Two Cultures

In this post I want to take a path that starts with some thoughts about classical Buddhism. These thoughts are far from being based on extensive knowledge or scholarship, but this very lack enables, I hope, a freedom to break free from tradition, and seek a meaningful relevance for our times. Consider the following:

He whose desires have been throttled,
who is independent of root,
whose pasture is emptiness—
signless and free—
his path is as unknowable
as that of birds across the heavens.

I came across this verse in the heading of the first chapter in a sci-fi fantasy book, Lord of Light by Roger Zelasny. The book, incidentally, won both the Hugo and Nebula science fiction awards the year it came out. The hero, a reincarnation of the Buddha, who goes by the name of Sam, is “great souled”, but is also a crafty, scheming fighter for a cause of freedom, which involves defying the Lords of Creation. If there were such a concept as “heresy” in Buddhism, he would perhaps be eligible. But that is somewhat beside the point. I’m concerned here with the verse itself, not the book; though the book is one I love and read repeatedly.

In the book the verse is credited as Dhammapada (93). Consulting Wikipedia one finds that the Dhammapada is part of the Pali Canon, the extensive writings from the early days of Buddhism, forming a tradition called Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism of South East Asia. A second great Buddhist tradition which developed later is that of Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhism of Northern India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. Zen Buddhism is part of this latter tradition.

It seems to me that the Dhammapada verse summarizes many of the great themes of Buddhism. The first line is echoed in a great poem of Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium whose

3rd stanza reads,

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

In both of these selections “desire” is a word for all the negative emotions that beset us as human beings: longings, fear, rage, depression, selfishness, egotism; and perhaps too, emotions considered as positive: joy, happiness, complacency, satisfaction. The question arises: Does Buddhist discipline involve trying to “throttle” all of these emotions head on, by leading a disciplined, saintly acetic life, devoid of pleasures? My answer is no, and I have the feeling that an affirmative answer to this question involves a misunderstanding, a putting the cart before the horse so to speak. Certainly discipline is required in following any spiritual path, but discipline, if misdirected is futile and ultimately frustrating. My view is that effective Buddhist discipline lies in an indirect approach to dealing with “desire”; a direction of becoming aware of one’s beliefs and addictions, and of trying to relax ones grasp on them. Ideally one would have no beliefs whatever, and would be totally free in the universe. That is, however, for most of us a distant goal. As unenlightened humans we can’t help having beliefs and addictions. What we can do is to try become aware of them, to relax our grip on our beliefs, holding them lightly, recognize our addictions, and work on bringing them under control.

In our culture a very common attitude is to tighten our grip when one of our beliefs is challenged, to never admit a mistake, and to “double down” if our judgement has proven faulty. If we eye such behavior dispassionately, we see that it is egotistical and basically immoral, a rejection of “truth”; nevertheless, owning up to fault can be very discomforting. If one has ever been a professor, lecturing to a class, one has inevitably been in a position of having a sharp student who is closely following, raise his or her hand and point out a mistake in one’s reasoning. I remember several occasions when this situation happened in a math class taught at Stanford by Professor George Pólya, a distinguished mathematician of the early 20th century (see Wikipedia). Pólya’s lectures were a model of clarity and he always payed close attention to how his students were reacting. When a blunder was pointed out, he would exclaim in his Hungarian accent, “Oh! How stupid of me!”, and then correct his error. I wondered at times if he deliberately made mistakes to keep his students alert, but think it more likely that in concentrating on clarity, he sometimes lost track of a logical connection. Later, when I was a professor, often while teaching elementary physics to future engineers, Pólya’s example stood me in good stead. I would admit to screwing up, congratulate the student who pointed out my blunder, go back over what I had done and correct the error. I did experience some intellectual discomfort in doing this and I’ve noticed that many professors are simply unable to admit their mistakes and try to weasel out of them.

In trying to guard our beliefs when they are challenged, we are obviously hoping to protect our egos and sense of self-worth. However, I think there is more going on than simply ego protection. Our beliefs, especially those which are only partially conscious and which we take for granted, form a foundation for our life, a comfort zone, a cozy nest into which we can relax, the very basis of our being. When these beliefs are questioned, the underlying floor of our security is threatened with break-up. Such beliefs are the psychic equivalent of the safety net which protects a trapeze artist or tight rope walker. Letting go of such beliefs or even relaxing one’s grip on them, is similar to a performer abandoning his or her safety net and moving to the next level where a fall would likely be fatal. The big difference, of course, is that letting go of one’s beliefs is not fatal, but can actually give one a sense of freedom. Such freedom is not a license to act without restraint, but is, instead an openness to see and reason clearly and act with creativity. One does become aware of the difference between social conventions and a deeper fundamental reality. This doesn’t mean that one necessarily defies convention, but simply that one understands that conventions are constructs of the society one lives in, not absolute moral dictates. One role of meditation, besides its calming effects, is to help become aware of our unconscious beliefs and loosen our grip on them. One guide to meditation that I’ve long ago lost track of mentions that as thoughts begin to fade away, a chasm looms in front of us, what Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia calls “an abyss of non-being”. The guide recommends that one mentally hop over it and continue to meditate. Later one hopes to float in this abyss while meditating and lose one’s fear of it in ordinary life by so loosening the grip on one’s beliefs that they no longer act as a support of one’s being above a meaningless void.

If one attains such a free and easy state in one’s life, does that imply a cessation of desire? Or should it? I think that the key to understanding such a question involves the concept of addiction and the relationship between addiction and a tight grip. Surely Buddhism doesn’t forbid joy in life or reveling in pleasure. The problem arises when a pleasure becomes addictive. In dealing with such matters I think that present day psychotherapy has as much to offer as ancient Buddhist ideas, though relaxing one’s grip would seem helpful when undergoing psychotherapy for both the patient and the therapist. See the interesting book Tales from the Couch by Bob Wendorf, a clinical psychologist with 36 years of experience. Trained in behavior modification therapy, Dr. Wendorf discovered that to be successful in practice he needed to relate directly to his patients using whatever theoretical psychological basis seemed appropriate for a particular patient. In other words he was able to see that humans are more complex than any current psychological theory, relaxing his grip on beliefs formed during his training. I’ll have more to say on this subject in a later post. For the moment the point to be made is that while Buddhist ideas may be helpful in this and other areas, they need not, indeed must not, necessarily replace Western ideas. Instead one hopes for a creative amalgam of West and East.

Does a meditative practice help one to loosen one’s grip? Perhaps. What loosening one’s grip really means is allowing a questioning of beliefs that one thinks are correct, a step up from admitting one’s blunders. Such a questioning is the ideal of scientific thought, but seldom actually practiced by scientists when their own beliefs are concerned. Fortunately, in science, one’s colleagues are ready and eager to fill in with doubts and skepticism about one’s latest pet theory. One can claim that this is why science works, to the extent that it actually does. Outside of science, however, we are left to our own awareness and resources.

So where does this leave us? I use the word “us” advisedly, for I assume that you, the reader, have been following along with your own understanding and questions.

