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Warren McCulloch’s lifetime koan

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from intuitive leap to confirmation in a celebrated paper by neurophysiologist and cybernetician Warren McCulloch ]
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As I mentioned in my earlier post, Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns, there are times when my HipBone-influenced style of reading suggests the presence of a hidden piece of text that forms the basis for the part that’s readily available — in that case, the Qur’anic passage on which a major speech by Bin Laden was based.

Something very similar happened the other day, while I was reading the cybernetician Warren McCulloch‘s paper What is a number, that a man may know it, and a man, that he may know a number? thoroughly for the first time.

McCulloch’s title itself triggered an intuitive leap — call it a HipBone / Sembl move — to the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, familiar to me since my altar-boy childhood as the Last Gospel recited by the priest at the end of Mass.

I’ll have more to say about St John’s Prologue, and scripture more generally, later in this post, when I’ve told you how my “intuitive leap” was confirmed by further readings, and what that means in terms of intuition and verification.

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I call that move from McCulloch to St John an intuitive leap — but as with all such leaps, it is important to verify that the leap is well-founded at both ends.

Reading on past the title, then, I found McCulloch’s description of his own background, which is relevcant here:

I was destined for the ministry. Among my teen-age acquaintances were Henry Sloan Coffin, Harry Emerson Fosdick, H. K. W. Kumm, Hecker – of the Church of All Nations – sundry Episcopalian theologians, and that great Quaker philosopher, Rufus Jones.

In the fall of 1917, I entered Haverford College with two strings to my bow – facility in Latin and a sure foundation in mathematics. I “honored” in the latter and was seduced by it. That winter Rufus Jones called me in. “Warren,” said he, “what is thee going to be?” And I said, “I don’t know.” “And what is thee going to do?” And again I said, “I have no idea; but there is one question I would like to answer: What is a number, that a man may know it, and a man, that he may know a number?” He smiled and said, “Friend, thee will be busy as long as thee lives.”

In Zen (Buddhist) parlance, Rufus Jones is telling Warren McCulloch that he has found an authentic koan, a paradox to explore and deepen into, sufficient for a lifetime.

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It’s only a little later in McCulloch’s paper that my intuitive leap is “verified” in McCulloch’s own words:

This lecture might be called, “In Quest of the Logos” or, more appropriately – perverting St. Bonaventura’s famous title – “An Itinerary to Man.” Its proper preface is that St. Augustine says that it was a pagan philosopher – a Neoplatonist – who wrote, “In the beginning was the Logos, without the Logos was not anything made that was made … So begins our Christian theology.”

But McCulloch doesn’t stop there, he continues right on from theology into mathematics:

So begins our Christian theology. It rests on four principles. The first is the eternal verities. Listen to the thunder of that saint, in about A.D. 500: “7 and 3 are 10; 7 and 3 have always been 10; 7 and 3 at no time and in no way have ever been anything but 10; 7 and 3 will always be 10. I said that these indestructible truths of arithmetic are common to all who reason.” An eternal verity, any cornerstone of theology is a statement that is true regardless of the time and place of its utterance. Each he calls an idea in the Mind of God, which we can understand but can never comprehend.

The idea (“mathematics”) and the thinker (“man”) — McCulloch is working at the interface of “mind and matter” — “word and flesh” — the eternal and the temporal. He’s working at what is these days called the “hard problem of consciousness”.

St John, too, was working at that interface, and brilliantly so — regardless of what credence you put in his theology of the Incarnation of God in Man, it is a brilliant attempt to join the Hebrew “In the Beginning” of Genesis with the Greek “In the Beginning” of his own writings.

My own point here is this: that an intuitive leap, once made, needs to be grounded or confirmed by slower, more explicit, rational or experimental means.

