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Remembering mathematician and Glass Bead Gamer Bob de Marrais

Monday, February 11th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — this is strictly for the record — you don’t need to read it unless — like Bob — you’re a poly-mathematician, para-biologist, meta-psychiatrist or native-born glass bead gamer ]

1984. Illustrating for Bob de Marrais‘ article on Computer Graphics,
published in Digital Deli: The Comprehensive, User-Lovable Menu
of Computer Lore, Culture, Lifestyles and Fancy
, ed. Steve Ditlea.


My late friend Bob de Marrais wrote a five-part short-book-length essay, Catastrophes, Kaleidoscopes, String Quartets: Deploying the Glass Bead Game, which is so wide-ranging in its scholarship that no single journal had peers sufficient to review it, so witty, subtle, enchanting, and generally impossible that its continued existence on the web and in the time-worn hard drives of a scattering of computers has made of it a sort of samizdat — a secret publication passsed from hand to hand, or in this case memory to memory, and in this post I wish to memorialize both the essay and Bob himself.

Here are five sips, to give you a sense of the work.


Catastrophes, Kaleidoscopes, String Quartets:

Part I: Ministrations Concerning Silliness, or: Is “Interdisciplinary Thought” an Oxymoron?

We seek deep concepts by silly means. Think of this, for openers at least, as a cerebral equivalent of a well-known Monty Python skit: welcome to the Ministry of Silly Thoughts. [ … ]

Essential to easy generation of the “silliness effect” – as in the frivolous juxtaposing of Kings Arthur and Elvis in the last paragraph – is production of collisions between disparate things, which context makes us associate unexpectedly. No one not on drugs or writing late-night standup material would be likely to seek a link between the latest news from robotic interplanetary exploratory vehicles and political upheaval in the Hispanic community in the general vicinity of Miami. But when Elian Gonzales’ mom fled Castro’s regime on a flimsy makeshift boat and died at sea while getting her son to (what she thought would be his) freedom, Jay Leno noted how scientists had just discovered water on the Red Planet, “and in an unrelated story, a boat of Cuban refugees washed up on Mars this morning.”

Aside from late-night comedic unwinding from the day’s events, there is only one other area where such juxtapositions are hunted down and put to use. (No, not dreams: that’s involuntary; and besides, many people today no longer have any.) This area is largely deemed, regardless of lip services paid, “absurd; trifling; frivolous” in academia – when not, that is, subjected to sober attempts at its production which typically display all these three aspects in spite of themselves. This is the domain of what often passes for an oxymoron in our supremely specialized research establishment: interdisciplinary thought. And this, of course, is what we’re here to talk about.

Compare “the silliness effect .. is production of collisions between disparate things, which context makes us associate unexpectedly” with, from this morning’s diggings:


He [Darko Suvin] cites Brecht as follows: “A representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time make it seem unfamiliar.” This permits a new cognition of the now and creates a moment which is potentially liberating. Placing familiar objects (or subjects) in unfamiliar settings allows us to see differently. Our old and tired perceptions can thus be revitalized and transformed. — Lucy Sargisson, Fool’s Gold?: Utopianism in the Twenty-First Century


For Boulez, the challenge was to present the borrowed ideas in a new light that could lead to results far removed from the original, which had provided only a single solution. — The Gramophone

Both quotes via JustKnecht, another Glass Bead Game-player of note, discussing his Rattlesnake Games.


Part II: Canonical Collage-oscopes, or: Claude in Jacques’ Trap? Not What It Sounds Like!

For this section of Bob’s work, I’ll just post a snippet referencing the Catastrophe Theory of René Thom:

Of the many, many ways to frame the two-control Cusp, the most interesting for us is the predator-prey chain, due to Thom himself. Let us frame it mythically: in the Vedic lore of pre-Hindu India, the great god Indra – the Zeus of the Aryan invaders – had (or was trapped in) a magical net. Depending on the story told, and teller’s point of view, Indra is the hunter and the hunted too. According to the mathematics of Catastrophe Theory, this is fundamental, not unusual. The theory’s creator typically focuses on the single Cusp as the basis of all richer models .. Its stable “splits and mergers” mode of yoyo-ing between the Two and the One, he tells us, is “the most fundamental regulatory process” in non­linear dynamics: not only in the abstract, but, under the guise of the “predation loop,” in the ultimate concreteness of animal feeding. At least since the emerging of the amoeba, this is, sim­ply, merging: “fundamentally, engulfing a prey into the organism” … and herein resides an enigma.

It’s a rich broth, you see — connecting perhaps to Ali Minai‘s comment tweeted today:

Polyphony, in an abstract sense, applies not just to human complex systems but to all complex systems. .. One of the most unappreciated facts about natural complexity is that it emerges from interaction of simpler processes, and not from some prior complexity.


Part III: Grooving on the Sly with Klein Groups

No one knows that this tale is a part of an immense poem: myths communicate with each other by means of men and without men knowing it. … The situation which Le Cru et le cuit describes is analogous to that of musicians per­form­ing a symphony while kept incommunicado and separated from each other in time and space: each one would play his fragment as if it were the complete work. No one among them would be able to hear the concert because in order to hear it one must be outside the circle, far from the orchestra. In the case of American mythology, that concert began millennia ago, and today some few scattered and moribund communities are running through the last chords.

