Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Alchemy of Toast and Human Being

Really, I am making my way into the ideas of John Ralston Saul. Toward that goal, let me ask you a question to ponder:

Both bears and humans exist as selfs. (For an idea of self see Ursala Goodenough's piece,

So, for a bear to be more bear, what needs to happen? Likewise, for a human to be more of a human self, what needs to happen?

I just posted this as a comment over at 13.7 and I think it fits our dialog here as well; I hope you like it!

The allure of toasters is the toast they make. What is the allure of toast then? After listing everybody's response we would be able to sort them into two categories: physical/thermodynamic and non-physical/meaning. In a word, I would offer that toast's complex allure, could be understood in the word "alchemy".

To begin, the heart of the engineer behind the toaster, is wed to the heart of the bread maker; and all of us who eat toast become part of the wedding as well... such alchemy happens daily in a gazillion ways!

The question before us in our day, is "how does our shared alchemy result in something closer to gold than to lead?

Our current answer seems to stem from an idea that if we can make the right schematic, and everyone follows it, then we'll be in "working order". If successful alchemy were a matter of Physics alone, then schematics would have worked by now. It seems that alchemy requires a catalyst, and I would argue that for the human life, that catalyst is Meaning.

In terms of thermodynamics, work gets something done that is measurable. If a person feels a deep sense of Meaning behind there working though, something immeasurable emerges; what is that? Certainly something along the lines of alchemy, as well as something closer to gold than lead.

We can weld handles to things like metal pots. But Meaning doesn't lend itself to such easy handling. It squirms away from our grasps that try to bottle it, or make it formulaic.

Thus, in our world of Human Actuality, Technology and Meaning can interact with each other, and ultimately need each other. But neither can replace the other.

Humanness itself is essentially an Alchemy; remove the reality of either the physical or the non-physical, and the Alchemy fails to lead. Which for the human life
is not a fail safe, but a failure.

So when I as a thinker, utilize "religious" insight along with "science" insight, it's because I recognize the reality that has its basis in Alchemy, rather than in technology or spirituality alone.

Ursala, I think this is why I'm so in love with the last line of your post. How can Human Alchemy even begin without insight?


  1. I liked your comment, Mike. It has a grounded spirituality. It feels as if you have been in a place that I didn't have anything to say about for a month, perhaps a little more. [I'm not sure how much that's my preoccupation with there being not much creativity in my head just recently.]

    I posted something longer at, but then posted this:

    I've been thinking more about Mike's comment. I think of Alchemy as very much about what comes next, out of what we have, of what potential there is in what we do.

  2. No worries Peter, as long as you pipe in when you do feel inspired to say something; I really value your insight.

    I wonder if you would expound a bit on your idea of Alchemy coming next?

  3. I shall Expound. Foolish fellow to ask that! Alchemy brings things and ideas together, and sees what happens. To go against your post a little, alchemy catalyzes just by bringing together. A catalyst, as a reagent, is just something that is not used up when it helps other things to become something else.

    I feel, tentatively, that the role of Meaning in alchemy is different from your story. Our feeling for what means something and what does not, or of how much meaning there is in something, suggests what we choose, as alchemists, to bring together. A "feeling for meaning" is not quite the same as "insight", I think. It's not just what we think will happen, our insight, that decides our choices, it is also what we want to happen.

    I looked for rescue in your post, and found something helpful in your "remove the reality of either the physical or the non-physical, and the Alchemy fails to lead". The potential, perhaps, to lead to something, the what-comes-next, but not the choice?

    I fear I haven't done justice to your post.

  4. Well maybe thats where the Alchemists failed- they lacked a necessary catalyst! :)

    I agree that meaning is the active ingredient of alchemy. I'm not trying to make too much of the idea; I'm more trying to talk about our humanness with language that connotes a sense of action besides pure physics and technology.

    I'm also wondering- what are your thoughts about Kauffman's posts where we're considering Potential as something "ontologically" real?

  5. Mike,
    McLuhan discusses Narcissus, who got "narc"d to the idea that the image (in the toaster) is his own and he fell in love with it. We create technologies in our own image - they imitate us and we imitate them. Breaking out of that FIRST matrix of unchangeable self seems akin to reliving Fight Club.

    When reading poetry a phonetic rhyme SUGGESTS a meaning rhyme. It's up to the listener to determine if it rhymes with their internal ontology and whether the rhymer is an (artist/scientist) poet, but very few people read poetry :) we prefer to sing along to the words we know, particularly if the tune was slightly hard to learn/predict initially. Numb it down.

    All my life i've been so focused on reading technical books that I'm finally understanding the value of creative literature, which always seemed as pure entertainment to me (and probably a lot of fans of it as well). McLuhan is one of a kind though for he walks the line of fiction and reality.

    My thoughts aren't very organized today, sorry. We cannot separate life from change and change from difference. While the first matrix breakout gets us excited about progressive change, we may soon realize that we're quickly losing translation to the cyborgs of the past. We accumulate junk in our homes, minds and hearts, but we sure love that junk.

