Miscellany: On beauty, science, and revolution

On Beauty:

Beauty is a revelation of the soul to the senses. The sky can be seen with the eyes but the beauty of the sky can only be seen with the heart. 

Beauty is not something subjective, but the approach of the essence of things in the form of sensory appearance. The soul is an organ of cognition.

Beauty is like the string of a lyre tuned between order and chaos.

Plato thought the only beautiful thing is Beauty itself, and all beings can partake in it according to their natures and inclinations. The same phenomenon appears as lightning to the eye and thunder to the ear; beauty is how the divine nature appears to the senses.

Do you think beauty is possible without pain? Beauty possesses some essence of eternity but at the same time, often appears against the backdrop of transience and mortality that sets it off brightly, like a foil.

Beauty clears the path from the eye to the heart.

Beauty is perceptible in everything that we look upon with attention but without intention (i.e. ulterior motive or utilitarian concern). Ordinarily, our attention is bound to instrumental conceits in fixation to some desired end; when this fixation lapses, then we have opened ourselves to the perception of beauty.


On the existence of meaning:

It is a mistake to believe that because meaning cannot be measured or grasped outside of an individual’s subjective experience, it should, by the same token, not exist. There is no scientific evidence for a statement like this nor could there be. Instead, the doctrine of the non-existence of meaning is an axiom that happens to define the contemporary scientific paradigm. In a perverse way, the doctrine of meaninglessness itself depends on meaning to be at all in the same way the so-called Liar’s paradox depends on the truth of the language in which it is expressed. Meaning is the condition for knowledge; it underpins and informs all of our observations of the world. Meaning is the stuff of which scientific theories are made, and, as will be clear to anyone who has thought about this question, a theory is necessary to sort evidence from random data. 

The analogy between language and nature is perhaps the straightest path to achieve a comprehension of the nature of meaning. The isomorphism and perhaps identity between language and creation has been indicated by many of the greatest thinkers of history in a tradition that extends back at least to the great Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, who wrote, in the 6th century BC: 

“Though this Logos is true evermore, yet men are as unable to understand it when they hear it for the first time as before they have heard it at all. For, though all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos, men seem as if they had no experience of it….” 

St. Augustine of Hippo, in the 5th century BC, offered a particularly expressive articulation of this view: 

“There is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made!” 

The perception of meaning actually involves a sort of dissolution or a rendering-transparent of the material cause of something for the same of making manifest its formal one. Here is what I mean: in order to read a word, you have to disregard how it is spelled out. Similarly, in order to read a sentence, you have to disregard the individual components of it. I have thought about this in respect to music: if I focus too intently on the individual notes or beats, I lose connection with the essence of the music and to the same degree, it ceases to be music and becomes a mere aggregation of tones and noises. The music, then, is not in the notes but in the intervals in just the same way that the meaning of a text is not in the words but in the melody that relates them. Does this seem right? I am posing this both as a philosophical question and also an invitation for phenomenological research. It seems clear that Goethe was attempting to convey an experience of this nature in respect to the so-called Urpflanze or “archetypal plant”:

If I look at the created object, inquire into its creation, and follow this process back as far as I can, I will find a series of steps. Since these are not actually seen together before me, I must visualize them in my memory so that they form a certain ideal whole. At first I will tend to think in terms of steps, but nature leaves no gaps, and thus, in the end, I will have to see this progression of uninterrupted activity as a whole. I can do so by dissolving the particular without destroying the impression…If we imagine the outcome of these attempts, we will see that empirical observation finally ceases, inner beholding of what develops begins, and the idea can be brought to expression.

It is empirical perception not in the mode of analysis but in the mode of music.


On citing sources:

The Greek poet and Nobel laureate Giorgos Seferis had a particularly evocative way of expressing the vanity of believe someone can retain the possession of ideas: “Don’t ask me who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life.” I think, in fact, that the roots of our emphasis on citing sources can be traced back to the medieval nominalist’s rejection of the reality of ideas. As Bacon observed, they are “figments of the human mind.” The result of this doctrine is that it becomes increasingly difficult to understand how we can actually share in the same idea. If you have the idea of a lynx in your head and I have the idea of a lynx in my head, these are not two ideas. We almost certainly will create different mental pictures or representations of the lynx for ourselves according to our priors but the mental picture is not identical with the idea that it is a mental picture of. The nominalistic way of thinking is so natural to us that it is only with immense difficulty that we can succeed in overcoming it, which I hope that we were able to do, at least in part, during the course. The result of this way of thinking is that people imagine each author to be elaborating his very own ideas, like a potter making ceramics. You can’t, in good conscience, just steal a cup and pretend that it belongs to you and neither can you just take someone else’s ideas, so it is said. Obviously, however, the potter is drawing on the idea of the cup, which is not something he makes but something he participates in thence to make instances or imitations of it. The Renaissance and Romantic notions of authenticity as “originality” or “novelty” rather than “truth” obviously only encourage this trend. What do you think of this etiology for our current obsession with references?