That’s Octavio Paz writing on Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Bob uses it as the epigraph to section III. Just today I was writing of the various friends of mind who are making profound contributions as islands in an archipelago — and how I long for the richness that will emerge when the connections between them are strong, the transmission of ideas between them fluid..

Further, from section III:

Somebody calls you, you answer: “In theory, a twirl of kaleidoscopes” – why?

If you were called to provide a summary of the first two installments preceding this, to someone who’s only just joined us, the perpetual revolution of Sir David Brewster’s famous tube should certainly be the very first image to pop from that jack-in-the-box you keep in your head. For Jacques Derrida, as we saw, lopped off this capstone of Lévi-Strauss’s extended metaphor of how the mythic mind operates: the workings of “bricolage” were like those of a kaleidoscope, as the anthropologist summed it up; but Derri­da’s demolition job didn’t so much as footnote, much less explicitly point to, this motif. [ … ]

… Beat­les’ paean to “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes.” …

Leary and Ralph Metzner meanwhile wrote about, and advocated, the use of low-tech kaleidoscopes, imported from the East, for inner exploration as well: I refer, of course, to mandalas. Mixing scientific and New Age styles, they managed to synthesize, in brief compass and without the “depth psychology,” the gist of what Jung’s approach toward such sacred objects (about which, more in the next installment) is taken to be by those who’d worn bell-bottoms and “love beads” while reading such things:

[As] the mandala is a depiction of the structure of the eye, the center of the man­dala corresponds to the foveal “blind spot.” Since the “blind spot” is the exit from the eye to the visual system of the brain, by going “out” through the center, you are going in to the brain. The Yogin finds the mandala in his own body. The mandala is an instrument for transcending the world of visually perceived phenomena by first centering them and turning them inward.

Note that Leary’s reading of the foveal blind spot is markedly at odds with Derrida’s


Part IV: Claude’s Kaleidoscope . . . and Carl’s

As before, note that the epigraps to this section contain doors intonwhat is within:

All the creative power that modern man pours into science and technics the man of antiquity devoted to his myths. This creative urge explains the bewildering confusion, the kaleidoscopic changes and syncretistic regroupings, the continual rejuvenation, of myths in Greek culture.

That’s Carl Jung, in Symbols of Transformation

Here he goes:

For those who’ve tuned in late to this mini-series, the first episode performed a sort of sitcom set­up of the main conundrum: Derrida’s deconstruction launched itself using Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism – as epitomized in his Mr. Fixit figure of the “bricoleur” – as thrust-block . . . the irony being that the latter “failed” analytics of myth proved a harbinger of advanced mathematical toolkits whose utility in linguistic and cultural studies has been burgeoning, while the former “success story” has shown itself to be ever more hollow – intellectually, morally, and spiritually.

In Part Deux, we blowfished the argument, treating the core event – the 1966 Johns Hopkins con­ference where Derrida struck his “deal with the Devil” – as itself a sort of myth requiring structural analy­sis, inspecting it through the lens of Derrida’s 1987 reminiscences about the postmodernist “quotation market” and his own role in fomenting it . . . and then beefed up our discussion of Lévi-Strauss’ own “canonical law of myths” with Catastrophe Theory mathematics and the tasteful injection of celebrity quotes, movie reviews, and porno­graphic movie ads to, um, “flesh out” the argument.

Strike three, though, was where the ubiquitous form-language of the so-called “A,D,E Problem” and its lowly instancing as a new sort of Timaeus-style creation myth – based on kaleido­scopes instead of an odd lot of triangles and things whose names rhyme with Tipi Hedron[1] but don’t look half as fetching – was taken much too seriously, with the limitations in Husserl’s phenomeno­logy shame­lessly con­trasted (unfa­v­or­ably) with the concentric run-out groove at the end of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. The point being, natural­ly, that the Madhyamika Buddhism of Nagarjuna’s “full void” was allowed to under­write the super­po­si­­tion principal of quantum mechanics in spite of its looking like something Derrida liked to mutter about, while all the while all of this was subsumed in some mare’s nest of compari­sons between the struc­tures of mythical argument, their “reincarnation” in the forms of classical music, and the Glass Beads that Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi was known to like to play with when he thought no one was watching.

Of course, if we’re going to keep a load like that down without providing our readers free Pepto-Bismol, it would behoove us to make the people reading this think the linchpins of the argument were some­­how intrinsic. Put another way (which is our specialty here), we could say that it’s all very nice that this “A,D,E Problem” gives us kaleidoscopes as the Meaning of Life and like that there, but wouldn’t it be so much better if we got the same basic mishmash without all the abstraction – if the kaleidoscope could legi­timately be seen as some kind of “archetype” in its own right, which “just happened” to bring in Catas­trophe-type “shock waves” into the argument without all the hand-waving … and all without losing all the rest of our baggage, once the argument has landed?