    I think our present "self" resides in the space between new and old language, but we suffer from selective ("utopian" - clear, perfect, explainable) memory that likes to cage our present self, cause it makes so many mistakes. I have a long time before I grasp mcluhan's crumb trail! Sometimes I lose track of what's real and what's symbolic.

  6. Alex,

    You've provided so many ideas to engage here. (For that matter, most of the comments have been extraordinary.) It's wonderful! Our Humanness is something so profoundly intricate: at the same time it's crass and delicate, dim and bright, ultimately creative- yet has often proved its blight... :)

    So here we are, trying to make sense, not only of Life, but Human Life: which has scads of relatives in Nature, but has no analog. So we look for reflections wherever we can find them: In the Pre-Copernican Platonic cosmology, our reflections demonstrate a fall; in the Post-Copernican Evolutionary cosmology, our reflections indicate a reach.

    So which is it, are we Perfection's Fall- or are we Potential's Reach? In Actuality, we've been both Bright and Blight. Some would call our dual presence (citizenship?) a contradiction. I think this is because they live through the framework of Binary Morality- right OR wrong. black OR white.

    But, I would argue, that a better framework would be built on the ground of Ambiguity. Which seen clearly, holds together ideas that situate as ambidextrous tensions: For instance, Something said needs medium and content; which when separated to a contradiction (one side is true, the other false) the message is lost. Mcluhan raised communication to an Ambiguity because WE mistakenly thought that communication ensued from content, and medium just performed menial labor. (Here it would be really interesting to listen to Peter Morgan riff about the relationship of Fields to "Elements".)

    Your ideas here aren't unorganized, they're complex and merely lack space. More, your concern is laser like, and speaks to what this blog and its movement is about. We are between eras of Language, and myself, I've written that for us as Human Being, "language is OUR matrix."

    So this is where we have to understand where language becomes reduced to propaganda in order to discern when symbol is real: While true language seeks coherence to reality, propaganda seeks coherence to ideology. And ideology itself is a self-referential framework that is abstracted from Reality. And ultimately, such abstractions reduce the size of Reality, from a Mystery requiring our full and complex humanness, to a project that can be managed through administrative prowess.

    When I listen to the rhetoric bandying about politics and economics and the like, it looks to me like wars of ideology; the language lacks its ground to Reality. Why? I can discuss many answers to the why, but for now let me just say that the point of my work here is to help in leading us away from lives of ideology and abstractions, into the fullness of our Humanness: I no longer see us as a fall from perfection. Instead, I see us as embodied Potential reaching for Actuality.

    Thanks for your thoughts Alex, they brought me into some new thinking for myself!

  7. Hey, Alex, I find Mike's posts really free me, when I'm in the mood. Nice comment yourself. Picking out a trivial response to something that could also be taken to be fundamental, I gotta say that my wife loves our junk more than I do.

    To return to Mike's question a few comments back, I'm finding Kauffman increasingly difficult because I can't get past his abuse of quantum theory -- at least it seems as much to me. It's perhaps more that he claims authority than that he uses it badly (which I suppose all of us have done). I've been taking Kauffman to be talking more about taking might-have-happened's with as much ontological seriousness as did-happen's than talking about might-happen-in-the-future's, which is the knee-jerk reaction I have to what Potential is.

    A riff on Fields and Elements? I'm not sure what meaning you're rhyming on, Mike, so I tried to create mine own, but I deleted it all for ridiculous.

  8. Peter- I'm glad- no thrilled that my posts have a freeing effect! I'm certainly not trying to fashion some new metaphysic- which as a "physics" can only lead to a "technology" based approach- i.e. New-Age spirituality and quantum mechanics.

    Meaning has a different kind of "causing" and I think is a better basis of our spirituality. Perhaps in the end, we'll find that Life isn't just metaphysical, it's metaphorical!

    As to the potential thing, this is what I find interesting. In a thought experiment, I can reduce Actuality to a level of nothingness for moments where not even space or its voidness exists. But try as I might, I can't get rid of potential.

    So is Potential merely a "might of happened" (good phrase for this discussion btw) or is it truly the Fundamental? I don't know, but as a theoretical ingredient, a lot can happen with it. I don't mean to start a thread here, I'm only describing my curiosity of it.

    As to the Field and particles Peter, I was drawing a parallel to the idea that before McLuhan, we conceived the words (particles) as doing the creative work; McLuhan's concept that the media (fields) were doing creative work seemed to parallel your Quantum Field Theory work. More of a hunch than something specific.

    But if something does come up for you, we should publish it on the front page. And that would go for anyone else that derives an idea from our interaction here.

  9. Mike, thanks for the kind words. Maybe the society is surfing a wave of realization. The individual has internal checks and balances for new ideas and while we can criticize the society for having considerably slower and lagging recognition, I cannot imagine an evolutionary configuration of any other sorts. What is unfortunate, is how far off in ideology and propaganda the society seems to be. But I don't want to write too much here, since I see you have a new post up.