Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Art Instinct; Arts & Letters Daily

Showing off the life of the mind
Denis Dutton sketches out our innate artistry
Robert Fulford, National Post Published: Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Charlie Allnut, the gin-swilling Canadian boat operator played by Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, explains his drinking habits by saying, "It's only human nature." That doesn't satisfy the puritanical Rose Sayer, played by Katharine Hepburn. She answers: "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in the world to rise above."

Denis Dutton, in his exhilarating new book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution (Bloomsbury Press), comes down firmly on Rose's side. But while Rose sees humankind battling to escape its innate imperfections, Dutton outlines something grander and more complicated, the struggle of artists "to transcend even our animal selves" through their work. Evolution makes art possible by endowing humans with imagination and intellect. Art, in response, lifts us above the very instincts installed in our brains by evolution.

As 2009 approaches, let us set aside the great puzzle of 2008 ("Where did the money go?") and deal with a more pleasant question: "Why are we so crazy about the arts?" Why, for instance, did Toronto build, in the last four years, an opera house, two major museums, a conservatory and a ballet school, each of them risky and expensive? Speaking as a Torontonian, I appreciate the effort, but realize it wasn't done just to please me. This flurry of construction, like many such civic phenomena around the world, reflects an urgent need for the arts -- a need that became part of our personalities over many thousands of years.

We do all this, Dutton explains, because it's built into us. We have no choice.
Originally a Californian, Dutton is now professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He edits a learned journal, Philosophy and Literature, where he conducted a furious and much-publicized campaign against academics whose bad prose beats readers into submission just to prove "they are in the presence of a great and deep mind." More important, Dutton edits Arts & Letters Daily, a website that collates articles from everywhere on the planet and has become much more than its founders expected.
By shrewdly choosing the best material available, A&LD has emerged as the most useful intellectual magazine in the English-speaking world.

Dutton's interest in cultural evolution began in the 1960s when he was a Peace Corps volunteer in India. As a student he had absorbed (and partially accepted) the academic belief that cultures are so sealed off from each other that cross-cultural understanding is all but impossible; art is "socially constructed," the product of a certain time and place, nothing else. That suggests to many scholars that attempting to see connections between cultures amounts to a form of colonialism.

But in rural India, Dutton changed his mind. He discovered that the hopes, fears and vices of the Indians were altogether intelligible to a twentysomething graduate of the University of California Santa Barbara. And much of the cultural life of India was equally graspable. In Hyderabad he learned the sitar from a student of Ravi Shankar and found Indian music no more remote from Western music than 17th-century Italian madrigals are from the harmonies of Duke Ellington: "The lure of rhythmic drive, harmonic anticipation, lucid structure and divinely sweet melody cuts across cultures with ease."

How could this be? Were these cultures somehow connected at their roots?
In 1993 two Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, organized a statistically impeccable survey of taste in 10 countries. They concluded that people from Iceland to China hold similar opinions about art: All express affection for landscapes, particularly landscapes dominated by blue, with water somehow involved. Melamid suggested that this implies that a blue landscape is genetically imprinted on humanity. It may be a paradise we all carry within us, he speculated. Perhaps "we came from the blue landscape and we want it."

Well, yes, says Dutton. In the Pleistocene era, the nomads who developed into people like us were (it's widely believed) living under blue African skies in savannas and woodlands. These protein-rich regions were good hunting grounds. Those who chose to inhabit that landscape had a "survival advantage." They prospered, had children, passed on their genes.

That process continued for a length of time that we find almost impossible to imagine -- about 1.6 million years, or 80,000 generations. In the extreme slo-mo theatre of evolution, the architecture of the mind developed. Countless minor choices, when rewarded by success, created impulses that live within us now.

Take, for instance, the universal obsession with storytelling. In all cultures (including the few remaining clusters of hunter-gatherers) narrative is an essential element. It's both a source of pleasure and a way to convey information. Those who had this inclination and talent in the Pleistocene era had a special "survival advantage." A nomad with a storyteller's imagination could weigh a group's travel plans, outlining a new territory's opportunities against its potential dangers. Storytelling, perhaps, began as a question of life and death. In detailing the complications that followed, Dutton demonstrates both his own poised scholarship and the infinite richness of the subject he's opening up.