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Having made my point, I’d like to add some further notes here, for those interested in scriptural matters…

Here’s John 1.1-14, the celebrated “Prologue” to St John’s Gospel, in the King James version, worth reading whether you know it or not for the comparison that follows with St Augustine’s stunnning reading of the same text:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

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Here is Augustine’s comment, from his Confesssions, book VII:

Thou procuredst for me, by means of one puffed up with most unnatural pride, certain books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I read, not indeed in the very words, but to the very same purpose, enforced by many and divers reasons, that In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: the Same was in the beginning with God: all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made: that which was made by Him is life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. And that the soul of man, though it bears witness to the light, yet itself is not that light; but the Word of God, being God, is that true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. And that He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. But, that He came unto His own, and His own received Him not; but as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, as many as believed in His name; this I read not there.

Again I read there, that God the Word was born not of flesh nor of blood, nor of the will of man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God. But that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, I read not there.

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That quote from St Augustine is a striking one — by way of comparison I would like to offer this no-less fascinating excerpt from the Islamic historiographer Ibn Khaldun‘s Muqaddimah, describing developments in the early church from the death of Christ to the establishment of the canon of scriptures:

The Apostles divided into different groups. Most of them went to the country of the Romans and made propaganda for the Christian religion. Peter was the greatest of them. He settled in Rome, the seat of the Roman emperors. They 420 then wrote down the Gospel that had been revealed to Jesus, in four recensions according to their different traditions. Matthew wrote his Gospel in Jerusalem in Hebrew. It was translated into Latin by John, the son of Zebedee, one of (the Apostles). (The Apostle) Luke wrote his Gospel in Latin for a Roman dignitary. (The Apostle) John, the son of Zebedee, wrote his Gospel in Rome. Peter wrote his Gospel in Latin and ascribed it to his pupil Mark. These four recensions of the Gospel differ from each other. Not all of it is pure revelation, but (the Gospels) have an admixture of the words of Jesus and of the Apostles. Most of (their contents) consists of sermons and stories. There are very few laws in them.

The Apostles came together at that time in Rome and laid down the rules of the Christian community. They entrusted them to Clement, a pupil of Peter, noting in them the list of books that are to be accepted and in accordance with which one must act…

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Theology, once the Queen of Sciences and now largely ignored, has been laying fallow for centuries. There are rich findings here for those who choose to dig.

h/t Derek Robinson.

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Theory and Practice:

Friday, November 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- how theory works out in practice, and vice versa ]
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Here’s the first of a pair of “patterns” of interest…

Theory contradicts practice:

— with thanks to my friend Peter van der Werff!

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And here’s the second, a delicious serpent-bites-tail tweet re Egypt:

Practice contradicts theory:

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Okay, there are two more items for the “pattern recognition” / “pattern language” archives…

And here’s wishing you all a Happy Black Friday — if that’s even concedivable!

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Geometry aka logic as an analytic tool

Friday, June 28th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- reflections on cognitive empowerment by selective noticing ]
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I just realized that I take notice of details at the level of “geometry aka logic” which I would miss if I were more focused on content. In effect, I treat idiosyncracies and hiccups of expression — such as paradoxes — as indicative of condensed or distilled meaning.

What triggered this realization was the way my interest was aroused by this phrase:

The parallel universes may soon become perpendicular.

I found that today in an FP piece, Will June 30 be midnight for Morsi’s Cinderella story?

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Paradox? Geometry? Contradiction? Figure of speech?

It’s the irregularity in the pattern used to describe the events in question that catches my eye here, however you care to name it. And something very similar is going on when I flag the weird juxtapositions of imagery and music in Taylor Swift, Sara Mingardo, JS Bach and a quiet WTF, or the koan-like tensions and reconciliations inherent in such inseparable pairs as war-and-peace in Of dualities, contradictions and the nonduality.

