Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Rock by Lake Silvaplana

One of the most important and least popular lessons taught by the history of ideas is that every attempt to answer the big questions—where did we come from, why are we here, where are we going, and so forth—gets whatever support it has from two distinct sources. The first of these is the factual evidence, if any, that backs it; the second is the emotional appeal, if any, that it offers to those who embrace it. Habits of thinking hardwired into contemporary culture treat the first of those as though it’s the only thing that matters, and react to any mention of the second with the same sort of embarrassed silence that might greet a resounding fart at a formal garden party.  Since human beings aren’t passionless bubbles of intellect, though, the second source of support is fairly often the more important and the more revealing of the two.

The flurry of apocalyptic predictions that surrounded December 21, 2012 makes as good an example as any. The factual evidence supporting the idea that anything unusual would happen on that date was—well, to call it dubious is by no means a minor understatement:  the entire furore was based on misinterpretations of the Mayan calendar that wouldn’t have survived fifteen minutes of unbiased research, but which were accepted as gospel and padded out by industrious true believers into a magpie’s nest of arbitrary speculations, misquoted or invented prophecies, and scientific hypotheses yanked out of context and hammered into shape to support the preexisting 2012 narrative.  Those of my readers who tried, as I did, to question that narrative will recall the reaction from believers: talk about the facts and you could expect an endlessly shifting assortment of justifications for belief; talk about the narrative, its parallels in previous apocalyptic fads, and the tangled emotional drives that all too clearly lay behind it, and you could expect a furious insistence that bringing up such matters is irrelevant and unfair.

Questioning the modern faith in progress, on those rare occasions when such questioning happens at all, is a good way to observe a similar species of handwaving in its native habitat. As mentioned in last week’s post, the concept of progress has no content of its own, no single measurement by which it stands and falls.  Thus no matter how many things are pretty clearly regressing—and these days, the list of things that are regressing is getting quite long—believers can always find something or other that appears to be progressing, and use that to defend the narrative. When that fails in turn, as it generally does, there’s always something else, even if that turns out to be no more than the pious hope that the regress will turn out to be a temporary hurdle over which, as the myth of progress demands, humanity will sooner or later leap. Move the discussion to the narrative of progress, its parallels among other triumphalist narratives, and the emotional drives that lie behind it, though, and you’ll get the same sort of angry denunciation that came from believers in the 2012 narrative.

It’s going to be necessary to risk that reaction, and a variety of other unhelpful responses, in order to glimpse a shape of time better suited to the realities of our present situation than the dead straight Joachimist line of progress or the Augustinian U-shape of apocalypse that runs from Eden to the fallen world to the cataclysmic arrival of the New Jerusalem, however renamed. The route past those overly familiar alternatives requires attention to the emotional dimensions of the shapes we give to the inkblot patterns of time, and in particular, to a distinctive emotional payoff that the narratives of progress and apocalypse share in common.

Therapists call it provisional living: the belief that life will become what it’s supposed to be once x happens. What x might be varies as wildly from case to case as the diversity of human psyches will permit. Among individuals, it might be losing twenty pounds, being promoted to that supervisor’s position you’ve always wanted, getting a divorce, or what have you, but it always has two distinctive features.  The first is that x serves as an anchor for a flurry of unrealistic fantasies about the future that will supposedly arrive once x happens; the second is that x never happens, and is more or less chosen—subconsciously or otherwise—with that outcome in mind.

It’s precisely the fact that x never happens that makes provisional living so tempting.  Most of us are aware on one level or another that the choices we prefer to make do not reflect the values and beliefs we claim to hold, and are not going to bring us the lives we think we ought to have.  Confront that reality head on, and the message that the statue of Apollo said to Rainier Maria Rilke—"you must change your life"—becomes hard to ignore.  The avoidance of that reality is therefore the cornerstone on which most dysfunctional lives are built.

Provisional living is among the most popular ways to engineer that avoidance.  The pounds you can’t lose, the promotion you won’t get, the divorce papers you never quite get around to filing, or some other x factor becomes the villain you can blame for the failure of your choices to reflect your ideals and bring you the life you think you should have. Meanwhile the dreams that pile up on the other side of the change that never happens can get as gaudy as you like, since they never have to face the cold gray morning light of reality. Not all those dreams are happy ones; people are almost as likely to put fantasies about suffering and death on the far side of x as they are to stock the same imaginary space with wealth, power, and plenty of hot sex. It all depends on the personal factor.

Progress and apocalypse, in turn, offer the same payoff on a collective level. The imagined world of the future, whether it’s the product of business as usual or of the cataclysmic repudiation of business as usual, becomes a dumping ground for every kind of fantasy, and those fantasies never have to stand up to the test of reality because the x event that’s supposed to make them real never quite gets around to happening.  This allows believers in progress and apocalypse, like other practitioners of provisional living, to put a wholly imaginary world at the center of their emotional lives.  This makes it relatively easy for them to ignore the depressingly ordinary world in which they actually live and, more to the point, the role of their own choices in making that world exactly what it is.

The imaginary future worlds conjured up by the mythologies of progress and apocalypse, in turn, are pallid reflections of an older and more robust conception, the belief in a heaven of immortal bliss to which the souls of true believers ascend after death. That conception is so thoroughly hardwired into Western culture that it can take quite a bit of research to grasp how much chopping and stretching had to be done to older ideas of postmortem existence in order to make them fit a heaven-centered narrative. It’s indicative that when the concept of reincarnation came back into circulation in alternative circles in the Western world in the 19th century, it was at first denounced in incandescent terms.  What made it "disgusting" and "repulsive," to note only two of the heated labels applied to reincarnation in that long-forgotten debate, was precisely the suggestion that human souls after death would cycle right back to the same world they had just left and live with the consequences of their own choices.

It’s at this point that we return to Nietzsche, for one of the central themes of his philosophy was an edgy analysis of the creation of imaginary "real worlds" by the human mind as a way of devaluing the world we actually inhabit. That was an even bigger issue in his time than it is in ours, with approved versions of 19th century Christian piety claiming that the proper response to every injustice was to wait patiently for payback in heaven, and a philosophical milieu in the universities in which airily abstract speculations about the Absolute had all but replaced meaningful attention to the realities of human existence. The phrase "provisional living" hadn’t been invented yet, but the practice was central to the social morality of the Victorian era, and it formed one of the central targets of Nietzsche’s grand project for a revaluation of all values that would take life itself as its touchstone.

That project had for its core theme the affirmation of existence as it actually is—in Nietzsche’s own phrase, a yes-saying to life that would counter more than two thousand years of naysaying morality, philosophy and spirituality.  As he developed his critique of the conventional wisdom of his time, his insistence on saying yes to life as it is became increasingly forceful. That journey reached its final destination in August of 1881 on a walk around Lake Silvaplana in the Alps, at a roughly pyramidal mass of stone that still stands beside the lake:  "six thousand feet beyond man and time," as Nietzsche wrote excitedly on a scrap of paper at the time.

If, as Nietzsche thought, the only ideas that matter are those conceived while walking, it may be useful to spend a few moments strolling along the path that led up to his formula of affirmation, not least because its early course seems to have escaped the notice of contemporary scholarship on Nietzsche.  A classical philologist by training, he applied a specialist’s familiarity with ancient Greek thought to the more immediate problems of philosophy and Western culture that concerned him in his major works. Most of his core conceptions can thus be traced back at least in part to one particular school of Greek and Roman philosophers, the one such school that affirmed life as it is with as much verve as Nietzsche himself: the old Stoics.

Mention the word "Stoic" to most people these days and you might, if you’re lucky, get some sort of vague sense of gritted teeth and unwillingness to crumple under the impact of pain. Off past that dim misunderstanding lies one of the most challenging adventures in human thought, a sustained effort to sort out human life on the basis of what we actually know about the world. The Stoic school of philosophy was founded around 300 BCE by Zeno of Citium, and became one of the major systems of classical thought, retaining a lively presence across the Mediterranean world until the long night of the Dark Ages closed in. Its core insight was that human beings can control only two things—their own choice of actions and their own assessments of the things they experience—and that sanity consists of recognizing this fact and refusing to make any emotional investment in those things that aren’t subject to the individual will.

In any situation, said the Stoics, the job assigned to human beings is to recognize the good and act accordingly. Nothing else matters, and the point of Stoic spiritual practice is to get to the point where, in fact, nothing else matters. The radical affirmation of the world as it is was one standard element of the Stoic training: from the Stoic perspective, the world is what it is, and though the Stoic may freely choose to fling himself into a struggle to change some part of it for the better, and unhesitatingly lay down his life in that struggle, no power in heaven or earth can make him whine about it.

The Stoics took that formula of radical acceptance to an extreme that few later thinkers have ever been willing to contemplate. Most philosophers in the classical world accepted the theory that the motions of the planets and stars shaped events on Earth, and speculated that after an immense length of time, the heavens will repeat the same patterns of movement and bring about a corresponding repetition below. Stoic philosophers embraced that theory, and built up a worldview in which the whole universe moved  through endlessly repeated cycles from one ekpyrosis—"Big Bang" would not be an inaccurate translation of this bit of technical Greek—to the next, with every single event duplicated down to the last detail in each repetition. It’s one thing to accept the present moment, and another to accept the whole of your life; it’s quite another to imagine that same life repeated endlessly through infinite time, and accept that as a whole, without wishing a single thing to be different. That’s the state to which the most extreme Stoics aspired.

That was the vision that came crashing into Nietzsche’s mind as he stood beside the rock by Lake Silvaplana.  Suppose, he said, we engage in a thought experiment. Scientists tell us that there is a fixed quantity of matter and energy in the cosmos, and no sign that the universe has a beginning or an end. (This was all accepted scientific opinion in the late 19th century; the Big Bang theory was still far in the future.) Given a finite amount of matter and energy and a fixed set of natural laws working over infinite time, every event any of us experiences here and now must have happened an infinite number of times before, and will happen an infinite number of times again, in an eternal recurrence that admits of no variation. As you consider your life, past, present and to come, can you face the prospect of infinite repetitions of that same life? Can you joyously affirm that prospect—can you will it?

It’s hard to imagine a more all-out assault on provisional living, or a more forceful challenge to live up to one’s ideals. As he passed through his few remaining years of sanity, though, Nietzsche seems to have convinced himself that his thought experiment was in fact a reality, that every moment of his life had in fact happened countless times before and would be repeated countless times again. I sometimes wonder if that’s what finally pushed him over the edge into madness. Like most thinkers whose work makes a fetish of ruthlessness, Nietzsche was obsessively kind and gentle in his personal life. As he stood there on the Piazza Carlo Alberti, hearing the thump of the teamster’s stick and the terrified cries of the horse, growing more agitated by the moment, it’s all too easy to imagine the voice whispering in his mind:  can you joyously affirm this, over and over again, from eternity to eternity?

A moment later he was sprinting across the piazza, flinging himself between the drover and the horse. It was a classically Stoic thing to do, and I suspect that if he’d known that what was left of his sanity wouldn’t survive the moment, he’d have done it anyway.  Fiat justicia, ruat caelum, said the old Stoics:  let justice be done, though it brings the sky crashing down. That it was his own mental sky that came crashing down was, as the Stoics also liked to say, a matter of indifference.

It was Nietzsche’s great misfortune, and a central flaw of his philosophy, that he never quite managed to grasp that the opposite of a bad thing can also be a bad thing. To challenge oneself with the vision of eternal recurrence as a thought experiment is one thing, and I recommend it to my readers as a useful exercise. If that vision were in fact the literal truth, could you give the rest of your life a shape and a purpose that would give sufficient meaning and value to everything you have already been and done and suffered, so that when you add it all up, you can joyously affirm the whole pattern—and what would the rest of your life need to become in order for you to do so?

To pass beyond that, though, and to try to inhabit a cosmos in which everything is fixed by fate, in which everything revolves through the same series of events endlessly from eternity to eternity, and in which the only freedom open to the will is to affirm that sequence joyously or vainly reject it, is to court Nietzsche’s fate for no good reason.  Insisting on a cosmos in which everything is fated to remain exactly as it has always been is as useless, in practical terms, as insisting that one fine day in the not too distant future, the march of progress or the arrival of apocalypse will transform the cosmos into whatever you think it ought to be. 

Both these extremes, Nietzsche’s just as much as the one he so forcefully rejected, impose a shape on time that can’t be justified on the basis of our own immediate experience of time.  The rigid lockstep of the eternal recurrence is just as hard to find in the course of our lives and the course of history as are the invincible upward march of progress or the satisfyingly sudden full stop of apocalypse.  It would take a later thinker, drawing on Nietzsche’s insights but avoiding his habit of countering one extreme by going to the other, to trace out a shape of time that reflects the world of human experience—or, more specifically, the world experienced by human beings who happen to be living at the peak of modern industrial civilization and have begun to glimpse the long road down on the peak’s far side. We’ll discuss that vision in the next post in this sequence.

134 comments:

Leo said...

Damn Cliff-hanger.

first up:
http://amelburniansresponsetoovershoot.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/preliminary-peak-oil-technical.html
A draft for a submission for the peak oil technical challenge.

How was the age of limits?

Mister Roboto said...

Therapists call it provisional living: the belief that life will become what it’s supposed to be once x happens.

There was point in my young life where I did just such a thing, but I did it with something that I was able to actually make happen, and guess what the result was? My life didn't become what it was "supposed to be" in my sophomoric imaginings. Rather, it became a rough equivalent of having my entire head dunked into a bucket of something unspeakably foul and nasty. To say that was a lesson would be to rather understate the matter.

wildwoodchapel said...

I'm going to take a stab... Dionysus and Apollo, solar and telluric, the moon and the Holy Grail...

"In this state one enriches everything out of one's own fullness: whatever one sees, whatever wills is seen swelled, taut, strong, overloaded with strength. A man in this state transforms things until they mirror his power - until they are reflections of his perfection. This having to transform into perfection is - art."

Mark Luterra said...

Interesting! I never quite know where you will go next in your deep exploration of the shape of time.

I feel that stoicism is perhaps not the only antidote to provisional living. There are any number of answers to the big questions, fact-supported or not, that place primary importance on the here and now: creating the experience we desire and living as we would wish to live.

I also think you are a bit ahead of yourself in seeing the end of progress. Technological progress has not yet slowed to any great degree. The pace of scientific research and publication is still accelerating as more countries come on board. Our understanding of and ability to manipulate genetics is still in its infancy, with the usual predictions of utopia or apocalypse as we continue to experiment.

Certainly, in addition to the obvious statement that infinite progress is impossible in a finite world, we are reaching the peak. In terms of per capita energy and purchasing power, we are already in the regression phase. All this is to say that the Joachimist shape of time still resonates with many, and while it is prudent to lay the foundations of alternative shapes of time now, I don't expect a mass exodus of the progress-ites in the next few years.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, thanks for the submission! Age of Limits was interesting -- as usual, the conversations around the campfires were the best part.

Mister R, at least you had the courage to go through with it and learn the lesson! One of the many problems with provisional living is that it's a way of avoiding the learning process.

