<= 2002.03.22

2002.03.24 =>

stop worrying & love the bomb

I have ideas for turning workshop into performance art. I could start using the phrase "subtle knife" more often, e.g., "I felt that this [character/style/metaphor/image/font/quotation mark/white space] was a subtle knife." Then I would not need to say anything for the remainder of class.

The Marlowes are home, therefore I am as well. It turns out that Nemo smelled terrible all week because a) he had been piddling in his cage, and b) I had not been brushing his teeth with the special beef-flavored toothpaste. If I ever have kids.

It kind of fucks with the whole east/west divide when you learn that Aristotle influenced the Muslim world as much as he did the Christian, and that Thomas Aquinas et al. actually received Aristotelian thought as filtered through people like Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkan ibn Uzalagh al-Farabi.

God is the highest One of neo-Platonic philosophy and Aristotle's supreme First Cause. All attributes of Deity, including the power of creation, are identical with his essence, and that is why all analogies comprehensible to the human mind fall short of strict truth. The One thinks Itself—God contemplates Himself—and this eternal act of self-examining reflection instantaneously gives rise to an intellect which is also an archangel. This intellect-being, the first emanation (which is not an emanation in the same sense as subsequent emanations), has a dual nature which manifests on its own level as a material sphere and an active intelligence. This dual emanation gives rise to a second emanation, also a sphere and an intelligence, and the process continues until there are nine emanated spheres and intelligences. The spheres, beginning with the invisible all-encompassing field, include the spheres of the fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon. The lunar sphere is associated on the spiritual side with the Agent Intellect, which is also the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel first conveyed the Qur'anic revelation to Muhammad and presides over the realm of Platonic archetypes.

You can see shades of Dante in there, not to mention the Kabalah. Later on, he gets awful close to the early Buddhism of the Pali canon, except that the Buddha steered clear of directly mentioning the soul:

For al-Farabi, the only proper goal of any human being is the nurture and development of the rational power by use of the will. The wise individual will reach falsafa (philosophy), recognition and contemplation of the principles of Being. One who tarries in the confusing mental wasteland of becoming remains undeveloped as a rational soul. Though one may find the sensual life of the tellurian caravanserai pleasant and appealing, it contains the greatest danger: one in whom the rational intellect is not nurtured will not experience the immortality of the soul after death of the body. By becoming self-consciously immortal in life, the end of all true philosophy, one remains self-consciously immortal at death, which is the dropping away of the perishable vesture that embodied one's spiritual nature.

In trying to explain the concept of a grand unified theory, Stephen Hawking used the metaphor of a roulette wheel to explain how the four fundamental forces of physics (electromagnetism, gravity, strong and weak nuclear) could be seen as different manifestations of the same force at sufficiently high, Big Bang-like energies:

The Weinberg-Salam theory exhibits a property known as spontaneous symmetry breaking. This means that what appear to be a number of completely different particles at low energies are in fact found to be all the same type of particle, only in different states. At high energies all these particles behave similarly. The effect is rather like the behavior of a roulette ball on a roulette wheel. At high energies (when the wheel is spun quickly) the ball behaves in essentially only one way—it rolls round and round. But as the wheel slows, the energy of the ball decreases, and eventually the ball drops into one of the thirty-seven slots in the wheel. In other words, at low energies there are thirty-seven different states at which the ball can exist. If, for some reason, we could only observe the ball at low energies, we would then think that there were thirty-seven different types of ball!

It's a commonplace that physicists and mathematicians like their theories "beautiful" or "elegant"; it seems to me that, in general, what makes these theories beautiful is a process of simplification and identification like that described above. The wave and the particle are the same (quantum mechanics); matter and energy are the same (special relativity); space, time and gravity are the same (general relativity); all elementary particles of matter, and all elementary particles that carry force, are the same string at different vibrations (string theory). The Many move toward the irreducible One.

The study of comparative religion is not so different in my mind. At low levels, when the spiritual gets too bound in human affairs, you have crusades and inquisitions and all the usual horrors that atheist rationalists use as arguments against religion. I spent many years in that camp. Nobody ever bothered to tell me that at sufficiently rarefied levels of thought—high energies, to extend the physics metaphor—Aquinas and al-Farabi and Buddha start to sound remarkably similar. You know what Blake said:

Principle V. The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation's different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is every where call'd the Spirit of Prophecy.
Principle VI. The Jewish & Christian Testaments are An original derivation from the Poetic Genius. This is necessary from the confined nature of bodily sensation.
Principle VII. As all men are alike (tho' infinitely various), So all Religions , &, as all similars, have one source. The true Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius.

The funny thing is that it was the study of math that started this train of thought a year and a half ago. Gödel, especially Gödel combined with Nietzsche, just about killed me; rationalism was full of big fat holes and I didn't know how to handle them. It was a fluke that some Buddhist writings fell into my lap around then: they found the same problems with deductive logic, but for some reason—probably because there was no paternal, tyrannical God to kill—they had no problem with falling back on faith and intuition. Nietzsche thought this was a weakness, but then he had to manufacture the whole elaborate & implausible scheme of the eternal return to make himself feel better about a Godless world, so whatever. I'm over him.

Coming to terms with all of this has felt a lot like admitting I'm gay, or something. Among a certain subset of left-wing intellectuals such as ourselves, "faith" is perhaps the one remaining dirty word. At this point I think it were best to let that taboo, like the others, fall away.


<= 2002.03.22

2002.03.24 =>

up (2002.03)