Here’s the full paragraph, discussing the increasing polarization of the Egyptian public, and some ways in which “the current situation differs more in degree than in kind from the recent past”:

Second, violence is on the table. The parallel universes may soon become perpendicular. Of course, Egyptian politics has had its victims over the past two and a half years, but violence has seemed episodic and almost self-limiting since those who have deployed it have paid a heavy political price. Nobody advocates violence now, but many expect it and it is not uncommon to hear from both sides that they will not shrink from self-defense. And the line between self-defense and offensive action can become thin for each camp for opposite reasons. The opposition is hardly centrally controlled and rogue elements have already been involved in attacks on Brotherhood offices as well as those of its political party. For the Brotherhood, its discipline has led it to prepare for what it sees as defensive action in a manner that understandably appears threatening to outsiders (especially after the events of December 2012 when Brotherhood cadres constituted themselves as a vigilante force to confront those demonstrating at the presidential palace).

Okay, so I’m already reading the article, ergo I must already have been interested enough in what’s going on in Egypt to click through to it. So why the fuss about paradox and geometry in what is, after all, only one turn of phrase in a piece whpose subject already interests me?

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I’m still feeling my way towards and understanding of how my mind works, how I pick up on things, how I populate my mind with rich and interesting memories, how I make my small and large creative “leaps” — my means of collecting and connecting dots, if you will. Because there’s a cognitive skill there that I haven’t seen taught, and I believe it offers an “outside the box” alternative mode of monitoring topics of interest.

You know, of course, that most every time you read the words you know, of course, that it’s a dead giveaway that the speaker or writer is skimming quickly past a cherished assumption that he or she wouldn’t want you to examine too carefully? Of course you do. It’s one of those psychological “tells” that should alert you, like a facial tick, a hesitation, or that curious (and paradoxical) tight grip on one arm of the chair with one hand while the other rests almost disdainfully relaxed and gracious on the other, in El Greco’s masterful portrait of a Cardinal, now in the Metropolitan in New York:

How very telling that sort of detail can be!

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And intersections.

I talk quite a bit about juxtapositions and parallelisms, because they’re the elements of “creative leaps” (and Sembl / Hipbone moves) and I “practice” noting them for my DoubleQuotes. But one way to clear the xlutter from mind is to concentrate on places where two fields intersect. I’m interested in apocalyptic, for instance, so I take particular note when someone from a Christian apocalyptic POV (Joel Richardson, Joel Rosenberg, eg) writes about Islamic eschatology, or when someone from an Islamic apocalyptic POV (Sh. Safar al-Hawali, eg) writes about Christian eschatology. Reading wherever I notice this kind of overlap means that I learn in two contexts — effectively doubling my knowledge value — where most reading that’s not “targeted” this way only allows me to learn in one…

Again: parallelisms, overlaps, paradoxes, perpendiculars, contradictions — these are all “formal properties” of a given text rather than “contents” — that’s the level of abstraction at which you can make the details sing.

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Hey, I’m not alone. As I was cleaning this post up, Adam Elkus tweeted a link to a post about the CTO of Intel, Intel Labs: Assuring Corporate Immortality by Rob Enderle, which contains this phrase:

This is very orthogonal thinking

There we go! The word orthogonal is so important to me, and is so often on the tip of my tongue but out of reach of immediate memory, that I have a file on my computer consisting solely of the words “opposite oblique orthogonal congruent incongruous antithetical obtuse parallel asymptotic perpendicular right angles” — so if I can remember any one of them, I can easily find “orthogonal”.

Very orthogonal thinking — terrific!

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Form is insight: the vesica piscis

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- here's another post in my importance of form in intelligence series ]
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Form is pattern, and pattern recognition is insight.

A while back, I started a series of posts [1, 2, 3, 4 and 5] in which I suggested that form is, from an intelligence point of view (and however you may parse “intelligence”) as important to humans as content. I’ll be saying more about this today, but wanted to complete this old and never quite completed post in that series right away, in response to a comment Grurray made today regarding Venn diagrams and the vesica piscis.
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If you’ve seen a Venn diagram, you’ve seen overlap. And the simplest form of overlap — between two classes, ideas, or whatever — is the one that’s Venn diagrammed (below, left) as the overlapping of two equal circles — known to artists as the vesica piscis or eye of the fish.