Wildwood, stay tuned.

Mark, of course Stoicism isn't the only option -- I brought it in because it's relevant to Nietzsche, who's a central figure all through this sequence. As for the rate of progress, you've just proved my claim that believers in progress can always find something to justify their belief. I find Jonathan Huebner's argument that innovation peaked in 1873 far more believable than the often-heated denunciations his paper has fielded -- for every field in which there's been significant advances in the last ten years, it's easy to name several that have been spinning their wheels, and many broader measurements commonly used to track progress as a whole have been in reverse for a good long while now. More on this in an upcoming post.

Bret said...

Sorry but I can't help myself, in honor of my first day at a new school I'm going to take a shamelessly uneducated guess and it is Fritz Schumacher.:-)

skinnermichael said...

Hi Dr Greer, Can you reccommend some reading material for me to find out more about Stoical Philosophy please? I've read Marcus Aurelius Meditations and I like it; is there a book that gives a good outine of the whole lot of what the Stoics were all about, sort of the equivalent to Penguin book of Buddist scriptures that I've just got through reading. Thanks dude.

William Yeates said...

The new acquired ability to watch porn on your glasses.

http://news.yahoo.com/worst-fears-google-glass-coming-true-fault-224711168.html

That alone should be good for keeping the myth of progress alive for at least a year, at least.

So even as things fall apart around us everyone is gonna be talking about how f'in swell every thing is as they go out and sell a kidney to make the down payment for the new Google glasses? Why so they can look like Arnold Poindexter on revenge of the nerds!

Vesta said...

Notwithstanding other patterns of time, elements of the progressivist vision may be baked into the cake of human psyche by selection and natural history. An expectation of 'progress'- in the sense of some sort of personal benefit- can be a great motivator to action. A positive, even unrealistic, bias to this belief may occasionally benefit one's family/kin/species greatly, even if in fact it does not usually work out well personally.
What strengthen's the herd often kills the individual. To the extent that a bias toward positive expectations of 'progress' inspires individuals to make choices that usually suck but occasionally pay off big for their genes, the progressivist pattern may have evolutionary roots. (Anti-group-selectionists please stifle protest, or view this as a purely social-evolutionary argument).
JMG, your 'gaudy dreams of provisional living' may partly be the outcome of this bias among progressivists who lack the- courage?- to actually cast the die of our bias.
Sorry for the somewhat tangential comment. I'll leave it to you how this might relate to other patterns of time, or to blow it up entirely. Thanks for another though provoking post.

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

It's really unfortunate that we've associated Stoicism with giving up on happiness, when it would be closer to say their goal was to give up on unhappiness.

Stoicism is also yet another case of modern progress turning out to be reinvention: cognitive-behavioral therapy is largely applied Stoicism.

Is it perhaps telling that Western psychologists are more apt to compare their ideas to Buddhism than to the Western tradition they actually most resemble?

Odin's Raven said...

Thanks for that nice essay.

The notions that people can accept may be limited by their abilities. The recent report of a substantial decline in reaction times since the Victorian era,taken as an indicator of intelligence, supports the idea of regress since then.

Tom Bannister said...

Sounds the conception of time Eckart Tolle talks about in 'The power of now'. As he points out too this conception of time appears across many different religious/spiritual/philosophical traditions. Its just a pity its not recognized more for what it really is.

BrightSpark said...

Stunning, and thank you for that little philosophical excursion on a rather mundane Thursday.

Stoicism has always fascinated me, since I spent a forced stay in hospital and when the only book around me was Tom Wolfe's "A Man In Full", that among other oddities, has a character who became obsessed with stoicism, specifically, Epictetus.

I sort of came to the personal conclusions (which may be wrong) that stoicism represents the closest attempt that a mainstream faith/philosophy in the Western tradition has come to some of the traditions of the Eastern world, mainly in terms of its view of time, but of course it seemed to lack the fullness of say, the Tibetan bardo teachings. Or so I thought.

I think Bertrand Russell also had a bit of a point when he said that whilst he had a soft spot for stoicism, at the end of the day it was a rather lonely and brittle tradition, without the social rituals that other faiths had at the time. But who knows what stoic sources he read and didn't read at the time he wrote his history of western philosophy.

But the stoic parallels to Buddhism are still fascinating, and they show that the Western tradition has as much of value as anything in the East, not to mention actually being culturally accessible. And honestly, who knew and who actually teaches that part of Nietzche these days - any university teachings on Nietzche tend to just bag the man.







BrightSpark said...

And I was going to say, is that modern thinker Robinson Jeffers?

Jamie said...

JMG I enjoy your posts immensely and this one I found especially interesting. However, I am finding myself further confused by facing the reality of the future. Call it provisional living (now you mention it, it could be!), but I feel that I need to make certain changes to adapt to the coming times when we slide down the other side of Hubbert's Peak, into the compost bin of history as it were. The changes I feel need to be of spiritual nature as well as practical (job etc). Im growing some of my own food and practicing 'self-sufficiency' skills, making things rather than buying them, which is a start. I've just read The Year of The Flood, by Margaret Atwood. This got me thinking about the 'spiritual' nature of facing the future (not necessarily religious more reflective, just call it spiritual for want of a better word). What I'm trying to ask, in so many words, is whether you could give some pointers to resources in developing an Earth-Future-centric spiritual side? I get the impression that druidry is Earth centric, so that could be a good place to start.

Twilight said...

I think this is an effective way to present this. Neither the U-shaped or infinite linear progression imply that anyone will pass this way again, and therefore of what value is good stewardship? A circular/cyclical shape, even if we avoid the literal extreme, makes clear the value of taking care of the place and provides a more intimate connection to those who will eventually come after.

PV Learning Garden said...

You have surely shined a mirror on my life with your post today (and throughout this series). Not certain I'm grateful, but perhaps I will be if I subsequently manage to leave behind my provisional life (lives!) and throw away the excuses for not living as I should.

John D. Wheeler said...

One problem with Nietzsche's thought experiment: there are infinities, and then there are INFINITIES. For example, there are an infinite number of whole numbers. But between every two whole number, there are an infinite number of rational numbers.

So, between the time you live this life and the time you live it exactly the same way again, you may live it an infinite number of times with an infinite number of variations. Such is the nature of infinite time.

As to the matter of Stoicism, I like to paraphrase Yoda: "There is no 'should'. Change it or accept it."

Greg Knepp said...

I've always equated Stoicism with the modern concept of Existentialism. I may be mistaken; I'm not a big fan of philosophy. I find more enlightenment in religion and myth. For example, the OT book of Ecclesiastes is, in my view, as comprehensive and entertaining a treatise on Existentialism as one could find. Coincidentally, Ecclesiastes also contains a major Biblical endorsement of the biological kinship of all living creatures - humans included: "For who shall say that man has preeminence over the beast of the field. They are of one breath, etc..." Creationists have a hard time with this book.

Ecclesiastes was composed when things were going poorly for what was left of the civilization created by the Children of Isis-Ra-El. Apparently, existential thought flourishes among the intelligentsia during tough times.

A case in point: The Great Depression proved a fertile breeding ground for Twelve-Stepism - a quasi-religious self-help movement devised by upper class drunks. The movement is steeped in existential principles: "one day at a time, live and let live, live life to good purpose, accept the things I cannot change, let go of your old ideas, etc...". It also acknowledges the role of instinct in human behavior: "our troubles may be seen as the result of misdirected instinct". This is actually pretty good stuff. The book 'Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, by Bill Wilson is extremely well written, amazingly insightful and blessedly brief.

jcummings said...

This is as bad as when Picard is captured by the Borg at the end of the season - curse your abominable cliff-hangers! At least I won't have to wait through a whole summer of re-runs...

Andy Brown said...

I find it kind of amusing that physics doesn't really have any explanation for why time seems to have a direction - there's nothing in the math to say it does. Which has caused some to assume that it probably doesn't and "movement" through time is just an artifact created by humans (or all organisms) because it's a way to get a handle on something useful -- similar to the way colors are something we create to make use of an EM spectrum. Blue is hard-wired into us and begets Van Gogh's Starry Night through long convolutions of whatnot. A life-course through time is hard-wired into us and long convolutions of whatnot beget these stories you tell about the ultimate shapes of time. (As always, thank you for making my Thursday morning a particularly toothsome part of my weekly cycle . . . )

Maria said...

If that vision were in fact the literal truth, could you give the rest of your life a shape and a purpose that would give sufficient meaning and value to everything you have already been and done and suffered, so that when you add it all up, you can joyously affirm the whole pattern—and what would the rest of your life need to become in order for you to do so?

Something clicked into place when I read that. It's what I've been working toward doing without realizing it -- or having a philosophical framework for it. I've spent the past couple of years thinking about limits -- instead of the idea that a worthwhile pattern can be created within those limits. A small distinction, but for me, an important one.

I don't think I'm any closer to having answers, but I am finally asking the right questions. Thank you.

Joseph Nemeth said...

A fellow by the name of Terrence Witt put out a textbook proposing a theory called Null Physics. I've read through the book, and personally, I think it's brilliant. Wrong perhaps, or maybe right, but still brilliant.

Witt's universe is infinite (in three dimensions) and completely deterministic. He addresses quite nicely most of the obvious issues this raises.

For instance, there is "Olber's Paradox" or "Why is the night sky dark?" that results in an infinite universe. Witt revives an old theory of "tired light" and points out that a fully relativistic calculation of wave propagation through "curved space-time" results in a very small but continuous loss of energy. Thus, light becomes redshifted just by moving through empty space. His claim is that the background microwave radiation from space is not the remnant of a Big Bang, but is in fact Olber's "bright nighttime sky" redshifted down into the microwave bands. Past a certain distance, it is redshifted so far that it becomes undetectable, providing a finite radius to the observable universe.

His treatment is quite different from the usual mystical cosmology in that he makes specific experimental predictions. For instance, he says that as we keep building better telescopes, the whole "dark energy" theory is going to reach a breaking point, because it's just plain wrong: it's a coat of paint over a nasty problem with the Big Bang theory. His theory comes much closer to the current numbers that Big Bang theorists need to invoke dark energy to fit, and his curves are qualitatively different and diverge from dark energy results at greater distances: if he's right, Big Bang theorists will need to invoke progressively darker energy to keep their model together, and at some point even the die-hards will give up and call the approach silly.

A similar thing resulted from the so-called "ultraviolet catastrophe" of the late 1800's, which resulted in quantum theory.

I'm not intending to promote Witt's work as "right" or "wrong" -- the point is to shake up the foundations of what most people think we know about the universe. If Witt is right, the universe is much closer to what JMG is describing here than either Joachim's or Augustine's model.

Mike Cifone said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

Just a note about your reading of Nietzsche.

In order to generate your closing observations and questions concerning, it would seem, Nietzsche's philosophy as a whole, you basically argue that the content of the doctrine of "eternal recurrence (or return) of the same" amounts to the doctrine that everything repeats itself in *exactly the same way*, down to the most minute details. Thus, you bring Nietzsche's thought to the point where it seems as though it advocates for the affirmation of a reality that, because it always repeats itself exactly, never basically changes. In other words, you make Nietzsche into a particularly tortured kind of Platonist: in fact, because of the eternal repetition, the truth is that things really remain the same, the more they change. It takes an immense amount of time, but in time, all will return to *exactly the same* point.

And you seem to leave his thought at that.

Isn't this ridiculous, though? You even suggest that *this* was the thought that could have stirred him into madness, that fateful afternoon in Turin...

But this, in fact, is not the content of the doctrine of the eternal return of the same. I will explain:

If we do, in fact, suppose that (as N. himself claims in a wonderful passage of Will To Power, which you paraphrase) that time is infinite, and that there is only a finite quantity of matter and energy, then it would seem that this implies repetition *of the same* (the same configuration will return). But what this misses is the deeper teaching: that the 0-th moment of the whole configuration, leading in time to the very 1st repetition, is utterly unique for being the 0-th. Likewise, the 1-st repetition is also unique -- utterly different -- precisely for being a repetition. And so on ... each becoming of the universe (the 2-nd, 3-rd, ... n-th), as it returns to the same configuration, is *for that reason* utterly different.

Exactly in this way, we may say that Nietzsche's doctrine teaches a kind of "double affirmation" (as the philosopher Deleuze showed): at once, the affirmation of repetition, *and* difference. To fail to see how the latter leaps from the former in Nietzsche's thought is simply to miss Nietzsche altogether.

In short, you're missing the much more interesting and much more subtle philosophy of time contained within this doctrine, and, moreover, you've not really tried to come to terms with other of his doctrines which are equally important for this realization (like the notion of "will to power", etc

All of the interesting philosophical (or anti-philosophical, as I'd argue) possibilities in his thought are contained here, and it will take a lot of work to think them through to the end.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

@Leo: Thanks for your wonderful link, at the top of this comments page, to your discussion of molten-salt heat storage.

One might at some stage want also to compare molten salts with hot oils. A hot-oil storage system is deployed at Tamera in Portugal, under guidance from the Kleinwachter ("SunPulse", "Sunvention", "brsolar") team.

The page
http://www.tamera.org/index.php?id=112 has the following (a discussion of hot-oil storage AND a brief mention of what might be a molten-salt approach):

((QUOTE))
((SNIP))
Module 2: Storage
The oil is stored in a large, well insulated cylinder; which can also be locally produced. The hot oil store allows 24 hour usage and avoids the use of expensive and environmentally degrading batteries. It provides autonomous energy for several days. As a second heat storage Kleinwächter developed a chemical, but environmentally friendly storage, a Magnesium Hydrate Alanate Storage, which can not be described comprehensively here.

Module 3: Cooking Place
In the Solar Power Village cooking is done in a specially developed cooking place. The hot oil flows through double plates, which have the form of cooking pots. With the temperature of the oil (220°C) one can fry, cook, and bake around the clock.
((SNIP))
((/QUOTE))

The Kleinwachter company, which I think helped create the Tamara installation, has a Web presence at http://www.bsrsolar.com/.

Some months ago, when I last checked them out, I had the impression that a great deal of physics thought had gone into their sun-powered Sterling engine (in their thoughtful implementation, an engine with a surprisingly capacious cylinder, and I think surprisingly low working pressures).

What I **THINK** we have in Kleinwachter is a physics PhD with a kind of enterpreneurial aspiration, and I also **THINK**, Leo, that you as a university student are heading in the same laudable direction.

(signed)

Toomas (Tom) Karmo
www dot metascientia dot com
(near Toronto, Canada)

Richard Larson said...

I can't wait!

Imagining the hunter gatherer lifestyle, it had to have been one heck of a social change to bring humans into a Stoic one (lifestyle).

As I walk around my garden plots, the worn path leads to the end of my lot line, where it meets up with a bit of wild-grown railroad land. I wonder what is going on in that woodlot today? I know what is going on in my gardens, so I dutifully turn direction and walk up the other side...

Sunyata said...