Part V: Spelling the Tree, from Aleph to Tav (While Not Forgetting to Shin)

I didn’t even know there was a fifth part — quint-esseence? — until a couple of days ago, and am very grateful to Steven H. Cullinane for conserving all five for us.

One of the epigraphs for this fifth section comes from Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind:

“The heart has its reasons which the reason does not at all perceive.” Among Anglo-Saxons, it is rather usual to think of the “reasons” of the heart or of the unconscious as the inchoate forces or pushes or heavings – what Freud called Trieben. To Pascal, a Frenchman, the matter was rather different, and he no doubt thought of the reasons of the heart as a body of logic or computation as precise and complex as the reasons of consciousness. (I have noticed that Anglo-Saxon anthro­po­logists sometimes misunderstand the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss for precisely this reason. They say he emphasizes too much the intellect and ignores the “feelings.” The truth is that he assumes that the heart has precise algorithms.)

WHat can I tell you? We haven’t delved in any detail into Bob’s mathematical work, but this section contains a footnote — a quotation that delights us with the concept of a perfectly square ship with vertical sides, and offers enough catastrophe-cusp based math to illustrate that central aspect of the whole work:

Tim Poston and Ian Stewart, Catastrophe Theory and its Applications (Boston, London, Melbourne: Pit­man, 1978): “The commonest kind of water-going vessel which is actually built with vertical sides all the way round is a floating oil-platform. These are normally fixed to the ocean floor when on site, but they float during transport. Often they are built square. This symmetry goes through to the buoyancy locus… and the buoyancy locus is a circularly symmetric paraboloid of revolution. The metacentric locus may therefore, apparently, be found by spinning the two-dimensional case, so that the geometry of the perfectly square, vertical-sided ship is remarkably simple. From a catastrophe theory viewpoint this simplicity is thoroughly deceptive, the energy function takes the form (x2 + y2)2. This is not finitely determined … and so has infinite codimension…. Physically, this means that the apparently simple geometry of the ‘ideal’ vessel .. is violently unstable.”


Bobert de Marrais was born Nov. 30, 1948, and died April 4, 2011 in Boston, MA. His obit notes he “had a lifelong interest in history, his French heritage, music, history of science, and multidimensional algebras.” He was a remarkable polymath, profoundly loved and deeply admired by the fortunate few who knew him.

No man’s land, one man’s real estate, everyone’s dream?

Monday, August 17th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — borders and distinctions from Trump to Revelation, plus one ]

Donald Trump‘s “three core principles of real immigration reform”:

1. A nation without borders is not a nation.


G Spencer-Brown wrote of his book. Laws of Form, “The theme of this book is that a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart” — or as Heinz Von Foerster rephrased him, “Draw a distinction and a universe comes into being”. Indeed, his book opens with the words:

We take as given the idea of distinction and the idea of indication, and that we cannot make an indication without drawing a distinction.

He writes:

Distinction is perfect continence.

That is to say, a distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary. For example in a plane a circle draws a distinction.

Similarly, Gregory Bateson defines an idea as “A difference or distinction or news of differences”.


Borders are both physical and metaphysical: the border between the physical and the metaphysical passes through human beings, who are themselves both metaphysical and physical.

Borders may thus be heeded or ignored.

Smugglers don’t necessarily ignore them, they may take them very seriously, as do those who police them. Birds, however, ignore them, fishes, lizards, languages..

There are would-be states that straddle national borders, as the Basque peoples straddle the border between France and Spain:

Basque France Spain 600

There are also would-be states that literally erase national borders, as in the case of IS bulldozing thw border between Iraq and Syria:

Iraq Syria Border 600

Thus while borders may be tidy in separating one from a second, they are also untidy in straddling them, neither one nor two, yet (like Janus) both.. They are, in short, thresholds, limina. And so wahat we know of liminality applies to them. I have discussed tthis previosuly on Zenpundit in Liminality II: the serious part — suffice it to say here that limiality is a condition that exacerbates, intensifies.


The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, quotes Leviticus 19.19:

You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff.

Why these disjunctions? Dougles notes the repeated refrain in just such contexts:

Ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy

and points out that Ronald Knox correctly — if “rather thinly” — translates this:

I am set apart and you must be set apart like me

She then tells us:

Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation. It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination and order.

noting that:

The word ‘perversion’ is a significant mistranslation of the rare Hebrew word tebhel, which has as its meaning mixing or confusion.

and concludes

ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created.


The upper image, below, is taken from my recent post on Matrioshka cartography, and waas taken in turn from Say goodbye to the weirdest border dispute in the world in the Washington on August 1st..

SPEC DQ maps

… while the lower image is from Welcome to Liberland, the World’s Newest Country (Maybe) in the New York Times Magazine, dated Aug 11


Lydia Kiesling, in her post Letter of Recommendation: Uzbek in the NYT magazine today, writes:

National borders can be risibly at odds with reality, especially in Central Asia, where Turks, Mongols, Persians and others roved and mingled, where ‘‘Uzbek’’ was, for a time, more of a descriptive antonym of ‘‘Tajik’’ — no­­madic versus settled — than an ethnic classification.

And why not?