Or to put the question another way: What parts of Buddhism in all of its different manifestations can be taken over into our Western culture, helping us to think clearly and ultimately to give us a deep religious understanding which is harmonious with the path our culture has been taking?

Or still another contrary way: Shouldn’t Eastern religion in general and Buddhism in particular be totally rejected as being incompatible with the direction our Western culture should be going?

In considering these questions, in what I’ve written so far in this piece and in the entire blog, it is clear that there is considerable complexity and a danger of getting bogged down in details. There are many directions I could take and enough material for considerable writing.

For now I’ll consider just one area that is amendable to a relaxing of one’s grip. This is the matter of the so-called “two cultures”, the culture of science and of the humanities. There has been a conflict and so much writing over such a long time about these “two cultures” that one would think that there is not much left to say on either side. I became aware that there was supposedly a conflict between humanities and science back around 1960 when I was a graduate student in physics at the University of Virginia while my wife, Barbara, was studying for a degree in English literature. At about the same time the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow had given his influential 1959 Rede Lecture, “The Two Cultures”, which pointed out this gulf in our scholastic culture. Snow came down hard on the “side” of science. I quote C.P. Snow from the Wikipedia Article, “The Two Cultures.”

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

“I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you    mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

On the other hand many of my lit major friends at the University of Virginia referred me to writers in the humanities who pointed out that as far as they were concerned, beginning with the 17th century scientific revolution, much of the rich meaning of our culture, constructs such as “the great chain of being”, had been destroyed by science and a richness had been reduced to joyless gray empty facts without meaning.
I was shown John Donne’s famous lines from An Anatomy of the World (1611):
……..

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.

………

John Donne lived from 1573 to 1631. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare (1564-1616) and, more to the point, with Kepler (1571 -1630) and Galileo (1564 – 1642). Galileo was born two months before Shakespeare and died the year that Isaac Newton was born. During his life ideas of the new natural philosophy, later called “the scientific revolution” spread throughout Europe.

At the time rather than getting very upset about any of this, I felt that I understood both cultures and luxuriated in being a “bridge” between them without feeling any compulsion to take sides. Surely, this conflict was simply the aptly called “tempest in a teapot” and would go away with time.

In many ways the conflict has subsided. Awareness of quantum mechanics, though not always very well understood, has spread to humanists who have taken it as deep and fascinating. Many scientists are well read and take great joy in the poetic, in the arts and in music. Nevertheless, in some respects the conflict is worse than ever. From the science side, it is no longer simply annoyance with the ignorance of the educated, an ignorance much reduced, but the growing contempt for science and the emergence in magical thinking among people at large. For the key point of the scientific revolution was the rejection of magic as an explanation of what went on in the physical world. Now people seem to be totally ignorant of the facts which have led to their cell phones, tablets and TV, and take superstitions such as astrology as having serious meaning. Are we at the point of descending into a new dark age?

From the humanities side the concern is “scientism”, the belief that valid knowledge and meaning comes about only through the application of scientific methodology. Ray Monk, Wittgenstein’s biographer, writes

“Scientism takes many forms. In the humanities, it takes the form of pretending that philosophy, literature, history, music and art can be studied as if they were sciences, with “researchers” compelled to spell out their “methodologies”—a pretense which has led to huge quantities of bad academic writing, characterized by bogus theorizing, spurious specialization and the development of pseudo-technical vocabularies. Wittgenstein would have looked upon these developments and wept.” https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/ray-monk-wittgenstein

In my view these quotes, on both “sides”, reveal grasping motivated by two things: fear and laziness. The fear is that our treasured world view is under attack. Not only is defense needed, but also an attack on the “other side”. The laziness comes about because it would take work to relax our grip and grapple with the task of feeling and understanding the meanings of a wider, multi-cultural world including all branches of science, the humanities and arts, history, economics and popular culture. It is easier to relax and allow one’s grip to stroke one’s ego.

The rewards of a more relaxed, aware view would include a flourishing of creativity, a combination of ideas that seem antithetical. Consider the thought of humanizing science, mythologizing about its meaning and mystery. (In future posts I will try to understand the proper place of myth in our culture.) The best science writers are already close to this mythologizing. Does such constitute an attack, a belittling, or even a refutation of the “scientific method”? Certainly not. Actually, “scientific method” itself is far from being a set of cut-and-dried formulaic rules that can be applied blindly in any situation. A beautifully clear exposition of this fact is Richard Feynman’s essay “Cargo Cult Science” in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! “Cargo Cults” arose among the natives in certain South Pacific islands as WWII drew to a close. These people had seen giant airplanes land on the newly made runways and disgorge an incredible array of “cargo”: weapons, living quarters, food, bulldozers, and other amazing materials. Then, suddenly, it all stopped; the people left, the islands were deserted and the runways disintegrated. The people wondered, “How could the largess be restored?” And cargo cults resulted. Quoting Feynman:

“So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas – he’s the controller – and they wait for the airplanes to land.”

They’ve recreated the form, but with a naïve theory about the relation of form to “reality”. Lest one feel a smug superiority about these natives, I should point out that this sort of mistaken understanding occurs all the time in science; not only in the pseudo-science noted by Ray Monk, nor in the soft sciences, but in the so-called hard sciences as well. Much of the time one’s ideas are just not right. Even when they are right and experimentally verified, “truth” is not established for all time, but only provisionally and subject to a future scientific revolution. This is not to denigrate science, but rather the opposite. Science is truly difficult and theories usually not obvious when first conceived. When scientific theories do finally become well-established, they really work, and they do bring the miracles and the nightmares of “progress”. Clearly, “scientism” is nonsense, but so is a lack of awareness on humanist’s part for the deep humanistic meanings which may arise from science.

The Buddhist idea that is useful here is that of relaxing one’s grip on all kinds of belief, not simply credulous belief, but skeptical belief as well. One takes in the whole panoply, miracle and craziness of modern life with clear-headedness, joy and awareness, reveling in its diversity, taking action against what seems like mistaken ideas, but without “attachment” to any of it. If one cares to go further on a Buddhist path seeking the “great peace” in the “emptiness” beyond words and beyond the panoply, one should do so in a relaxed manner, with a loosened grip and without attachment or expectations.

MorassPost IV

In Part III of this Morass Series, in talking about Wittgenstein, I concluded that with the writing of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein in “talking” about what “cannot be said” had stumbled upon a Western form of Zen Buddhism, with the insight that most of Western Philosophy fell into the realm of what can only be shown and that its “problems” were really only “puzzles” which disappeared with the realization that they were simply artifacts of language which was trying to venture into the realms of the unsayable. What remained meaningful and valid were the insights of the first part of the Tractatus, spelling out all that language could accomplish in a philosophical way. Believing that there was nothing more to be “said”, Wittgenstein dropped out of philosophy for a number of years in the 1920’s, returning to Vienna from his position at Cambridge where, I would guess, he found the atmosphere unbearable and the thought of teaching philosophy unthinkable. Austria and Germany at that time were reeling from the defeat in World War I with hyperinflation and the feeling that their defeat came from some sort of betrayal. During this time Wittgenstein was “penniless”, having legally given the immense fortune he inherited from his father, to his sisters. Although Wittgenstein thought he had given up philosophy at the time, he was still living the committed life of the truth seeker with the moral sense that such a one must not have the distracting obligations which would come with owning and managing a vast fortune. I would guess that he also found the very idea of managing money totally irrelevant and disgusting, not that he would have been bad at it. Perhaps I will later tell the fascinating story of how, in the mid-thirties, he negotiated with the Nazi’s to buy his sisters’ escape from Austria. (I strongly recommend The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn Beer for one to gain an emotional understanding of what it was like to be Jewish in Austria during those harrowing times and for the story of how the Nazi’s added to their finances by allowing rich Jews to buy their freedom.)