After being a weekly reader for the past six months, this is by far my favorite article. I came into life with such a strange, pervasive dread. And ever since I was just a little kid, the idea that "what happens once must happen again" has burdened me with the sense that my life will repeat, and that there is no such thing as a rest from existence - ever. That perhaps even every sensation of every moment in my life is presently existing at every moment somewhere within the vast universe (I admit these ideas could be half-baked).

In the latter years of my third decade after having dealt with disease, loneliness, rejection, and the subsequent neuroses that come with a mind that attempts to fight these things (rather than recognize control over their creation at the experiential level), this energy has transformed itself into the life-affirming type of feeling you speak of.

I am very interested what you have to say next week, since I really can't grok the flaws within eternal recurrence.

Reverse Developer said...

Provisional living is what you are left with when, having discovered a reason to live, one nonetheless refuses to accept that it must also be a reason to die for.

Michael L said...

Prior to reading this weeks essay I did not know much about Stoic philosophy. I think I would have enjoyed sharing a glass of wine with some of it's ancient practitioners. Fate expressed through cyclical time is something I had never considered, although fate in general is something I believe in my own wyrd way.

In a time of transition,especially one likely to filled with unpleasant surprises and difficult choices about how to live, I think a fate based view of time could be adaptive. Believing that each moment is eternal, or eternally repeating can be comforting. It makes me smile to think that even though it isn't 'now' the happy moments I shared with my deceased grandparents, or good times I had with friends I grew apart from still exist, woven into the fabric of cause and effect that binds the universe together. Thinking in this way has helped to free me from trying to relive the past, either to revisit good times or make a bad situation come out better on the second try. Those are both ruts I was stuck in at one point. I find myself much better able to accept change, and also striving harder to make each moment count. The idea of being able to choose in a fated existence makes my mental gears grind sometimes. At the human level, the choice is real, only at a scale that encompasses everything is fate truly apparent so I leave that to whatever higher power might be mixed up in all of this :)



Carlo said...

When in a state of "flow," whether flowing creativity or flowing through skilled application in sports or work, you seem to be seamlessly connected to the universe. And sometimes, you know yourself, as if you had always known yourself. Then, you settle back into the ordinary consciousness that drives and derives from the "real" world and you find yourself surrounded by the basest urges and emotions, the playground of western civilizations' seven deadliest sins. You may devote yourself to improving what you can. Maybe you're only hoping for a way out. Whether a scene played over and over again or a scene played again and again in different settings, it does seem like an endless wheel. Buddha showed us how to accept it. Christ opened a door of escape. What forces really operate in the world of our existence, and can we know them, identify them and understand them?

When we find something good, clean, real, we are attracted to it, even though it may cost us our minds and lives. We need to eat, so we kill. We are set in a place of irreconcilable contrasts between good and evil. Paired opposites that provide for magnificence; imagine a grassy field with birds singing by a tree-shaded stream then turned into a world war one battlefield then turned back again. Nature is a wanton murderer and a healer. Should we love her or hate her? But, what am I to do about myself?

I can love me and hate me. Do I deserve to live or should I destroy myself? Ask this question seven billion times and on Earth we need to support seven billion lives. Maybe nature will be so kind as to offer a solution, hooray overshoot!!! Or maybe civilization will pick and choose, Heil Hitler!!! Who stood this travesty up – God? The Devil? Us? Everyone reading John’s blog is trying to work this out – has been for a long time. Wish us luck!

NH Peter said...

With all due respect to the important and interesting divagations, glad you are back to Nietzsche! It seems to me that Nietzsche struggles with the formulation of the eternal return between ontology and epistemology because those traditional categories of philosophical inquiry (or language, or for that matter ordinary experience!) are being dissolved in the caustic abyss of his will to power concept. The ontological expression of the eternal return becomes a kind of physical description of the formal structure of the universe including the repetitive nature of experienced time; and becomes subject to the critique you describe. But when considered as an epistemology, the eternal return can serve a different purpose in Nietzsche’s thought. In the “Vision and Riddle” Zarathustra describes time to a dwarf in such a way as to reduce time, or perhaps better, to return time, to the moment. Epistemologically this interpretation is very much in alignment with Nietzsche’s formulation of the will to power, that time’s past and future are entirely subject and reducible to the moment (there is an eastern thought seeking the surface here), and the quality of one’s will determines the shape of time (consider the various types of history and their impact on life in his essay On the Use and Disadvantage of History for Life, or for that matter the Three Metamorphosis). Freedom from the imposition of time’s “It Was” and accompanying “Thou Shalt’s” requires the young shepherd to bite the head off the Ouroboros, precisely to counter the collapse of the will to time’s eternal return. From a moral perspective, the eternal return is as destructive of life as nihilism’s assertion that everything has already happened, that nothing new can ever happen, etc. They are “metaphysically indistinct” concepts from that point of view, right?

The eternal return is that abysmal thought that must be overcome, as presented in the Convalescent. Though his animals make a song and teaching of the event, Zarathustra chastises them for giving words to inexpressible experiences. The eternal return, or something like it, represents the greatest depth of knowledge. It frightens his animals (passions) away, but they come back with rest of the world and its beauty to salve his living soul. Life trumps knowledge.

With that thought in place, there seems to be a wide open valley at our feet for describing the nature of human intellection in the service of life where the concept of life is freed from afterworlds and other “provisional lives” to service of the living earth. What do you think?

Robert said...

Nietzsche's German has been described as the best German there is. He wasn't just a philosopher but a poet. Here's an example in English in which he declares his love for Eternity

http://4umi.com/nietzsche/zarathustra/60

The Eternal Return is potentially a terrifying concept although even if time is infinite and matter finite might there not be an infinite configuration of matter? Would the eternal return be anything to fear if you had no memory of the previous cycle? Is the Eternal Return any worse than the scientific reality of the victory of entropy and the universe expanding infinitely into the Great Darkness?

As Odin says to the hero in Sirling's Emberverse draw the line far enough and it meets itself like Jormungandr. I prefer that metaphor if I must choose.

Grebulocities said...

@Joseph Nemeth

I'm not at all familiar with Witt's work, but one problem that jumps out at me immediately with interpreting the cosmic microwave background (CMB) as redshifted light from extremely distant stars is that the CMB is a single black body spectrum (with tiny fluctuations), resembling the microwaves given off by an object at 2.7 K. If the universe were truly infinite, then we would expect a continuous spectrum of light ranging from the longest radio wavelengths (for stars so distant they get redshifted past even microwave wavelengths; radio astronomy could easily pick up this signal) all the way through the infrared to visible light. But the CMB is just a single nearly perfect blackbody spectrum - which is precisely what we would expect if the universe used to be at a nearly uniform, high temperature and then expanded dramatically, redshifting the resulting light into the microwave spectrum. This is exactly what would be expected by the Big Bang theory.

Does Witt address this issue? Perhaps there's still a way to reconcile his theory with CMB observations, but I can't think of it myself.

Hal said...

Nietzsche's concept of infinity strikes me as improbable, if not self-contradictory. If we can imagine that somehow, over infinite time, the elementary particles of matter all manage to get randomly rearranged in exactly the same configuration as at some earlier point, then it follows, assuming a purely deterministic universe, that history would have to repeat from that time forward. But that means that all of time that passed before the first re-arrangement could never repeat.

Just some of the craziness you can get into thinking about infinity. But as far as we (whatever that is) are concerned, what does it tell us? Even if all of the pieces come together to exactly re-create me, down to the smallest detail, is there anything to say it is me? And if there is no memory of the previous time (indeed, memory is not possible, or it wouldn't be exactly the same) then is there any way of knowing or doing anything with the knowledge that everything repeats. In other words, it would be exactly the same as if it does not repeat.

In Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is an infinite universe in matter and space, but finite in time. There's even a restaurant at the end. Somewhere in the infinite universe, there's a tree that produces perfect ratcheting screwdrivers as fruit. Oh, wait, then there must be an infinite number of trees that produces perfect ratcheting screwdrivers as fruit.

There's a kind of trite expression out there that might point the way to a good model. Something about history being more like the lines of a poem than a mantra.

Ol' Bab said...

It seems to me chaos trumps the exactly repeating universe. Imagine a point in time such that for a few minutes everything is actually repeating a long-prior time. Why would this repetition continue? Surely the random motions of atomic particle would quickly cause diversion, more and more tiny differences cascading up to something -an accident causes death instead of hospitalization - and the Great Repeat is broken.

Infinite time doesn't help. We will see poor Nietzsche reborn infinite times as anything but exactly "our" Nietzsche, and another (smaller?) infinite times as "ours" but without some tiny adjunct detail needed to get him to his final opus.

In an even smaller infinite times, he will buy the horse and retire as a farmer.

To avoid this blight of chaos, The Universe must surely have a God to run it, making certain that it will repeat exactly. A really OCD God.

But then, It seems to me chaos trumps the exactly repeating universe. Imagine a point in time such that for a few minutes everything is repeating a long-prior time. Why would this repetition continue? Surely the random motions of atomic particle would quickly cause diversion, more and more tiny differences cascading up to something -an accident causes death instead of hospitalization - and the Great Repeat is broken.

Infinite time doesn't help. We will see poor Nietzsche reborn infinite times as anything but exactly "our" Nietzsche, and another (smaller?) infinite times as "ours" but without some tiny adjunct detail needed to get him to his final opus.

In an even smaller infinite times, he will buy the horse and retire as a farmer.

To avoid the blight of chaos, The Universe must surely have a God to run it, making certain that it will repeat exactly. A really OCD God.

But ten, It seems to me chaos trumps the exactly repeating universe. Imagine a point in time such that for a few minutes everything is repeating a long-prior time. Why would this repetition continue? Surely the random motions of atomic particle would quickly cause diversion, more and more tiny differences cascading up to something -an accident causes death instead of hospitalization - and the Great Repeat is broken.

Infinite time doesn't help. We will see poor Nietzsche reborn infinite times as anything but exactly "our" Nietzsche, and another (smaller?) infinite times as "ours" but without some tiny adjunct detail needed to get him to his final opus.

In an even smaller infinite times, he will buy the horse and retire as a farmer.

To avoid the blight of chaos, The Universe must surely have a God to run it, making certain that it will repeat exactly. A really OCD God.

I can only imagine that Nietzsche had -very closely- this vision of the nature of the universe.

Ol' Bab

Tracy G said...

The suspense is killing me. Rudolf Steiner?

g downs said...

My apologies upfront for going off topic. Witness the petty frustrations of the impuissant man-worm.

I hate to see the degradation of the english language, and while the dictionary will tell you that none of this is a big deal, the dictionary is wrong! Last week I witnessed a lot of
'different than' in the comments and have to post about it. I'm no expert, but....

'Different than' is rarely correct. It's a linguistic shortcut, as it often requires fewer contextual words to implement than 'different from'. That said, use 'different from' and you'll nearly always be correct. Use 'different than' and you'll nearly always be incorrect.

Below is a correct example of both.
Example 1: B and C are different from A, but C is more different than B.

It may help to think of the word 'differ' when trying to decide which is correct.
Example 2: X may differ from Z, but X may not differ than anything.

Further, farther:
One carries an argument further. One carries a slop bucket farther. Put simply, 'farther' is for physical distance, and 'further' is for everything else.

Very unique:
And while we're at it, something can be 'very unusual' or 'unique', but it can't be 'very unique'. Unique means "one of a kind", therefore to describe it as 'very' is meaningless, since there is no other thing that you can compare a unique item to. Something is either unique or it isn't. No modifiers.

Lose, loose, loss:
It would be a terrible loss if I were to lose the loose change in my pocket.

And JMG, I'm starting to think that you put those double spaces after periods just to make me nuts. Well, as is plainly evident, it's working!

Stay on topic! No backtalk!

Nicholas Carter said...

Like most thinkers whose work makes a fetish of ruthlessness, Nietzsche was obsessively kind and gentle in his personal life.

Could you expand on this observation, please?

DesignScience said...

I second James Jensen's assessment that the roots of cognitive behavioral therapy can be found in the Stoics. Skinner, in addition to the Stoics themselves you might find it fruitful to spend some time absorbing the ideas of this school of psychology. That is a fairly direct route to applying the stoic insights in the modern world, just my 2 c.

Having just completed Decline of the West I believe we are about to be treated to a discussion of Spengler. JMG, if that is the case might I ask you to address his understanding of Caesarism? This was a bit too will-to-power, only the big wigs count type of ethic for me to stomach. Any light would be appreciated greatly.

Phil Harris said...

@Vesta said:
"What strengthen's the herd often kills the individual."

Funny that this afternoon I was thinking something like the opposite:
"What strengthens some individuals, or most individuals in our society, like making money, eventually kills the society". (Something similar happens in arms races leading to war, I guess.)

Phil H

Bugmethx said...

Christians believe that when you die, you go to heaven (or hell, as the case may be). In either case, once you're dead what happens on earth is no longer a problem of yours.

Hinduism and Buddhism believe in reincarnation. The belief that you will return to this world after death is an incentive to keep this world a nice place to live.

Could it be that Christianity, with its idea of leaving this world behind after death, is one of the causes of our disregard for nature?

Adam Streed said...

I'll put my money for next week's thinker on one of the American pragmatists. Maybe Dewey?

Nick Vail said...

This post reminds me of a quote from the Buddhist adept Padmasambhava, "My view is as vast as the sky, and my conduct is as fine as barley flour."

And also from the Sufi adept Rumi, "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, There is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase 'each other' doesn't make any sense."

I aspire that we can all discover a middle way beyond extremes that allows us to truly see the world as it is.

"To cling to a particular concept is like a bird that flaps its wings and tries to fly but cannot, because it's bound by a chain. The training in the true view is not a training in holding concepts, even the subtle types. It is a matter of recognizing what already is, by itself. Our nature of mind is naturally empty and cognizant; it is not of our making. There is no need to hold a concept about it. In other words, when you remember to recognize, you see immediately that there is no thing to see. That's it. At other times one has forgotten, and it is lost." -Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, As It Is: Volume II

Moshe Braner said...

Tangential comment: In our local online independent journalism site, a young person who "gets it" (more or less) has a nice opinion piece. I wonder if he's been reading what the Archdruid wrote about democracy?

http://vtdigger.org/2013/05/28/mckay-divestment-debt-and-combative-unionism/print/

Excerpt: "... current campus and state power structures are more or less immune to our “free speech,” however factual and heartfelt.
...
institutionalized democratic power for students means Europe- or Québec-style student unionism. Our unionized student neighbors have real power not to petition and suggest but to negotiate, vote, and, if necessary, go on strike. Anyone who watched the hundreds of thousands of striking students effectively topple Québec’s fee-hiking government last year knows what real student power can look like. Of course it’s not usually so dramatic: democracy is mostly the stuff of long meetings where different parties hash out the nitty-gritty math of things like tuition, debt and divestment.

Nothing remotely like democracy exists for students here in the U.S. If they want real leverage on the issues that will determine their (our) collective future, they need independent, dues-funded student unions, not the current “student government”..."

Nano said...

In my late teens and through my 20's I enjoyed and fully believed in the shape of time as proposed by Leary/Wilson and their peers from that generation, while I still love their mind changing techniques and a big majority of their work, the cybernetic dream is not as useful any more. In a sense.

