, high enough to escape the 2004 tsunami's force, is lined with pleasure seekers, especially at sunset and dawn. This morning I went out for a walk at 6:30 and encountered hundreds of people at the south end of the promenade doing yoga and other exercises. People walking by greeted the rising sun with a namaste, holding their palms together.
The last two evenings we have banqueted in style, passing up the basic (and cheap) guest house fare for delicious meals in two different rooftop restaurants, Madam Santhe and the Rendezvous. At Satsangha, where we ate an outdoor lunch of omelets and veggies, we perused the "whine menu," and at the Rendezvous last night Sylvia tried a glass of the local white while Jerry, Ziggie and I opted for Fosters (usually its only the local beer, Kingfisher, that is available).
Our guide for Pondicherry, Chitra, met us at the guest house Monday morning. We soon learned that a tour of Auroville, the experimental community started by the Mother in the 1960s, was not going to be possible. The Matrimandir, a space age meditation hall where devotees sit under a huge crystal, was closed for construction and could only be viewed from afar. Residents of this utopian community do not take kindly to tourists, we were told, and that only left the visitor's center. So instead, we spent a fascinating half day in Pondy with Chitra. In addition to history, she told us of her arranged marriage to an Indian now working in the French Navy. As a seventh generation Catholic, she was married in Sacred Heart Church, a large red and white gothic cathedral we visited at the end of the tour. And in a month she will join her husband, who she has seen only a vew times since the July wedding, in France at their home in the Pyranees.We began our tour with a visit to the paper factory operated by the Aurobindo ashram where we learned that workers made only 35 rupees a day, less than a dollar. "How do they live?" Radha asked our guide. "They have to manage on that," she replied. Then we went to an area of temporary housing erected by the government for fishermen and their families dispossesed by the tsunami. Many of the roofs had holes in them, and we were invited into one by an elderly woman and saw a large picture on the wall. It was of her son and he died in the tsunami, she said, beginning to cry. Penny wants to figure out a way to help these people and we'll see if Catholic Relief Services are involved. They apparently purchased boats to replace the fishing fleet destroyed in Mamallapuram.
The Aurobindo ashram has taken over much of Pondicherry near the ocean and we visited the samadhi of Aurobindo and the Mother, tombs covered with floral arrangements and surrounded by barefoot devotees, kneeling or meditating. From ground zero of the ashram we walked two blocks to the Mamakula Vinayagar Temple dedicated to Ganesha. A large elephant stood by the entrance, blessing worshippers who placed coins in his trunk. The temple contains dozens of friezes on the wall depicting Ganesha in various forms. The streets around the temple were filled with vendors and Chitra helped me to see that the poorest were indeed Dalits, the untouchables, and the disdain of people passing by was apparent. These are the same dark skinned (darker even than the darkest Tamil Nadu Indian) people that Russill and Ash referred to as tribals.Our tour bus took us to Sacred Heart Church where we got into five pedaled rickshaws for a ride around the perimeter of the city, past the Botanical Gardens and into the narrow and traffic-jammed city streets. We stopped for a journey through the Goubert Market, past piles of fish, heads of goats, an infinite variety of vegetables and through the flower stalls where garlands were being woven for different celebrations. It was claustrophobic and exhilarting, the most animated and chaotic street market I have ever seen. People were friendly, were constantly saying "hello" and "where you from?", not just to sell us something but because we were genuinely welcome.
I felt while walking down the streets of Pondicherry that this is a place where I might like to spend more time. It's cosmoplitan, but small enough to be manageable. Everywhere are signs saying "Keep Pondicherry Green" and the streets are remarkable clean. There are bookstores and cafes (the cappuccino at I had on the first afternoon was exceptional), and the promenade along the Bay of Bengal brings the familiar smell of salt air. Occasionally we hear the call to prayer from the mosque, as well as the angelus from the three different Catholic churches. I've learned that the black spots we've seen on the cheeks of babies are supposed to ward off evil spirits. And the knit caps that many people are wearing keep them warm during this, the coldest of seasons (which seems quite hot to us). I love the Ganesha temple and the spirituality of Aurobindo devotees is a bit New Agey but nevertheless inspirational. So if I return to India, this might be a good base of operations. posted by Will Yaryan at 12:45 PM Location: Santa Cruz, California

Swim bladders were preadapted to become lungs

Nonalgorithmic Economics: The Evolution of Future Wealth, by Stuart A. Kaufmann by rjon on Thu 22 Feb 2007 06:09 PM PST Permanent Link November 2006 issueThe Evolution of Future Wealth Technologies evolve much as species do, and that underappreciated fact is the key to growth
When the world changes unpredictably over the course of centuries, no one is shocked: Who blames the Roman centurions for not foreseeing the invention of rocket launchers? Yet monumental and surprising transformations occur on much shorter timescales, too. Even in the early 1980s you would have been hard-pressed to find people confidently predicting the rise of the Internet or the fall of the U.S.S.R. Unexpected change bedevils the business community endlessly, despite all best efforts to anticipate and adapt to it--witness the frequent failure of companies' five-year plans.
Economists have so far not been able to offer much help to firms trying to be more adaptive. Although economists have been slow to realize it, the problem is that their attempts to model economic systems focus on those in market equilibrium or moving toward it. They have drawn their inspiration predominantly from the work of physicists in this respect (often with good results, of course). For instance, the Black-Scholes model used since the 1970s to predict the volatility of stock prices was developed by trained physicists and is related to the thermodynamic equation that describes heat.
As economics attempts to model increasingly complicated phenomena, however, it would do well to shift its attention from physics to biology, because the biosphere and the living things in it represent the most complex systems known in nature. In particular, a deeper understanding of how species adapt and evolve may bring profound--even revolutionary--insights into business adaptability and the engines of economic growth.