They are, after all, distinctions drawn in the mind, lines drawn on paper. Thus the Sykes-Picot map:

Sykes_Picot_Agreement_Map_signed_8_May_1916 600

Sykes was quite clear about the “lines dorawn on paper” part. He is reported to have said:

I should like to draw a line from the e in Acre to the last k in Kirkuk

The map, in other words, is not the territory: the map is a map.

To take another instance of importance in today’s world, the Durand Line:

Durand_Line_Border_Between_Afghanistan_And_Pakistan 600

Not only is the map not the territory in this case — it can be seen, as one-time Afghan president Hamid Karzai said, as “a line of hatred that raised a wall between the two brothers” — Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Sympathies which exist across borders can be potent forces for their dissolution. In a poem titled “Their Eyes Confer Fire” written in the 1980s about Basque country, I wrote

We have
little time,
Marie explained,
for those
who, because
it is hard
to draw
across actual
carve up
this earth on

France, Spain:
we disdain
boundaries, borders,
and border guards.

A canny reader noted that the entire poem could be read not as a description of the Basques as they exist in reality, but as a paean to the corpus callosum joining the two hemispheres of the brain — and thus the two modes of cognition of which I so recently wrote.


Returning to Lieberland, or Gornja Siga as the locals call it, we learn:

Gornja Siga has come, over the last few months, to assume an outsize role in the imagination of many — not only in Europe, but also in the Middle East and in the United States. Its mere existence as a land unburdened by deed or ruler has become cause for great jubilation. There are few things more uplifting than the promise that we might start over, that we might live in the early days of a better nation. All the most recent states — South Sudan, East Timor, Eritrea — were carved from existing sovereignties in the wake of bitter civil wars. Here, by contrast, is a truly empty parcel. What novel society might be accomplished in a place like this, with no national claim or tenant?

Consider one sentence alone as the key to that “outsize role in the imagination”:

There are few things more uplifting than the promise that we might start over, that we might live in the early days of a better nation.

The apocalyptic yearning here and its kinship with the Amrican dream are hard to miss — it is like a conflation of Matthew 5.14:

A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

with Revelation 21.1-2:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.



Cross-grain thinking, 3: ASP’s Report on Climate Security

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — as Dylan sang, a change in the weather is known to be extreme ]

People sit at a flooded table in Piazza San Marco, Venice -- photo: Luigi Costantini / AP

Right at the top of Part I of the recent three-part Report on Climate Security from the American Security Project, we read this paragraph:

Climate change is real: we see its impacts every day, around the world. A melting Arctic, unprecedented droughts across the world, extreme examples of flooding, and uncontrollable wildfires are all examples of the changing climate.

That’s right, that’s right and important, that’s right, important and timely.

But you know, at heart I’m a poet. And although I’m concerned about the issues the report addresses, I can’t help thinking of climate and weather, atmosphere and wind, in a manner that crisscrosses the “interior” vs “exterior” divide.

If you lean to the scientific more than the poetic, you might want to consider what I’m talking about as an instatiation of the insight Gregory Bateson expressed in the title of his seminal book, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity.


Let me lean to the poetry-side for a paragraph or so, then we’ll come back to security issues the report raises.

I probably caught this particular “weather and weather” disease from Dylan Thomas’ great and celebrated poem, A Process in the Weather of the Heart:

A process in the weather of the heart
Turns damp to dry; the golden shot
Storms in the freezing tomb.
A weather in the quarter of the veins
Turns night to day; blood in their suns
Lights up the living worm.

Writing about this poem in his Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas, William York Tindall notes “Thomas’ obsessive concern with the natural process that, linking man and world, inner and outer, turns upon the axis of life and death” and specifies that “applying ‘weather,’ a word for outer climate, to inner climate joins two worlds.”

Thomas is concerned in that extraordinary poem to join, likewise, life with death, night with day, womb with tomb, seeing eye with blind bone and more – or not so much to join them as to see them as inseparable, as parts of the single unfolding that is the world.

There is much more to the poem than the central obsessive theme of the “process in the weather of the heart” with which the poem opens and the “process in the weather of the world” with which it closes. It is their conjunction, their inseparability which interests me here – the poet’s perception that there is no inner without the outer, no outer without the inner – that in each there is weather, which Tyndall also calls climate, that weather is in both…


Back to meteorology and national security..

Look, I’m not exactly an enemy of thinking about climate change and national — or global — security. I admire ASP for today’s piece by Catherine Foley, Climate Change: The Missing Link in Tackling the Mali Crisis. We need more considerations of that kind, they’re rare and extremely valuable.

Mecca is one of the hottest cities in the world, and the Kaaba the central pivot around which all Islam revolves — potentially a double hot-spot. What are the implications of climate change for the Saudis, for Mecca, for Islam?


When I think about weather, I think about storms in the world, storms in the heart and mind, almost in the same breath. Specifically, when I think of global warming, I can’t help but see the problem as being one of double-awareness – rising temperatures and rising tempers, rising sea-levels and rising levels of anxiety and / or denial, the climate of meteorology and the climate of opinion…

Seen from my bifocal perspective, the report is notably focused on externals. Take another sentence from the brief bullet points on the first page;

The climate influences people’s everyday lives, from what they eat to where they live.