Lets us pick a "shape of time" that is useful for our times and environment and get to work, n'est pas?

SLClaire said...

I won't even try to guess who you'll be talking about next week, JMG. I don't have the necessary background to do that. I will mention that if I understand quantum theory correctly, the universe isn't deterministic after all. That's what the Uncertainty Principle says, anyway. Whether this by itself does away with eternal recurrence (at least if we understand recurrence as having to be *exactly* like a previous cycle) I'm not a good enough philosopher to say.

Odin's Raven said...

It's not only prophets,philosophers and physicists who may have influential views on time and progress.

Here's an article about Tolkien which includes an apposite verse:


Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).

And these conclusions:
Progress always leads to evil.
Friendship and loyalty rule the fates of men.

Tolkien

Vicky K said...

Bravo John, a brilliant essay on many levels; and a great and subtle 'working'.

JP said...

"Is the Eternal Return any worse than the scientific reality of the victory of entropy and the universe expanding infinitely into the Great Darkness?

As Odin says to the hero in Sirling's Emberverse draw the line far enough and it meets itself like Jormungandr. I prefer that metaphor if I must choose."

One of the problems with life on Earth is that it couldn't really exist as it does without entropy.

Better yet, the outside of the universe is also the inside of the universe.

Klein bottle, anyone?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klein_bottle

JP said...

@JMG:

"I find Jonathan Huebner's argument that innovation peaked in 1873 far more believable than the often-heated denunciations his paper has fielded."

Here's a nice Wall Street Journal article on the issue of the decline of innovation:

"Nothing has been more central to America's self-confidence than the faith that robust economic growth will continue forever. Between 1891 and 2007, the nation achieved a robust 2% annual growth rate of output per person.

...

This narrow time frame saw the introduction of running water and indoor plumbing, the greatest event in the history of female liberation, as women were freed from carrying literally tons of water each year.

The telephone, phonograph, motion picture and radio also sprang into existence. The period after World War II saw another great spurt of invention, with the development of television, air conditioning, the jet plane and the interstate highway system."

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324461604578191781756437940.html



Repent said...


I thoroughly enjoyed your post today. It’s nice to read an essay about the philosophy of mind, and temporarily escape from the burdens of daily life, the same old news being rehashed over and over again. And read something new! The essay was very refreshing.

Still this was not the post i was hoping for today. I was hoping that you and Guy McPherson would have had a sparring match about near term extinction concept, at the age of limits conference. I was hoping for a summary of what had transpired between you and him. Was it breathtakingly awe inspiring, or did you two argue? Did you decide to hug and bury the hatchet? Or simply share a couple of beers by the campfire. What happened?

John Michael Greer said...

Bret (and everyone else who's offered a guess), heh heh heh. Stay tuned...

Michael, not that I know of. Your best bet is to read Epictetus' Enchiridion (sometimes titled The Handbook instead, since that's what Enchiridion means in Greek), and then The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot, which as far as I know is the only good book on Stoic spiritual exercises. By the way, I don't have a doctorate!

William, no doubt!

Vesta, most human beings in most human societies haven't believed in progress. Thus progress isn't hardwired into humanity -- it's simply the preferred ideology of contemporary industrial society, not to mention one of the "mind-forg'd manacles" of which Blake wrote.

James, good. It's a source of endless amusement to me that so many people in the Western world go so far out of their way to pretend that our culture never had any ideas other than the ones it has now.

Raven, interesting. I'll have to look that one up.

Tom, I haven't read any of Tolle's work, so it's interesting to hear that the same ideas are in another source.

BrightSpark, actually, the closest equivalent to Tibetan Vajrayana in the Western tradition is theurgic Neoplatonism and its later offspring, the magical traditions of the Renaissance, early modern, and modern world, and nearly everything you'll find in Tibetan Buddhism has close equivalents there. Stoicism, by contrast, is a rationalist philosophy with a pantheist spiritual basis.

Jamie, we'll be getting to that. The thing I'd suggest, to begin with, is to pay attention to what's happening around you right now; as I pointed out in an earlier post, this is what the early stages of collapse look like.

Twilight, stay tuned! I think you'll be pleased by the next few stages in the journey.

Garden, excellent. It's good to hear that some of my readers have grasped the enormity of the challenge posed by Nietzsche's ideas in this context.

John, it's certainy true that the Stoic version works better. Still, treat it as a thought experiment: if you knew you were going to repeat this same life in all details for all eternity, how would you choose to live?

Greg, that's an interesting connection, and there's a point to it, since Nietzsche's ideas were important influences on some of the Existentialists.

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

With all this talk of infinity, I can't not share "The Temptation of Ludwig Boltzmann":

http://praxeology.net/temptation-of-boltzmann.htm

The story explores the implications of an actually infinite universe - and they're a little unsettling.

In contrast, the current model of the universe could be said to be potentially infinite: each moment is followed by another but the distance between any two points in time is finite; you could in principal travel infinitely far in any direction but the distance you travel will always be finite.

I'm also now pondering a couple of coincidences related to the story: the story starts with a quote from Nietzsche on eternal return, which I had forgotten was there, and the author of the story has a post whose title references eternal recurrence on the front page of his blog, which I hadn't been to in a while.

John Michael Greer said...

Jcummings, thank you. ;-)

Andy, time is the dimension of consciousness -- think about the way that your perceptions, thoughts, feelings, acts of will, and so on are experienced sequentially -- while space is the dimension of matter -- everything you can perceive through your senses occupies space and is arranged in space. That's how the school of thought in which I was trained sees it, at least.

Maria, excellent! It's a heck of a challenge, but then these are challenging times.

Joseph, I have a copy of his book -- picked it up cheap at a used book store. I don't have anything like the background to tell whether his ideas are reasonable or not, but he had the courage to make falsifiable predictions, and it'll be interesting to see how those stand up.

Mike, please note that this is a relatively brief essay, not a 150,000-word study of Nietzsche's thought, and so yes, quite a few elements of his thinking didn't find their way into the discussion. That said, I think you do Nietzsche and yourself a disservice by watering down the impact of his "most difficult thought."

Richard, by the time the ancient Greeks took up Stoicism, they'd been out of the hunter-gatherer economy for something close to five thousand years, and had already weathered the collapse of at least one civilization. That sort of philosophy is something that comes to a people with a rich history and a habit of literacy.

Sunyata, I'd encourage you to read Nietzsche, then! Probably best to take him in chronological order, starting with The Birth of Tragedy. His thinking may be what you need just now.

Developer, that's one way of putting it.

Michael, good! I'd encourage you to follow the same advice I offered Sunyata, and see if Nietzsche is your cup of tea.

Carlo, you're not separate from nature; human nature, your nature, is a subset of nature. You're never outside the flow; when you think you are, that's just the part of the flow that you're expressing at that moment.

Peter, I'd say that it's always awkward to try to express inexpressible experiences!

Robert, Nietzsche was one of the two or three greatest masters of German prose; I'd put Heine in the same league, but nobody else. As for metaphors, well, again, it's a thought experiment, not a serious physical theory.

Hal, yet again, it's a thought experiment, not a serious physical theory!

John Michael Greer said...

Bab, yes, that seems to be about right. Yes, that seems to be about right. Yes, that seems to be about right.

G Downs, when I learned to type, back when dinosaurs walked the earth, a double space after periods and colons was absolutely de rigueur. I haven't found any good reason to change that habit.

Nicholas, haven't you noticed that? People who talk about the need to be hard and cruel are usually the kind of people who have to read Ayn Rand for an hour or so to work up the nerve to cut off a chicken's head, while if you want to see vicious, brutal interpersonal conflict, your best bet is usually the internal politics of a pacifist group. Most of the Buddhists I've met are flaming egotists, most Taoists are rigid and dogmatic, and a great many Christians are miserable sinners whose souls are already frying in a hell of greed, lust and spiritual pride.

Druidry's no different -- most of the Druids I've met are overintellectual head trippers for whom harmony with nature requires unremitting effort. That's true of me, among many others, and it's the reason I'm a Druid; in my experience, the best philosophy or spirituality for any person, and the one that appeals most to any person, is the one most nearly opposite his or her own natural inclinations, since that's the one that leads to balance and wholeness.

DesignScience, good. Caesarism, though, is a topic for a different series of posts; it's simply what happens when institutions and ideologies become too sclerotic to function any longer, and the only kind of leadership that's still an option is charismatic individual leadership. We've already taken major steps toward that -- think of the bizarrely messianic cult of personality that surrounded Obama during his first campaign and the early days of his administration -- and I don't doubt we'll see a lot more of it in the near future. I should probably divagate a bit and do a post on that sometime soon.

Bugmethx, you might want to read Lynn White's "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis," which makes exactly that case.

Ramaraj said...

Let me guess. It involves randomness (or uncertainty) in pretty much every thing in the universe & a god who regulates that uncertainty.

What I cannot understand is that this is common knowledge here in India for at least 1500 years. But you are implying a recent thinker. Then Einstein it is.

John Michael Greer said...

Nick, there is no "world as it is" distinct from the world we experience -- that's one of Nietzsche's core points, and not only Nietzsche's. The only world we can ever know is always and inevitably born of the interaction between the "buzzing, blooming confusion" of uncorrelated sensation and the figurations imposed on it by the act of experiencing it. It's possible to experience the world as a unity in which all opposites are reconciled, but is that experience any more real than the one in which self and other exist? Both are experiences filtered through an individual human mind, and are equally unreal -- or equally real. More on this as we proceed.

Moshe, that's good to hear. Many thanks for the link!

Nano, exactly. I'll be discussing my ideas about a useful shape of time shortly.

SLClaire, again, Nietzsche's idea is a thought experiment, not a serious physical theory.

Raven, many thanks for this! I should do a post, or several posts, on Tolkien one of these weeks.

Vicky, thank you.

JP, I need to get some Klein bottle glassware for my alchemy lab one of these days. Many thanks for the link on the decline in innovation.

Repent, nothing much happened. McPherson appeared to go out of his way not to look at or speak to me all weekend. As I have Aspergers syndrome and am not too confident reading social cues, I didn't push the issue by approaching him. The event was pretty much divided between believers and unbelievers in near term extinction, but nobody got into a spat about it; the believers went off and did their grieving rituals and what have you, and the rest of us sat around the fire pit and talked about practical responses to social disintegration and breakdown. It was a good example of dissensus at work.

John Michael Greer said...

James, funny. Thanks for the link.

Ramaraj, a nice robust jump to conclusions. A hint: no, it's not Einstein -- as far as I know, he wasn't influence by Nietzsche at all.

Richard Clyde said...

My guess is Yeats. Staying tuned...

Hal said...

Very well, a thought experiment. Then my question is, "In what way is this thought experiment superior to the one where we all must stand in judgment before an all-knowing and powerful God, and then spend eternity paying for our sins if our life didn't make the grade?" Especially if you consider that "standing in judgement" should probably be understood as "be made fully aware of your shortcomings," and "spend eternity paying" should probably be best understood as "spend eternity regretting one's estrangement from the Way." Either way, there's that infinity thing.

This is especially interesting, given Nietzsche's thesis that God had been killed by modernity. A mechanistic model to take the place of God, perhaps?

Oh, and I thought everyone double-spaced after periods. That's definitely the way I learned it.

BrightSpark said...

JMG - thanks for that explanation. I think I'll still choose neoplatonism. It's cooler :)

Justin Wade said...

"if you knew you were going to repeat this same life in all details for all eternity, how would you choose to live?"

There is a movie starring Bill Murray from the 90s that expresses this question called Groundhog's Day. Murray is a newsman that ends up stuck in a small town with his crew and repeats the same day over and over, only he is the only one aware of the predicament. Murray's character starts as a self-absorbed, emotionally distant egotist. He finds futility in his attempts to impress other people and seduce one of his crew, then when all that fails, he tries to kill himself. He frees himself when he accepts the situation and is considerate to other people for its own sake.

To the point about provisional living, its nice to call that out. I think its one of the more devilish facets of our culture and there is a cottage industry dedicated to goal making and achieving success. On the backend of that is the midlife crisis, where people who have achieved all their goals find that nothing has been achieved. The goal driven, x achieved y attained mentality has amplified to the point that people are now talking about an early life crisis for people in their 20s who have achieved college, got a job, and feel empty.

Bozack said...

We are in pretty deep now: hard to keep all the ducks in a row!

Progress is a civil religion.

There are three types of progress religion: moral, technological and economic.

Belief in progress reflects a view of the shape of time.

There are different views of the shape of time: triumphalist ( progressive), declinist, steady state, eternal recurrence, Aboriginal dream time etc.

Those that believe in the religion of progress have also adopted a view of the shape of time that is triumphalist. This view of the shape of time is driven by the emotional benefits it delivers rather than reflecting deep thought about the facts of the world as given to us by science e.g. entropy, the Big Bang etc.

There are other views of time that may be more useful in a world where is untenable to continue to believe in progress. Unfortunately there may be a tendency to switch from the triumphalist to the declinist: this negative view may be no better for an individual or society in terms of long term adaptiveness than the religion of progress.

So here we are: there are other views of the shape of time/progress available:

Question: How does one change one's view of the shape of time to a more adaptive/useful one?

Seems like we are going to be looking at mystical approaches given that these things function on an emotional level rather than a purely rational level: meditation, living in the moment, embrace of reincarnation, some form of virtue ethics, I don't know.

Be interesting to think about how Christianity can be reconciled with a more useful view of time: maybe there are some typos in the Bible and he is actually coming in 10,000 years time so it is going to be a very slow and gentle road down to the Apocalypse?

Alvin Leong said...

It's Spengler isn't it? I don't think it's a huge surprise since you've mentioned him many times before.

Actually reading Spengler is quite different from some summaries of his thought that are online, such as the Wikipedia articles on his work. I haven't gotten to where he compares Buddhism and Stoicism yet but I'm very sceptical now about how the Wikipedia article says he derides the religions and philosophies of a civilization in its late phase. I think for early Buddhism, the parallels between Stoicism and Buddhism qre quite apt but it should be acknowledged that religions are not static.

team10tim said...

Ask not what the future can do for you, but what you can do for the future.

My guess is that the 'shape' isn't a geometric one in the sense of circles and lines, but a relative one as in a relationship between the future and the past. I didn't get around to posting this last week, but the cliffhanger and the hint about a Nietzsche influenced thinker on industrial decline has me certain of two things. One, that I'm not going to guess the person. And two, that my shape is interesting enough at least to be worth sharing. The shape is an ordinary human life: birth, growth, midlife crisis, decline, and death.

We live near the apex of our age, perhaps just a little past. Decline and death are the shapes we need to think about and the ones that we fear. We were born and we will die and so will our present age of fossil fuel powered industrial culture. I think that we are having midlife crisis because we have no idea how to pass the half way mark gracefully.