One of the key ideas in modern evolutionary theory is that of preadaptation. The term may sound oxymoronic but its significance is perfectly logical: every feature of an organism, in addition to its obvious functional characteristics, has others that could become useful in totally novel ways under the right circumstances. The forerunners of air-breathing lungs, for example, were swim bladders with which fish maintained their equilibrium; as some fish began to move onto the margins of land, those bladders acquired a new utility as reservoirs of oxygen. Biologists say that those bladders were preadapted to become lungs. Evolution can innovate in ways that cannot be prestated and is nonalgorithmic by drafting and recombining existing entities for new purposes--shifting them from their existing function to some adjacent novel function--rather than inventing features from scratch.
Economics should shift its attention from physics to biology
A species' suite of adaptive features defines its ecological niche through its relations to other species. In the same way, every economic good occupies a niche defined by its relations to complementary and substitute goods. As the number of economic goods increases, the number of ways in which to adaptively combine those goods takes off exponentially, forging possibilities for all-new niches. The autocatalytic creation of niches is thus a main driver of economic growth.We do not yet know what makes some systems more adaptable than others, but research on complexity has yielded some clues. Some of my own work on physical systems called spin glasses suggests that the level of central control over subsidiary parts of a system is an important consideration. Too much control freezes the system into limited configurations; too little causes it to wander aimlessly. Only systems that hover on the border between order and chaos exhibit the needed general stability and capacity to explore the universe of possible solutions to challenges.
The path to maximum prosperity will depend on finding ways to build economic systems in which new niches will generate spontaneously and abundantly. Such an approach to economics is indeed radical. It is based on the emergent behavior of systems rather than on the reductive study of them. It defies conventional mathematical treatments because it is not prestatable and is nonalgorithmic. Not surprisingly, most economists have so far resisted these ideas. Yet there can be little doubt that learning to apply these lessons from biology to technology will usher in a remarkable era of innovation and growth. Stuart A. Kauffman is professor of biocomplexity and informatics at the University of Calgary and external professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Christ’s crucifixion in Savitri

Re: 05: A Many-hued inner Dawn by RY Deshpande on Mon 19 Feb 2007 03:50 AM PST Profile Permanent Link
An hour arrives when fail all Nature's means In Savitri we have the following lines with an obvious reference to Christ’s crucifixion:
His crucified voice proclaims, “I, I am God.”
“Yes, all is God,” peals back Heaven’s deathless call.
Could this be connected with the hour that arrives “when fail all Nature’s means”? Possibly. In St Matthew we have “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying E’-li, E’-li, la’-ma sa-bach’-tha-ni? That is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The sun darkened at the death of Jesus. An absolute supernatural darkness falls on man sometimes when he draws near to God. Jesus had offered up himself as the Passover Lamb and there were supernatural signs and wonders were witnessed on that day. And there was darkness over the land, over Jerusalem from noon till 3 pm. There was heavy darkness, skotos, more than the physical, the spiritual darkness could bear. In that darkness the Saviour had to deal with the evil that is present at the root of the cosmos. His “loud voice”, in spite of having been severely scourged, was the cry of agony for man, and therefore Heaven’s response: “Yes, all is God”.
The Lord said to Moses: “Stretch out your hand toward the sky.” And there was the darkness that helped Moses. There was darkness for three days over the land of Egypt.
And Abraham—a good man who owned many sheep and cattle. One day God said to him: “Pack up all your things and go the land where all the families of the earth will be blessed.” He trusted God and everything was settled for him. One night God appeared again, and said to Abraham: “Look up at the stars in the sky, and you will have a son.” The 75-year old man had faith in God, and God led him out of the darkness of the night.
In the Bhakti tradition of India there are any number of instances when the helpless, the desperate Bhakta was helped in one or the other by his God. The difficult Yoga of Savitri was carried out by her entirely under the instructions she received at every stage from her presiding Goddess, the Divine Mother, the Consciousness-Force herself. For instance, Savitri had discovered her soul and it looked as though nothing more was needed to be done. But (Savitri, p. 534) ... The answering Voice instructed Savitri what exactly she was to do in this situation. Her yogic journey moved to yet another realm of transcendence where nothing remained of hers; and all became God’s. RYD

India is the most religious nation and Sweden is the least, and the U.S. is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes

On Hearing the Cosmic Suite Without Getting Eaten by the Swedes
One Cosmos Under God Robert W. Godwin Monday, February 19, 2007
As Van noted yesterday, what eludes both atheists and religious literalists "is that form and meaning are complementary." For example, in order to play music, harmony, melody and rhythm are necessary. In their absence, there is only disorganized noise, not music. But to think that music may be reduced to musical theory is also wrong, for form is simply the vehicle but not the substance of music. This is why quite "primitive" musicians are able to convey the substance of music, while many mere technical virtuosos are not.In Western religion in particular, form cannot be divorced from substance. It is different in Vedanta or Taoism, but not really. For example, the Upanishads represent close to pure metaphysics, but since most people are not metaphysically gifted, the revelation must be presented in a more "human" (so to speak) form, which is why the Bhagavad Gita (which expresses the stark truths of the Upanishads in a more mythological mode) is much more beloved among rank and file worshipers.
In fact, you might say that the East begins with pure metaphysical doctrine which is then embodied in myth and history, whereas the West reflects upon history itself (beginning with the Jews) in order to arrive at metaphysics -- to try to intuit the nature of God through the unfolding drama of history. Both Judaism and Christianity are quintessentially "historical" religions, and in fact, are incomprehensible in the absence of their historical form. You might say that Vedanta is a purely "spatial" revelation or descent -- it does not require time, for time can only "decay" or deviate from the timeless message, which is that Brahman (the ultimate reality beyond being) is One and that Atman (the individualized spirit) and Brahman are not-two.But Judaism and Christianity are temporal revelations which cannot be understood outside their historical manifestations. It is the difference between a painting -- which depicts everything at once within the frames -- and a symphony, which can only unfold through time, which will in turn illuminate the meaning of what has gone before. As such, it is also the difference between the eye and the ear, which is why it is no coincidence that the West regards God fundamentally as word rather than vision. In fact, is it not written that no one sees the face of God and lives? Curiously, one can hear the voice but not see the face. (Of course, it is a matter of emphasis, for any theology limits things at the front door which it allows entry at the back door; thus, for example, the three who were privileged to witness the transfiguration atop mount Tabor.)