The story of how the Wittgenstein fortune was preserved through World War I is itself quite interesting. Karl Wittgenstein, Ludwig’s father, was not only an “industrialist”, but a masterful investor. As World War I approached, he must have had the sense that all was not well with the Austria-Hungary empire in spite of its seeming power and security. Successful investing focusses on the future. What has happened in the past is one possible guide to the future, but can be misleading especially during times of great crisis. Karl saw to it that much of his fortune was invested in the American stock market. When he died in January, 1913, over a year and a half before the beginning of WWI, his fortune was safe from the financial devastation occurring in Austria and Germany during and after the war. (See the Wikipedia article on Karl Wittgenstein.) I would guess that much of this fortune remained in the booming American stock market during the 20’s so escaped the Austrian hyperinflation.

Although Wittgenstein was “penniless”, his sisters were always available and willing to help him financially, so he could follow his own inclinations about what he should do apart from philosophy. Wittgenstein’s first venture was as a schoolmaster in a backwards area of Austria. He was fascinated by ideas about education, but his temper and artistic temperament in the face of ignorance soon got the better of him and he mistreated his students, resorting to violence. Forced to resign he retreated to Vienna and killed some more time, reverting to his engineering and artistic genius by designing and building a house for one of his sisters. By many this house is considered an architectural masterpiece from its overall design down to its details. I am somewhat hazy about dates, but shortly after this in 1929, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge and plunged back into philosophy, convinced that the first, analytic part of the Tractatus was fundamentally unsound, and would have to join the remaining parts of philosophy which only can be “shown”. I am not one to speculate too much about why Wittgenstein found the Tractatus first part wanting. I did not ever try to delve very deeply into it because I knew that such would be a daunting task and knew also that there could be no such thing as a language for dealing with an absolute scientific reality. Whether, as Ray Monk contends, Wittgenstein was persuaded that one of his postulates was invalid by the young genius, Frank Ramsey, (who, incidentally died unexpectedly in 1930, at age 27), or whether he had a more penetrating mystical insight into its shortcomings, the fact of the matter is that during those years in Austria a new idea about language and its relation to philosophy gestated in his mind.

See http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/12/22/frank-ramsey-great-intellects/

Wittgenstein was welcomed back in Cambridge, in part, because the Tractatus had been tremendously influential in philosophy, especially in Austria with the Wiener Kreis, a group of philosophers who, influenced by the first part of the Tractatus, created “logical positivism”, an unwholesome philosophy that maintains not only that all of culture outside of science is meaningless, but therefore, valueless as well. In Austria Wittgenstein had some contact with the positivists, but never joined their circle. Ironically, as Brian Magee points out (see pp 110-111 in Confessions) Wittgenstein’s views were essentially opposite to those of the positivists: the only things that have value and make life worth living are those about which nothing can be said; namely the arts, music, philosophy and the humanities in general. (Wittgenstein apparently had a fairly low opinion of science, not realizing that the revolution in physics going on while he was in Austria had demolished mundane classical physics in favor of a new science whose depth and aesthetics was that of the highest art.) Be that as it may, Wittgenstein’s new idea was that language was no longer a stand-alone absolute entity, but a “game” practiced by groups of people advancing a common interest: a “language game”. Each group: scientists, philosophers, humanists, investors, economists, artists, mechanics, bar flies, druggies and so forth had their own version of language adapted to dealing with their reality. This was the basic idea developed in the lectures and discussions which ended up as the Philosophical Investigations. I have already mentioned how this work influenced Kuhn’s idea that a scientific revolution creates a new “paradigm”, not only a new language game, but a new meaning of experiments and “facts”; essentially a new “reality”. For what Wittgenstein’s new philosophy implies is that “language creates reality”. Without language there is no reality. Whether what I’ve just said was “really” Wittgenstein’s view, I don’t know. What I do know is that I somewhat disagree with it, especially with the idea that reality is only created by language. To me “reality” is a very muddy concept. There are many realities, some like the immediacy of unbearable pain or the realization that one’s civilization may be collapsing, very serious indeed, but I doubt that there is any “real” reality in a fundamental sense. As I put it in a snide remark when first hearing about “virtual reality”, “I didn’t know there was any other kind.”

When I first dipped into the Philosophical Investigations, amazed, befuddled, and repelled by its tortuous language, the thought occurred to me, “Did Wittgenstein ever wonder, ‘What language game am I playing right now?’” – A self-reflexive question. My fancy was that Wittgenstein, realizing that in talking about a new understanding of language, consciously or unconsciously realized that he was practicing a new language game and thereby creating a new reality for philosophy, a reality which throws serious doubts on the whole idea of philosophy as traditionally conceived. A quote here is pertinent.

“Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible ‘from the armchair’ through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.” Paul Horwich, professor of philosophy at New York University.

The link to the article from which this quote came was given earlier in the post “The Morass, Part III”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/was-wittgenstein-right/

Of course Horwich’s opinion is controversial and certainly does not imply to me that “philosophy” should be abandoned. In fact, in talking about “down to earth areas” such as science, arts or language in general, philosophy, is interesting and worth knowing about.

However, a key point for what I’m trying to get across in these blog posts is that philosophy in a transcendental mode has exceeded the limits of what words can express without at all diminishing the longing which gave rise to these words. From this point of view Wittgenstein has cleared the way for a deeper rational understanding, which comprehends all the “words” but lives in a realm beyond them.

Was Wittgenstein then, an incipient Zen Buddhist? I think that such an idea is a perfect example of a statement which is provocative, but totally meaningless. There is more clarity in the idea that Wittgenstein’s philosophy leaves open a rational path to Zen Buddhism, meaningless again, but also provocative.

With this post we try to leave the Morass, talking about other matters, but doubtless muddying ourselves again from time to time.

Interlude II

My last post, talking about Wittgenstein, (January 11th) was followed by a wonderful trip to the “big island” of Hawaii, enjoying the tropical climate with high temperatures above 20 ͦ F, large breaking waves, a mongoose with teeth bared, lava flowing into the sea, and thoughts of the Polynesians journeying across the trackless ocean. Then after a short flight to Oahu our group experienced the touristy ambience of Waikiki, so different from what it was when I was a child.