MasterCard uses it for its logo (right) –

– as do Gucci and Chanel:


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But let’s go back to that first pair of images:


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Long before commerce took note of it, the vesica was a sacred image — back in the days when geometry, like nature herself, was sacred.

Like the illuminist of the Codex Bruchsal (ca 1220) with his Christ Pantocrator (above, left), Jan Valentine Saether makes sacred use of the vesica in his book The Viloshin Letters, which I hope to see published shortly — the exquisite suite of prints that accompany the text have already been exhibited to acclaim.

In his text accompanying this particular plate, he writes:

I was not sure. But a new wonder has been moving towards us. That which is… has a new presence. Entering here from elsewhere, the holy spirit manifested again in the vernacular last Wednesday, September 16th.

We were standing around, being together in our own fashion, when suddenly through our common imagination, right there on the floor in the old barn, the donna and the madonna, the loose one and the holy one, merged and became visible.

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It seems to me there is more to the glory of God than there is to the glory of handbags and perfumes — but your mileage may vary, credit cards are handy little items, and then again, it’s all part of the glory in my opinion.

A neat koan, that.

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Bouleversé by forgiveness

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- not just "thinking outside the box" -- how about upending the whole thing and seeing what shakes out? ]
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FWIW, this isn't the world, nor is it upside down -- it's just a rather different map, eh?

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A celebrated stanza by the Indian poet-saint Kabir — beloved of both Hindus and Muslims — asks:

Is there any guru in the world wise enough
to understand the upside-down Veda?

There’s a style of poetry used by Kabir and others to describe experience of the divine called “ulatbamsi” or the “upside down language” — and Linda Hess, Kabir’s great translator, writes of it as a language “of paradoxes and enigmas” — not too dissimilar, perhaps, to the koans or meditation paradoxes often encountered in zen training.

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Boom! The French have the word “bouleversé” to cover the way we feel when suddenly our whole world seems turned upside down.

Maybe it’s a modern idea? Bob Dylan, I’m delighted to say, no longer belongs to Robert Zimmerman except for purposes of copyright — his songs have entered the cultural bloodstream. Here’s his version:

The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

The world often seems upside down, our values are often quite the reverse of what they might be if we had the kind of clarity that is implied in Samuel Johnson‘s celebrated quote:

Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

And then there are those great ones for whom our world is manifestly unjust, manifestly topsy-turvy — or “through the looking-glass”, if you prefer.

I mean, what else can being “in the world, but not of it” be all about, if it’s not about a major shift in perspective?

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I’m writing about this at such length because I just read one of those paragraphs that turns my own world upside down. It came in the middle of a long piece on “restorative justice” and it focuses on the power of forgiveness.

This particular paragraph describes how an Indian-American woman, Sujatha Baliga, came to see the unexpected power of forgiveness, and for her it occurred in a Buddhist context — but the power itself is beyond the boundaries of specific religions:

Baliga had been in therapy in New York, but while in India she had what she calls “a total breakdown.” She remembers thinking, Oh, my God, I’ve got to fix myself before I start law school. She decided to take a train to Dharamsala, the Himalayan city that is home to a large Tibetan exile community. There she heard Tibetans recount “horrific stories of losing their loved ones as they were trying to escape the invading Chinese Army,” she told me. “Women getting raped, children made to kill their parents — unbelievably awful stuff. And I would ask them, ‘How are you even standing, let alone smiling?’ And everybody would say, ‘Forgiveness.’ And they’re like, ‘What are you so angry about?’ And I told them, and they’d say, ‘That’s actually pretty crazy.’ ”

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I like the dark blue “sky” and the “clouds” at the top of the map I began this post with — but then, I’m a mostly vertical human who seldom stands on his head, so it looks “natural” to me. But that’s simply a matter of my point of view.

I imagine maps like that one must please our friends “down under”.

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A hat-tip to Hadar Aviram, whose California Corrections blog first pointed me to the article about Sujatha Baliga.

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