Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Finally, John Ralston Saul! well- at least a start...

Living the Human life is innately elusive. For instance, we can know everything there is to know as to how everything about human being works- yet to actually live ourselves into the world requires something else than such knowledge. Knowing about consciousness and brains and the like, helps me understand more of my ability to consider, but when I face the incessant stream of fresh moments that keep marching through me, it is I who have to consider them- not my knowledge of my I. And the same goes for you. What makes this a little more elusive, is that you and I can be standing shoulder to shoulder, and the incessant stream of new moments will be experienced differently and uniquely by each of us.

What I called the Incessant Stream, John Ralston Saul calls the Swirling Uncertainty. Both aptly name the real situation of Human life as well as the true nature of the environment in which we get to experience our powers of consideration. wuhoo!(?) We love considering when we get to consider the flavors of our favorite beverages and such. When we have to lean our selves into the swirling uncertainty though, we reconsider how much of a gift this considering thing is!

The swirling uncertainty is no small thing. I would point out, that at the time of Christ, the Pharisees dealt with it by reducing living to a myriad of codes to follow; for this Jesus confronted them: (notice his confrontations don't center on morality, but on something more like maturity, as the Pharisee's strategy in effect, stunted their considering muscles) .

Though he doesn't say it this explicitly, Saul in our day, looks at our Human situation and notes it as one where we have to consider our way into Swirling Uncertainty. We can try to stop the Swirling, (the Incessant Flow) or, we can develop our ability to consider. Since the Enlightenment project has had as one of its goals, the stopping of the swirling without success, maybe we should switch strategies and become more competent. Towards this, he writes his fantastic book, "On Equilibrium"; a title which will make sense in a bit. (Equilibrium here is used the way economists use it, not the way the rest of science uses it. In economics, equilibrium describes things existing in equalized dynamic movement, where as in science, equilibrium means that change has stopped. Two very different conditions, and as Saul has little respect for a lot of economist thinking, I think he's making use of this to be ironic.)

Some quick biographical back ground. Saul, grew up in a Canadian military family where his dad was an officer, went to McGill University and then Cambridge for his PhD where he studied French History or something like that. But more, he's run a multi-national oil company, and his wife was a Governor in Canada a while ago. He looks to be in his sixties now and through his lifetime, he's had some rather interesting perches from which to do his own considering. Of course, just google John Ralston Saul (note, there is a John Saul who is another novelist.) If you want a more professional bio.

I'll end here with one of Saul's beginning premises. Since the Enlightenment, Reason has been king. But reason is only one of our "tools" with which we can use in our considering. What about Imagination? Is this just a subset of Reason, or is Imagination something that exists with as much autonomy as Reason? Are there other "tools" as well? tools that are also autonomous but have existed under the dictatorship of Reason over the last four centuries? What could be the implications here? Saul raises some interesting ones, and we'll delve more formally into them in the next post.


  1. Looking forward to more, Mike. Yes, there's more than just Reason, but perhaps the best of them are nameless, or have only proper names, because they happen only once. We can find something similar about Jesus, Muhammad, and Gandhi and make them all a single commonplace.

    I think the ideas of equilibrium in Economics and in Physics/the rest of science can be reconciled. If the temperature is constant at a large scale, for example, which we can take as an elementary definition of equilibrium in Physics, still we generally suppose there is movement and change on a smaller scale. Temperature in statistical mechanics is a "collective measure" that describes properties that would look chaotic on a small scale. I think equilibrium is equally a matter of some chosen collective measure being constant in Economics. Companies are going bankrupt at the same rate as new start-ups are created, for example. The variables are different, but the idea of collecting together many X's is the same.

    The concepts of thermodynamics in Physics do not require that there is something that underlies a measurement of temperature, however, which allows your quibble to be sustained. It's enough to have operational procedures for measuring temperatures, without knowing what makes something hot or cold. Modern Physics takes statistical mechanics models to explain thermodynamic states, but it's not essential.

    In contrast, economic measures are gathered piece by piece. We can only measure the GNP of a country because every company has to report its income to a bank, say, which has to report the aggregate income reported to it to a central organization. It's not easy (or not possible?) to discover the GNP of a country by putting the equivalent of a thermometer in the right place.

    Nonetheless, if we subscribe to statistical mechanics as an explanation of thermodynamic states, which almost all Physicists do, so we know it to be true, then we can argue that there is no difference between equilibrium in Economics and Physics -- there is change on small scales, stability of some kind on larger scales.