Let's face it. We're getting old. Our infrastructure is wearing out. Our space program isn't what it used to be. Our economy really needs its rest, and a few cups of coffee, before getting to work. The boundless energy of youth is fading. It's not totally over, we still have our moments. The north slope was invigorating and this fracking craze feels amazing but in the back of my mind I know I was way better back in the early seventies. And while we're talking about decades, just how long have we been post modern anyway? It was trendy and hip at first but, my god, it feels like beating a dead horse* these days.**

(*Unrelated to Nietzsche's horse. **I wanted to work in a parallel with stealth drones as red sports cars, Sarah Palin as a trophy wife, The National Ignition Facility (fusion) failing to light my fires, and and a bumper crop of college grads failing to stimulate the creative juices, but it didn't feel clever.)

People have always died. The difference between my looming death and the death of countless others is that my age is dying with me. Most of the other shapes of time have been laid out in such a way that something treasured and personal doesn't die with the person. Something of fundamental goodness was kept after death. This time I will die with my culture, probably my nation, definitely my industrial economy, and who knows how much knowledge. Not in an epic NTE or a Valhalla way but in a bland and depressing Limits to Growth way. Me and my whole world are getting old and that implacable jerk with the sickle is coming for us both.

The question is what to do about it. There are powerful narratives that can give meaning to our lives but most of them represent some sort of escape from the actual lives that we are living. I can't speak for anyone else but for me the problems we face are epic enough not to need embellishment. We are living in the beginning of the long descent (though I call it The Crappening, the process of things getting gradually crappier, but it basically means the same thing: peak oil, over population, degraded environment, decline and fall of industrial civilization, coming dark age, overshoot, die-off, and bottleneck. People tend to have a poor ability to handle the verbose explanation, but my friends and family, peers and coworkers seem better able to handle the scope and scale and time frame when I call it The Crappening). So, what are we going to do about it? I suggest that you do or save something of fundamental goodness. I can't tell you what it is because it is your life. Maybe it is saving Wagner or Robert's Rules of Order for posterity. Maybe it is getting some level of comfort and autonomy for yourself for the coming crappening. How are you going to handle death with some level of dignity or even joyously affirm it? It bears thinking upon because you are going to die.

That's my stab at the shape of time. I'm curious how close I come to what you have in mind.

Thanks,
Tim

sandy said...

Another thought provoking post. I believe the existentialists are up to bat next, Kierkgaard or my buddy Sartre.

RabbleBabble

Odin's Raven said...

JMG -Reaction times story:
Charlton

Chris Travers said...

One of the most interesting critiques of the modern ideal of scientific progress that I have ever read was "Physics and Philosophy" by Werner Heisenberg (yes, that Heisenberg). The book is this fascinating text woven with a weft science and a warp history and out of that text comes not a shape of time but of humanity.

Heisenberg spends a lot of time on the Greeks though he misses the Stoics perhaps because he is looking at conceptions of the world (he spends a lot of time on the Milesian School however). His point however seems vaguely like the rock at lake Silvaplana, that these ideas stand outside of any conception of progress or time that we have, and recur over and over. When he gets to Heraclitus, he mentions in passing of course that E-mc^2 is merely a quantified version of Herclitus's view that fire was the prima materia.

Heisenberg thus attacks the modernist view of time and science in two directions (it is worth remembering he was one of the most important physicists of the 20th century). First, he notes that real, objective knowledge is impossible. Faced with such an impossibility, he suggests, we take pre-existing assumptions that we currently hold and project them onto the data we see, and in so doing find meaning in that data. That meaning becomes the theory.

As Heisenberg repeats throughout the book, "Data does not imply theory." To him scientific theory is as much a product of ourselves as it is the data we have accumulated, and thus one can never be sure at all whether a scientific theory denotes a reality or just a model that happens to work.

I think it is somewhat interesting that Heisenberg spends as much time as he does on the recurring ideas of cosmology throughout history. Maybe the Stoic view was not so far off afterall, if we are prepared to take a big view.

Phil Knight said...

I have a kind of rolling "x" which is "next week, if the weather's nice".

Speaking of which, I'm guessing that next week's thinker is a private scholar of history who resided in the Harz mountains.

neandrothal said...

What I've never understood about the thought experiment of eternal recurrence is that if it is based on an infinite existence of matter and energy, not only should everything we've experienced recur, but so should all possible variations and even negations of our experiences recur. Sort of like concepts of the multiverse, except strung infinitely end to end. Or Borges' Library of Babel strung book by book.

Eternal recurrence seems to presume radical determinism, in which only one course of events could have and can ever exist. Assume even the tiniest degree of chance in a tiny fraction of events, and experiences of the past are vastly outweighed by possible alternatives; e.g., one in which the drover was kinder to the terrified horse, in which Nietzsche took a left turn before arriving at the grisly scene, in which his sanity did not ultimately leave at that moment, etc., etc.

John Michael Greer said...

Hal, it's the difference between being judged by another being and making your own judgment call, of course. That was one of Nietzsche's key points -- God being dead, each of us have to make that call ourselves, based on values that aren't handed down from on high.

BrightSpark, no argument there!

Justin, I sometimes think that the reason people have a crisis in their twenties is that, given what passes for a college education and a career these days, a feeling of emptiness is entirely rational.

Bozack, a nice summary. As for the Second Coming, I argued in Apocalypse Not -- on strict Biblical grounds, mind you -- that Jesus wasn't due to reappear for almost 2.3 million years, so we might as well make the best of things until then. ;-)

Alvin, mum's the word! As for Spengler, he had to work with the scholarly limitations of his time, in which early Buddhism was very nearly the only thing Western scholars were willing to look at.

Tim, good. A very workable shape of time, though not quite the one I have in mind.

Raven, thanks for the link!

Chris, good heavens -- I somehow managed to miss that book. I'll have to get a copy. The classic quantum theorists were remarkably open-minded -- I'm thinking here particularly of Wolfgang Pauli's collaboration with Jung.

Phil, in Britain that'd be a very effective means of provisional living!

John Michael Greer said...

Chris G (offlist), you might want to lay off the weed next time before trying to post. Oh, and something relevant to the conversation might be nice, too.

Ian said...

Reading a philosopher is always tricky work, but I tend to take Nietzsche's discussion in "On the Use and Abuse of History for Life" as more central to his thinking on time. That gets us to what I take to be Nietzsche's real point of the eternal return--that it is not a belief about how things are but a tool to drive us back to the concrete. I'm not very romantic about Nietzsche's madness--I think he likely got syphilis and had his faculties eaten away by sickness. It's sad, but I don't like to hang much on it.

I know, it's an I say tomato, you say tomato sort of affair--we both basically come to the same place about what the point of it is. I struggle with the value of making the distinction, but clearly I still believe in them on some level.

Back to ths substance of things, though, I personally have always thought that Stoicism often needs a hearty dose of the Skepticism to keep it grounded. Skeptics had a robust appreciation for the value of custom (what we would probably call culture these days, though I admit I grow weary of that word)--that's probably because I need the reminder about custom's value, too ;-).

@Mike Cifone: I love Deleuze's work, very deeply. He has a place in my heart quite close to Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Adorno, for their life-changing influence on me. But, dear Lord, that way of talking about the eternal return is little more than a useful formalist exercise. Like most propadeutics, it helps make you stupid in the right way. It prepares you to think through the cross-cuts that the labor of thought makes possible across time. That is a wonderful and magnificent practice, but it is really more proper to Deleuze than to Nietzsche.

Remember, Deleuze quite openly confesses to productive distortion of his sources. The trendy 'anti-philosophical' academy (here I try not roll my eyes and heave a sigh) loves to talk about that, but yet somehow still acts like Deleuze gets the history of philosophy better than anyone else.

onething said...

Well, JMG, this was certainly an interesting and thought provoking post.

I find your explanation of Stoicism partly inspiring--
"In any situation, said the Stoics, the job assigned to human beings is to recognize the good and act accordingly. Nothing else matters, and the point of Stoic spiritual practice is to get to the point where, in fact, nothing else matters. "

Partly horrifying--
"..with every single event duplicated down to the last detail in each repetition...and will happen an infinite number of times again, in an eternal recurrence that admits of no variation."

and partly confusing--
"If that vision were in fact the literal truth, could you give the rest of your life a shape and a purpose that would give sufficient meaning and value to everything you have already been and done and suffered, so that when you add it all up, you can joyously affirm the whole pattern—and what would the rest of your life need to become in order for you to do so? and "...let justice be done, though it brings the sky crashing down."

I'm confused as to whether there is change possible or not. If everything will repeat no matter your actions, what is the use of aspiring to anything? Giving oneself up for justice?

It seems a most dreary vision, almost as bad as eternal hell, or is it like the movie Groundhog Day?

hadashi said...

Hi JMG
I've continued to enjoy your weekly posts, though it's been months since I've commented. I'm particularly interested in your, or Nietzsche's, thought experiment on time. Recently I've read and listened to a lot of Alan Watts material, and by coincidence he deals with the question of time a great deal. You give me much to think about.

Chris G said...

Alright, point taken. Although I'm still high, I can make it a little more concise, topical to your article, but I'm not gonna kiss butt, and I don't necessarily subscribe to the limitedness hypothesis. This really is about time.

It definitely makes sense to bring up Nietzsche, who resolves, in some ways, many of the sticking points in the lived experience of time, according to Augustine, and time according to Joachim. In some ways Nietzsche does not resolve anything, because it's still not living in reality, which it only makes sense to live as something unique: a one-time shot.

Now, in material terms, there are finite limits on earth, and they should be used as wisely as possible. We should consider them a one-time gift, a jewel, and as much as possible of it should be used to make a sustainable, renewable energy system. Since sunlight is pretty limitless, then committing as much as possible of the fossil fuels to that end is the best course of action. Now there are ways to store solar energy chemically, other than batteries: by manufacturing fuels using solar energy. Even rocket fuels. That just takes time, and commitments. It takes an abundance of energy, not a scarcity. So what are the finite earthly limits to population and consumption worldwide that allow for an abundance of solar energy, then stored up in fuels. Then it is just a technical question, and a matter of time.

So it helps to think of oneself as connected not only to every one else on the planet, but also to future generations: not see ourselves as separate in time.

There, I think that's pretty topical, and much more brief. thank you for busting my chops, but if this can't go up... well, there's no reason for that.

onething said...

Oh, and also, where does Stoic philosophy leave the soul, if there is one? Transmigration? Jump aboard and play your part every few hundred million years?

onething said...

Joseph Nemeth--

Another astronomist who debunks the Big Bang is Paul La Violette, in Beyond The Big Bang. He has made quite a number of predictions since the 70's which have turned out right. It is surprising the number of "fixes" that are necessary to uphold certain theories such as big bang, and that the public does not know they are fixes.

Robert Mathiesen said...

I always double-space after periods. At first it was just the convention, back in the days of typewriters. Now I do it deliberately, in order to go against the grain of modern life and to annoy obnoxious on-line etiquette tyrants.

Ing said...

double spaces! all caps! no caps! Individual style! I design using text and have come up in my field knowing that every major style guide calls for one space after periods and colons. There have even been books devoted to breaking typists and desktop publishers of habits learned on the typewriter. Typewriters have idiosyncrasies such as using monospaced type, where every character occupies an equal amount of space and using two spaces after a period makes a document easier to read. Other devices use proportional typesetting, making two spaces a remnant of the past and unnecessary for readability. Some believe two spaces after a period or colon actually decrease readability. However, I also learned to type on a typewriter and still use double spaces after a period when I'm posting something online or typing emails, it must be the rebel in me.

It's not lost on me, though, that while I love the work that type designers do and use type as a means of communication, both literally and visually, the ease with which we communicate in the way that we currently do is a distortion. I don't actually have much to say, but I do help other people craft and present their messages to a wider audience and think often about how we would do that without the internet, computers, FedEx overnight. Would we have less to say, would what gets published be more meaningful, would the content and the binding hold up to a long life? I love books and while it seems a complete luxury to me compared with getting a full garden in the ground, two items on my decline list are to master beautiful lettering and learn bookbinding.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Grebulocities: Regarding Witt and CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background), he devotes an entire section of the book to laying out the theory and doing the math.

In brutally short form, remember that photons lose energy (in his theory) with distance, and that an ideal blackbody (in standard theory) is a collection of electromagnetic oscillators of continuously varying energy (frequency). So both mechanisms "spread" the radiation through all different frequencies.

There's no a priori reason that these would lead to the same statistical distribution of frequencies, but if you do the math (Witt lays all this out), it turns out rather surprisingly that CMB from the Big Bang and CMB from "lumetic decay" give you virtually identical results.

He also has an explanation for the dipole anisotropy of the CMB that I find to be quite elegant, where the Big Bang theorists have to do a lot of hand-waving to explain this.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG: I've never read anything -- other than my textbooks -- quite like Witt's book. Most alternative cosmologies that I've read are 99% philosophy and 1% science, at best. This is almost all science. It may be wrong -- that is, its ramifications may not match experimental data at some point -- but it's pretty hard-core.

What his theories primarily lack are thousands of scientists making confirming/disconfirming measurements and doing the old "bash to fit, paint to hide" hand-waving routine, which the standard model has had for decades.

When you study physics in any detail, it is full of major holes. Ask a professor about the self-energy of the electron, or the unbridgeable gap between gravity and quantum theory, or renormalization in quantum field theories, or (of course) the proliferation of string theories, all indistinguishable experimentally, that require anywhere from two to twenty extra "invisible" dimensions in space-time.

Seriously, this is supposed to be better than Leprechauns?

Incidentally, I don't find all of Witt's arguments more compelling than Leprechauns, either. I'm not an advocate for his theories.

My whole point here is that our "scientific" cosmology is anything but fixed, or "true." The idea that the Big Bang theory is current and popular, and therefore must be true because it is current and popular, is nothing other than the mythology of progress in play.

Greg Knepp said...

JMG,

I try not to clog comment sections with extraneous verbage, but I was struck by an entry from BrightSpark and believe it merits examination.

BrightSpark writes; "...but the Stoic parallels to Buddhism are still fascinating and they show that the Western tradition has as much value as anything in the East, not to mention actually being culturally accessible."

Years ago when I was in my Hindu period, I traveled to a large ashram in West Virginia where I toured, attended some lectures, and spent time in meditation. At the end of the day, I and a few friends dined at the ashram's cafe. We had a bread-like concoction called 'nan' with a rice and vegetable stew. My friends commented on how tasty the nan was. I agreed (to be agreeable) but frankly had no idea as to its quality, as I'd had nothing in my experience with which to compare it.

Several weeks later I found myself at the local Methodist Church - feeling all comfy in coat and tie, and in the friendly company of folks who looked and talked just like me. After the service, we enjoyed refreshments in the church social hall (Methodists excel at this sort of thing). Everything was home made; the coffee was rich and smooth and the cinnamon crumb cake was to die for!

Yes, all religions attempt to draw us away from the darker manifestations of our visceral selves. But the exotic is always attractive, and, just as the traveling evangelist can undermine foreign cultural practices by dangling the Christian trinkets of immediate salvation and everlasting life before naive audiences, so the guru (swami, shaman or mystic) can divert us Westerners from the positive and life affirming traditions built into our own culture.