And music? There's no obvious reason for it to exist, since the ability to perceive pitched sound provides in itself no contribution to survival. Dutton notes Charles Darwin's suggestion that musical tones and rhythm were part of courtship for our ancestors. And perhaps musical sounds were a way of inventing language. Dutton finds that plausible and suggests that music and dance also build "empathy, co-operation and social solidarity." He speculates that music, dancing, storytelling and other art forms "evolved specifically to strengthen the social health of hunter-gatherer bands."

The Art Instinct offers fresh and liberating ideas while demonstrating Dutton's profound sense of curiosity and his willingness to take risks while dealing with puzzling and largely fragmentary pre-history. He bluntly argues with fashionable theorists and the reviews of his book will not be uniformly favourable. Some will be offended and angry.

Whatever the critical response, the discussion of his book deserves to reach far beyond academics and people directly involved in the arts. His subject is the mysterious beginning of the cultural life that all of us, on whatever level of complexity, live. As he says, we resemble our distant ancestors in the way we share communion with other humans through art. "Our art instinct is theirs." Copyright © 2007 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sri Aurobindo’s writings are more complex than Wilber seems willing to admit on the subject of race

"Such a Body We Must Create:" New Theses on Integral Micropolitics Daniel Gustav Anderson INTEGRAL REVIEW December 2008 Vol. 4, No. 2 Anderson: New Theses on Integral Micropolitics

Theology as such is not necessarily a problem or a solution to a problem. My point in this instance is that when theology is asked to perform as if it were criticism, difficulties arise (see Theses Two, Three, and Six), counterproductive and unneeded ones. Specifically, the incorporation of certain theological positions into integral theory has caused a particular methodological problem120 I have alluded to already regarding Wilber’s misrepresentation of nonduality relative to dialectical practice, as well as his proposal for a "master map," attributed to Hazelton in Wilber (2003) (see Introduction), taken up more recently in slightly different diction in Wilber (2006) and elsewhere.

Theory is inadequate to the task of resolving differences in theology, much less to the reduction of said differences to another, master theology,125 just as it is incapable of determining which of these men (or none among them) may have been God in the flesh, a position no theorist can take without becoming a theologian, an ideologist, or both at once in the process.126

This "master map" process of adjudicating the "best" and "worst" of internally coherent but mutually contradicting claims even of various progressive-evolutionary postcolonial religious dispensations—those of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha,121 or of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad,122 or of Meher Baba, to give a representative sampling—enacts or makes possible a kind of epistemic violence that exceeds any mandate for critical practice. On one side, through an intensity of commitment to one’s teacher and tradition, one may make extraordinary, unverifiable, and in the end irresponsible theological claims at the expense of other traditions passing as criticism—theology, working as ideology, in theoretical drag.123 On the other side, through a conscious or unconscious bias for or against a particular teacher or tradition, one may attempt through theological gestures (or simply through vehement and repeated assertion) to foreclose a particular dispensation from responsible, contextualized critique.124

No single theology, master map, or God-is-on-our-side gesture has proven to be up to the task I propose of organizing a set of disparate social and spiritual movements, many of them theological in orientation, predicated on innumerable cultural traditions. History shows that adherence does not guarantee alliance, nor does simple adherence bring the subjective and objective developments needed for a comprehensive transformation to be carried out. For instance, if one seeks to draw together the participatory action of good-faith leaders from many religious and cultural traditions, and many intellectual disciplines, with a theoretical project, one immediately introduces a problem with establishing this theory on a metaphysical or theological proposition. One example: that there is such a thing as reality and that this reality "is not composed of things or processes," but is composed of holons (Wilber, 2000a, p. 41), which have their being in something of a divinized hierarchy in the form of a Great Chain that is also presented as real, as in the "ontology of consciousness" Litfin (2003) posits in her proposal for an integral macropolitics (pp. 55-56).127 This is an affirmative, ontological position, and this differentiates the coherence as propose it (see Thesis One) from the Wilberian holon: the coherence refers to a moment in a set of overdetermining processes, but is not affirmed as real or unreal; thus, it is not a litmus test of faith, only a tool at hand for anyone to use with no presumed ultimate significance or ultimate being (or non-being) as such.