One of the main reasons the West leapt ahead of the East so dramatically is that the former regarded time -- and therefore history -- as fundamentally real, whereas the latter considered it a part of maya, and therefore unworthy of our attention. The Jews adopted a "middle position," in the sense that they lived and toiled within time for six days but returned to the timeless on the seventh (which is the ultimate purpose of the other six). Each week represents in miniature the full cycle of creation repeated endlessly. As such, it combined the temporal with the atemporal, as history awaits the ingression of the messiah.Christianity obviously widened out that cycle to include all of history, past, present, and future. Instead of repeating the cycle endlessly, it sees us in the middle of one big cycle -- somewhat like a cosmic symphony -- with a beginning, middle, and end -- or the ages of the Father (the Jews), Son (Christ), and Holy Spirit (apocalypse and revelation, as history is brought to its denoument, or the eschaton).
Van correctly noted that scripture is traditionally understood to have four levels, the literal (or historical), the allegorical or symbolic, the moral, and the mystical or esoteric. The latter mode also has to do with the vertical -- with “leading upward” and with “final things," both on an individual and historical basis. And in fact, this is where the pure metaphysics of the Upanishads converges with Western scripture, as we ascend from the logos as deployed in historical time to the pure logos at the tip-toppermost of the vertical, as in Dante's vision of the paradiso. Thus, as also noted by Van, "To stop at the literal level of the text as a Rev. Jerry Falwell or Sam Harris would, is to leave most of the meaning out, and [to] deify the Bible itself for their purposes (either pro or con) and to miss out completely on the doing of its meaning being actively threaded through the reader's soul." Exactly, for the modern deviation of "fundamentalism" is no less a form of debased materialism than materialism proper. In fact, it represents the reaction of a weak soul to the abnormal conditions of modernity -- an attempt to combat materialism by fully conceding its assumptions.
Quite obviously, the Bible is not "the word of God." It is not the logos. Rather, it is inspired words -- inspired (or even "authorized") by the Word -- about the Word. Once again, this conflation of the Bible and the Word -- or bibliolatry -- is a modern deviation that essentially concedes all ground to the horizontal flatlanders. It is a reduction of that which can only by understood by the nous to that which may be understood by the material ego. Now, this is a coincidence -- then again, I suppose not. Reader Paul G. just emailed me to say that: "I read somewhere that India is the most religious nation and Sweden is the least, and that the U.S. is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. How long can this go on, given the condition of our higher education that cranks out legions of Swedes who populate and rule all of our institutions of business, culture, government, etc.? Seems to me something's got to give sooner or later."Very true.
Again, if we think of India as being the land of pure metaphysics and Sweden as the land of no (or patently silly leftist) metaphysics, it means that the United States is rapidly becoming nothing less than a silliocracy -- as anyone can tell by the dangerously frivolous antics of the pro-defeat, America-hating Democrats last week. We were once a serious nation founded by serious men of vertical substance, but no longer. Today, for reasons of pure self-preservation, our silly liberal elites would never tolerate someone as morally serious as the man who saved our union, Abraham Lincoln, because he would throttle them with his bare hands. As he said during the Civil War, "Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, exiled, or hanged." It is anyone's guess what he would do to copperhead newspapers such as the New York Times who brazenly support America's enemies, but it would be swift and severe. No wrapping oneself in the first amendment to justify treason. (A reader informs me that the Lincoln quote has been disputed. If Lincoln didn't say it, then he was obviously remiss.)
Anyway, Van -- who was apparently en fuego yesterday -- wrote that it has slowly dawned on him that religion involves "erecting a scaffold of illusion, laying out a foundation in God, and a soaring structure of Wisdom, Goodness, and Truth.... [W]ith that scaffold of illusion solidly in place, the speaker and the audience have a footing, a frame of reference for placing what is coming into proper place and perspective. Throughout the coming speech or activity, all involved -- if they have been properly illusioned, will be 'erecting' their words and actions in line with that scaffolding, and at some point the new structure will stand on its own. At that point the scaffold can be cast off, but having guided the building of the structure, it will remain in spirit and be inherent within it."This is exactly what I meant by the paradoxical use of the term "illusion" yesterday. To paraphrase someone, a work of art is a lie that conveys the truth. If it is timeless art -- say one of Shakespeare's plays -- then it is something that never happened which embodies what always happens. This is exactly how certain more poetical aspects of scripture -- say, Genesis -- must be understood in order to appreciate their fullness. Genesis does not just describe what happened "once upin a timeless" but what happens again and again and again in the field of time.
I had intended to get into how the three traditional transcendentals -- the Good, the True, and the Beautiful -- are inseparable, and how transcendental Truth -- if it is Truth -- will always be embodied in a form (the "scaffolding") that conveys God's intrinsic beauty, or glory (which is one of the important but neglected proofs of God). But I've probably written enough for today, so I'll save that for tomorrow, pneumalogical weather conditions permitting. By the way, people sure are disinterested in this stuff. As I've begun focussing more on spirituality and less on politics, my readership has plummeted, as has interest in the book. Oh well. I must keep our motto in mind: the few, the humble, the Raccoons, "an army of the One." But sometimes I do appreciate a little encouragement, because there are times I can't help feeling that I am essentially speaking into a rapidly shrinking void, as we stand surrounded by coonibalistic Swedes who have the disgusting taste for coon pie.