I don't know anything about nan, but I sure as hell can't be fooled when it comes to cinnamon crumb cake!

I'm not a Christian, but Jesus was a pithy fellow and well worth heeding. To end his sermons he often said, "those who have ears, let them hear." My personal take on this statement reads: "the obvious and the profound are one."

Many thanks to BrightSpark.

ozoner said...

Oho! It appears that [for the moment] I am "correct" in my vision of a pragmatic direction the human beans must adopt to make it to a viable future! Huzzah for me!

Wait, didn't I say that the discarding of triumphalism (along with its' counterpart, defeatism) would be the most important part of a truly reasonable mental/cultural/religionist construct in future?

Crap... transfixed by my own lance; hoisted by my own petard; strangled by my own garrotte; etc.
Guess I'll be staying behind on the burying ground. Best of luck (and reason) to the rest of you.

**Off-handed suggestion:
Buy hard-copy books now; they're incredibly cheap for what they contain!

Juhana said...

Two-thousand years of nay-saying morality... JMG, do you personally believe that Christian faith has something to offer for future waiting mankind behind bottle neck crisis years looming ahead of us right now..? In the West reformist branches are in bad shape, almost ready to dissapear into maelstorm of history, but two-thousand years... It is long tradition to shrug off without deep considerations. As you are aware, most of Western secular ethics have firm roots in Christian thought... Severed flower does not bloom but short moment.

When comparing competing cultural memes waiting to fill current empty void inside heart of the West, whic ones are truly capable being winners..? Have you any personal favorite horses on the track? Living nature abhors empty void, and something is going to spill in, soon. Dream about owing flat screen TV and McMansion by credit is not going to be firm foundation enough to sustain cultural cohesion of the West. Without cohesion there can be no shared moral values, no level of trust between strangers. Give your betting tips which contender is going to offer long-needed spiritual strength for decaying West..?

Reverse Developer said...

@Vesta and JMG
Perhaps it is not progress in a general sense that is the enemy, rather purveyance of progress in an infinite material sense is the evil con.

Appropriation of natural productivity is a sort of violence, but in so far as that activity harmonizes with self -organized and -sustained cycles, human participation is not inimical to the host system. System management actions and adjustments may be required to reach some balance, but when the purpose or justification for these actions is sold as "Progress", yes, we need to scrutinize motive.

But the other type of progress that we might call "conscious progress" is necessary because the greatest management challenge we face is managing our own behavior in pursuit of "balanced" management.

All appropriation of resource is to some extent a unilateral act. To eat is to kill. Typically we have relied upon our religious orders to focus on this "original sin" of our existence, and supply absolution, either through rituals such as grace and the "sacrificial" offerings. The progress of the individual consciousness is important to sustaining a way of life that in turn is respectful of and sustains our "support system".

Pinku-Sensei said...

I should have posted my guess last week that you would have explored cyclical time this week; I'd have been right.

You're also right that the eternal return doesn't fit. As Samuel Clemens wrote, history doesn't repeat, but it sure does rhyme. The major popularizers of a cyclical shape to history, Strauss and Howe, recognize that and have organized Anglo-American history into cycles that last about a human lifetime. They recognize that these cycles form spirals through time, not perfect circles. They can also move towards or away from whatever idea of progress people have.

However, that doesn't seem to be where you'll be leading your readers next week. Instead, I suspect you'll discuss a shape of history you haven't yet discussed in this series, but which is accord with your overall theme over the years--Richard Duncan's Olduvai Theory, which is the inverse of Augustine's U-shaped trajectory. Let's see if I'm right.

Joseph Nemeth said...

"... in my experience, the best philosophy or spirituality for any person, and the one that appeals most to any person, is the one most nearly opposite his or her own natural inclinations, since that's the one that leads to balance and wholeness."

Had to chuckle over that one.

Years ago, I took a four-part workshop on Enochian Magick, and when it was over, I said, "Blecchh! I write computer software, and I do this s*** every day. Working alone in my cave. Puzzling out elaborate spells in the Angelic Language of Intel. Raising daemons, then killing them, usually with the sacred number minus-nine because they are unruly and not wont to self-terminate. Making one tiny mistake in the ritual, and then the whole universe crashes and I have to recreate it from scratch."

I could not agree more with your comment. :-)

Nick Vail said...

Dear JMG,
Thanks for your response.
I think we are in alignment about experience and perception of the world.
For me, the elegance of the middle way is that it transcends all extremes of existence and nonexistence (or any binary).
I think that it is possible (and indeed our nature) to experience nonconceptual, nondual direct awareness of the primordial union of appearances and their lack of inherent existence (i.e. the relative truth ["buzzing, blooming confusion"] and the ultimate reality of equality).

When thoroughly examined, no perceiver and no object of perception can be found. And yet, appearance is undeniable. Such is the inexpressible display of appearance-emptiness that we are all a part of, like drops of water in the ocean; that which transcends the extremes of existence and nonexistence - the middle way.

I greatly appreciate this forum of mutual exploration. Keep up the good work!

Tracy G said...

Having found a few additional minutes for research, I'm now pulling for another thinker. ;-) I unfortunately haven't read anything which that gentleman wrote, and that's probably why he didn't spring to mind.

Meanwhile, it was fun to track down and take another glance at Steiner's shape of time, which I'd come across once before and hadn't revisited. I gather that whole cycles-within-cycles model was borrowed directly from Theosophy, however, and is unrelated to Steiner's reflections upon Nietzsche.

As for the advice to stay tuned...

Changing the channel is impossible in any case, while holding onto one's hat with both hands.

Chris G said...

I feel it's necessary to add something to my previous comment, which is that, in practical terms here and now, in a present moment of decline, the rational thing to do is become self-reliant and independent; to bike to the future; to garden into the future. Basically to stop wasting limited resources in destructive or inefficient ways. That's why local economies make sense, but also for all people in the world to be citizens of the world with equal rights, precious in living, participants in governing, educated, but with limits to individual power. I think that's key: we're individually limited, but collectively (with the future) unlimited.

Phil Harris said...

JMG
You are not the only one to feel the urge to read Heisenberg (a sweeping hat doff to Chris Travers).

I tend not to take my own theorising too seriously but Chris account of projecting our assumptions onto the data to make a theory rings a bell. It occurred to me a while back that we carry many working aspects of the Universe around with us already connected up to our analogy making apparatus – even quantifiable in a sense. And we can then make stories out of experience, which makes the latter usefully conversational? For example, our skeleton can be made to model all sorts; and I can imagine mediaeval master builders (the ‘right stuff’ of their day) thus innovating flying buttresses and crafting a cathedral without benefit of formal theory or the ability to paraphrase reality in mathematical language; they could intuit models and then talk (and ‘work’) it through.

Also, your drawing on the account of the rock at Lake Sylvaplana and Chris / Heisenberg on repetitious pattern reminds me that wild species do actually live that experience. I saw one of our dogs in at least two behaviours reproduce respectively the exact complex behaviour of a triumphant coyote carrying off her ‘trophy’ as well as that of a particular wolf who hunts mice – as filmed in the wild. This is ‘eternal’ recurrence, no? I don’t think our human ‘wild’ species has ever done it quite that way, but I speculate that our ‘mirror neurons’ if that is what they are, can extract meaning not only from the human, but also out of the non-human and even inanimate worlds. That would give us whole other chunks of the working Universe to talk about and work on. We can even apply the ‘models’ to ourselves and see how they work out? (Those poor souls Nietzsche & the horse and that d’mnable man make an appalling loop in the thread.)

I will pipe down fast and see if I can’t read-up a bit more before next week!
best
Phil H
PS I like Phil Knight’s “rolling x” – sure does work in Britain!
PPS Now Phil said it I will go with the Harz as well.

John Michael Greer said...

Ian, Nietzsche's madness didn't correspond to tertiary syphilis in its symptoms or its progression -- it had much more the pattern of schizophrenia with a strong megalomaniac component, thus deserves study in a Batesonian vein. Thanks for the heads up about Deleuze, btw -- I haven't read him; I finished my degree in a school that was full of fashionable Derridadaisme, and it left a sufficiently foul taste in my mouth that I haven't worked up the ambition to read anything French and philosophical later than Sartre since then.

Onething, Stoicism is meant to have the impact of a cold wet towel across the face. It's not meant to be warm and comforting. To the Stoic, what you encounter in life is predetermined, but your reactions to them are not. Your actions will only make a difference if they're destined to do so; therefore it's a waste of time to worry about the outcome, and far more sensible simply to do the right thing and let the chips fall as they may. Harsh? Sure, but in a time of crisis and trauma, it works.

Hadashi, glad to hear it.

Chris G, limitedness is not a hypothesis. It's an essential fact about every kind of embodied existence, including yours. If you don't grasp that, you're living in a dream world. Yes, it really is that simple.

Onething, the Stoics argued that the soul is a physical substance. If, during your life, you make it coherent and integrated, it will survive the body's death as a conscious personality. If not, when you die, it simply dissolves back into the cloud of soul-stuff that fills everything, and that's the end of you. They were really pretty uncompromising!

Robert and Ing, good! Double-spacers, unite...

Joseph, have you considered propounding a leprechaun theory of physics, in which each unverifiable ad hoc hypothesis needed to hold the standard model together is replaced by a leprechaun, or some other legendary being? It might make a splendid satire.

Greg, an excellent metaphor!

Ozoner, funny. Still, there's a point to taking delight in a bull's-eye.

Juhana, I was quoting Nietzsche, not myself, and I did mention that he had a bad habit of thinking that the only alternative of something he disliked consisted of going to the opposite extreme. As for the future of religion in a postprogress age, I'll be getting to that in quite some detail in later posts.

Developer, progress as it actually exists is simply one kind of historical change among many, usually a fairly short-lived form due to the law of diminishing returns. It's the insistence that progress is inevitable and limitless that turns it into a toxic ideology.

Pinku-Sensei, stay tuned...

Brian Weber said...

Long time reader, first time commenter. I'm a mathematician who read Nitzsche back in his early 20s... I remember some of the infinite return passages, and as I recall he picked up the idea after being exposed to some of the mathematical physics of the day. Fact is, he got it wrong, but subtly.

Eventually these ideas were formalized under the rubric of "Poincare recurrence," and it is indeed a theorem, yes, a theorem, of classical mechanics. Specifically, if (and it's a big "if") the phase space of a system has finite volume, then given enough time the system will return to a state that is arbitrarily close to the original state. ("Phase space" means, roughly, the set of all possible configurations of particles in a classical system---one then overlays a Lagrangian which defines an "action", and motion proceeds by the least action principle. It is a very beautiful formulation.)

However "arbitrarily close" does not, for instance, mean "stays arbitrarily close for arbitrarily long" (as previous posters have pointed out, there is the phenomenon of "chaos," aka sensitive dependence on initial conditions). So parts of Nitzsche's life may well be approximately lived over and over, but not necessarily in order, and not necessarily all at once---the physics gives no information here. All this is to say nothing of the finiteness of phase space. If the universe itself is unbounded, then Poincare recurrence doesn't apply. Most obviously, we no longer believe nature works in a classical Newtonian fashion (with discrete particles and continuous forces), but in a quantum fashion, wherein Poincare's theorem does not apply. Though there is a panoply of related results for quantum systems.

It goes to show that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: Nitzsche had a good layman's knowledge of the state of science of his day, but not being an expert, the subtleties & caveats escaped him.

To Mr. Greer's credit, he roughly speaking points out this trap, and faults Nitzsche for his unimaginative embrace of what was originally a "thought experiment." Mr. Greer proposes his readers try the same experiment, but as an exercise, and without, presumably, assenting to Nitzsche's actual claims.

By the way, there's a chance that Mr. Greer's mystery thinker is Poincare himself---indeed the last great polymath.

John Michael Greer said...

Joseph, that's probably why I never got into cheap fantasy magic. ;-)

Nick, that's certainly a viable formulation, and since any experience we can have requires a formulation to be placed upon it by our minds, might as well have one that works.

Tracy, yes, Steiner's shape of time is right out of Blavatsky. It took Dion Fortune to give away the secret, though, when she wrote -- in her version of the same cosmology, in The Cosmic Doctrine -- "these teachings are meant to train the mind, not to inform it." In his own urbane way, Steiner said the same thing when he explained that he wanted students to think through the material in his books, not just believe it...

Chris, you really need to lay off the weed.

Phil, I tend to think of something a little longer term than the genetically determined behavioral habits of a species that won't be here in a mere ten million years!

Brian, Poincare is way over my head. As for Nietzsche, though, exactly; it's an occupational hazard of philosophers to be less well informed about current science than they think they are -- a hazard I try to avoid, with mixed results.

Vesta said...

JMG I believe that most societies have not had a progressivist vision of time. But that is not true now.

Why?

What I was proposing is a mechanism that helps explain it's current prevalence.

GuRan said...

Team10tim, I really enjoyed your metaphor :-)

Juhana said...

I should have noticed that sentence was directly borrowed from Mr. Nietzsche... Anglosaxon language has so different morphology and grammar that it is sometimes hard to visualize meaning of whole sentence. And reading one word at time is always invitation for misunderstanding. Waiting eagerly where this series of writings is going!

Tim, your writing was great. The Crappening... It may not be the term that goes eventually to official history books, but it is great one anyway.

Has anyone noticed how assets trading and world of finance in general is following quite faithfully model of catabolic collapse..? There was first unraveling in -08, now there has been calm period for some years, during which many operators have made profits and recovered. This recovery of course is bought by booting parts of former middle class to poverty, setting free tied up resources in the process. Now warning signals in parallel worlds of economy and manufacture are flashing red again, so we probably are going to see next phase of unplanned scaling down pretty soon... And so called middle class shrinks again.

If anyone wants to see what world is going to look like after decade or two, just look any relatively stable Third World country. Small and extremely influential cleptocracy on the top, tiny middle class below working as enforcers for this aristocracy and great masses of people left to manage themselves best way they can, as long as they do not challenge status quo. In that kind of world, it truly matters that you know your neighbors and have somekind mutual assistance pact between your group... Having a territorial gang to belong, if you want to put it that way. It actually works that way for Third World citizenry already, so their world is not going to shapeshift out of any recognition, unlike world of Westerners. This is going to be their strength during even harder years ahead.

Having fancy revolutionary ideas about world is not going to help anyone, because revolution brings with it no extra resources to be shared... It can only replace one cleptocratic aristocracy with the next one. So stop trusting ideological movements and academic ideals, trust your neighbors and family instead.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Progress is a funny word isn't it? Sounds to me like the word efficient, in that it can mean anything that the speaker intends it to mean.

For if we are progressing towards a goal, what is that goal? Do people have goal congruence? Can that goal be applied to everyone universally? Is it a realistic and achievable objective given the resource constraints? Is it compatible with our current objectives? Who knows?

So many difficult and unpleasant questions come to mind.

Experience has taught me that ideas do not in themselves produce outcomes. Imagining, planning, resourcing and plain hard graft produces outcomes.