On the death toll of the Coronavirus pandemic in relation to health and nutrition:

It seems self-evident to me that a substantial portion of the Coronavirus deaths can be directly ascribed to poor health. Because nutrition is an integral element to health, the question of nutrition ought to have been front-and-center for the last year. The connection between health and morbidity can be demonstrated by the prevalence of co-morbidities among Coronavirus victims and by a comparison of the death rates amongst different countries. For instance, countries with the highest rates of obesity generally fared the worst. I imagine other correlations related to poor nutrition could be identified. It stands to reason that the less robust is a given population, the more vulnerable it will be to an infectious disease outbreak. That never during the last 18 months of incessant warnings and fear-mongering broadcast unremittingly by the legacy media, did we hear the recommendation to support our general health in the most basic ways is a categorical indictment of the entire system and its mouthpieces. 


On tradition:

It is a very interesting question that you posed about authority and authority figures—whether past or present. It seems clear that we could not do without them but it often seems that we cannot do with them as well. I wonder if this is related to the question of authenticity as “uniqueness” or “novelty” versus authenticity as fidelity to principle. Part of the advent of so-called “modernity” in the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Liberalism, the Romantic Period, and even continuing with doctrines like Marxism, is the notion of revolution against tradition. The spirit of modernity is a faith in progress that is inevitable and it is only hampered by fetters of the past. “If we can only throw off this yoke of tradition, then we can usher in the utopia.” This zeitgeist tends to lead us to feel the need to continually re-establish their own independence…and thus risk having to reinvent the wheel with every generation, or getting eaten by a feral infant with razor teeth.


On science and its abuses:

It seems evident that “science” is being wielded by various groups seeking to coerce their opponents into a given action without having to stand for and defend that action on moral grounds. It could be seen as a kind of vicarious coercion. I would be very curious to hear from you about how you think the situation can be addressed. To my mind, the only solution is in educating people in an adequate theory of science until they are able to recognize the difference between science as such and science that has been used to cloak a dagger of policy, so to speak. Hence, the “weaponization of science.” As you suggested, a fundamental dichotomy exists, as a function of the scientific method itself, between description and prescription. Any time a politician or activist tries to transition directly from the indicative to the imperative mood, he is pulling the wool over our eyes. I am happy to know that a number of us are thinking about this topic because, as I indicated, I think it is among the most critical issues we face today and I don’t see any signs of resolution.


On Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

Kuhn’s approach is to critically examine some of the naïve assumptions that scientists entertain about their discipline to see if they are accurate. This could be thought of as descriptive and prescriptive approaches to the study of science. Among other elements of discrepancy between the findings of the descriptive and prescriptive approaches to the study of science is that science, in practice, does not appear to conform to the precepts of the scientific method except in a very general way. In other words, it is not possible to isolate a set of rules that governs scientific procedure and provides the standard by which science can be distinguished from other things. Scientists seem to diverge in their view and in their application of such rules. While Kuhn argues that scientists are generally united by a shared paradigm, the latter is not outwardly manifest in the same way that a set of rules is and thus does not represent an adequate descriptive account of science. Kuhn’s solution is to suggest that, while scientists may not agree on a single set of rules or procedures, their disagreements are nevertheless overcome through a “family resemblance” that all of their sets and applications of rules share. In the same way that chess and hockey are both recognized as “games” despite not bearing any obvious similarity, so, Kuhn suggests, scientific practices can enjoy an analogous commonality and thus all be considered “science” despite not appearing to apply a single and consistent set of methods. Kuhn suggests that scientists don’t, as a rule, think critically about questions like this. Instead, they are ordinarily content to apply their methods without reflecting on them. That is because they don’t usually need to reflect on them in order because they are usually able to assimilate the relevant set of rules merely through “osmosis.”

***

To suggest that science progresses through revolutions in paradigms is, in a certain sense, the very opposite of Kuhn’s argument, since he is really suggesting that, in the absence of a consistent paradigm, “progress” lacks any standard by which it can be measured. Hence, paradigms are “incommensurable” because progress in one paradigm is irrelevant in case that that paradigm is overturned. No number of elaborations to the Ptolemaic system brought it any closer to the Copernican one. “Progress,” then, is only possible within, but not between, paradigms. Kuhn’s book was revolutionary because it challenged the “myth of progress” that had served as the de facto definition of science since its inception. Moreover, to say that “most of the time, science is in a paradigm” also risks misconstruing Kuhn’s argument by suggesting that the same science functions as both as an inter and intra-paradigm discipline. The definition of science constrains its operation to within a given paradigm so insofar as thinkers begin to reflect on the boundaries of their paradigms, they have ceased to be scientists and have become philosophers. Kuhn suggests that, most of the time, it is sufficient for scientists to get by without philosophy because the revolution of paradigms is an unusual event. Indeed, the exception that proves the rule is found in the time of a crisis, at which point scientists are forced to abandon normal science for the sake of philosophy. Once again, this lack of continuity points to the difficulty in establishing a common measure by which progress should be determined. 