*****Please say a prayer for this good man who just lost his wife yesterday. His profound work of "Christological anthropology" is recommended to all. Being that I read it when it first came out over a decade ago, it is possible that this was the first book that clued me into the philosophical and anthropological depths -- even leaving aside the theological depths -- of Christianity, which dwarfs any secular philosophy in comparison. posted by Gagdad Bob at 2/19/2007 06:26:00 AM 84 comments links to this post

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The gold standard for beauty in physics is Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity

UNSTRUNG In string theory, beauty is truth, truth beauty. Is that really all we need to know? by JIM HOLT Issue of 2006-10-02 Posted 2006-09-25
It is the best of times in physics. Physicists are on the verge of obtaining the long-sought Theory of Everything. In a few elegant equations, perhaps concise enough to be emblazoned on a T-shirt, this theory will reveal how the universe began and how it will end. The key insight is that the smallest constituents of the world are not particles, as had been supposed since ancient times, but “strings”—tiny strands of energy. By vibrating in different ways, these strings produce the essential phenomena of nature, the way violin strings produce musical notes. String theory isn’t just powerful; it’s also mathematically beautiful. All that remains to be done is to write down the actual equations. This is taking a little longer than expected. But, with almost the entire theoretical-physics community working on the problem—presided over by a sage in Princeton, New Jersey—the millennia-old dream of a final theory is sure to be realized before long.
It is the worst of times in physics. For more than a generation, physicists have been chasing a will-o’-the-wisp called string theory. The beginning of this chase marked the end of what had been three-quarters of a century of progress. Dozens of string-theory conferences have been held, hundreds of new Ph.D.s have been minted, and thousands of papers have been written. Yet, for all this activity, not a single new testable prediction has been made, not a single theoretical puzzle has been solved. In fact, there is no theory so far—just a set of hunches and calculations suggesting that a theory might exist. And, even if it does, this theory will come in such a bewildering number of versions that it will be of no practical use: a Theory of Nothing. Yet the physics establishment promotes string theory with irrational fervor, ruthlessly weeding dissenting physicists from the profession. Meanwhile, physics is stuck in a paradigm doomed to barrenness.
So which is it: the best of times or the worst of times? This is, after all, theoretical physics, not a Victorian novel. If you are a casual reader of science articles in the newspaper, you are probably more familiar with the optimistic view. But string theory has always had a few vocal skeptics. Almost two decades ago, Richard Feynman dismissed it as “crazy,” “nonsense,” and “the wrong direction” for physics. Sheldon Glashow, who won a Nobel Prize for making one of the last great advances in physics before the beginning of the string-theory era, has likened string theory to a “new version of medieval theology,” and campaigned to keep string theorists out of his own department at Harvard. (He failed.)
Now two members of the string-theory generation have come forward with exposés of what they deem to be the current mess. “The story I will tell could be read by some as a tragedy,” Lee Smolin writes in “The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next” (Houghton Mifflin; $26). Peter Woit, in “Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law” (Basic; $26.95), prefers the term “disaster.” Both Smolin and Woit were journeyman physicists when string theory became fashionable, in the early nineteen-eighties. Both are now outsiders: Smolin, a reformed string theorist (he wrote eighteen papers on the subject), has helped found a sort of Menshevik cell of physicists in Canada called the Perimeter Institute; Woit abandoned professional physics for mathematics (he is a lecturer in the mathematics department at Columbia), which gives him a cross-disciplinary perspective. Each author delivers a bill of indictment that is a mixture of science, philosophy, aesthetics, and, surprisingly, sociology. Physics, in their view, has been overtaken by a cutthroat culture that rewards technicians who work on officially sanctioned problems and discourages visionaries in the mold of Albert Einstein. Woit argues that string theory’s lack of rigor has left its practitioners unable to distinguish between a scientific hoax and a genuine contribution. Smolin adds a moral dimension to his plaint, linking string theory to the physics profession’s “blatant prejudice” against women and blacks. Pondering the cult of empty mathematical virtuosity, he asks, “How many leading theoretical physicists were once insecure, small, pimply boys who got their revenge besting the jocks (who got the girls) in the one place they could—math class?”
It is strange to think that such sordid motives might affect something as pure and objective as physics. But these are strange days in the discipline. For the first time in its history, theory has caught up with experiment. In the absence of new data, physicists must steer by something other than hard empirical evidence in their quest for a final theory. And that something they call “beauty.” But in physics, as in the rest of life, beauty can be a slippery thing.
The gold standard for beauty in physics is Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. What makes it beautiful? First, there is its simplicity. In a single equation, it explains the force of gravity as a curving in the geometry of space-time caused by the presence of mass: mass tells space-time how to curve, space-time tells mass how to move. Then, there is its surprise: who would have imagined that this whole theory would flow from the natural assumption that all frames of reference are equal, that the laws of physics should not change when you hop on a merry-go-round? Finally, there is its aura of inevitability. Nothing about it can be modified without destroying its logical structure. The physicist Steven Weinberg has compared it to Raphael’s “Holy Family,” in which every figure on the canvas is perfectly placed and there is nothing you would have wanted the artist to do differently.
Einstein’s general relativity was one of two revolutionary innovations in the early part of the twentieth century which inaugurated the modern era in physics. The other was quantum mechanics. Of the two, quantum mechanics was the more radical departure from the old Newtonian physics. Unlike general relativity, which dealt with well-defined objects existing in a smooth (albeit curved) space-time geometry, quantum mechanics described a random, choppy microworld where change happens in leaps, where particles act like waves (and vice versa), and where uncertainty reigns.
In the decades after this dual revolution, most of the action was on the quantum side. In addition to gravity, there are three basic forces that govern nature: electromagnetism, the “strong” force (which holds the nucleus of an atom together), and the “weak” force (which causes radioactive decay). Eventually, physicists managed to incorporate all three into the framework of quantum mechanics, creating the “standard model” of particle physics. The standard model is something of a stick-and-bubble-gum contraption: it clumsily joins very dissimilar kinds of interactions, and its equations contain about twenty arbitrary-seeming numbers—corresponding to the masses of the various particles, the ratios of the force strengths, and so on—that had to be experimentally measured and put in “by hand.” Still, the standard model has proved to be splendidly useful, predicting the result of every subsequent experiment in particle physics with exquisite accuracy, often down to the eleventh decimal place. As Feynman once observed, that’s like calculating the distance from Los Angeles to New York to within a hairbreadth.