We eat food, food that can be weighed and measured, and analyzed for its nutrient elements and health properties. We live in cities, towns and villages, in houses, or developments, which can located on maps…

With my bifocals on, it would be more accurate, more encompassing to say:

The climate influences people’s everyday lives, from what they eat to how they feel, and from where they live to what they think and how they behave.

Because in my view, the situation is as much about “mind change” as it is “climate change” — in my view, the “fulcrum that can move the world” is to be found in the geography of mind and heart.


Okay, let’s back up a bit.

The “first page” I quoted is the first page of the First Part of the Report, but there’s also an Introduction, and I want to pick up the thread there now, because the Introduction is written with human thought — specifically “honest dialogue” — in mind, and opens with what seems at first glance like one of those obvious truths that serve as the jumping off points for more detailed considerations:

The American Security Project is organized around the belief that honest, public discussion of national security requires open, non-biased, non-partisan discourse about the dangers and opportunities of the 21st Century.

There’s just one problem here, though — a single paragraph later, we read:

Climate change poses a clear and present danger to the United States

I’d give my assent happily enough to either of these two propositions, if they weren’t both talking about the same situation. Because when someone sees a “clear and present” hungry tiger coming at them and doesn’t take rapid action to avoid being eaten, it’s not “open” and “unbiased” — it’s “in denial”.

Which in turn means there’s a swathe of the population that may not be willing to hear “open, non-biased, non-partisan discourse” nor able to contribute to it. “I don’t believe my eyes, they’re deceiving me with all this hogwash about tigers”…

And those people have loved ones, bring foods to community pot-lucks, and teach class, and vote…


Some time ago, I was working on a transposition of the Gospel narratives of Luke and John into the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with Britain playing the part of Rome and so forth, and adding some commentary along the way. Here’s a slightly revised version of my comment on John 3.8:

There is one particular word that John uses which has what we today might call a triple (rather than a double) meaning. When Christ in this verse says, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of Spirit,” it is the Greek word pneuma that can be translated both as wind and spirit. It also means breath.

Christ is saying here that those who are born of spirit are like the wind, like breath, and like inspiration: each of which can be noticed but not predicted, because each moves of its own accord — yet in the Greek these are not three separate concepts as they are for us today. As CS Lewis says in another context, we must always remember “that the various senses we take out of an ancient word by analysis existed in it as a unity.”

In telling us this, St John is saying at one and the same time that nobody knows where the first breath comes from or when the last breath will leave us, nobody knows how to forecast exactly which path a hurricane will take, and nobody knows how to make an assembly line for inspiration – if we did, Beethoven could have written another three symphonies as great as his Ninth to order, stat!

One of the reasons we don’t know how the heart and mind work is that we’ve separated “meteorological” weather from “the weather of the heart” — and there’s a storm brewing, inextricably, on both fronts.

If the ASP report is anything to judge by, we’re only looking at one of them.


Oh, and here by way of confirmation is an old friend from my Oxford days, the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, quoted in a piece for the November issue of Shambhala Sun:

No matter where we are in the world, there is a need for enlightened society, wherever natural disasters hit. In this case, “natural disaster” refers to aggression, passion, and ignorance. These kinds of natural disasters occur in the minds of people.

Trungpa’s sense of “natural disaster”, I humbly submit to the folks at the American Security Project, either needs to run like a woof through the warp of their report on climate change — which it doesn’t — or it deserves a fourth section of its own.

Landmines in Paradise Garden

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — pros and cons of an important piece by Scott Atran — who among us can comprehend religion? ]

At play (Minesweeper) in the Fields of the Lord (Bosch, Garden of Eden)

Scott Atran, the anthropologist who gave us the book Talking to the Enemy, has got it right (as to importance) but wrong (as to procedure) in his latest, significant piece on Foreign Policy, God and the Ivory Tower: What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us.

First, the importance of the issue he’s discussing – understanding religions (emphatically plural, IMO):

Religion molds a nation in which it thrives, sometimes producing solidarity and sacred causes so powerful that citizens are willing to kill or die for a common good (as when Judea’s Jews around the time of Christ persisted in rebellion unto political annihilation in the face of the Roman Empire’s overwhelmingly military might). But religion can also hinder a society’s ability to work out differences with others, especially if those others don’t understand what religion is all about. That’s the mess we find ourselves in today, not only among different groups of Americans in the so-called culture wars, but between secular and Judeo-Christian America and many Muslim countries.

Time and again, countries go to war without understanding the transcendent drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world. Yet we needn’t fly blindly into the storm.

Atran is exactly right: we needn’t fly blindly into the storm — but to avoid flying blindly we need to understand those “drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world” — and to avoid flying into the storm at all we may (all of us, friends and foes alike) need to understand our own “transcendent drives and dreams” better than we do at present.

The question is, who can help us do that?