I spent a few hours today making new rock walls. I'm sure I've done something bad too, because most of the rocks had to be moved - by hand - up the hill! The rest of the day was spent fabricating the steel for the wind turbine mast extension.

I've had to raise the wind turbine an extra 3m (10ft) because despite the very strong winds on Friday, it produced little energy because of the turbulence close to the ground.

With the infrastructure here, it usually gets installed, observation takes place and then it gets modified to cope with real world conditions. The wind turbine is just another in a long line of projects. It is sort of like a battle plan in that it never survives the engagement. Alternative tech forces you to be responsible for the outcomes. You can't deny the results.

I got hit last night by something slightly less than a super-cell. 75mm (3 inches) of rain was dumped here and the reserve tanks are now more than half full on one single night. Yippee!

What is weird is that this sort of weather is usually reserved for summer conditions. It was very warm beforehand (it is winter after all). Incidentally it was record breaking rain for June too... Climate change it's not happening. Yeah, right.

Record rain and storms target Melbourne

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Leo,

The html code for a hyperlink is:

(a href="url")Text for link(/a)

However, replace:

( with <

and

) with >

Put the web address in between the two quotation marks (remembering to keep the quotation marks).

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Quote: "with approved versions of 19th century Christian piety claiming that the proper response to every injustice was to wait patiently for payback in heaven"

This attitude in Western culture still predominates and it is little wonder that even today both whistle-blowers and vigilantes get such short shrift from society a large. Interesting stuff.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Thanks for the clarification about stoicism. For some reason, I've always associated them with a hair shirt existence. This is clearly wrong.

You know, they invented "cool".

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi William Yeates,

Really enjoyed the obscure film reference from the 1980's. Tidy work!

Datarock the Norweigan band did a great ode to the film:

Computer camp love

hehe! Well done.

Chris

Phil Harris said...

JMG wrote
Phil, I tend to think of something a little longer term than the genetically determined behavioral habits of a species that won't be here in a mere ten million years!
I don’t know how to put this so it does not sound something I do not mean. No kidding.
I remember telling my mother and younger brother when I was about 11 or 12, having heard something about Einstein (that was BBC radio I guess!) and the concept of unified space/time, that it meant – in my mind – that anything that had ‘existed / happened’ could not be ‘un-existed’. Maybe that memory is what got stirred by your account this week. Quote JMG: It’s one thing to accept the present moment, and another to accept the whole of your life; it’s quite another to imagine that same life repeated endlessly through infinite time, and accept that as a whole, without wishing a single thing to be different. Quite right: it is very difficult to accept –though perhaps I do not get your meaning precisely – difficult especially in the case of moral responsibility or of ‘avoidable’ grievous losses.
Over the rest of my life from time to time I questioned the ‘meaning’ of my childhood apercu, and found no useful way to think about it any further –with the exception perhaps of another conjecture that “no moment of existence can be re-created in its reality, ever, even given infinity”. Which might be the same as saying; “that which is done can never be undone”. And there is still no moral let-out or escape clause – which is perhaps Nietzsche’s dilemma - ‘the innocent condemned to suffering each moment’s horror without remission’ – a kind of existential hell.
So I turned as I grew up to bootstrap thinking about the wide world and animal and vegetable natures. In my infant world there had ‘always’ been ‘the’ Robin (European – tame behaviour because it follows the human spade with a beady eye) and ‘the’ hedgehog, as well as a wide and sometimes quarrelsome cast of birds and animals. In old age I have thought: “Because these apparently endless repetitions of the non-human pre-date and in a more normal time for the human imagination could be expected to outlive our kind, we might have taken solace by assuming their embodiment to persist, even beyond our descendants.”
‘Endless’ on the human scale is not ‘infinite’, as you rightly point out I think, nor is it associated with the vertigo of the void. (I remember as a child visiting the brink of that place as well). There are stranger places for the human mind to visit – I find it especially difficult to think about these modern engagements with our historical cultural representations of existence – going back even to the origins and historical constructions of the ‘soul’ or of the ‘afterlife’, or of ‘God’s purposes’ in the world. But needs must: we actually did hit the 20thC, and there is more to come! We know enough to know that. I am looking forward to our next ‘thinker’ next week!
Best
Phil H

Liquid Paradigm said...

@Juhana:

"Small and extremely influential [k]leptocracy on the top, tiny middle class below working as enforcers for this aristocracy and great masses of people left to manage themselves best way they can, as long as they do not challenge status quo."

That is already happening, though a lot of people do not seem to recognise it as such. I read the following just a bit ago and had a similar thought:

http://www.alternet.org/economy/america-decline-baby-born-parts-ohio-more-likely-die-one-born-north-korea-or-gaza-strip

And I agree about the revolution problem. Up until awareness of peak oil (peak everything,really) kicked in, I was a budding Trotskyite. Once I factored in the notion of limits and the inevitable decline we face, the whole thing fell apart and I realised I was in the middle of a movement that simply wanted its turn as overlord.* The Trotskyites do love the word "objective," but they get ever so angry when genuine objectivity turns its gaze on their own stated ideals.

(*Two quotes come to mind.

"The dearest ambition of a slave is not liberty but to have a slave of his own." - Sir Richard Burton

and

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be 'cured' against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals." - C.S. Lewis)

JP said...

With respect to progress, in the sense of steadily improving conditions for mankind, I think that progress is both possible and able to last for extremely long periods of time.

The problem is that the *rate* of progress for such "limitless" progress is extremely slow.

Extremely, extremely slow.

Because you are looking for durable, dare I say, sustainable, improvements.

I think that what occurs in high cultures, such as the Faustian West and Classical Greece/Rome, is that massive technological/cultural bubbles are brought into existence.

It's a little understood feature of bubbles, in the financial sense, that they only emerge when conditions are *good* and optimism is *high* and there is a *real story* underlying the bubble.

The bubble is simply (improperly) extrapolating the conditions into the future and then throwing a ton of liquidity at it until all of the people who can be deluded by the permanently high rate of growth have been deluded by the permanently high rate of growth.

At which point, given that there is nobody left to buy and the fundamentals are orders of magnitude away from actual reality, the bubble immediately begins to collapse.

However there were actual durable gains that were produced by the high culture.

The point is to figure out which gains can be sustained and maintained.

The rest gets to be catabolized because it was always epherma to begin with, only useful within the specific path dependent High Culture in which it arose, and with which it must die.

The real rate of progress and growth is probably, what, about 0.1% real growth? Perhaps 0.05%?

The rest of the 3% gains over the last two centuries it is not growth at all. And part of what JMG is saying is that we are going to learn this the hard way.

This also works on the other side, I think.

Which means that the decline of the Dark Ages was overshoot below the actual rate of growth, where you had catabolism well beyond what was required to get back on the real track, so to speak.

What we really need to find is the "island of stability", not utopia, but a place where we can avoid the stupidity and pain that accompanies these massive manic bubbles and painful, horrorshows of collapse. Steady durable improvements are much less painful than bubbles and crashes.

Given human nature, I do not know whether this island exists, but I have little interest in repeating the type of human stupidity through which we are currently living.

Yupped said...

Late to the party this week. Reading these recent posts I keep hearing that Churchill quote in my mind - "history is simply one damned thing after another”. But it’s how we react to all these events, how we think about them and put them in context, our stories, that determine our own sense of the shape of time as we experience it. Personally, I tend to put macro events into the context of slow, catabolic collapse. But twenty years ago, I was thinking pretty much the opposite. And then at either stage, within my own life, I’ve tended to be fairly action-oriented and productive. So my day-to-day reality usually feels positive regardless, even though I now carry a lot of beliefs in my head that previously I would have considered negative. How we interpret and experience reality is such a soup, with so many variables.

Churchill is interesting for lots of reasons, combining this great determination live large and impact his times, with a very moody personality, and some depressive tendencies. He dedicated himself to maintaining the Empire, but ultimately you could see his life as one long losing Imperial battle, finally leaving office just before Suez. No wonder he was depressed sometimes. Clearly, he didn’t embrace the more stoical position of calm acceptance of Britain’s inevitable decline. And yet it was this same instinct for fighting back against reality that positioned him to fight back against the Nazis when many others in Europe were rolling over. And we remember him as a great statesman for fighting Hitler, and don’t dwell so much on his central failure with regard to Empire. People seem to admire the fighter a good bit more than the stoic, perhaps because the fighter is trying to mould and shape and turn back material reality, rather than yielding to it for deeper spiritual reasons. Another reason why this current collapse will be quite long and drawn-out, in my opinion.

onething said...

I used to work in a typing pool, and learned to double space. (No computer keyboard can match the IBM Selectric!) But, I dropped the double space because it is easier. The other corrections that the poster made were appreciated, and I am going to add one of my own: Please, people, learn the difference between your and you're!

Steve Morgan said...

Linear progress or apocalypse to the one side, eternal return to the other; this way lies complete disconnect from reality, that way lies madness. Who is the guide along the path between the pillars? There are many good guesses thus far, several in line with the ecological view of time as seral succession that framed much of The Ecotechnic Future if I'm remembering it correctly.

As someone whose natural tendencies veered away from discussions of philosophy, this series has been a crash course on being in over my head. I'm appreciating the opportunity to bring balance to my education, though, and before we learn the answer next week to the cliffhanger, I'd like to mention a time narrative that hasn't appeared in the guessing yet.

Aldo Leopold's story of the history of his farm as the rings of a dead oak tree as he cuts it for firewood has stuck with me for years. The sawyer/historian's three tools of the crosscut saw, the axe, and the splitting wedge each have their purpose and offer a different view of the story contained in the tree. The tree grows, thrives, dies, and decays or is dismantled for other purposes in much the same way as other trees; yet the individual story of each tree is unique. Meanwhile the forest inhabited by the tree is subject to the same pressures for change or stability as any forest anywhere but is unique in its own niche, and the parallels scale up and down.

The thought experiment of eternal return is a powerful one, and thanks for bringing it up! It's quite something to look at one's life in the context of making judgments about past patterns balanced by present and future choices and actions with an eye to being destined to repeat them all over infinite time. Something like "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Self" comes to mind.

--

I'd like to apologize for my part in the spat that took the Pleasures of Extinction thread off the rails. This week's post pointed up some of the things that were happening that I didn't clearly understand, but I also could have handled it better and will work to do so in the future.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Juhanna--You wrote, "As you are aware, most of Western secular ethics have firm roots in Christian thought... Severed flower does not bloom but short moment."

The second sentence is a beautiful aphorism. I agree with both statements, with the minor caveat that some secular ethics, such as the idea that all people are entitled to some basic material dignity, come straight from Judaism. Because of the Sermon on the Mount, Christianity has a sentimentality about the moral goodness of the poor which Judaism lacks.

In America, the middle class still has an attachment to some shared civic values. I'm using "middle class" in the popular sense of people whose income comes at least partly from earnings for work and who can afford to buy more than a day's worth of food at a time.

These shared values include the belief in the right to choose our political leaders, freedom of religion and freedom of speech, fairness in the sense of "may the best man win", a feeling of responsibility to help at least some people that we don't personally know, and admiration toward people who make some kind of contribution toward society.

What is termed "the American way of life" is often reduced to the right to make money, but it also encompasses this set of civic values. Immigrants are expected to embrace them and most do. Though some of these values are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, they are also part of the American civil religion, I think.

Belief in these values can be undermined by life experience of corruption and injustice, which will happen more and more as things fall apart. Until now, the American civic values have held up through hard times and civil unrest, and I have some hope that they are robust and flexible enough to be sustained without a Christian underpinning.



DeAnander said...

@Tim (miles upthread) -- "The Crappening" is imho brilliant and quotable. Wish I'd thought of it, and in general I agree with the entire comment.

One thing that I think about on and off is the different modalities of our engagement with the Crappening based on our own stage of life (age, etc). For me, I'm almost in synch with my civilisation: I'm on the cusp of middle age, still healthy and hale but showing some signs of apoptosis :-) feeling some limits, seeing that my time here is getting shorter, I'm on the downhill now, not the uphill. So I suspect that the melancholy of civilisational collapse is tangled up (in my thinking/feeling) with the melancholy of the first intimations of elderhood, mortality not as a distant vague concept but as a precipice that seems to be approaching more and more rapidly as I run this river of time.

I wonder how it feels to be, say, 20 and full of energy and youthful fires, and to be living in this time of civilisational decay? I have a few friends who are in their 70's and 80's and their attitude differs from mine; if anything they are more cheerful, they feel they will not live to see the worst of the decline and are openly grateful to have reaped the best bennies of the fossil binge. They seem like disinterested bystanders at a stranger's funeral; I feel more like a mourner at the wake of a family member; but what does a young person feel?

If we should seek out the philosophies that counterbalance our innate personality traits then I -- sterotypically Celtic, volatile, emotional, moody, sentimental and fierce -- should definitely cultivate Stoicism! I remember enjoying the Meditations very much and should read them again; and in fact I practise some Stoicism in daily life, now that I come to think on it. In business dealings f'rexample I try not to worry about what the other party is doing or thinking or whether I'm getting the best deal possible, but just do what *I* believe to be fair and right. If I get fooled or cheated, at least I will have nothing to reproach *myself* for. It's much more relaxing than trying to second-guess in an adversarial game of Battleship. "Do what's right and let the chips fall where they may" is something I've struggled long and hard to learn, and if this is Stoicism then I think I'll seek out more of the same :-)

John Michael Greer said...

Vesta, er, how about the fact that the mainstream media, schools, universities, and other cultural institutions of the Western world constantly hammer on the theme, presenting it as literal truth and excluding any possibility of an alternative view from discussion? It seems to me that that explains the matter quite well all by itself.

Juhana, I've certainly noticed! It's been of interest to me just how closely the disintegration of industrial society in the US and Europe has followed my catabolic collapse theory -- at least so far.

Cherokee, exactly. The concept of progress contains no content, just a value judgment -- that's what makes it so convenient as a justification for the status quo. Glad to hear you've gotten some rain!

Phil, your childhood insight is something the Stoics would have liked. As for the origins of the figurations we impose on time to create history, that's going to be a central theme later on.

JP, in theory, that's possible. In practice -- well, in nature all equilibrium consists of swings to either side of a point of balance or a line of development. If you want to talk about ways to moderate the swings in some particular case, on the other hand, that seems like a reasonable goal.

Yupped, the interesting thing is that the Stoic is often a fighter. Marcus Aurelius, who was a brilliant Stoic writer as well as emperor of Rome, spent his entire career doing battle against one barbarian horde after another, to sustain the relative peace and security of the Roman world in the face of all opposition. Again, from a Stoic perspective, you don't waste your time complaining about what the world throws at you; you simply do the right thing as best you can determine it.

Steve, thank you. It's easy to get caught up in quarrels online, not least when you're being met with the kind of paralogic that apocalyptic fantasies so often call up.

ed231ff4-b9b0-11e2-92c7-000bcdcb471e said...

On the topic of thought experiments, what are the implications if we take Parmenides' way of truth as our inspiration? I'll set aside his denial of perception to maintain some focus. According to him, all of existence is timeless, uniform, and motionless. This hefty metaphysical challenge provided definition to Plato's arguments and therefore influenced most of western thought.