The standard model was hammered out by the mid-nineteen-seventies, and has not had to be seriously revised since. It tells how nature behaves on the scale of molecules, atoms, electrons, and on down, where the force of gravity is weak enough to be overlooked. General relativity tells how nature behaves on the scale of apples, planets, galaxies, and on up, where quantum uncertainties average out and can be ignored. Between the two theories, all nature seems to be covered. But most physicists aren’t happy with this division of labor. Everything in nature, after all, interacts with everything else. Shouldn’t there be a single set of rules for describing it, rather than two inconsistent sets? And what happens when the domains of the two theories overlap—that is, when the very massive is also the very small? Just after the big bang, for example, the entire mass of what is now the observable universe was packed into a volume the size of an atom. At that tiny scale, quantum uncertainty causes the smooth geometry of general relativity to break up, and there is no telling how gravity will behave. To understand the birth of the universe, we need a theory that “unifies” general relativity and quantum mechanics. That is the theoretical physicist’s dream.
String theory came into existence by accident. In the late nineteen-sixties, a couple of young physicists thumbing through mathematics books came upon a centuries-old formula that, miraculously, seemed to fit the latest experimental data about elementary particles. At first, no one had a clue why this should be. Within a few years, however, the hidden meaning of the formula emerged: if elementary particles were thought of as tiny wriggling strings, it all made sense. What were these strings supposed to be made of? Nothing, really. As one physicist put it, they were to be thought of as “tiny one-dimensional rips in the smooth fabric of space.”
This wasn’t the only way in which the new theory broke with previous thinking. We seem to live in a world that has three spatial dimensions (along with one time dimension). But for string theory to make mathematical sense the world must have nine spatial dimensions. Why don’t we notice the six extra dimensions? Because, according to string theory, they are curled up into some microgeometry that makes them invisible. (Think of a garden hose: from a distance it looks one-dimensional, like a line; up close, however, it can be seen to have a second dimension, curled up into a little circle.) The assumption of hidden dimensions struck some physicists as extravagant. To others, though, it seemed a small price to pay. In Smolin’s words, “String theory promised what no other theory had before—a quantum theory of gravity that is also a genuine unification of forces and matter.”
But when would it make good on that promise? In the decades since its possibilities were first glimpsed, string theory has been through a couple of “revolutions.” The first took place in 1984, when some potentially fatal kinks in the theory were worked out. On the heels of this achievement, four physicists at Princeton, dubbed the Princeton String Quartet, showed that string theory could indeed encompass all the forces of nature. Within a few years, physicists around the world had written more than a thousand papers on string theory. The theory also attracted the interest of the leading figure in the world of theoretical physics, Edward Witten.
Witten, now at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, is held in awe by his fellow-physicists, who have been known to compare him to Einstein. As a teen-ager, he was more interested in politics than in physics. In 1968, at the age of seventeen, he published an article in The Nation arguing that the New Left had no political strategy. He majored in history at Brandeis, and worked on George McGovern’s 1972 Presidential campaign. (McGovern wrote him a letter of recommendation for graduate school.) When he decided to pursue a career in physics, he proved to be a quick study: Princeton Ph.D., Harvard postdoc, full professorship at Princeton at the age of twenty-nine, MacArthur “genius grant” two years later. Witten’s papers are models of depth and clarity. Other physicists attack problems by doing complicated calculations; he solves them by reasoning from first principles. Witten once said that “the greatest intellectual thrill of my life” was learning that string theory could encompass both gravity and quantum mechanics. His string-theoretic investigations have led to stunning advances in pure mathematics, especially in the abstract study of knots. In 1990, he became the first physicist to be awarded the Fields Medal, considered the Nobel Prize of mathematics.
It was Witten who ushered in the second string-theory revolution, which addressed a conundrum that had arisen, in part, from all those extra dimensions. They had to be curled up so that they were invisibly small, but it turned out that there were various ways of doing this, and physicists were continually finding new ones. If there was more than one version of string theory, how could we decide which version was correct? No experiment could resolve the matter, since string theory concerns energies far beyond those which can be attained by particle accelerators. By the early nineteen-nineties, no fewer than five versions of string theory had been devised. Discouragement was in the air. But the mood improved markedly when, in 1995, Witten announced to an audience of string theorists at a conference in Los Angeles that these five seemingly distinct theories were mere facets of something deeper, which he called “M-theory.” In addition to vibrating strings, M-theory allowed for vibrating membranes and blobs. As for the name of the new theory, Witten was noncommittal; he said that “M stands for magic, mystery, or membrane, according to taste.” Later, he mentioned “murky” as a possibility, since “our understanding of the theory is, in fact, so primitive.” Other physicists have suggested “matrix,” “mother” (as in “mother of all theories”), and “masturbation.” The skeptical Sheldon Glashow wondered whether the “M” wasn’t an upside-down “W,” for Witten.
Today, more than a decade after the second revolution, the theory formerly known as strings remains a seductive conjecture rather than an actual set of equations, and the non-uniqueness problem has grown to ridiculous proportions. At the latest count, the number of string theories is estimated to be something like one followed by five hundred zeros. “Why not just take this situation as a reductio ad absurdum?” Smolin asks. But some string theorists are unabashed: each member of this vast ensemble of alternative theories, they observe, describes a different possible universe, one with its own “local weather” and history. What if all these possible universes actually exist? Perhaps every one of them bubbled into being just as our universe did. (Physicists who believe in such a “multiverse” sometimes picture it as a cosmic champagne glass frothing with universe-bubbles.) Most of these universes will not be biofriendly, but a few will have precisely the right conditions for the emergence of intelligent life-forms like us. The fact that our universe appears to be fine-tuned to engender life is not a matter of luck. Rather, it is a consequence of the “anthropic principle”: if our universe weren’t the way it is, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. Partisans of the anthropic principle say that it can be used to weed out all the versions of string theory that are incompatible with our existence, and so rescue string theory from the problem of non-uniqueness.