What I am proposing instead amounts to a rigorously pluralistic, secular approach that invites the contributions of multiple traditions without affirming the Ultimate Reality of one over the rest by responsibly refraining from taking metaphysical positions relative to the integral project and instead insisting on the verifiable, the deductive—arguably another valence of the Big No, as I will show—the best inheritance of the tradition of antinomianism established on the North American continent by the Puritan theologian and proto-integralist Roger Williams in the middle of the seventeenth century. Further, this non-theological presentation of nonduality coincides with a radical skepticism: neither affirming nor denying the ultimate existence or nonexistence even of a category called "nondual," or of this pen in my hand (see Thesis One), therefore allowing room for all theological claim to circulate freely without favoring or excluding any, such that any responsible transformative practice regardless of its traditional origin may be of benefit according to its capacity in concert with all others, not to mention space for the creation of new values. (Of course, anyone’s irresponsibility in this regard is an invitation for criticism.)

Taken together with the minoritarianism I propose in Thesis Eight, the restraint and skepticism inherent in this proposal express my overriding aspiration for a radically democratic and ecologically sustainable social order. This is the "New Age" worth working for, worth making. As it happens, "the New Age" is another such metaphysical doctrine in much integral thought and culture about time and historicity, that the recent past and present (and perhaps near future) represent the opening of a new paradigm, world view, world order, or "omega point," a view expressed in different words and deployed in different ways (and to differing degrees) by Aurobindo, Teilhard, Gebser, and Wilber, and in Spiral Dynamics. The past has produced many such moments of apparent transformation coupled with millenarian aspiration that have come to naught; the events of 1848 in Europe demand consideration here, as a cursory example of how European post-Hegelian proto-integralists, Marx and Engels most obviously, saw a new age dawning as only more elaborate and comprehensive oppression emerged, some of it undertaken in the name of their project.

120 As with so much else in integral theory, this is anticipated in the work of Aurobindo Ghose. Like Milton, Aurobindo is a world-class poet and mythmaker, and a theologian to be taken seriously (and not only by the faithful); also like Milton, Aurobindo is a problematic political and cultural critic.
121 In the instances of the Baha’i Faith and the Ahmadiyya movement especially, one may instead begin to understand the similarities and differences between dispensations first by reference to the relationship of the faithful to the transformations brought about by the colonial process, and second by the minoritarian position of adherents in a postcolonial situation in Asia and in diaspora. Apart from a conflicted position vis a vis mainstream Islam (Shia and Sunni respectively), these are the most explicit common denominators between the two movements.
122 Situated in and from the Ahmadiyya tradition, Ahmed (1998) is worth close consideration for those committed to an evolutionary-consciousness position such as the ones posited by Hegel, Aurobindo, and Wilber.
123 Claims of this type, exemplified perhaps by Bakhtin’s (1984) hyperbolic enthusiasm for the religious conservative Dostoevsky and Wilber’s public endorsements of Franklin Jones (Da Free John, Adi Da) and, later, Andrew Cohen, along with books and publications by both (Cohen publishes "the only magazine asking the hard questions, slaughtering the sacred cows, and dealing with the Truth no matter what" [Wilber, 2002, p. xvii, emphasis added]), suggest that only this or that method, only this or that text or periodical or ashram, only this or that guru can yield desirable results—a difficult claim to verify.

Insisting on the exclusivity of Dostoevsky, for instance, begs the question: why only Dostoevsky and not, say, Joyce? Bakhtin shows a willingness to address this question, but never wholly resolves it, and in fairness, could not have read Ulysses at the time of writing his book on Dostoevsky. Analogously, one may ask of Wilber’s work: why an uncategorical endorsement of the claims of Franklin Jones at the expense of those of Shiv Dayal Singh, or Baha’u’llah, or Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, or Meher Baba, or any other, or not at all?

124 To give one example, Wilber (2001) claims it is "slander" to point out the racist overtones in Aurobindo’s writings (p. ix). But as I show in Anderson (2006), Aurobindo’s writings are more complex than Wilber seems willing to admit on the subject of race; it is not unfair to Aurobindo to insist he was among other things a product of his time, and that flickers of this time are legible in his work. By analogy, one can find moments of explicit racism in the writings of Mark Twain, even as Twain’s project was broadly and intensely anti-racist—and to say so amounts to critical honesty about Twain, not a slander to his legacy.
125 I recognize that a reader applying a hermeneutic of suspicion to this passage may object to my uneasiness about theological work as an expression of my own adherence to an explicitly non-theological (not anti-theological) spiritual tradition, Mahayana Buddhism. If the reader finds that my claims are unwarranted or otherwise problematic, and that a bias of this sort may be behind this problem, I invite that reader to demonstrate both the hypothetical failure of my reasoning and any imputed bias causing the same.
126 This distinction can be made by diagnosing the relationship of a given theological gesture to the regime at hand. If it is one of mimetic and mechanical or conscious identification, it can be said to be ideological. This analysis develops from the first positive task of schizoanalysis, to find out what the desiring machines are doing (Deleuze & Guattari, 1983, p. 322).