A useful shape of time is necessarily an ethical one and I have trouble finding any ethical handles on such a world. To me, it seems to highlight the weight and finality of our decisions in the manner of Stoic palingenesis while at the same time denying their power. I'm not particularly well read so I've almost certainly missed later writings on the topic. Anything important I should read or consider here?

Joy said...

I was reminded of your blog posts on time in a strange way. While at work, I noticed a cigarette pack poking out of a coworker's purse. Glancing at the box, I saw it was called "Timeless Time". Serendipity at work, maybe? I'm still trying to picture what Timeless Time would look like; it sounds contradictory.

KL Cooke said...

"Chris, good heavens -- I somehow managed to miss that book."

It's available here, gratis.

http://archive.org/details/PhysicsPhilosophy

I downloaded it myself, but after skimming a few pages, I don't know if I'm smart enough to read it.

Chris Travers said...

Vesta,

The problem I have with such an explanation is that it is fundamentally dependent on assuming the conclusion (what Latin translators of Aristotle called petitio principii). Basically you are assuming, essentially, that scientific progress is a given and leads to an understanding of cultural progress in line with current progressive narratives.

However there are two major reasons to dispute this. The first is that it applies, if you will, a flawed understanding of evolution (as progressive) to the development of social ideas and ideals. In fact evolution is more typically understood to be adaptive and dynamic, and so for your vision to be consistent with that, we would have to be able to form testable hypotheses which shows that progressive narratives dominated everywhere because they were most useful. JMG quite concisely demolished any such universalist case you can make around such a mechanism. If you are going to suggest such a mechanism it will have to be much more narrow than what you have proposed.

The second reason to be sceptical is that there is no apex of evolution generally (I say this with some small background in evolutionary ecology). Instead what we typically see is specialization when resources expand and generalization when they contract. This is because there is no one path to success but rather a multitude of paths. Bats may be better at eating gypsie moths than at eating their larvae, but some other animals may be much better at eating the larvae. When gypsie moth populations explode, these animals specialize, but when they return to normal they generalize much more.

Yupped said...

Very interesting on stoics as fighters, and the example of Marcus Aurelius. I read some of Meditations a few years ago and this reminds me to go back to it. You've given me a new light in which to consider Churchill.

I wonder if Ben Bernanke or President Obama would fancy themselves as stoical fighters, preserving the current system as the least worst alternative? It must be quite a temptation for powerful people to dress up attempts to sustain the unsustainable with "There Is No Alternative" bravado. That was certainly Margaret Thatcher's operating mode, for example. Now I'm imagining Marcus Aurelius sitting down to dinner with Thatcher, Churchill and Ben Bernanke. That would be fun.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Justin Wade,

Score! Obscure film reference number two this week. Groundhog day was Bill Murray's finest acting hour.

I think you are wrong about midlife crisis. From what I see amongst my peers is that they achieve what society dictates they should achieve and they then find themselves trapped in knots.

The only way to win the game is to not play the game.

Still, after a bit of reflection few people would have enjoyed the past couple of days that I've had mucking around with the wind turbine and mast arrangement in the cold driven rain and wind.

I don't say that from ego either, it is just that so few plans survive engagement with the enemy. When the rooster needs to be de-necked, it is simply a job that needs to be done and gotten through. Worry about the details later. So much easier to flick a switch and not worry about where the energy is coming from...

Regards

Chris

Glenn said...

@Cherokee Organics

'Score! Obscure film reference number {Snip!} "The only way to win the game is to not play the game."'

Chris,

"How about a nice game of chess?"

Glenn

Edward said...

@ skinnermichael: The Enchiridion is best taken in small bites and chewed on liesurely. Good thing, since it's such a thin volume.

An essential book on Stoicism is "The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca - Essays and Letters" still in print.
While Sececa has been criticized for being a wealthy stoic, his themes transcend ones station in life.

Also, "The Consolations of Philosophy by Boethius. I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list.


Joy said...

The New York Review of Books has a review of theoretical physicist Lee Smolin's new book, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, which may have some bearing on our present discussion. More food for thought?
http://tinyurl.com/mzgzpxt

Tyler August said...

@DeAnder What does a young person feel? Cheated, mostly. We were raised to expect progress; our parents and teachers promised us the moon. Every twenty something knows that that is not the world being left to us (though most do not know why). The general feeling is anger and bitterness, with lots of clueless hope (see occupy, thinking there was an easy political fix in class warfare) mixed in.

Keith Covington said...

It seems like it's Pascal's wager all over again. If this is the first time around in the eternal recurrance, we can actually make choices that make things better (or worse). If it's a later occurance we'll never know anyway. So we might as well act as if it our choices matter, which is also the way we might wish we had acted the first time around anyway.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Whilst I'm enjoying the current discussion about the shape of time, I'm also finding it mildly baffling. I can't even pretend to know where we are all being led, although it seems that you have a particular destination in mind. Surely this destination would relate to your own belief system, although few commenters seem willing to grapple with this?

I don't expect an answer to that question as I'm happy to accept that things will be revealed in your own time.

Getting back to the main story though, I kind of feel a bit sad for Nietzsche as to my mind he fixated on the details and in doing so missed the big picture. This is a common problem in our culture. Yes, the horse was being beaten and the owner was probably not a very nice person, but what of that? There would still have been lots of beauty and things to celebrate in the world despite the injustice that was before him.

Many questions are raised by Nietzsche’s actions: Is he even responsible for the actions of the owner? Would he associate with the owner knowing what he knows of their actions? Were the actions of the owner part of the accepted norm of the day? Was the horse dying anyway and Nietzsche's actions ended up being largely irrelevant? Where does Nietzsche begin and end his struggles as he cannot be intervene in every injustice in the world (he lacks boundaries)? Did Nietzsche have his house in order before becoming involved in others struggles?

Controlling other people’s actions is a difficult thing and also the point at which magic comes into play.

Perhaps my attitude is incorrect and some may find my perspective to be debatable or even repugnant, but it is my own preference to consider a person’s interface with the environment (including people). In doing so, it sort of neatly side steps the murky problem of time and instead focuses on impacts and outcomes. It is mildly ironic that the dreamtime stories also provide this sort of structure / code / ethics / advice or whatever you may want to call it. It is a way of thinking that is probably well adapted to this crazy chaotic environment that I find myself living in.

Nietzsche had the courage to do an honourable thing, but in the larger context I find that his actions are baffling and even self-defeating. Is his actions any different to having a sticker on an overly large SUV displaying concern about mining in the Tarkine?

Regards

Chris

g downs said...

@Robert Mathiesen:

Every week I make and save a text document of the week's essay, highlighted for future reading, and I even save particularly interesting comments. I've been doing this for years. I comment rarely because I have very limited internet access, but I feel like a regular. I've been reading JMG almost from the very beginning, around seven years ago. And while I can't recall any of your specific posts, I would like to thank you, Robert, and all of you generally for contributing to my education here at the Archdruid Report. I regret that you reject my contribution. (I do have a tendency for posting from left field. It's part of my charm ;) And certainly, the level of intellect here is above reproach. I intended no slight. I had hoped that the humor in my post would be obvious. Apparently, it was not. I do apologize.

By the way, about those comments (if this is still an issue for anyone), I find it a great help to gather all of JMG's responses and put them in a text document. I then shrink the original page and the text document down so I can read the comment and reply side-by-side, one on each side of the screen.

And one last thing, as for the double-spacing deal, I taught myself how to type, and was completely unaware that such a thing was convention (former convention?). In any case, my comment was just an attempt at humor. I couldn't care less about it.

gene

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Glenn,

Well done, very clever and most subtle. It took a while, but the memory from 1983 came back. The hippy dippy school that I attended took me to see that film as an excursion.

AI's running amok was also done very well in the Terminator film. If that's progress, then I'm not excited.

It just goes to show that our blog host is correct in saying that you may be programmed by the content that you consume. Undeniable in this case.

Nice work.

Chris

Robert Mathiesen said...

Gene, I apologize! -- I'm not rejecting your comments, and I approve of most of them. I was just being flippant, as the single-or-double-space-after-a-period thing comes up all too frequently, and not everyone is as gracious about it as you were.

When I wrote about "obnoxious on-line etiquette tyrants," I was thinking about other, less knowledgeable and civilized encounters elsewhere. I did not intend to number you among them, and I'm sorry that I wrote too carelessly.

KL Cooke said...

"The general feeling is anger and bitterness, with lots of clueless hope.."

There was plenty of that back in the 60s, too.

NH Peter said...

The inexpressibility of experience is the first concept we garrulous types must overcome, tis bad for business.

To that end, another stab at the point I tried to make earlier, though I suspect it needs little clarification for you JMG. Let’s back into the eternal return from the will to power with a little help from Jasper’s thoughtful observation, I paraphrase, “the will to power is the last intelligible concept before the abyss.” The point is that all intelligible concepts can be reduced to will to power, but of course there is no further intelligible reduction from will to power. If you try that, you are confronted with a very serious case of inexpressibility! The primacy of will to power means that human thought is always in the service of some project of aggrandizement, no matter how insane or twisted. It is not the kind of concept that helps us better understand our experience of the world, because the concept will to power is always dissolving the fabric of intelligibility.

So then what can be said about the shape of time? Strictly speaking, nothing at all (from Nietzsche’s point of view), at least not in some objective, externally valid form. As JMG has been pointing out, the various shapes of time are in the service of various modes of human life, some highly adaptive, some deeply maladaptive.

My best guess is the eternal return is the conceptual core of nihilism, a particularly vicious and extraordinarily maladaptive vision of time and life, really a kind of insanity. From a certain point of view, the human mind is susceptible to nihilism like a kind of conceptual virus. Nietzsche’s great task was to use the power of that concept to overcome nihilism. Because of the close association between nihilism and modern industrial society, there is perhaps a further extension of the project tied to this historical circumstance, but I would not want to stretch that connection to hard.

As for next week, I shudder to think you are going to take us through the dark forests of Sein und Zeit! If so, bring breadcrumbs!

Roger said...

My own education was vocationally oriented ie learning the self discipline to do a million little things right. I avoided reading great literary and philosopical works and pondering the big questions. Regardless of my own predisposition in favour of the practical and day-to-day I cannot entirely escape the great issues.

Like, for example, "where did we come from"? Or "why all this" as opposed to something else entirely or nothing at all. And I noticed that there are two approaches to these questions both of which are rooted in emotional response.

Some people cannot abide the notion that human life is without purpose, that it is a meaningless nightmare of suffering (Woody Allen?), that it is the byproduct of impersonal and random physical forces that could just as easily have resulted in an Earth of green slime or a molten, lifeless rock.

Others cannot abide the notion that there IS a purpose, that the forces of creation had initial conditions that would, after the passage of billions of years, of necessity result in our being up on our hind legs. And why is this so unpalatable? Because that would raise icky questions that had their place in an earlier superstitious era, questions unworthy of the modern, rational and educated mind.

These latter scorn the approach of the former as emotionally immature, as not rooted in "fact". Whereas, in my opinion, these high and mighty rationalists don't have two facts to rub together either and are just as emotional in their aversion to the alternative view.

What testable facts are there to support the contention that there ISN'T a purpose? But, as I said, maybe I'm deficient in my understanding. What does an accountant know anyhow?

DeAnander said...

@Tyler, even people of my age felt a bit cheated as we realised that we were promised Star Trek and were probably getting something a bit more like Mad Max (or more grimly, The Road), with a best-case scenario somewhere in the vicinity of Amish Pennsylvania :-) I've got over it now, but I can remember the crushing sense of disappointment. And regret -- so many years spent caring about and hoping for all the wrong things -- as Bruce Stirling quipped, "A Good Old-Fashioned Future."

I don't know what our parents could say to my generation, or what my generation could say to yours, other than "Sorry." Such a huge mess, made for such trivial reasons (ego, the pursuit of status, greed, envy).

Ian said...

(I know--a late, late response, no worries if you don't feel like passing it through the sorter or responding. I don't seem to have the knack for responding even on the gentle Archdruid internet rhythm, though, so here you'll have it.)

Re: Nietzsche: it's a reasonable approach to treat Nitzsche through that lens, no doubt. I just tend to think that, at the height of his powers, Nietzsche uses concepts like the return in a less literal fashion and prefer to read his work that way.

I sympathize with your dislike of Derrida--until I read his "Force and Signification" essay, I had a hard time not loathing his work. After reading it, well, okay it wasn't much better but I could see him as this guy who had this vital insight that was subsequently lost under a wave of trendy obscurantism and smugness.

To be fair, Deleuze suffers from his share of trendy obscurantism, but I do feel like there is much that can be extracted and made sense of outside of that, which is where later Derrida seems to fail for me.

Deleuze was also quite a fan of Bateson. I stumbled across Deleuze by accident during my archetypal psychology phase before I knew he was anybody important and proceeded to make an obsessive (though not always well-informed) study of his work as an undergrad--I first took French in college because I hoped it would help me chase down his footnotes better! Anyway, I first learned of Bateson from Deleuze and started reading him shortly thereafter.

I've been thinking a lot about how amenable the core wisdom of modernity is to emendation and consolidation. The kinds of luxury we have had the last couple of centuries has supported sprawling intellectual works that can only become increasingly inaccessible as that luxury wanes.

I've been considering the tight fusion of practice (which Western philosophy seems to have all but lost) and theory you find in the indic sutras, wondering if it can be meaningfully replicated. Of course, the sutras without the community to preserve them aren't all that useful. Still, I can read a sutra or a Platonic dialogue and come away the better for it.

This is surely long enough for a tardy response!

Mike said...

We seem to be forgetting that empires do not just lay down, & roll over & die without a fight, the current super power of the day is currently demonstrating that it will continue to do as it has always done, …. that is to blatantly lie to us all over all manner of things in pursuit of it's own privately funded agendas , ….. will this current super power now suddenly submit to the current conditions that it itself created in the first place & suffer the consequences of its own folly?, ……will it now fess up to all the illegality’s it has committed & gotten away with …… do we seriously think that it will now voluntarily choose to swallow the bitter medicine that must be swallowed in order to cleanse one’s self ….. & by doing so,…. just fade away into total insignificance as a consequence… of course not if history means anything. Empires don’t do that …regardless of any human conscience. As increasing numbers of us all over the world begin to tire of all the continual lies of this current self-imposed authority over us all, eventual exposure (as we are currently seeing) & a refusal on the part of the masses to unquestionably partake in the continued undisclosed (but blatantly obvious) agenda will & must happen, your post Mr Druid seems to assume that things these days will continue to unfold as slowly & as logically as has always happened before, the assumption I take away from that is that you do not consider that the powers that be will be able/willing/or ready to react in a similarly speedy fashion , I put it to you that in the digital age where we now live where things can unravel pretty quickly, you are putting enormous unwarranted faith in the bought puppet boys who control the ultimate big stick of submission.

Repent said...

Bush and his deputies have been convicted of WAR CRIMES:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=rrTeBDetcfw#t=0s

Could you comment on this in a future post?