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The trouble with moral high ground

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — fitness landscapes and the Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond ]
.

With the rise and fall of sea levels, sky levels, land emerges or submerges, mountain ranges with scattered lakes in their valleys transform into archipelagos, island clusters surge up to become continents — rise and fall, ebb and flow, wave upon wave..

I mean, really, what of the moral high ground?

**

Consider these:

Figure 13: Schematic “adaptive” or “fitness” landscape. 

Adaptive Basins and Strange Peaks

Biologists talk about adaptive landscapes. In these metaphorical places, species climb uphill towards optimal fitness. Going up is a struggle. Climbing takes energy. Optimal peaks can be hard to attain. Many species are distracted by getting stuck on sub-optimal false peaks, or waylaid by the intervening rugged landscape.

Sources:

  • ResearchGate, Schematic “adaptive” or “fitness” landscape
  • The Technium, Adaptive Basins and Strange Peaks
  • **

    Nemesis and the Prophets are agreed:

    Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low

    — or as Mary said of her son’s father:

    He buffets proud folk about like leaves in a gale.
    He upsets those that hold themselves high and mighty
    and rescues the least one of us.

    Ursula le Guin voiced Lao Tzu for us in English:

    True goodness
    is like water.
    Water’s good
    for everything.
    It doesn’t compete.

    It goes right
    to the low loathsome places,
    and so finds the way.

    Furthermore:

    What’s softest in the world
    rushes and runs
    over what’s hardest in the world.

    The immaterial
    enters
    the impenetrable.

    **

    O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road, And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye

    Getting deeper into Koestler

    Friday, March 18th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — on creativity at the intersection of the fleeting and the eternal ]
    .

    centaur skeleton
    Centaur, displayed in the International Wildlife Museum, Tucson, AZ

    **

    You know Lao Tzu’s “uncarved wood” (pu) — and Spencer Brown’s “Mark” or “first distinction? It is hard to speak of “the one and the many” without language itself favoring the many, the one being “one” and the many “another”. The Greek phrase “Before Abraham was, I am” attributed to Christ may be as close as we get.

    The “uncarved wood” is not some definite -– named and thus defined -– “one” -– it is also “raw silk” (su), the simple -– the natural way or stream, from which things have not yet been separated out by naming.

    There is delight, however, both in one becoming two and thus many, in the making of distinctions and naming of names, and no less in two (or the many) becoming one, in the resolution of paradox, the release of tension, peace after strife. In human terms, there is joy in both solo and collaborative achievement.

    What better, then, than the perfect fit between disparate entities?

    I have written often enough about Arthur Koestler and the place where two disparate spheres of thought link up — the centaur links horse and man in an indissoluble unity — there’s no question here of dismounting after a ride, giving the horse a rub down and some feed, then retiring to the verandah for a whiskey…

    The mythological aha! we get from the centaur displayed in the museum hinges on the fit of horse and human skeletons, the perfection with which disparates are joined.

    **

    Thus far, whenever I’ve discussed Koestler‘s notion of bisociation, I’ve focused on the sense that it liea at the heart of creativity. Koestler himself takes it deeper. Here’s Nicholas Vajifdar, in a review titled Summing Up Arthur Koestler’s Janus: A Summing Up:

    Koestler .. asserts that there are two planes of existence, the trivial and the tragic. The trivial plane is the stage for paying bills, shopping, working. Most of life takes place on the trivial plane. But sometimes we’re swept up into the tragic plane, usually due to some catastrophe, and everything becomes glazed with an awful significance. From the point of view of the tragic plane, the trivial plane is empty and frivolous; from the point of view of the trivial plane, the tragic plane is embarrassing and overwrought. Once we’ve moved from one plane to the other, we forget why we could have felt the way we used to.

