This essay is fictional. Not in the way fiction is usually defined. But this voice – anyone’s voice, even a scientist’s voice – is the invention of a framework that puts experience in a particular slant and color. And there’s no way to avoid this.
Nothing can be discussed or known without being painted in some fictional color.
Even the colorless voice of a realist is a fictional application of colorlessness.
Phrases like “everything is this…” and “nothing can be that…” sound reductive and dogmatic. But in this case I’m talking about what can’t be known, not what can. Reality is unknowable. Stories are all that’s known.
In other words, claiming to know anything conclusive about the nature of reality is a sign of bullshit.
And knowing what is bullshit is a fundamentally different kind of knowledge. It’s not reductive, but expansive, because this discovery releases perception from cages of certainty, and awakens a questioning or metaphoric spirit. Read More »
Once upon a time a little girl was walking down a dirt road, beside a lively creek. There were five of them traveling together — the road, the creek, the dog, the grandmother and this girl – and they were all dancing their way to a waterfall, which is where the road stopped and Pan’s kingdom started. A few staggering clouds came along too, out of curiosity. And if the girl had entered paradise at that moment it would have felt like a let-down. The wilderness beyond the waterfall, and its mysterious beasts, which she knew from stories her grandma would tell her, would have lost their beguiling danger — that spice of potential doom, which the cooks of paradise always seem to forget.Read More »
If climate disaster has left us with no future do we still feel responsible to the earth that outlives us? Or do we say “who cares?”
If we say “who cares?” then our sense of responsibility was never anything more than a moral rule, a business deal of sorts, where we agreed to behave honorably as long as we were allowed to project our egos into future generations. But I think real empathy for a world without us is still possible, and I think it matters in some way that can’t be calculated on a strictly transactional basis.
The possibility of near-term extinction is new, but the underlying dilemma this presents is as old as the Big Bang, or older. Death is death. It comes to the individual as surely as it comes to the species, the planet, and the exploding universe itself. What’s different now is only this onrushing inability to avoid facing this fact. And I think this is a good thing, because it forces a confrontation with the many reductive delusions that have limited our creative participation in the world, which is our responsibility to something more than ourselves. The chief among these limitations has been a strict and too literal image of who we are, an identity that keeps us trapped in a solipsistic circle.Read More »
Kant described that “pathless land” (that “negative geography”) as a freedom to speak for oneself, trusting one’s own intelligence. And this implied that science at its best recognizes that its theories remain shadows on Plato’s cave. At its best science is attentive to deviations from what is believed to be real. And not in the way Karl Popper conceived of falsification, which is still reductive in its quest for a perfect theory. But rather, at its best science remains alert to what is “false in the true, and true in the false”, as Krishnamurti phrased it.
Creationists have an especially hard time with this. A mentality alert to anomalies in what is true and false doesn’t have a vested interest in defending its stories. The theories of science are not weak because they’re perpetually changing. They’re intended as provisional sketches of a universe wildly erring from anything we imagine. Or as the physicist Hans-Peter Dürr phrased it, “Science also speaks only in parables.”Read More »
I’ve been tremendously inspired of late by The Negative Psychologist — a doppelganger of Neg. Geo it seems. In every essay he finds a way to draw attention away from the conceptual level and back to what is actually happening in our heads (the function of thinking, as opposed to the abstract content of thought. Which is to say it tends towards “proprioception.”) Somehow he casually side-steps the trap of knowledge accumulation (of constructing an ego).
In his work I find countless heuristics in the form of amusingly critical observations. And his observations have a lovely sense of humor, a bemused detachment. “Ken and Barby Land”, for instance, makes me laugh. It describes that diabolically mundane work-a-day wold, the superficial world of constructs and images. This is from Gaining Perspective”, by The Negative Psychologist:
Such a mental condition might be called ‘Ken and Barbie land’, and another fitting image is that of the ‘Stepford Wives’. The scary thing is that, if we had our own way, we would probably opt for this as a full-time mode of being because it is so very ‘non-challenging’. We love not to be challenged. Easy is good! Easy is good! If you do not believe this, then just watch yourself for a day or two and see where your head is at for most of the time – are you in one of your various comfort zones (in the realm of the known), or are you somewhere new, somewhere challenging?
Here’s something very hard and extremely simple at the same time. A beautiful paradox. But it’s not an idea, that’s the hard part in a sense. Because we’re oriented to wanting some static knowledge that we can claim as ours. But knowledge is actually very difficult to process or really understand. To hold the idea that I’m selfish, for instance, isn’t the same thing as really facing my own selfishness. Real intelligence is honesty, not intellect.
Sometimes self-knowledge is a false cover, confirming our tired old convictions. But real self-knowledge is critical self-awareness. No firm conviction can survive the irradiation of critical (or negative) awareness. After all, I’m only being honest when I recognize that I can’t actually know anything for sure. The world is infinite, and my brain only measures a few measly inches. So being certain is a way of lying to myself, saying “reality is here in my grasp.” What I grasp is already past-tense, static and artificial.Read More »
I don’t know what is real. I know only stories. Reality itself is obscured behind an interpretive film. But if there was a way to remove these perceptual “cataracts” I’d blind myself, because I can’t make sense of reality without a story. Story and reality are impossible to separate. But I need to find a way to distinguish them. Otherwise I’m delusional. And this delusion has real and deadly consequences.
Stories create every objective thing and Other I encounter. Nations and races, for example, are highly selective distinctions that settle over the world like transparencies over a drawing. And when these fictional separations are conflated with reality, real national and racial divisions erupt. These divisions are not facts of nature, but what physicist David Bohm called “artifacts” of the story, of my own imagination.
There’s something electrifying here. Against a fact of nature I’m helpless. But my own agency is revealed in artifacts of the imagination. It suggests that much of what passes for human nature, including aggression between groups, is not inevitable.Read More »
More coherent modes of language arise when the following perspectives are realized (at the very least):
1) We each see different parts of the proverbial elephant.
This suggests parallel truths. A multiverse. Each infinite and also limited.
2) We look with different levels of magnification. A microscopic vision of the elephant’s trunk at the cellular level is not more true than a macroscopic vision of the trunk as a whole. They are relevant to different contexts.
This makes it easy to suspend judgement.
3)The elephant is a moving target. The trunk we describe is already a different shape. Reality changes as we learn. I go into this a little more in Ritual, part II, in the section titled “The Simplifying Potential of Negative Language.”
This is a humbling perspective.
4) Wildest of all: The elephant we perceive is actually not the elephant itself. But I think a distinction needs to be made between actuality (the “holomovement,” the creativity of nature itself), and reality (the “things” we abstract from actuality as information, perceptions, theories or thoughts).
If we understand this in our bones, then there is no alienation. Then the world becomes sacred in the absence of religion.Read More »