After returning I have been slow to settle in for one reason or another: visitors here in Bend, excellent cross country skiing, and most recently a trip to Seattle to stay with my son and his wife in Bellevue and attend an American Alpine Club homage to an old friend, Nick Clinch, who recently passed away. With all of these doings there has been little time for idle thought. Perhaps, too, “bone laziness” has been a factor. Not bone laziness as sloth, but a principled bone laziness conducive to emptiness of thought and experience. However, now as some time has opened up, thoughts have occurred that I should at least mention before getting back to philosophy, physics, and the mysteries of existence.

A concern is that readers might think that I am proselytizing; that in this blog, I am pushing the idea that one should become some kind of Zen Buddhist, whatever that is. In fact, a primary principle of the blog is that I am pushing nothing whatever. However, I am putting forward ideas which seem out of the mainstream of our times, but which seem cogent to me.

I am suggesting that, as a personal matter, if one has our present age view of rationality, and can’t pursue a traditional religion based on belief in a mystic vision which one doesn’t have, then one might consider a religious view which is totally opposed to that of the traditional great religions, holding no “beliefs” of any kind, but which can be experienced and understood outside of language and which becomes an underlying foundation for one’s life journey whatever that journey may entail in a concrete way. I am not suggesting that one necessarily take up the exercises and practices of such a religion, but am simply putting out there that such a possibility exists. One can delve into the deepest understandings without the least compromise of one’s integrity in pursuing “truth”.

I am furthermore suggesting, not simply as a personal matter, but as a matter for society as a whole, that there can be an underlying substrate that encompasses and deepens all of our pursuits, in every science, in every art, in every humanistic discipline, in every traditional religion, in politics or the law, in medicine, in every athletic endeavor, in every fight against ignorance or evil, in the making of any object, in building roads, in welding, in every climb of a mountain or wandering in a wilderness, a substrate that subsumes all antagonisms between these pursuits and that leads to a respect for everyone in society leading a sincere life of integrity.

This is the vision I have, the vision that underlies everything posted here.

Does this vision ignore the darker side of history and human nature? I don’t think so. It is a vision of awareness. Awareness of all the possible positive human pursuits with appreciation and understanding rather than hostility; but also a full awareness of the “fury and the mire of human veins” as Yeats puts it. An awareness of how an entire society can go off the tracks, with demagogues arousing insecurities that lead to hatred, to simplistic, evil policies and ultimately terrible wreckage. This awareness can help us avoid our own hatreds and our own counterproductive blind opposition as we intelligently become active, opposing where it will do some good and seeking areas of leverage where we can actually have a positive effect and perhaps help avoid the worst of the wreckage.

So much for this interlude. I feel that I’ve made somewhat more explicit what this blog is always about even when it seems to wander far afield.

 

 

 

The Morass, Part III

So now it’s time to start dealing with Wittgenstein. Anything I say here will be controversial so I might as well say what I really think as clearly as possible without hedging. Some of that will possibly be extremely controversial. I’ll try to delineate clearly between relatively factual matters and my own opinions. With this post I will make an exception to my standard practice and try to be somewhat scholarly, first noting books and links which can form a mini-bibliography and then referring to these right in the text rather that doing footnotes.

Here’s a brief bibliography:

Hartnack, Justus, Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy, translated by Maurice Cranston, Doubleday Anchor 1965. This is still obtainable on Amazon at a reasonable price. However, although pretty clearly written as philosophy goes, it is helpful to be in the “zone” while reading it. (See quote below from an Amazon review.)

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Penguin, 1990. The definitive biography so far. Read if you are getting serious and have the time. Monk tries to close the gap between Wittgenstein’s image as a celebrity and his philosophy.

Edmonds, David and Eidinow, John, Wittgenstein’s Poker, Harper Collings, 2001. If you read only one book, I recommend this. It is well written, fascinating and very informative about history and character. It recounts the only meeting between Wittgenstein and Popper, a ten minute argument during which Wittgenstein either threatened or didn’t threaten Popper with a fireplace poker, but did walk out of the meeting in a towering rage or maybe only bored with the proceedings.

Magee, Bryan, Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey through Western Philosophy, Random House, 1997. Magee taught philosophy at Oxford and elsewhere. He was an MP and prominent TV broadcaster. Magee disagrees with modern philosophy’s emphasis on language, (I disagree with him on this). I do agree with what Magee has to say about Wittgenstein’s Tractatus though maybe things aren’t quite as clear-cut as he contends.

I happen to own these four books.

Wikipedia, Wittgenstein. Highly recommended.

Was W right? http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/was-wittgenstein-right/ . A philosophy professor contends that Wittgenstein has made traditional philosophy a pointless pursuit in this day and age. This is from the NY Times commentary section about philosophy called “the Stone.”

meadowreader. A review of Hartnack in Amazon.

“I read the first edition of the book (Anchor paperback, 1965), and I concur with the other reviewer that it is a first-rate brief introduction to Wittgenstein’s work.

“The short biographical introduction has a big problem, however. About LW’s service in WWI, Hartnack writes, ‘At the outbreak of the first World War he enlisted in the Austrian army, was trained to be an officer, but was taken prisoner by the Italians at the time of the Austrian debacle.’ That makes it sound like LW took the officer route, was quickly captured, then sat out the war. Well, as they say, that could hardly be further from the truth.

“According to Martin Gilbert’s, ‘The First World War,” LW won the Silver Medal for Valour Second Class as a lance corporal, ‘a rare honor for someone of such a low rank.’ This was in June of 1916, on the Eastern Front. In July 1917, he won the Silver Medal for Valour as an artillery observer, directing the guns under ‘heavy fire,’ again against the Russians. In June 1918 he was recommended for Austria’s highest award, the Gold Medal for Valour, for ‘exceptionally courageous behavior,’ this time in a fierce artillery and machinegun duel with the British, in which his ‘heroism won the total admiration of the troops.’ Wittgenstein was not captured until November of 1918, at the virtual end of the war.

“And, incredibly, it was during these years of combat that he wrote the ‘Tractatus,’ delivering the manuscript to [Bertrand] Russell at the end of the war.”  End meadowreader.

End bibliography

Since biographical facts are readily available, in my treatment here I will quickly sketch in what seems important and then mostly give quotations and my own opinions.

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born in 1889, the ninth child of Karl and Leopoldine (“Poldi”) Wittgenstein. His family was the second richest in Austria-Hungary and enormously cultured. In the times around Ludwig’s birth, Johannes Brahms would play recitals on one of the seven grand pianos in their mansion. Ludwig’s mother played piano at a professional concert level and two brothers were concert pianists. One committed suicide while the other lost his right arm in the war. Maurice Ravel wrote Concerto for the left hand for him. Wittgenstein himself had perfect pitch and was intensely musical, but his deeper interests lay elsewhere. He studied Engineering, then mathematics before turning to philosophy. Before WWI he had traveled to England to meet Bertrand Russell and others at Cambridge. It seems that Wittgenstein was obsessed by philosophy, tormented by philosophical questions and spent endless hours thinking about them. Bertrand Russell said of him “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” (Wikipedia and many other sources) He was an extremely moral person, but difficult, unrelenting and tiring to be around.