Copernicus may have dislodged man from the center of the universe, but the anthropic principle seems to restore him to that privileged position. Many physicists despise it; one has depicted it as a “virus” infecting the minds of his fellow-theorists. Others, including Witten, accept the anthropic principle, but provisionally and in a spirit of gloom. Still others seem to take perverse pleasure in it. The controversy among these factions has been likened by one participant to “a high-school-cafeteria food fight.”
In their books against string theory, Smolin and Woit view the anthropic approach as a betrayal of science. Both agree with Karl Popper’s dictum that if a theory is to be scientific it must be open to falsification. But string theory, Woit points out, is like Alice’s Restaurant, where, as Arlo Guthrie’s song had it, “you can get anything you want.” It comes in so many versions that it predicts anything and everything. In that sense, string theory is, in the words of Woit’s title, “not even wrong.” Supporters of the anthropic principle, for their part, rail against the “Popperazzi” and insist that it would be silly for physicists to reject string theory because of what some philosopher said that science should be. Steven Weinberg, who has a good claim to be the father of the standard model of particle physics, has argued that anthropic reasoning may open a new epoch. “Most advances in the history of science have been marked by discoveries about nature,” he recently observed, “but at certain turning points we have made discoveries about science itself.”
Is physics, then, going postmodern? (At Harvard, as Smolin notes, the string-theory seminar was for a time actually called “Postmodern Physics.”) The modern era of particle physics was empirical; theory developed in concert with experiment. The standard model may be ugly, but it works, so presumably it is at least an approximation of the truth. In the postmodern era, we are told, aesthetics must take over where experiment leaves off. Since string theory does not deign to be tested directly, its beauty must be the warrant of its truth.
In the past century, physicists who have followed their aesthetic sense in the absence of experimental data seem to have done quite well. As Paul Dirac said, “Anyone who appreciates the fundamental harmony connecting the way Nature runs and general mathematical principles must feel that a theory with the beauty and elegance of Einstein’s theory has to be substantially correct.” The idea that “beauty is truth, truth beauty” may be a beautiful one, but is there any reason to think it is true? Truth, after all, is a relationship between a theory and the world, whereas beauty is a relationship between a theory and the mind. Perhaps, some have conjectured, a kind of cultural Darwinism has drilled it into us to take aesthetic pleasure in theories that are more likely to be true. Or perhaps physicists are somehow inclined to choose problems that have beautiful solutions rather than messy ones. Or perhaps nature itself, at its most fundamental level, possesses an abstract beauty that a true theory is bound to mirror. What makes all these explanations suspect is that standards of theoretical beauty tend to be ephemeral, routinely getting overthrown in scientific revolutions. “Every property that has at some date been seen as aesthetically attractive in theories has at other times been judged as displeasing or aesthetically neutral,” James W. McAllister, a philosopher of science, has observed.
The closest thing to an enduring mark of beauty is simplicity; Pythagoras and Euclid prized it, and contemporary physicists continue to pay lip service to it. All else being equal, the fewer the equations, the greater the elegance. And how does string theory do by this criterion? Pretty darn well, one of its partisans has facetiously observed, since the number of defining equations it has so far produced remains precisely zero. At first, string theory seemed the very Tao of simplicity, reducing all known particles and forces to the notes of a vibrating string. As one of its pioneers commented, “String theory was too beautiful a mathematical structure to be completely irrelevant to nature.” Over the years, though, it has repeatedly had to be jury-rigged in the face of new difficulties, so that it has become a Rube Goldberg machine—or, rather, a vast landscape of them. Its proponents now inveigh against what they call “the myth of uniqueness and elegance.” Nature is not simple, they maintain, nor should our ultimate theory of it be. “A good, honest look at the real world does not suggest a pattern of mathematical minimality,” says the Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind, who seems to have no regrets about string theory’s having “gone from being Beauty to the Beast.”
If neither predictive value nor beauty explains the persistence of string theory, then what does? Since the late eighteenth century, no major scientific theory has been around for more than a decade without getting a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Correct theories nearly always triumph quickly. But string theory, in one form or another, has been hanging on inconclusively for more than thirty-five years. Einstein’s own pursuit of a unified theory of physics in the last three decades of his life is often cited as a case study in futility. Have a thousand string theorists done any better?
The usual excuse offered for sticking with what increasingly looks like a failed program is that no one has come up with any better ideas for unifying physics. But Smolin and Woit have a different explanation, one that can be summed up in the word “sociology.” Both are worried that academic physics has become dangerously like what the social constructivists have long charged it with being: a community that is no more rational or objective than any other group of humans. String theorists dominate the country’s top physics departments. At the Institute for Advanced Study, the director and nearly all of the particle physicists with permanent positions are string theorists. Eight of the nine MacArthur fellowships awarded to particle physicists over the years have gone to string theorists. Since the fall-off in academic hiring in the nineteen-seventies, the average age of tenured physics professors has reached nearly sixty. Every year, around eighty people receive Ph.D.s in particle physics, but only around ten of them can expect to get permanent jobs in the field. In this hypercompetitive environment, the only hope for a young theoretical physicist is to curry favor by solving a set problem in string theory. “Nowadays,” one established figure in the field has said, “if you’re a hot-shot young string theorist you’ve got it made.”
Both authors also detect a cultlike aspect to the string-theory community, with Witten as the guru. Perhaps, it has been joked, physicists might have an easier time getting funding from the Bush Administration if they represented string theory as a “faith-based initiative.” Smolin deplores what he considers to be the shoddy scientific standards that prevail in the string-theory community, where long-standing but unproved conjectures are assumed to be true because “no sensible person”—that is, no member of the tribe—doubts them. The most hilarious recent symptom of string theory’s lack of rigor is the so-called Bogdanov Affair, in which French twin brothers, Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, managed to publish egregiously nonsensical articles on string theory in five peer-reviewed physics journals. Was it a reverse Sokal hoax? (In 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal fooled the editors of the postmodern journal Social Text into publishing an artful bit of drivel on the “hermeneutics of quantum gravity.”) The Bogdanov brothers have indignantly denied it, but even the Harvard string-theory group was said to be unsure, alternating between laughter at the obviousness of the fraud and hesitant concession that the authors might have been sincere.