That’s what I mean by the procedure — the path that should be taken to achieve that kind of understanding. And note: there are different kinds of understanding — theoretical, imaginative, visceral… dispassionate, empathetic, impassioned…


Atran’s answer is science:

Science can help us understand religion and the sacred just as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe. This, in turn, can make policy better informed.

There’s only one problem there. I can believe that scientists of extraordinary breadth and insight – Einstein, Bohr, Oppenheimer, Gell-Mann, Feynman probably – and social scientists — Bateson certainly, Victor Turner, Atran perhaps – my lists are not exhaustive – could make useful suggestions for scientific approaches to the field of religion.

But scientists in general? As Atran notes:

If you look at the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences or Britain’s Royal Society, well over 90 percent of members are non-religious. That may help explain why some of the bestselling books by scientists about religion aren’t about the science of religion as much as the reasons that it’s no longer necessary to believe.

Non-believers may “get” what’s dangerous about religions, but they almost certainly won’t “get” what’s marvelous and inspiring about them.

And believers are no better – they may get what’s great about their own tradition, but still see nothing but perdition in the traditions of others…

So to get a decent set of insights worth experimenting with — or modeling, for that matter — requires a blend of subtle thinkers to include some social anthropologists, some scholars of comparative religion, some sociologists with fine-tuned statistical skills, some depth psychologists… believers, skeptics, atheists and agnostics… with a whole wild variety of plumages, specialties and interests.

Yes, and some poets, historians, some hard scientists. Yes.


How easy is it to get things wrong?

In his paper Reframing Sacred Values [link is to .pdf] written with Robert Axelrod — the political scientist whose contest for winning strategies for the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game put “tit for tat” and agent based modeling on the map in his books The Evolution of Cooperation and The Complexity of Cooperation — Atran speaks of “Rational versus Devoted Actors“.

The distinction is a significant one. And the paper itself is important because, as Atran and Axelrod suggest:

Counterintuitively, understanding an opponent’s sacred values, we believe, offers surprising opportunities for breakthroughs to peace. Because of the emotional unwillingness of those in conflict situations to negotiate sacred values, conventional wisdom suggests that negotiators should either leave sacred values for last in political negotiations or should try to bypass them with sufficient material incentives. Our empirical findings and historical analysis suggest that conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, offering to provide material benefits in exchange for giving up a sacred value actually makes settlement more difficult because people see the offering as an insult rather than a compromise. But we also found that making symbolic concessions of no apparent material benefit might open the way to resolving seemingly irresolvable conflicts.

But who is to say which actors are “devoted”?

The most devoted may be the one who stands in most need of redemption, the one who has sinned the most, not the one who has been the most pious. Let me put that another way: the most devoted may be the drunken reveler rather than the regular church- or mosque-goer.



Inigo was a courtier, a conquistador, a musketeer. The commandments were of course unquestionable in theory, but practice was entirely another matter. Church was for times of danger or for celebration of victory, and he never prayed so hard to our Lady as before a duel. In his last years when he had no need to be boastful, he was quoted by his secretary- biographer: “Though he was attached to the faith, he lived no way in conformity with it and did not avoid sin. Rather, he was much addicted to gambling and dissolute in his dealings with women, contentious and keen about using his sword.”

Inigo found plenty of trouble…

A scientist might not think such a person a reliable example of religious fervor. An antagonist of religion might think it illustrates the flaws of religion perfectly.

The passage in question comes from a life of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

Religion is a subtle matter. We may think it a matter of belief, but it may be a matter of behavior – orthopraxy vs orthodoxy is the distinction the folks in religious studies make — or of visionary experience.

It may “take one to know one” – as Thomas Merton, the Catholic contemplative understood the Buddhist contemplatives he met. But then he was open to the possibility that others might have intuitions not dissimilar to those he himself had had. “I’m deeply impregnated with Sufism,” he once wrote — Sufism being the mystical strand in Islam. Indeed, I received a letter from him myself while still a student at Oxford, in which he wrote of his life in the Abbey of Gethsemani, “here you get beaten for being a dervish. I am bruised for this all day long.”


But again, one can be blinded by one’s own faith to the merits of the faiths of others. And this is also a subtle business.

Retired US Gen. Jerry Boykin, for instance, said in April last year (link is to YouTube video):

Sharia law is a very serious threat in America. We are being invaded by a group of people who see it as their absolute imperative to establish a legal system in America which will in fact destroy our Constitution to be replaced by this thing called Sharia law.

One wonders what Boykin might make of the late California Presbyterian teacher, RJ Rushdoony — a figure, I’m guessing, far to the General’s right?

As is widely known, the New Testament contains a “Great Commission” which Christ gave to his apostles after his Resurrection:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:18-20.

Rushdoony, in his master work The Institutes of Biblical Law, makes it clear that in his views, this constitutes a divine mandate to bring Biblical law into effect in all nations: “The fulfillment of that covenant is their great commission: to subdue all things and all nations to Christ and His law-word” (Institutes, p. 14) and this is to be achieved in terms of a single world order, “The goal is the developed Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem, a world order under God’s law” (Institutes, p. 357).