Wittgenstein’s studies at Cambridge were cut short by World War I. One point to add to meadowreader’s quote above is that Wittgenstein may have enlisted as a “lance corporal”, but was later elevated to officer rank.

Wittgenstein did write his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus during the First World War. It was first published in German under a different title, then translated into English mainly by Wittgenstein himself, but only published because of an Introduction by Russell. (Wittgenstein flew into one of his rages upon reading the Introduction, considering that Russell had totally misunderstood the book). In the 1920’s after the Tractatus was published, Wittgenstein retired from philosophy, convinced that there was nothing more to be said philosophically. In the late 1920’s, however, he changed his mind, repudiated the first part of the Tractatus, and set out on a totally different course, teaching at Cambridge during the 1930’s. These teachings were published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations. “…Wittgenstein occupies a singular place in the history of philosophy, having first at an early age written a work which exercised a decisive influence on the philosophical thought of his time, and then, in his mature years, rejecting his early theory and producing a second theory which for sheer originality, stature and influence, is even more important than the first.” (Hartnack, p8) During WW II Wittgenstein, while keeping his position at Cambridge University, worked as an orderly in a hospital more or less anonymously. In 1949 he resigned his Cambridge professorship and led a peripatetic life until being diagnosed with metastasized prostate cancer. He died in 1951 with his last words to his caregiver: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

End brief biography.

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This work is in two parts based on a distinction Wittgenstein made at the time between that which can be said and that which can only be shown. By “said” and “shown” Wittgenstein meant something quite different from the common usage of these words. Using logic and his intuitive insight Wittgenstein was intent on defining the logical properties of a language which would have a one-to-one correspondence with the structure of “reality” as defined by common experience and by science. In my opinion Wittgenstein at the time he wrote the Tractatus, was ignorant of Einstein’s papers on special relativity (1905), general relativity (1916) and of experiments in atomic physics during the 19 ‘teens’ which seemingly demonstrated logical contradictions at the heart of physics. So at the same time a revolution in physics was showing relativity in space and time and weirdness in atomic experiments, Wittgenstein was specifying the properties of an ABSOLUTE language dealing with an ABSOLUTE reality. Whether or not my supposition here is correct, when Wittgenstein uses the word “says” he means statements in his hypothetical language. Moreover, to him only such statements could be meaningful. Words used outside the language were talking about things that could only be “shown”. When I read about the first terribly abstruse part of the Tractatus as explicated by Hartnack, I tried to understand it, but knew intuitively that it was nonsense. There could be no such language. The second part of the Tractatus talks about “the mystic” which can only be “shown”, AND Wittgenstein gives examples, most of which are quoted in Hartnack. (One time in the Stanford University bookstore I found a copy of the Tractatus, opened it to the second part and, sure enough, there was what Hartnack had quoted.) Here are a few to give the flavor of what can’t be “said”.

“Propositions can express nothing which is higher.”

“It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.”

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.”

“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is not this the reason that those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)”

(Hartnack, p 41-42)

Even in the first part of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein, talking about his propositions writes “…anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) (Tractatus 6.54) Quoted in Hartnack, p28, footnote 33.

At this point let me use “said” in a conventional sense to give a definition of a Zen Koan or Mondo as words which hint at what cannot be said. If this definition is correct, Wittgenstein is speaking in Mondos not only in the Tractatus, but in all of the cryptic quotes he made throughout his life.

In my opinion Wittgenstein in his life has recapitulated the long Eastern journey from the Buddha through Nagarjuna through Bodhidharma through Hui Neng and beyond. Because 20th century thought was already on this path, Wittgenstein’s accomplishment though incredible was not impossible.

This must now be posted.

In later posts I’ll talk about Wittgenstein’s later work, my own ideas about language, myth and reality, Mondos and Koans, the question: What is physics and how does it relate to “reality?”, and talk a little about my quote:

“Aristotelian logic: The curse of Western Philosophy.”

The Morass, part II

Ah, the morass: philosophy! First a not so quick but dirty definition of what I consider it to be. Philosophy is a practice of using rationality, logic and intuition in an attempt to understand what life and the world is all about. In trying to achieve this understanding as in any creative endeavor, intuition is vital. I think that intuition is undervalued and too narrowly understood by many. In an earlier post I’ve talked about the semantic aspect of language as meaning and understanding; and in my opinion intuition is involved whenever one has an “aha” meaning experience. Even in something as seemingly abstract as grasping a logical argument or in dealing with a mathematical expression intuition is what gives one understanding. Intuition intensified is one kind of epiphany, somewhat different than the examples mentioned above, but closely related.

Philosophy attempts to find answers to the mysteries of existence and the basis of knowledge, answers that are rational and logical, but also emotionally satisfying. The epiphanies involved in philosophy concern ideas which are stated in words and therefore by my definition are mystical. The problem with philosophy is that it operates on a deep level where, unlike science, there is no way of testing and repudiating one’s understanding or the understanding of the great philosophers of earlier times. In my opinion this is why philosophy fails to progress in the way science does. Philosophy does seem to enrich itself over time, but the deepest questions in philosophy are perennial and always controversial.  A particular example is the question of whether philosophy itself will ever be capable of gaining absolute profound answers to the deepest questions it asks or if the restrictions on philosophical methodology will forever condemn its answers to be relative and controversial. My own opinion is that the latter idea is the case, but that nonetheless philosophy is a valuable and worthwhile discipline. Of course this opinion is itself relative and no doubt controversial. It seems to me, however, that the quest of philosophy is a worthwhile journey whose destination will never be reached, but whose pursuit can be helpful in reaching that profound WORDLESS, satisfying emotional understanding that could be called Western Zen.

Now, a statement about philosophy having been given, it is time for commentary of various kinds. This commentary may extend to several posts. To begin I’ll talk about my background in philosophy and mention several books which are interesting, fairly easy reads, which give a deeper understanding of what I will be talking about, and which have been helpful to me in clarifying my thoughts.

At Stanford University as an undergraduate, after casting around, I ended up by the end of my sophomore year as a math major (1949). I was already more interested in physics than in math, but realized that I needed to approach physics from the theoretical side and studying the formulas and phenomena of physics without a mathematical background would never do for me. Math for me is much easier than physics and since I was academically bone lazy as an undergraduate, math looked as if it would require less work on my part. Math also was very interesting in its own right and I wanted to go much more deeply into the subject than would happen to me as a physics major.

