Recommendations this week, spanning a vastly broad variety of trends, issues, ideas, people, and subjects, include: the pressure on American policymakers to adapt to increasingly wild weather; Daniel Pinchbeck’s analysis of the wild weather and other aspects of our current ecological crisis as a collective planetary-spiritual experience of initiation into higher levels of consciousness; an assertion from Rupert Sheldrake that minds are not limited to brains; renowned philosopher Elliot Sober’s critique of renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos; an analysis of the crisis facing the American publishing and literary world in an age of epic corporate mergers, along with a (self-admittedly futile) call for the enacting of government policies to protect culture; and a fascinating analysis of the “Gospel of O”: the idea of “emptying yourself for Oprah” that stalks proudly and prominently throughout the American media-cultural-psychological landscape. Also see the final entry below for a heads-up about a conversation that’s currently unfolding both here and elsewhere on the Internet about the meanings of horror, as spurred on by a recent Teeming Brain column.
How do we adapt to what may be weather’s new normal?
James M. O’Neill, NorthJersey.com/The Record, November 12, 2012
The FDR Drive flooded next to Manhattan neighborhood East Village.
The list grows longer. Irene. The October snowstorm. Violent summer thunderstorms that flooded the Passaic and Hackensack river systems. Sea level rise. Three straight years of above-average temperatures. Now, Sandy — and an early nor’easter. Especially for those who experienced the destruction brought by the past weeks’ storms, it is easy to view this as the new weather reality. And while the debate over climate change may still rage in some corners, the changing weather patterns have prompted more policymakers to start talking about how to address the effects of that change. Some political leaders who had to deal with Sandy’s impact insisted as much, while Governor Christie’s administration has said the science remains in flux, so the solutions are still unclear. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the recent series of extreme weather events, and the destruction from Sandy’s storm surge, which flooded Manhattan’s tunnels and subway system — requires that the city not only rebuild, but “build it back smarter,” with climate change in mind. And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had refrained from endorsing a presidential candidate all year, threw his support behind President Obama, arguing that Obama would show more leadership on climate change. Sandy’s devastation, Bloomberg wrote on Bloomberg.com, “brought the stakes of Tuesday’s presidential election in to sharp relief” … North America has been the most affected of any part of the world by weather-related extreme events over the past three decades, with weather-related destruction growing five times higher in that period, according to a study issued last month by Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies … “We have not had a serious discussion about adaptation to climate change in this country,” said Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown University Law Center. “We’ve been living in a politically charged climate where climate change has been a partisan issue. It’s tragic. But I would hope people see it as a wake-up call and say we need to have this discussion.”
Daniel Pinchbeck, Reality Sandwich, November 5, 2012
[NOTE: This essay consists of notes from a speech Pinchbeck delivered on Saturday, November 3, at the TedX at the La Calaca Festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.]
[Hurricane] Sandy supports what I have been writing for years about this time as one of intense transformation and planetary initiation. At the end of the process, we will either have transformed as a species and reached a new level of consciousness, or we will be on our way toward extinction. The choice is ours to make. In tribal cultures, initiation is the necessary ordeal that turns adolescents into adults through accessing extrasensory perception, visionary states, and by transcending or subduing the ego. Through this process, the initiate becomes a full-fledged member of the tribe and takes responsibility for it. As we undergo our planetary initiation, we are going to transcend individual ego and local boundaries to identify ourselves with humanity as a whole, becoming one global tribe. We are on the cusp of realizing ourselves as one species organism, in symbiotic relationship with the planetary ecology as a whole. Once we make this leap, we will share resources equitably, adopt cradle to cradle and no waste manufacturing practices, and shift from competition to cooperation as our basic paradigm. We will go from acting like a parasite or a virus on the earth to becoming the earth’s immune system … Do we have a say in what happens? Can we cooperate to co-create a rapidly different outcome? In nature, we see the sudden emergence of radical new forms at higher levels of complexity during junctures of crisis. According to the principle of emergence, at a certain level of complexity, entirely new forms appear that could not be predicted by the nature of their parts. Can the same thing happen to our global civilization as a whole?