  2. We have to keep hold of your excellent insight here Peter as we continue through Saul's ideas. And this is the context: Economic activity is the result of human activity- or an artifact. However, is the aggregate of "particle" interaction an artifact?

    First I would say no; though "temperature" might be an artifact, it communicates something about physicality that exists apart from human knowledge. Because this is so, such dynamics can serve as a basis of Metaphor. Which in my thinking, I want to construe Metaphor as something fundamentally structural and operational(?) that makes 'metaphors'- simile, hyperbole, synechdoce and the like- possible.

    In my sense of this "operational" metaphor then, (feel free to amend the word operational- I'm only trying to denote an activity as opposed to the name of a particular figurative form) we can speak of Metaphors as comprised by two components: its "Ground"- here the temperature of a physical system, something "concrete"- and its "Reach"- here the "non-physical" (less-than-concrete) or the artifact of human activity that economists study, where they want to apply the concept of equilibrium.

    SO, I would argue that Metaphor isn't something less than literal, rather, I would construe it as literal and MORE. Something truly paradoxical happens in Metaphor: the more you can know its Ground, the more you can infer its Reach- even though the realities beneath their respective components are not equivalent: something truly creative happens! (Moreover, as your sense of a particular Reach fills in, it then can communicate more insight back to its Ground- still without gaining equivalency.)

    You've provided us with a very apt ground from which we can perceive and critique the reach used by economists, as they use Equilibrium Metaphorically.

    Thanks Peter!

  3. Swirling (the Incessant Flow) is the primary problem McLuhan identified as well (via Poe):

    Ultimately, I think McLuhan's view is that the literary West post-renaissance world is colliding with the East, because the electronic age breaks boundaries at the speed of light. Neither is good or bad and it's all a cycle, but there are worlds of propaganda in freak mode, because they have no perspective to consider from.

    I'm skipping and reaching, but connect the BTS with metaphor and what it managed to identify for humor. Now imagine this as the "content" of a social media like facebook, asking people to generate and rate metaphors:

    we were promised jetpacks. :)

  4. Alex- Great link to Poe! I'm gonna spend some time today on your BTS idea (looks like fun!).

  5. In living organisms, I think the term corresponding to the equilibrium you bring up would be homeostasis... a condition that responds to states of deviation in order to maintain the system within certain parameters.

    Certain conditions are maintained at homeostasis within organisms as they grow and mature. Things like water and nutrient distribution and temperature as well as nerve synapse potentials among countless other internal processes. The amount of physical stuff that needs to be in balance just for me to write this is mind-boggling. Even without considering the extra-organismal environment!

    I think we are just beginning to discover the different systems that operate within and sustain our consciousness. Much like our understanding of our biology increased along with the development of microscopes and other laboratory equipment, our knowledge of our consciousness will increase with the development and implementation of relevant technologies. But these technologies must necessarily be able to interact with the environment of our consciousness. They are our multi-dimensional creations of language and art which can be represented in the physical but only fully exist when realized in the mind.

    - I composed the previous paragraph unaware that you explicitly mentioned "tools" at the end of your post. What a nice convergence!

    I did skip ahead and read your next latest post, where you mentioned Saul's six "qualities". I like how he severs our obsession with reason by putting equal emphasis on all of the qualities, and that he doesn't consider his list absolute.

    This may sound strange, but I think de-emphasizing the abilities of our language goes along with removing reason from it's throne. Just as reason occupies a limited sphere of our experience, so do our definitions derived from language.

    I find great dilemma in attempting to deduce the role of language in forming and interacting with my internal environment. Words are certainly capable of having an impact on my spirit, but I have a strong conviction that a delving into wordless territory is necessary in the pursuit of wholeness.

    Of course, this is an inherently bizarre inquisition...

  6. Hey Stephen! I just happened to scroll down and noticed your excellent commenting. I especially liked:

    "But these technologies must necessarily be able to interact with the environment of our consciousness. They are our multi-dimensional creations of language and art which can be represented in the physical but only fully exist when realized in the mind."

    In particular, I liked the phrase, "environment of our consciousness"; it's a nice handle to name our inner life that doesn't sound new-agey or tepid. I hope you develop the idea of this whole section which I outlined though.

    Words are wonderful! they can give insight and cause obscurity. For me, I treat words more like doorways, rather than containers, and I've come to value their connotative powers over their denotative ones. (Except when I have to read a technical manual though....)

  7. They are wonderful indeed, and I like your doorway analogy. I'm seeing how useful the lenses of connotation and denotation are...

    Looking forward to your next post!