These two books present the case against string theory with wit and conviction, though Smolin’s book is by far the more lucid and accessible. Woit has too many pages full of indigestible sentences like “The Hilbert space of the Wess-Zumino-Witten model is a representation not only of the Kac-Moody group, but of the group of conformal transformations as well.” (Distressingly, he goes on to confess that this is “a serious oversimplification.”) Let’s assume that the situation in theoretical physics is as bad as Smolin and Woit say it is. What are non-physicists supposed to do about it? Should we form a sort of children’s crusade to capture the holy land of physics from the string-theory usurpers? And whom should we install in their place?
Smolin furnishes the more definite answer. The current problem with physics, he thinks, is basically a problem of style. The initiators of the dual revolution a century ago—Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg—were deep thinkers, or “seers.” They confronted questions about space, time, and matter in a philosophical way. The new theories they created were essentially correct. But, Smolin writes, “the development of these theories required a lot of hard technical work, and so for several generations physics was ‘normal science’ and was dominated by master craftspeople.” Today, the challenge of unifying those theories will require another revolution, one that mere virtuoso calculators are ill-equipped to carry out. “The paradoxical situation of string theory—so much promise, so little fulfillment—is exactly what you get when a lot of highly trained master craftspeople try to do the work of seers,” Smolin writes.
The solution is to cultivate a new generation of seers. And what, really, is standing in the way of that? Einstein, after all, didn’t need to be nurtured by the physics establishment, and Smolin gives many examples of outsider physicists in the style of Einstein, including one who spent ten years in a rural farmhouse successfully reinterpreting general relativity. Neither Smolin nor Woit calls for the forcible suppression of string theory. They simply ask for a little more diversity. “We are talking about perhaps two dozen theorists,” Smolin says. This is an exceedingly modest request, for theoretical physics is the cheapest of endeavors. Its practitioners require no expensive equipment. All they need is legal pads and pencils and blackboards and chalk to ply their trade, plus room and board and health insurance and a place to park their bikes. Intellectually daunting as the crisis in physics may be, its practical solution would seem to demand little more than the annual interest on the rounding error of a Google founder’s fortune.
“How strange it would be if the final theory were to be discovered in our own lifetimes!” Steven Weinberg wrote some years ago, adding that such a discovery would mark the sharpest discontinuity in intellectual history since the beginning of modern science, in the seventeenth century. Of course, it is possible that a final theory will never be found, that neither string theory nor any of the alternatives mentioned by Smolin and Woit will come to anything. Perhaps the most fundamental truth about nature is simply beyond the human intellect, the way that quantum mechanics is beyond the intellect of a dog. Or perhaps, as Karl Popper believed, there will prove to be no end to the succession of deeper and deeper theories. And, even if a final theory is found, it will leave the questions about nature that most concern us—how the brain gives rise to consciousness, how we are constituted by our genes—untouched. Theoretical physics will be finished, but the rest of science will hardly notice.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The 2,000-year reign of Christianity was about to end

Editorial Observer What W. B. Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’ Really Says About the Iraq War By ADAM COHEN Yeats’s bleakly apocalyptic “The Second Coming” is fast becoming the official poem of the Iraq war. The New York Times : February 12, 2007
The Brookings Institution, the prominent Washington research organization, just released a report on the Iraq war entitled “Things Fall Apart.” When Representative Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington, took to the House floor last year to demand that President Bush present a plan for Iraq, he called his speech “The Center Cannot Hold.” Blogs are full of the observation that “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed” in Iraq these days.
These phrases all come from William Butler Yeats’s “Second Coming.” Yeats’s bleakly apocalyptic poem has long been irresistible to pundits. What historical era, after all, is not neatly summed up by his lament that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”? But with its somber vision of looming anarchy, and its Middle Eastern backdrop (the terrifying beast Yeats warns of “slouches towards Bethlehem”), “The Second Coming” is fast becoming the official poem of the Iraq war.
The pundits who quote it, though, are picking up on Yeats’s words, but not his world view. As Helen Vendler, the great Harvard poetry scholar, and others have pointed out, “The Second Coming” is really two poems. The first eight lines are filled with the pointed aphorisms that pundits like so much, while the rest of the poem suggests the unpredictability of how history will unfold. This second, less quoted part is the one that speaks most directly to the grim situation in Iraq.
Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in 1919, an especially dismal moment in history. Europeans were shell-shocked from World War I, and deeply cynical. Yeats’s homeland, Ireland, was lurching toward civil war. The old order in Russia had just been toppled by a revolution that Yeats — who had a fondness for aristocracy — feared would spread across the continent and the globe.
Yeats’s perspective on the world’s troubles was not what many people who quote him today might suspect. For one thing, he was not a Christian. He dabbled in theosophy and the occult, and considered Christianity an idea whose time had passed. “The Second Coming” is not, as its title and the Bethlehem reference might suggest, an account of the return of the Messiah. What is being born is nothing resembling Christ.
As for his politics, Yeats was hardly a democrat, and he did not care much for “progress” — which makes him an odd choice for people who hope to turn Iraq into a vibrant democracy. Yeats was attracted to fascism, and he rebelled as a youth against the adults’ talk of progress by embracing its opposite. “I took satisfaction in certain public disasters, felt sort of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin,” he once wrote.
The first eight lines of “The Second Coming,” as Ms. Vendler notes, are the philosophical part of the poem. A rational, thinking observer — a pundit, of sorts — is describing the world in definite, if foreboding, terms. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer” paints a vivid image of the natural order coming apart. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” describes an onslaught of destruction almost matter-of-factly.