Are Minds Confined to Brains?
Rupert Sheldrake, Reality Sandwich, October 18, 2012
[NOTE: This article is reprinted/excerpted from Sheldrake’s 2012 book Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery.]
Materialism is the doctrine that only matter is real. Hence minds are in brains, and mental activity is nothing but brain activity. This assumption conflicts with our own experience. When we look at a blackbird, we see a blackbird; we do not experience complex electrical changes in our brains. But most of us accept the mind-within-the-brain theory before we ever had a chance to question it. We took it for granted as children because it seemed to be supported by all the authority of science and the educational system … Not all philosophers and psychologists believe the mind-in-the-brain theory, and over the years a minority has always recognized that our perceptions may be just where they seem to be, in the external world outside our heads, rather than representations inside our brains … My own suggestion is that the outward projection of visual images is both psychological and physical. It occurs through perceptual fields. These are psychological, in the sense that they underlie our conscious perceptions, and also physical or natural in that they exist outside the brain and have detectable effects … Our experience certainly suggests that our minds are extended beyond our brains. We see and hear things in the space around us. But there is a strong taboo against anything that suggests that seeing and hearing might involve any kind of outward projection. This issue cannot be resolved by theoretical arguments alone, or else there would have been more progress over the last century — or even over the last 2,500 years. I am convinced that the way forward is to treat fields of the mind as a testable scientific hypothesis rather than a philosophical theory.
Remarkable Facts: Ending Science As We Know It
Elliot Sober, Boston Review, November/December 2012
[NOTE: Elliot Sober is the Hans Reichenbach Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and author of Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards?.\ He won the 2008 Prometheus Prize, awarded on a biennial basis by the American Philosophical Association “to honor a distinguished philosopher in recognition of his or her lifetime contribution to expanding the frontiers of research in philosophy and science.” And in this substantial review essay on Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos — which we mentioned favorably in our previous Recommended Reading update — he both criticizes Nagel’s thinking and shows an admirable self-awareness in his open, and open-minded, acknowledgment that his criticisms may well be mounted on presuppositions that Nagel’s book is directly designed to call into question.]
Thomas Nagel, a distinguished philosopher at NYU, is well known for his critique of “materialistic reductionism” as an account of the mind-body relationship. In his new and far-reaching book Mind and Cosmos, Nagel extends his attack on materialistic reductionism — which he describes as the thesis that physics provides a complete explanation of everything — well beyond the mind-body problem. He argues that evolutionary biology is fundamentally flawed and that physics also needs to be rethought — that we need a new way to do science … Nagel’s main goal in this book is not to argue against materialistic reductionism, but to explore the consequences of its being false … Mind and Cosmos is dominated by a set of very strong assumptions about explanation: remarkable facts must have explanations; those explanations must show that the remarkable facts have fairly high probabilities; and remarkable facts cannot be byproducts. Nagel does not take seriously the possibility that the world may not be so obliging. Current science may suffer from fundamental flaws, but Nagel has not made a convincing case that this is so. And even if there are serious explanatory defects in our world picture, I don’t see how Nagel’s causally inexplicable teleology can be a plausible remedy. In saying this, I realize that Nagel is trying to point the way to a scientific revolution and that my reactions may be mired in presuppositions that Nagel is trying to transcend. If Nagel is right, our descendants will look back on him as a prophet — a prophet whom naysayers such as me were unable to recognize.
Book publishing crisis: Capitalism kills culture
Scott Timberg, November 10, 2012
Teaser: Publishing teeters as Random House and Penguin plan to merge. It’s time for a government policy to protect the arts.