Sadly, the church no longer recognizes the full implications of the Great Commission, and has fallen into a heresy that is political in nature: “The church today has fallen prey to the heresy of democracy” (Institutes, p. 747). In truth, the laws of a democratic society will need to be replaced by the laws of God as set forth in the Old Testament: “While all Scripture is God’s law word, the heart of that law is the law of Moses” (Institutes, p. 675).

Here’s where it gets trickier, though:

Slavery, too, will need to be reinstituted: “The (Biblical) Law here is humane and also unsentimental. It recognizes that some people are by nature slaves and will always be so. It both requires that they be dealt with in a godly manner and also that the slave recognizes his position and accepts it with grace” (Institutes, p. 251).


This thing called “religion” is difficult to pin down. It has extremes that appear unconscionable even to many who claim devotion to the same scriptures as do the extremists. It features violence, peace, apocalypse as destruction and apocalypse as fresh creation.

Atran is an anthropologist – he surely knows this.

The study of religion involves walking through a minefield — in the gardens of Paradise…

Of Quantity and Quality II: Holocaust, torture and sacrament

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — Yom HaShoah, quality vs quantity, sacramental value of life, continuing from Q&Q I, long, intense ]

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

photo credit: Joni B Hannigan

The mind is struck dumb.

Six million individuals is too vast a gathering to contemplate. Even to think of ten people we know well if they are in the room with us requires us to move from face to face, person to person, picking up where we left off with each one, perhaps with this couple or these four colleagues from a remembered journey or project.

Six million.

Six million people is more than a crowd, it’s a blur — it is, approximately, the entire population of Arizona, of Rio or Lahore, of entire nations, El Salvador, Libya or Sierra Leone.

Today we remember those who died in the Shoah, as individuals and together.


I believe the Shoah to be one of those topics where we humans need to use the cognitive equivalent of a zoom lens – the capacity to hold magnitude in mind while exploring at the level of the individual, and to feel for the individual while not losing sight of the magnitude of the larger picture.

Consider the rabbinic opinion given in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a:

For this reason was man created alone, to teach thee that whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.

How do you magnify that “complete world” by six million?


Another such topic involving the individual and the group is torture.

Here the issue is, at best, not one of innate cruelty or hatred or disregard for values, but a considered weighing of alternatives — the brutal interrogation of a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, say, against the chance to avoid a second 9/11. Torture, too, is a matter of the relationship of the many to the one, and I suspect people’s opinion of torture pretty much rests on each person’s understanding of when and indeed whether the need of the group ever trumps that of the individual.

Again, I think we need a cognitive zoom capability, if we are to begin to grasp the subtlety of the issue — and to be able to countenance those who see it differently from ourselves.


I suggest that the core question is that of the relationship of quality to quantity — which I have argued before, is essentially the same as the deep question in consciousness, that of the relationship between (subjective) mind and (objective) brain.

Can a sheer quantity of people saved from some hateful end ever really compare to the quality — radiant suchness of the Tathagata (Diamond Sutra), image and likeness of God (Genesis) — of a single willfully tortured human?

For some people this is a no-brainer. Of course: you weigh the likely impacts, and on occasions when torturing one is liable to reveal information that saves thousands of others, do it. Reuel Marc Gerecht, lately of the CIA, posed the issue this way:

… if you had been confronted on 7 September 2001 with a captured Khalid Shaykh Muhammad or Abu Zubaydah and you knew that a major, mass-casualty terrorist strike was about to go down in the United States, and you had plenipotentiary authority for the nation’s security …

For some, it is a no-brainer. Of course not: if you treat others that way, even in the heat of battle, you’ve lost already — you’ve become what you hate. John Kiriakou, lately of the CIA, wrote:

even if torture works, it cannot be tolerated – not in one case or a thousand or a million. If their efficacy becomes the measure of abhorrent acts, all sorts of unspeakable crimes somehow become acceptable. … There are things we should not do, even in the name of national security.



In the Egyptian scene above — taken from the Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum — judgment is rendered on a single human soul when it is weighed against the feather of Maat:

The goddess Maat, shown as a feather in the scale pan, is the deification of the concept of maat: truth, justice and cosmic order.

Is the heart light enough to balance justice herself?

The jackal-headed Anubis is weighing the heart of the supplicant as the ugly beast Ammit, known as “The Devourer,” “Bringer of the Second Death” — a hybrid monster, part lion, part hippopotamus, part crocodile — crouches by the scales drooling, waiting to gulp down the failed soul. The ibis-headed Thoth is poised to record the verdict on his slate. Various deities are ranged around the scene, serving as Judges or in other roles important to the ritual or the ideology that had developed over the span of many centuries. Overlooking this scene is the Ba — the winged representation of the personality of the deceased — perched and ready but not yet able to take flight as a risen being.

Even though Osiris is pictured at the far end of the Judgment scene, indicating the conclusion of the proceedings, his presence nonetheless dominates the scene, as a confirmation of the ultimate purpose of all this.


Mary Qualit and Martha Quant…

A number of significant thinkers have weighed in on the scales which measure human lives… basically asking if a quality can be quantified, added, multiplied.

The philosopher Wittgenstein, in a selection of his posthumous writings, says:

The whole earth cannot be in greater distress than one soul.