***

Sometimes, progress in science is construed as akin to a mathematical asymptote. This statement risks falsifying Kuhn’s argument. Kuhn argued that science cannot be judged by a consistent standard of progress at all, even if that standard is conceived as the receding horizon of absolute truth or the infinitesimal boundary of an asymptote. To accurately convey Kuhn’s view, you would have to imagine a separate and orthogonal asymptote relative to each paradigm.

***

Some people will argue that “gravity remains the same irrespective of what we happen to call it.” However, someone who says this should remind himself that the concept of gravity as an operative force is outdated, and has been for over a century. A statement like the one above is beginning with premises about the nature and state of science that are not, in the first place, correct. The parallel existence of Newtonian “gravity” and Einsteinian “spacetime curvature” appear to refer to the same “phenomenon” but, in fact, denote entirely different principles of physics. Their measurable effects might be close to indistinguishable and yet they belie fundamentally different explanations and, a fortiori, different conceptions about the nature of the universe or “paradigmata.” Again, one says “gravity is a force” and the other says “gravity is the effect of geometry.” 


“Life is lived forward and understood in reverse”:

Retrospection is an essential element in understanding both the life of the individual and the life of the species—of biography and of history. It reminds me of the idiom “hindsight is 20/20.” It suggests that, contrary to the conventional view on the matter, the future is continually changing the past because “the beginning” of anything is only determined retrospectively, through a series of events that are relatively consequent and thus situated in the future in respect to the event in question. When a seed germinates, it is only the beginning of a flower provided that it receives adequate nourishment from the sun and the rain and is not uprooted by a red fox or trampled by a hiking boot. It is a little bit exciting—and it can also leave one with a sense of vertigo—to realize that we are the beneficiaries of the past and the custodians of the future.


Concerning el ingenioso hidalgo de la Mancha

It has been many years since I picked up Cervantes’ masterpiece so I am sorry to say that my thoughts about it will not be very current. Still, I recommend that one pay attention to Rocinante and consider how he may be inclined to act out elements of the Don’s psyche that he himself has disowned. Also, there is a connection between Dante, Petrarch, and Don Quixote in respect to the divine anima and the pure and unflagging inspiration each is able to draw from this figure. As Dante had his Beatrice, Petrarch had his Laura, so Don Quixote has his Dulcinea as the supreme cathexis of his love. Cervantes is able to present this relation in an equivocal manner—both satirizing and also exalting it. People will see in his presentation of Don Quixote’s Platonic love for Dulcinea as much as they are prepared to understand. “Fools will laugh and philosophers will understand,” it might perhaps be said. Finally, consider the fundamental question of whether the modernization and technologization of the world is really such a wonderful thing as it is made out to be. Don Quixote stands as the figurehead for the Romantic reaction against the religion of progress. Indeed, it is a testament to Cervantes’ artistic genius that he could prefigure many of the Romantic critiques of modernization nearly two centuries before they were embodied in the spirit of the time. 


“Science and religion both seek to provide answers to human beings about the nature of the universe”:

I would have said the same thing not so long ago but I have come to the conviction that this is a rather misleading statement. Many people might imagine that science and religion are both attempting to provide the same kind of answers and science simply does a better job. I think this is an illustrative example of the so-called “incommensurability of paradigms.” I don’t think religion can be understood from the perspective of science, and I think an attempt to compare them on the same terms belies a fundamental misunderstanding of both of them. Science is a method that was developed for the sake of conceptualizing the regularity among certain observed correlations between events and phenomenon. Religion, by contrast, condensed out of concrete ways of living, which themselves are expressions of fundamental structures of qualitative value. Science, then is a method while religion is a way of life. I recently recorded a series of lectures on the relationship between science and religion and perhaps someone will find them useful. In reflecting on this topic, it struck me that philosophy is really something of a mediator between heaven and earth, to speak symbolically, which is just how Plato described it in the Symposium dialogue:

It occurs to me that the reason science is simply not equipped to confront fundamental questions of epistemology and metaphysics might be for lack of “reflexivity” or “self-knowledge,” which have been the hallmarks of philosophy since its inception. Science, for the sake of objectivity, brackets out of consideration the subject who is the researcher and, by the same token, forecloses the possibility of addressing the place of the knower within the scheme of knowledge. To my mind, if philosophy, by the same token, attempts a similar circumscription, it would cease to be worthy of the name.


De docta ignorantia:

Socratic irony can serve as a sort of “Archimedean point” in the quest for knowledge. If one can really recognize ignorance as such, one has already succeeded to make a positive and arguably veridical judgment. To see what I mean, just turn it around: if you mistook uncertainty for anything else, you would be in error. Ergo, by calling a spade a spade and uncertainty for what it is, you have landed on the truth. To affirm that “I only know one thing to be true, and the truth is I know nothing” gives you an entry point into truth beyond the shadow of doubt. The question remains as to whether, having established ourselves in the truth, that we can expand from this point. I agree with you that, if we wish to accomplish this, science alone will not prove adequate to the task.

Photo by Lum3n on Pexels.com

One Comment Add yours

  1. N M says:

    Great post Max. thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s