In the course of things as a math major I ended up taking the elementary symbolic logic course in the philosophy department along with philosophy majors and a few other math people. While many of the philosophy majors found the course challenging, for me it was the only easy A I ever got at the university and was a sheer, fun delight. Later I took an advanced logic course and then, becoming curious about philosophy took a regular philosophy course. I do not remember what the particular philosophical subjects were in the course, though it was probably heavy on epistemology and the professor was likely a disciple of Wittgenstein, not necessarily a disciple of his actual teachings, but of his teaching methodology. This methodology consists of actually doing philosophy in the class rather than talking about it and explaining. Those of us who were interested and serious about the course sat in the front row of the class, listened closely and tried to take notes because the professor talked quietly and lowered his voice when stating something important (a behavior similar to that of my favorite physics professor, John Plaskett, later at the University of Virginia). I did well in the course, but now at this distance of time remember nothing of the course’s contents. I did realize, however, that I was really more interested in philosophy that any in other subject, but doubted my ability to actually understand this muddy approach to knowledge. I also realized that a change to philosophy would require a total commitment that I was unwilling to make. Much better for me to stick to math where I had some ability and could get by without too much dedication. Some twelve years later as I received my Ph.D. in physics I similarly resisted a total commitment to physics via a post doc partly because I was more interested in philosophy of science, but felt that I needed to actually practice a science before trying to philosophize about it. Also, I was interested in learning about other areas such as history, literature, psychology, and later economics. I felt that I wanted to understand everything and that a commitment to physics would preclude such.

As a senior at Stanford I took a course in philosophy of science taught by Professor Patrick Suppes (See Wikipedia), who was recommended by fellow students. The course was excellent and clear, and awakened in me an interest in philosophy of science. It also taught me in retrospect that I could have seriously mistaken convictions. In the course Suppes strongly repudiated the concept of “vitalism” in biology: the idea that there is some special attribute of “being alive”, apart from physics and chemistry, needed in order to understand life at a fundamental level. In my ignorance of the research going on at the time in molecular biology (this was before the explication of DNA) I thought vitalism completely reasonable. Conceivably, the final word on vitalism isn’t in, but it is clear that this idea is totally unnecessary for research in the fundamentals of biology and that I had been suckered in by a plausible but mistaken philosophical idea.

After another year at Stanford getting an MS in math I ended up in Pasadena, California working for the Naval Ordinance Test Station, Pasadena Annex. As I joined NOTS in December, 1952, I was subject to the draft, no longer having an exemption as a college student. I had actually been eligible since September, but the draft board in Honolulu was slow to wake up and I didn’t get my notice to report for duty until December. NOTS appealed this notice to the 6th army draft board in Los Angeles and I was granted a reclassification to 3C, an exempt status, for 6 months because of the importance of my job for “national security”. Six months later the local board reclassified me 1A and again the appeal board changed this to 3C. It was clear that this reclassification process was going to continue indefinitely or at least until I was 35 years old, at which age one was no longer subject to the draft. (I turned 24 at about this time.) Although neither the job at NOTS nor life in the LA area was all that unpleasant, I developed the strong feeling that I didn’t want to be stuck in either the job or the area so when the next 1A reclassification occurred, I declined to have any more draft appeals. In July, 1954, I entered the army as a private and reported to Fort Ord, California near Monterey for basic training.

After basic I ended up at Fort Huachuca, Arizona near the Mexican border assigned to a Company as SPP (Scientific and Professional Personnel) whose mission was to apply “modern” (vacuum tube) electronics to Battlefield Surveillance. I will likely later go into more detail about my experiences at Fort Huachuca. For the moment what is of interest was that at the post library I stumbled upon a book about philosophy of science that I found extremely interesting. This book was The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper who I had never heard of at the time. Before talking about this book, the seemingly simple “fact” that I read this book in the post library at Fort Huachuca at this time brings up a curious situation, in that the book, written in German in 1934, was not published in English until 1959 and I seemed to have read it in 1955 or 1956. Since I am a hard-core scientific realist, I’m not interested in any “mystic” explanations of this curious fact. Popper himself did the translation of the book during the 1950’s and it is possible that an early preprint made its way to the post library. Another, equally unlikely possibility, is that I read the book later and developed a false memory. My memory that I read it is fairly clear including an image of the place in the library stacks where I stumbled across the book. I didn’t check out the book so read it by going to that place in the shelves from time to time, pulling it out to read. Unfortunately, my mental image does not include the book itself so I have no memory of whether or not it was a solid hard cover edition. Whatever the case it doesn’t really matter when I actually read the book. It was certainly some time fairly early on in my life. What does matter is the “aha” impression it made on me.

An old philosophical problem is how we really confirm a scientific theory. Way back when, David Hume pointed out that logical necessity is ABSENT from our belief that a repeatable, familiar happening will continue to occur. The rising of the sun is the classic example. Actually, in my opinion, a pretty reasonable (as opposed to logical) case can be made in the case of the sun. With the confirmation of a scientific theory a logical case definitely cannot be made and, in fact, it matters. For example, classical Newtonian mechanics was accepted as true, perhaps even in an almost absolute sense, for hundreds of years (1659 – 1905) only to be shown as basically incorrect, only applicable in a limited domain. Hundreds if not thousands or an infinite number of confirmations of the theory were not enough to establish it beyond all doubt. What Popper pointed out was that endless confirmations could not establish a theory, but that a single solid experiment could refute it. I saw instantly that Popper was using a simple logical fact, well known to me from the logic course at Stanford. If A implies B, it isn’t true that B necessarily implies A. The classic example, hemmed in by suitable constraints is, if “it’s raining” then “the pavement is wet.” (I’ve put the simple statements A and B in quotes). Going backwards, “the pavement is wet” therefore “it’s raining” doesn’t work. The lawn sprinklers are wetting the pavement on a clear day. However the syllogism DOES work backward if we use the negation of the statements: not B implies not A, or if “the pavement is dry” then “it is not raining”. Popper elevated this simple logic into an entire book which turned out to be tremendously influential, leading to the idea that scientific theories had to be, in principle, refutable by experiment. The buzz word for Popper is “refutation” instead of confirmation

It seemed to me that Popper was really on to something. Later after my Ph.D. while teaching physics at Auburn University around 1966, I stumbled onto Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962. At that time I was delving into the history of quantum mechanics so although I found the book fascinating, I thought Kuhn was belaboring the obvious. Nevertheless, it became clear to me at that time that the history of physics showed that any current theory in physics was subject to destruction on the basis of one solid unexpected experimental finding. Kuhn had fleshed out Popper’s idea by defining “normal science” as proceeding with theoretical and experimental advances from within a “paradigm”, a generally accepted view of what the science’s “reality” was, the open questions within the science and acceptable ways of proceeding experimentally. Historically, a normal science in practice, would stop working as progress didn’t go as it should or as new seemingly unacceptable ideas reared their ugly heads. Something was radically wrong. Then a new paradigm would come into being usually, if not invariably, through the efforts of younger scientists. The science would then live in a “different world” in Kuhn’s words, within a new reality which was incommensurable with the old. Kuhn’s book gave many examples from scientific history to establish his views. The book became a craze not simply among thoughtful scientists and philosophers, but among thinkers in many fields commonly regarded as being outside of science. One could say, in fact, that Kuhn’s view established a new, revolutionary paradigm in the history and philosophy of science.