The writer CS Lewis concurs:

We must never make the problem of pain worse than it is by vague talk about the “unimaginable sum of human misery.” … There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.

And Arne Naess, the “father” of Deep Ecology, in his Philosophy of Wolf Policies says:

We should be careful when talking about greater suffering. Referring to a consciously experienced suffering, including simple pain, we have to do with a quality admitting degrees of intensity, but in an important sense unquantifiable and nonadditive.

Strictly speaking, experienced suffering is not additive.

In my view — or perhaps I should say, with my mind — it is hard even to fully grasp what these three distinguished and diverse folk are saying. And yet I feel as if they are bringing me a truth, bringing it right to the edge of my awareness.


Tarek Mehanna wrote in his sentencing statement, given in court last week:

I learned about the American-led sanctions that prevented food, medicine, and medical equipment from entering Iraq, and how – according to the United Nations – over half a million children perished as a result. I remember a clip from a ’60 Minutes’ interview of Madeline Albright where she expressed her view that these dead children were “worth it.”

I can understand that, the reluctance to accept that particular policies are “worth” the loss of children. Where is Maat, to weigh such matters for us?


Here are four quotations having to do with the value of sparrows, one way or another:

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. — Matthew 10.29-31.

Whoever uselessly kills a sparrow, on the Day of Judgment, it will come and shout in front of the throne and say, “Oh my Lord, ask this person why he uselessly killed me.” — Hadith of the Prophet, quoted in Kazemi, Environmental Rights and the Teachings of Mahdism

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. — Shakespeare, Hamlet, V.2

If a sparrow dies in Central Park, I feel responsible. — Mayor Fiorello La Guardia


There’s a streak of paradox running through the heart of Christianity, in which two values are simultaneously present: one temporal and moral, the other atemporal / eternal and transcendent. Thus Christ can say “Before Abraham was, I am” — situating himself in both eternal and temporal realms simultaneously. Thus also, he can say of himself and his betrayal by Judas, “The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.”

And thus also, in a masterful paradox, St John’s Gospel recounts how the High Priest Caiaphas argued for the death of Christ:

Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad. Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death.

On the one hand, Caiaphas is arguing that one troublesome young rabbi’s life is expendable if it will avoid a Roman crackdown not unlike the one that did in fact occur some forty years later, with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. This is, in Christian terms, a vile argument, and one respondible for the death by execution of the Christ.

On the other, though — and the brilliance of the paradox lies in the way that John weaves the two perspectives together — God thinks it preferable that he himself, incarnate, should die as a once-for-all sacrifice to save his many creatures who — and here I can’t help but hear the strains of Handel’s Messiah — like sheep have gone astray…

Putting it mildly.

So, whether you’re Christian or not — and I wouldn’t claim to be, though I’m clearly influenced — the notions of sacrifice and self-sacrifice belong in here somehow.


I quoted the Talmudic Tractate Sanhedrin at the top of this post. The Qur’an recalls this passage in Sura 5.32:

Therefore We prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoso slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether; and whoso gives life to a soul, shall be as if he had given life to mankind altogether.

It is my suggestion that the difference between Quantity and Quality is as profound (in Bateson’s terms, makes as great a difference as) as the difference between mind and brain, subjective and objective or inner and outer worlds — which itself revovles around the “deep problem” in consciousness.

If I’m right about this — and “right” may not be the best term in any case — then the quality / quantity issue is one facet of the great mystery at the heart of things that religion approaches and derives from, but can never fully define or express.

Morality is our attempt to work in the world with some of the insight gleaned from that mystery, and it may well be that dualistic, propositional thinking is inherently unsuited to the task.

I’d like to return at this point to a quote I’ve used here before, and find very insightful. It’s from Lin Jensen, An Ear to the Ground: Uncovering the living source of Zen ethics, and it tells us:

Judgments on right and wrong are a nearly irresistible enticement to pick sides. And that’s exactly why the old Zen masters warned against becoming a person of right and wrong. It isn’t that the masters were indifferent to questions of ethics, but for them ethical conduct went beyond simply taking the prescribed right side. For these masters, the source of ethical conduct is found in the way things are, circumstance itself: unfiltered immediate reality reveals what is needed.


In closing, I would like to return to the issue of torture, and to offer you another quote, this one from one of the most powerful works of theology known to me, William T Cavanaugh‘s Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ:

by making the seeking of important answers seem like the motive for the torture, the torturer seems able to justify his brutality. No one would think of defending the sheer physical act of torture, the merciless inflicting of pain on a helpless victim. However, once we consider the verbal aspect, the question and answer which seem of such great urgency, the moral contours of torture seem less clear, and utilitarian justifications of torture become thinkable, provided the motive for the questions is of sufficient importance.

Cavanaugh is writing about those who were “disappeared” in Pinochet‘s Chile, and his broader argument is that torture is the antithesis of the sacramental nature of human identity — and here we return full circle to the “image and likeness” of the divine in the mortal, the human.

The deeper we can penetrate into the central mystery, it seems to me, the better we will be enabled to love, to understand, and to forgive.

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