But after those eight lines, the poem suddenly becomes, as Ms. Vendler notes, “oracular.” Like the Delphic oracle, this Yeats speaks cryptically. “Surely the Second Coming is at hand,” he says — but of course, “surely” here means its opposite: what follows is not certain at all. Yeats goes on to announce “somewhere in sands of the desert/ A shape with lion body and the head of a man” — an indefinite creature in an indefinite place.
The poem reflects, as Harold Bloom, the Yale professor and literary critic, says, Yeats’s belief that a “change in god” was coming, “and that the 2,000-year reign of Christianity was about to end.” But it does not reveal who this god will be. Its last two lines are a question: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
“The Second Coming” is a powerful brief against punditry. The Christian era was about the ability to predict the future: the New Testament clearly foretold the second coming of Christ. In the post-Christian era of which Yeats was writing there was no Bible to map out what the next “coming” would be. The world would have to look toward Bethlehem to see what “rough beast” arrived.
This skepticism about predicting the future has more relevance to the Iraq war than any of the poem’s much-quoted first eight lines. The story of the Iraq war is one of confident predictions that never came to pass: “We will find weapons of mass destruction”; “we will be greeted as liberators”; “the insurgency is in its last throes.”
The confident predictors who have been wrong in the past do not hesitate to keep offering up plans. That is true of President Bush, certainly: he talks about what his “troop surge” will do as if he had never been wrong before. It is also true of the pundits. The co-author of “Things Fall Apart,” the Brookings guide to going forward in Iraq, is Kenneth Pollack, who is — incredibly — best known for his 2002 book “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.”
It is bizarre to see shards of “The Second Coming” appended to the Brookings report, or to any of the other plans and prognostications about the war in Iraq. Yeats, who grew up feeling “sort of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin,” did not just welcome whatever new order his rough beast was ushering in. He believed the only way it could plausibly be spoken of was in the form of a question.

Evolution Sunday links Science and Religion

Posted: Sunday, 11 February 2007 12:00PM SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) -- Coinciding with Charles Darwin’s birthday, hundreds of churches across the nation are taking part in “Evolution Sunday,” a day to recognize the connections between religion and Darwin’s theory of evolution.
"Evolution Sunday is a day to celebrate the compatibility of science and religion, to recognize that evolution has no incompatibility with the Christian faith," said Reverend Jim Burklo of Sausalito Presbyterian Church.
The day is intended to let people know they don’t have to choose between one or the other. But Burklo suggests the public has a long way to go in learning about the subject.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Michael Faraday introduced the concept of a field

Metaphysical implications of the quantum 'Zero Point Field' by rjon on Wed 07 Feb 2007 02:38 PM PST Permanent Link This is Part 1 of a series of quoted passages from the book The Field: the Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe, by science journalist Lynn McTaggart. It’s an excellent non-technical explanation about the metaphysical implications of modern quantum theory, especially what’s called the ‘Zero Point Field.’ I hope this can provide a useful vocabulary for our ongoing dialogues re possible relationships between science and spirituality. I’ll say more in future comments to these articles. ~ ron
Quoted text from "The Field," by Lynn McTaggartpp. 19-36... 'There is one giant reservoir of energy we haven't talked about,' Hal [Hal Puthoff, electrical engineer and quantum physicist] said. Every quantum physicist, he explained, is well aware of the Zero Point Field. Quantum mechanics had demonstrated that there is no such thing as a vacuum, or nothingness. What we tend to think of as a sheer void if all of space were emptied of matter and energy and you examined even the space between the stars is, in subatomic terms, a hive of activity.The uncertainty principle developed by Werner Heisenberg, one of the chief architects of quantum theory, implies that no particle ever stays completely at rest but is constantly in motion due to a ground state field of energy constantly interacting with all subatomic matter. It means that the basic substructure of the universe is a sea of quantum fields that cannot be eliminated by any known laws of physics...
Against the objections of his contemporaries, who believed in empty space, Aristotle was one of the first to argue that space was in fact a plenum (a background substructure filled with "things"). Then, in the middle of the nineteenth century, scientist Michael Faraday introduced the concept of a field in relation to electricity and magnetism, believing that the most important aspect of energy was not the source but the space around it, and the influence of one on the other through some force. In his view, atoms weren't hard little billiard balls, but the most concentrated center of a force that would extend out in space.A field is a matrix or medium which connects two or more points in space, usually via a force, like gravity or electromagnetism. The force is usually represented by ripples in the field, or waves. An electromagnetic field, to use but one example, is simply an electrical field and a magnetic field which intersect, sending out waves of energy at the speed of light. An electric and magnetic field forms around any electric charge (which is, most simply, a surplus or deficit of electrons). Both electrical and magnetic fields have two polarities (negative and positive) and both will cause any other charged object to be attracted or repelled, depending on whether the charges are opposite (one positive, the other negative) or the same (both positive or both negative). The field is considered that area of space where this charge and its effects can be detected.

What free will is

By DENNIS OVERBYE Published: January 2, 2007
As William James wrote in 1890, the whole “sting and excitement” of life comes from “our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.” Get over it, Dr. James. Go get yourself fitted for a new chain-mail vest. A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.
As a result, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place.
“Is it an illusion? That’s the question,” said Michael Silberstein, a science philosopher at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Another question, he added, is whether talking about this in public will fan the culture wars.
“If people freak at evolution, etc.,” he wrote in an e-mail message, “how much more will they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines, and is that conclusion now clearly warranted or is it premature?”
Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University who has written extensively about free will, said that “when we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair.”
Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said, “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free.
“The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it,” he said.
That is hardly a new thought. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, as Einstein paraphrased it, that “a human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”
Einstein, among others, found that a comforting idea. “This knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals,” he said.
How comforted or depressed this makes you might depend on what you mean by free will. The traditional definition is called “libertarian” or “deep” free will. It holds that humans are free moral agents whose actions are not predetermined. This school of thought says in effect that the whole chain of cause and effect in the history of the universe stops dead in its tracks as you ponder the dessert menu.
At that point, anything is possible. Whatever choice you make is unforced and could have been otherwise, but it is not random. You are responsible for any damage to your pocketbook and your arteries.