    That’s not just any old distinction between two realms, that’s the one Koestler himself prioritizes. And following his basic principle that a creative spark is lit when two disparate “planes of ideas” intersect, we shouldn’t be too surprised to find Vajifdar continuing:

    “The highest form of human creativity,” Koestler writes, “is the endeavor to bridge the gap between the two planes. Both the artist and the scientist are gifted — or cursed — with the faculty of perceiving the trivial events of everyday experience sub specie aeternitatis, in the light of eternity…”

    William Blake made a similar observation in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, writing:

    Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

    Finally, Vajifdar tells us why he finds Koestler’s definition of art maybe the best he’s ever read:

    What I value in this definition of creativity is its emphasis on the subjective being of those who experience the work of art or scientific theory, a surer gauge than cataloguing formal properties or whether it’s “interesting.” Art has always seemed like a kind of sober drunkenness, or drunken sobriety. Most people probably have wondered whether the feelings they felt while drunk were more or less real than their sober feelings. Koestlerian art joins these seemingly irreconcilable feelings together.

    Let’s just go one step further. In Promise and Fulfilment – Palestine 1917-1949, Koestler specifically singles out this intersection as an aspect of the experience of warfare:

    This intense and perverse peace, superimposed on scenes of flesh-tearing and eardrum-splitting violence, is an archetype of war-experience. Grass never smells sweeter than in a dug-out during a bombardment when one’s face is buried in the earth. What soldier has not seen that caterpillar crawling along a crack in the bark of the tree behind which he took cover, and pursuing its climb undisturbed by the spattering of his tommy-gun? This intersecting of the tragic and the trivial planes of existence has always obsessed me in the Spanish Civil War, during the collapse of France, in the London blitz.

    **

    I am grateful to David Foster for his ChicagoBoyz post The Romance of Terrorism and War which triggered this exploration, and that on the glamour of war which will follow it.

    Reversals and blowbacks

    Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — cf. boustrophedon, enantiodromia, ouroboros, paradox, unintended consequences ]
    .

    I have had this graphic around for a while:

    reverse arrow

    As you can see, I originally intended it to accompany a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

    We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe.

    — but it can actually serve a more general purpose than that — the basic “opposing arrows” graphic can be used to cover all sorts of situations in which a push in one direction results in movement in another. In the OW Holmes example, the two opposed pushes occur within the same person — we are bidden to protect that which we despise.

    Here, though, is an instance in which what seems a laudable action on the part of the authorities has a counter-productive result:

    No longer a movement that concentrates its brutality on the Nigerian government, [Boko Haram] now attacks mainly civilians, using women and child suicide bombers as its primary weapons of war. The reasons why the group has changed tactics, however, and the complex motives for why women and children have become the weapons of choice, needs to move beyond the fallback narrative of victimhood if attempts to end the unthinkable are to succeed [my emphasis].

    That’s essentially the “we learn, they learn” dynamic that’s present in all insurgency-counterinsurgency situations, no? It’s the basis of escalation — it’s what Hermann Kahn‘s Ladder was all about — it’s a bidding war.

    But I want to capture it in its most basic moment, when something pulls its opposite into place. The Taoists expressed the same idea very gracefully —

    tai chi

    — but maybe that’s just a little too graceful — I’m looking for something just a bit more abrupt, with a more overt sense of tension.

    So you may be seeing more of my reverse arropw / blowback diagram:

    reverse arrow oops

    Oops!! It’s often, though by no means always, a sign of folly.

    Encryption, the mind and voice

    Monday, February 29th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — paging birds and fishes, Chuang Tzu and Wm Blake ]
    .

    Dwight Furrow, Wine Tasting and Objectivity:

    The question is whether flavors are “in the wine” or “in the mind”. On the one hand, there are objectively measurable chemical compounds in wine that reliably affect our taste and olfactory mechanisms—pyrazines cause bell pepper aromas in Cabernet Sauvignon, malic acid explains apple aromas in Chardonnay, tannins cause a puckering response, etc. But we know that human beings differ quite substantially in how they perceive wine flavors. Even trained and experienced wine critics disagree about what they are tasting and how to evaluate wine. This disagreement among experts leads many to claim that wine tasting is therefore purely subjective, just a matter of individual opinion. According to subjectivism, each person’s response is utterly unique and there is no reason to think that when I taste something, someone else ought to taste the same thing. Statements about wine flavor are statements about one’s subjective states, not about the wine. Thus, there are no standards for evaluating wine quality.

    **

    Is each mind inherently closed to every other, much as the bird’s mind is closed to ours in Blake‘s aphorism —

    How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?

    — albeit not always so joyful?