127 A thought experiment: imagine a gathering of representatives of many spiritual traditions, for ecumenical and peacemaking purposes. Before any dialogue has begun, before any bread is broken or coffee poured, the host of the gathering (following Litfin) proposes that all participants affirm a particular theological or ontological point—perhaps the emergence of a New Age of consciousness through evolving cosmic forms, or Kantian categories, or Hegelian World-Spirit, or Jungian archetypes, or the salvific power of X or Y guru’s grace—first. What happens? Such a gesture leaves little room for dialogue or space for the miracles that can arise under responsible leadership. At the same time, such a conversation would also be impossible without certain nontheological values in place, such as generous hospitality, a willingness to consider multiple positions at once and in context and to take them seriously, a recognition of all partial and provisional views as such even when they claim to be complete and universal, and a utopian aspiration to work collaboratively for the mutual benefit of all participants, for instance.

Friday, December 19, 2008

"I, Pencil" by Leonard E. Read

"I, Pencil" Turns 50 from Cafe Hayek by Don Boudreaux
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the original publication of one of the most insightful economics essays ever penned -- "I, Pencil." It wasn't written by a professional economist; it was written by Leonard E. Read, founder and long-time president of the Foundation for Economic Education. Although Read was no professional economist, his understanding of the way market economies work, and his ability to explain that logic in clear and compelling terms, far surpasses that of all but a tiny handful of PhD-sporting economists.


I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write. Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do. You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery —more so than a tree or a sunset or even a flash of lightning. [...]

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human masterminding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.
The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand— that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding—then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this faith.
Once government has had a monopoly of a creative activity such, for instance, as the delivery of the mails, most individuals will believe that the mails could not be efficiently delivered by men acting freely. And here is the reason: Each one acknowledges that he himself doesn’t know how to do all the things incident to mail delivery. He also recognizes that no other individual could do it. These assumptions are correct. No individual possesses enough know-how to perform a nation’s mail delivery any more than any individual possesses enough know-how to make a pencil. Now, in the absence of faith in free people—in the unawareness that millions of tiny know-hows would naturally and miraculously form and cooperate to satisfy this necessity—the individual cannot help but reach the erroneous conclusion that mail can be delivered only by governmental “masterminding.”

Testimony Galore
If I, Pencil, were the only item that could offer testimony on what men and women can accomplish when free to try, then those with little faith would have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore; it’s all about us and on every hand. Mail delivery is exceedingly simple when compared, for instance, to the making of an automobile or a calculating machine or a grain combine or a milling machine or to tens of thousands of other things. Delivery? Why, in this area where men have been left free to try, they deliver the human voice around the world in less than one second; they deliver an event visually and in motion to any person’s home when it is happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one’s range or furnace in New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy; they deliver each four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our Eastern Seaboard—halfway around the world—for less money than the government charges for delivering a one-ounce letter across the street!
The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.


Neoclassical theories Do Not Explain How Modern Economies Function
from Adam Smith's Lost Legacy by Gavin Kennedy

So, in the abstract world of neoclassical markets, they introduced into them a mystical, abstract, and wholly imaginary force that is their sole claim to the relevance of their abstractions for the real world, namely that “an invisible hand”, disembodied, ubiquitous and multi-talented, ‘leads’ each and every player to do exactly what they are required to do by a mysterious force (some actually credit it to God!) that guides their every transaction, of which there must be trillions taking place each working hour, irrespective of the outcomes, into a utopian perfect harmony. Not only is this wishful thinking; it is contrary to ordinary facts.

It’s nonsense, but unlike the harmless fun of the myth of Santa Clause visiting each child with presents once a year, the myth of an invisible hand is pernicious when economists, who should know better, come to believe that it exists as the guiding principle of markets.