A few years after reading Kuhn, at a meeting of the Society for Religion in Higher Education in which Barbara was a member, I met Professor John Meagher of the University of Toronto who gave a paper entitled “Towards a Moral Theory of Idioms” which I found tremendously exciting. Meagher applied ideas to language similar to those of Kuhn’s concerning science, about how extended idioms in language form systems which lead to different kinds of reality. Both Kuhn’s and Meagher’s ideas grew out of the later philosophy of Wittgenstein who I had barely heard of at the time. Meagher kindly sent me a preprint of his article which I plan to talk about later.

In 1974 my life at Auburn went to pieces. I had not been successful at physics, partly because I did not publish the one important idea I had had and my marriage to Barbara fell apart. I left Auburn, driving across the country in a Volkswagen beetle to Cottage Grove, Oregon, site of the Cerro Gordo project, dedicated to founding a new kind of village which was to integrate many of the countercultural ideas of the time. During the attempt to get the new village underway, I lived in a community shared house in Cottage Grove. One of my friends at the “Washington Street house” was Fred Ure who had come to Cerro Gordo from the Los Angeles area. Fred had brought his extensive collection of books which became the Cerro Gordo library. Sometime during the next few years while browsing in the library I stumbled across a book, Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy by Justus Hartnack, translated by Maurice Cranston from the original Danish. The book explicated Wittgenstein’s philosophy in some detail and I was fascinated. Clearly, Wittgenstein’s ideas lay behind those of both Kuhn and Meagher.

At this point I want to think some more before talking about Wittgenstein. Was he the greatest philosopher that ever lived or a total fraud? Or somewhere in between? So it’s time to post this. (to be continued)

 

 

Interlude I

Interlude I

This will be a short post because I do want something to happen on the blog while I work on a more difficult, longer post. Sometimes working on the next post gets interrupted by doings such as skiing around here with the first snow. Then there are difficulties with making the writing clear, then guests, Thanksgiving away and so forth. Since I’m not a professional writer and have no obligation to write, I sometimes simply put pen to paper or pixels to screen as Susan says and save the results for later thought or for the bit bucket.

Let’s start with a comment on my last post “Into the Morass, Part I” about different kinds of epiphanies. This is from a friend, MER, who follows this blog.

“I have been thinking a lot about what you wrote, mainly, ”epiphany”. I’ve been trying to figure out, have I ever had an epiphany? I wasn’t sure if I had….but then when you wrote about music, I remembered. I had gone to a John Hyatt concert in Rutland, Vt. And he had two guitarists, a base, and a drummer with him. One of the guitarists, he did a solo. It was so good, it was if the music you could see floating out from his guitar and into the air. I was stunned. Never before had I actually seen the music.

Then thinking of art, I went to the Boston Museum of Art to see the exhibit of Monet. It was the first time for me to go to an actual museum of art and I was in my early 40’s. There I stood, looking at the different paintings of Haystacks. It took my breath away. Same haystacks, but different time of day, different season, every one, everything different. So much color, so much paint, layer upon layer, turning each into works of pure enjoyment.

Poetry…..Bill writes poetry….and his words are written down on anything he can find to write on. Cardboard to yellow legal pad. I guess I have an epiphany when I read his poems too. They express so much of his soul, again, his heartfelt words take my breath away and i am in awe. Those so far as I can think through, are my epiphanies.

I am so grateful that, little by little, I can have these experiences. I don’t look for them, I have no bucket lists, (don’t care to think of lists to do before I die) I live for the moment and when something wonderful happens….an epiphany! Awesome!!!”

In talking about epiphanies there are many directions one may go. I’m struck by MER’s comment that she wasn’t sure that she’d ever had an epiphany until she began to think about it. Then she realized that indeed she had had that kind of experience which is not simply enjoyment, but a feeling about being “more alive” and that life has meaning. Although one can’t program epiphanies, just becoming aware that one has had them and can have more of them in the future is, I think, the beginning of a light-hearted but serious religious practice. One looks for joy and meaning and finds oneself becoming aware of the depths of existence and the sacredness of everything, particularly one’s fellow beings. And one becomes grateful.

This feeling of gratitude is a key point. I remember a trip to the mountains, which at one point ended up with two of us climbing up Middle Sister from a camp at Upper Chambers Lake lying to the south of the peak. It was a day of blowing clouds with glimpses of sky and on the summit one could see down through deep rifts in the clouds to depths below and across to South Sister. This was some time ago before the summit register on top of Middle Sister was removed. I started idly reading through some of the entries, many of which were simply on scraps of paper loose in the aluminum register. Then I came across one that affected me deeply. It was written by a women who had climbed Middle Sister for the first time and expressed how grateful she was to have been given the experience of being on the summit. I immediately felt the same way; that I had been given an incredible gift, the kind of gift that makes life deeply meaningful. This time it was MY eyes that filled with tears.

On the way down the two of us glissaded using our ice axes. I worked my way more and more to the east where the slope steepened towards 45 degrees (which seems when looking down almost vertical). I was in some kind of easy relaxed zone. The glissade was a joy, but I warned my less experienced comrade to stay on the less steep ridge which was safer for him.  Being in the “zone” is another kind of epiphany which I will go into later, but for now I want to consider how epiphany or, indeed, “mystical experience” relates to philosophy and language.

Ah, philosophy! The morass deepens and I’m floundering. But I will thrash around and hope to extricate myself and hope to have more to say besides incomprehensible garbage.

Into the Morass, Part I

It’s time to begin talking about language, philosophy and Zen. Hence the morass. This is a huge topic which, if approached straightforwardly, has the promise of being transcendental quicksand. I will try to be clear, a hopeless task. But lack of clarity is only to be expected when journeying into a verbal swamp. The real challenge is to avoid a numbing boredom. So I’ll start with a story.

In an Easterly part of Oregon’s Diamond Peak Wilderness lies Fawn Lake, pretty in the summer, but with a much nicer ambiance in the winter. Naturally Fawn Lake is a popular cross country ski destination. Some time ago I was there with friends resting at the shore of the lake on a pristine winter day. The lake was hard frozen, covered with sparkling white snow while in the background behind the sides and back of the lake, with their dark, partially snow-covered firs and hemlocks, rose snow covered mountains, Redtop and Lakeview. These were not huge, impressive mountains, but just large enough to be an esthetic setting for the lake. As we sat there, we heard voices. A party of five or six young folk was approaching the lake via the main trail which comes to the lake fifty or sixty yards from where we were sitting. This trail for the last hundred yards or so runs straight at the lake, surrounded by trees and brush with no view whatever. Then it descends a final slope to the lake shore. We could hear the voices, but could not make out what they were saying, though there was much merriment and banter. One voice was that of a young woman. With my male imagination I visualized her as attractive, witty, but possibly a little empty headed and definitely absorbed with the social situation. As the party descended to the lake there was silence as they concentrated on the final downhill run. Then the female voice came distinctly, “But it’s beautiful.” As she said “beautiful”, her voice faltered and broke. She was clearly in tears.

I’m interested here in the experience she had just before she spoke those words. And interested also in my reaction at the time. I did not break out into tears, but felt a great joy at realizing that a fellow human being had had a wonderful epiphany, had truly seen the scene, and had been overwhelmed by the experience. Where language comes in is that the actual realization experience of both of us here, in the moment this experience happened, was beyond words. Language, the greatest of all human inventions, can talk about this experience but cannot, in thought, re-create the actuality.