    In more contemporary terms — Is there encryption of the mind?

    **

    I ask this in light of the DoubleQuote I posted a few days ago comparing Hesse and Hitchcock in terms of their metaphoric uses of “organ” — in, I hasten to add, the Bach sense of the word:

    SPEC-Hesse-Hitchcock-organs sm

    Here’s what I’m thinking. Hesse’s game influences the mind, as does art, but it is non-invasive; Hitchcock applauds the potential for art to move in a more invasive direction, as if by force rather than by enticement.

    “”

    Humans — or at least the philosophers and philosopher tagalongs among them — can’t even tell if what one human sees as “red” is what another sees as “red” — let alone what a given Burgundy tastes like on another’s palate.

    If this means, more generally, that minds are effectively encrypted by virtue of their differences in wiring acquired with parentage, age and experience, then our communications media -– language, the arts, literature, number — would appear to be the available decryption keys, selectively available to the minds in question.

    **

    Chuang-Tsu has this tale to tell:

    Men claim that Mao-ch’iang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run. Of these four, which knows how to fix the standard of beauty for the world?

    And this..

    Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were strolling along the dam of the Hao River when Chuang Tzu said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”

    Hui Tzu said, “You’re not a fish – how do you know what fish enjoy?”

    Chuang Tzu said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”

    Hui Tzu said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish – so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”

    Chuang Tzu said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy – so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.”

    **

    Chuang Tzu said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”

    Blake said, “How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?”

    Dragging my tail in the mud

    Thursday, February 18th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — i’m afraid this will be a very Thoreau-Taoist post for this electoral season ]
    .

    Two browsings recently set me thinking about politics in general — and dragging my tail in the mud in particular:

    Shadi Hamid in What is Policy Research For? Reflections on theUnited States’ Failures in Syria

    When the basic thrust of policy seems immovable irrespective of events on the ground, how should researchers respond? Should influencing policy be the animating objective of policy research?

    and at the pointy end, Matt Cavanaugh at War on the Rocks, The Way Home from ‘a War’:

    What is it like to make uncertain judgments with severe moral consequences? For military professionals, being the state’s lethal instrument necessarily entails ethically perilous, life-or-death choices.

    **

    Here’s the cntext, as I see it..

    Wallace Black Elk:

    The whole earth is an altar. In church, they have a little slab of marble which they call an altar. But our altar is Grandpa’s altar… Our carpet is the grass, the sacred altar; our ceiling is the stars; our night lamp is the moon; Grandpa the sun is our mystery power.

    Thomas Traherne:

    You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.

    Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table: till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made: till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never
    enjoy the world.”

    Chuang Tzu:

    I will have Heaven and Earth for my sarcophagus, the Sun and Moon shall be my burial insignia, the stars my coffin-jewels, and all Creation shall be mourners at my obsequies. Are not my funeral paraphernalia all in readiness?

    Thoreau-Taoism, which she would spell Thurrodowism, is Ursula Le Guin‘s superlative confection.

    **

    Chuang Tzu:

    From Chuang Tzu: Mystic, Moralist, and Social Reformer, tr. Herbert Giles, p. viii:

    Prince Wei (B.C. 338-327) of the Ch’u State, hearing of Chuang Tzu’s good report, sent messengers to him, bearing gifts, and inviting him to become Prime Minister. At this Chuang Tzu smiled and said to the messengers, “You offer me great wealth and a proud position indeed; but have you never seen a sacrificial ox:-When after being fattened up for several years, it is decked with embroidered trappings and led to the altar, would it not willingly then change places with some uncared for pigling?

    Or from Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, tr. Burton Watson, p.108:

    Once, when Chuang Tzu was fishing in the P’u river, the king of Ch’u sent two officials to go and announce to him: “I would like to trouble you with the administration of my realm.”

    Chuang Tzu held onto the fishing pole and, without turning his head, said, “I have heard that there is a sacred tortoise in Ch’u that has been dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it wrapped in cloth and boxed, and stores it in the ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its bones left behind and honored? Or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?”

    “It would rather be alive dragging its tail in the mud,” said the two officials.

    Chuang Tzu said, “Go away! I’ll drag my tail in the mud!”


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