I have sometimes felt, when addressing my peers with the gist of my paper on the invisible hand myth (downloadable from the Lost Legacy home page), that I am spoiling their party by pointing out that, like Santa Clause, it is a myth.

First of all, Adam Smith did not relate his use of the metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’ to market transactions; this was an invention of neoclassical theorists, aided by propagandists (some paid, others out of their misguided, convictions) for the activities of large corporations, which corner markets and act non-competitively, and in some cases destructively.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Whitehead strongly opposes absolute rules or principles of morality

Whitehead’s Theory of Value
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. return to religion-online

In Process and Reality Whitehead states that the aim of every experience is to attain intensity within itself and also in its relevant future. Morality has to do with this contribution to the future. The broader the future one takes into account, the more moral is the aim. Since "strength of beauty" plays the role in Adventures of Ideas that is played by "intensity" in Process and Reality, I will substitute that term here.
Consider a simple case. I am offered a piece of delicious cake. I am not hungry and have no need of more food. Yet the taste of that cake would add to the beauty of my experience for a few minutes. If the scope of the future that I consider is only that brief period, I will accept and eat the cake. But perhaps I am a little overweight. Eating that cake will tend to add to that weight. Being overweight detracts from the beauty of my experience over a long period of time. Alternately, to avoid adding weight, I will have to forego food I like at a later point, when, because I am hungry, the food will add more to the beauty of my experience than the cake will now. This broader consideration of the relevant future may lead me to decline. Whitehead asserts that the latter decision is the more moral because it takes into account a more extended future. Of course, I may recognize that I should decline, but eat the cake anyway. That would be immoral.

You will notice that the consideration I have proposed deals only with my personal future. I have offered only a prudential, which some exclude them from morality altogether. Whitehead does not exclude prudence from morality. For him, all reflection about future consequences belongs to the sphere morality. Nevertheless, considering only the personal future is less moral that considering others as well. If we imagine that my acceptance of the cake would deny it to someone else who is truly in need of food, then my failure to consider that person’s needs would be immoral.
Obviously, we all face far more serious moral problems than this. I am sometimes asked to subordinate my personal good to that of my family. To consider only my personal benefit and fail to take into account that of my wife and children would certainly be immoral. Sometimes we are asked to subordinate the interests of the family to that of the nation. To refuse to consider the well being of this larger community would also be immoral. Sometimes the interests of the nation are in tension with those of the community of nations. The wider the scope of our consideration, the more moral we are. Of course, those who do not perceive the wider scope as relevant, those with narrower horizons, will accuse one who subordinates the smaller to the larger group of betrayal.

These moral issues are of immense importance. There is nothing in Whitehead’s theory of value to minimize them. But it should be noticed that the good that is aimed at for others is an aesthetic good. It is the strength of beauty of their experience.
There can be a tension between the aim at strength of beauty in the moment and the aim at benefiting future occasions of experience, one’s own and others. Whitehead does not tell us how to resolve it. It is not the case that it is always best to sacrifice the present to the future. Living intensely in the present, enjoying each moment as it arises, has its advantage. On the other hand, the failure to consider consequences can be extremely dangerous both for oneself and for others. The purely aesthetic impulse and the moral one exist in a tension that cannot be totally resolved.
On the other hand, the tension is far less than this formal statement suggests. The relation is more a polarity in which each pole supports the other than an opposition in which they exclude one another. One’s own enjoyment in the present usually contributes more to the enjoyment of others than does a highly calculating morality. One generally enjoys oneself more, moment by moment, if one’s mode of enjoyment is contributing to the enjoyment of others and not harming one’s own future prospects. That is, anticipation of a favorable future for oneself and others adds to the strength of beauty of the moment.

Morality is often thought of as a matter of rules or principles. Whitehead recognized the need for these but also their danger. As general guidelines, rules and principles are highly desirable. Some are general enough to be useful in any society whatever, whereas others describe the behavior that is wanted in a particular society. We think of the former as the truly moral ones, but the line between the two is difficult to draw. In any case, one moral rule may be to observe social conventions unless these require behavior that is immoral in other ways. Also, even the most general ones have their limits. For example, although it is appropriate to have a general rule against lying and stealing, nevertheless, we can all think of circumstances in which such rules should be broken. This is true even for killing other human beings. Whitehead strongly opposes the widespread Western tendency to seek absolute rules or principles of morality.