I will give further examples of epiphanies and their relation to language. But first I’ll talk a little about the word “epiphany” itself and the related, “mystic” and “enlightenment”. When I use the word “epiphany” I refer to a basic experience of wordless meaning or understanding. The experience may lead later to an expression in words; for example, “But it’s beautiful.” On the other hand, it may be a silent realization of meaning or understanding. The experience may be of different intensities, weak or overwhelming and may or may not be accompanied by emotion. I use the word in a rather abstract way as implying nothing about the world, there is no connotation about “being on a road to Damascus”. For that I would use the phrase “mystic experience”. For me, and I think also in common usage, “mystic” carries often with its intensity an illogical confirmation of a metaphysical, religious, magical, or supernatural reality. Whenever I use “M” word my meaning will include an exposition of the accompanying myth; however, I will not consider the experience as confirming a belief. (More later on this topic.) The word “enlightenment”, the big Buddhist word, is unfortunate in the sense that it may well be meaningless. It can be considered perhaps as some kind of ultimate epiphany. Following the Soto Zen point of view of “gradual” enlightenment, I’ll stick to “epiphany” and let enlightenment take care of itself.

Now to examples of epiphany. Examples obvious to me are the appreciation of music and fine arts. I enjoy lots of music and this everyday enjoyment, I suppose, may be called epiphany lite. A “real” epiphany for me occurs only occasionally mostly listening to classical music in what I would naturally call a great performance. In fact, often I hear a performance that is note and rhythm perfect, as far as I can tell, but I have no deep response. Is it the fault of the performance or of me? Whatever the case, when an intense epiphany does happen with music it is a case where I doubt anyone would claim that the epiphany is not real because it cannot be put into words. Similarly with the fine arts. In the Prado museum, in Madrid I can look at what is perhaps its most famous painting, Las Meninas, with admiration, but without any emotional spark. However, when I walk into the Museum of Modern Art in New York I’m immediately “blown away” and walk from one painting or sculpture to another in a daze of continuous epiphany. Again the actual experience cannot be called up by words or recollection.

With music and fine arts things are simple. With language things are more complicated. One may get into ideas about the “two cultures”, the humanities and sciences, and things get interesting. (With language we’re getting near the quicksand which I’ll try to avoid.) For my first language example, let me introduce the great 20th century physicist, Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac, often referred to as PAM Dirac. Stories about Dirac abound and I will tell one. If you are a non-mathematical reader, you should know that even people with a great aptitude for math and theoretical physics often find themselves at sea. Such happened to a physicist attending a conference during a lecture by Dirac, who, incidentally was a master of clear exposition when it came to technical matters. In this case the confused physicist at the end of the lecture during the question period, raised his hand, stood up, and said something to the effect of “Professor Dirac, I didn’t quite understand the part of your lecture where you talked about ‘blah, blah and blah.’” He then sat down and awaited an answer. There was a very long silence. Finally the moderator said, “Professor Dirac, aren’t you going to answer the gentleman’s question?” Dirac, always very polite and speaking simply to the point, replied, “That was not a question, but a simple statement of fact.” This story is amusing because it shows a genius blind to the conventions of common language. It hints, however, at Dirac’s gift, an ability to see a deep, meaningful structure in the midst of insanely complicated mathematics. With quantum theory, on the one hand, there is linear algebra with its matrices and vectors having an infinite number of components, and on the other, partial differential equations operating on functions, whose arguments are real, but whose expression contain “imaginary” numbers. These two ways of doing quantum mechanics are called “representations” which express different “points of view”. They resemble one another seemingly about as closely as marmalade resembles taco sauce. Dirac, after switching to math and physics from electrical engineering in the early 1920’s, finally made it to Cambridge University. As a student there in 1925 his adviser passed on to him Heisenberg’s first great quantum mechanics paper. (See Paul Dirac in Wikipedia). This paper expounds the matrix-vector representation. Dirac soon saw how to strip away the complex particulars and go to a deeper, simpler, more abstract level, which allowed transformations among the different points of view. The deeper abstract theory in a way is easier to see and understand than all of the more complicated points of view that lead to it. After encountering it, at some point, I came to see it as profoundly aesthetic, simply as a great work of art. Never mind the mathematics. This was my epiphany.

Let me turn now to poetry and its epiphanies. I start by making a muddy, but useful distinction I came up with around my senior year at Stanford. The distinction is between aspects of language. The syntax of language and the semantics. Structure and meaning. Syntax concerns the rules of grammar how sentences are put together. Semantics concerns the meaning carried by language. This distinction is muddy because it does not really hold up. Consider the last epiphany example, the abstract expression of quantum mechanics. The beauty and hence the meaning (semantics) lies in what could be called pure syntax, the structure. However, much of the power of the epiphany came to me from the partly unconscious realization of the underlying “concrete” (sic) mathematics underlying the theory as well as the idea of moving among different points of view, all equally true: marmalade is no better or worse than taco sauce, each is valid with its own joys.

With poetry we have a similar sort of thing going on. When poetry works well a new kind of syntax merges with the words and meaning emerges. Consider a few of the lines from Wallace Stevens’s masterpiece, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. Incidentally, before he wrote this poem Stevens thought deeply about the idea of a supreme fiction, an idea we will take up when we again consider myth at some point. Start with the end line of the stanzas I consider.

Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.

A straight prose line that seems to make little sense. However, after reading some of the lines that precede this one, this and the preceding lines become totally mind blasting. The stanzas begin

The poem refreshes life so that we share,
For a moment, the first idea… It satisfies
Belief in an immaculate beginning

And sends us, winged by an unconscious will,
To an immaculate end. …

Stevens goes on… then

We say: at night an Arabian in my room,
With his damned hoobla-hoobla-hoobla-how,
Inscribes a primitive astronomy

Across the unscrawled fores the future casts
And throws his stars around the floor. By day
The wood-dove used to chant his hoobla-hoo

And still the grossest iridescence of ocean
Howls hoo and rises and howls hoo and falls.
Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.

Just reading and copying these lines the epiphany happens to me. However, we cannot program epiphany. You, dear reader may find these lines are simple nonsense without any relation, strange or otherwise. Although as a practice I favor Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen with its Mondos, has an aim similar to that of modern poetry, the aim of inducing a deep epiphany. Getting back to Dirac, once more, he did consider poetry and with his peculiar mind came up with this quote

“The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible.”

Was Dirac unaware he was writing great poetry? Actually I think not. He simply discounted his “mystic” (sic) insights, wrote them down in mathematics and was unaware that they had anything to do with his genius. Such is the false dichotomy between the humanities and the sciences that our culture preaches. More about that in another post.

I’ll bring this post to an end by noting that epiphanies are where you find them; not only in nature, life, athletics, the arts, science, history, engineering, but everywhere, everywhere. The aim of religious practice is to sensitize oneself to their presence, experiencing them in the proper way, seriously, with total openness conscious of their wordless meaning.