Around the same time a devastating hurricane smashed and flooded its way up the East Coast, leaving millions homeless or without power, another storm collided into a professional subculture based in New York City. While the second storm is only metaphoric, the transformation of publishing could have far-reaching consequences not only for those who work on Union Square, but for readers and writers across the English-speaking world … The get-big-or-go-home strategy may allow bulked-up publishers to stand up to Amazon, which has become the industry’s Goliath. “The book publishing industry is starting to get smaller in order to get stronger,” the New York Times judged … If you work in, say, journalism, or the music business, you’ve seen this kind of thing before: the erosion and then collapse of an industry, often after mergers and acquisitions announced with buzzwords — “synergy”! — or reassurances that new ownership means that nothing significant will change because, after all, we really value the kind of work you people do. Will publishing continue to slide, gradually, or will it fall apart, like newspapers — which have lost approximately a third of their staffs since the recession and seen advertising revenue sink to 1953 levels — and record labels — where annual sales of the top-10 albums have gone from over 60 million to about 20 million in roughly a decade. Members of the creative class have been here, and it hasn’t worked out real well for them … The digital revolution has effectively marginalized traditional publishers, as the center of financial gravity shifts from Manhattan to Silicon Valley and Seattle.
… One thing that could have made this story end differently is if the United States had a significant cultural policy [the way that many countries in Europe do]. We have a trade policy — we protect industries we value — and we have an anti-trust policy designed to protect consumers. We have arts and humanities endowments that assist institutions. But our cultural policy is mostly to let culture fend for itself in the open market. It works great, but sometimes it doesn’t … State-steered culture probably goes against the American spirit, especially in these days of market fundamentalism. “I think we’re beyond cultural policy at this point,” says [Ira] Silverberg [a veteran editor now serving as director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts], “because capitalism trumped it. There’s not even a battle to be fought there.”
Vacare Oprah: The Gospel of O
Hawa Allan,Los Angeles Review of Books, November 4, 2012
[NOTE: This review essay, or perhaps the book that is its subject, is surely the single best analysis of Oprah Winfrey’s awesome status as a spiritual-cultural icon and influencer in light of prior ideas coming the likes of Jung, Richard Wilhelm, and Ralph Waldo Emerson that you’re likely to find. Or rather, it’s surely the only such analysis you’re likely to find.]
VACARE DEO — “to empty oneself for god” — is a central monastic tenet. In practice, it involves a daily routine of contemplation, say meditation or prayer, that clears space in one’s life to be infused by a higher power. The term begets mental pictures of a lone silhouette cross-legged under a tree, slippered feet rustling under long brown robes, fingertips drawing lightly across gilded pages. In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, Kathryn Lofton uncovers a similar phenomenon. Or, rather, the simulation of such a phenomenon. In the contemplative world stamped by and seen through the “O” of the “Oprah” brand, one also finds someone sitting cross-legged, this time as part of a yoga practice recommended by Dr. Oz. Or feet power-walking in pumps plugged on Oprah’s last show. Or manicured fingers thumbing through the glossy pages of O Magazine. The practices encircled by the Oprah “O”, Lofton suggests, are ersatz attempts at fulfilling the needs salved by monastic creeds. But are they? … The “O” brings to mind a mandala — the ritual or magic circle said to aid in contemplation. Think rose window, or Buddhist wheel of life. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung distinguished between mandalas used for ceremonial purposes in cathedrals or temples from the mental images that emerge, typically in dreams, from the imagination. Jung considered such mental images, which he deemed “true” mandalas, to be symbolic representations of one’s “true” inner self — in his words “the psychic centre of the personality not to be identified with the ego” … Oprah’s “O’, [Lofton] intimates, is neither a perfect circle encompassing all, nor an idiosyncratic manifestation suggesting the universal. The “O”, rather, occupies the overlap in a Venn Diagram made up of three other circles — religion, capitalism, and pop culture.
… The world of “O” is areligious yet ordered by rules, above the material world yet of the material world. The messages spread through Oprah’s multi-media empire have contributed to a “spiritualization of American culture,” and in these messages “Oprah hasn’t just been consistent; she’s been repetitive.” Their essence, it seems, is to empty oneself for Oprah … Jung himself, a devout adherent to psycho-spiritual authenticity, admitted that there are numerous, perhaps even infinite, routes to the “true” inner self. His friend Richard Wilhelm commented on the uncanny similarity between an ancient Taoist-alchemical tract and Jung’s ideas on mandalas — uncanny, considering that the mystic psychologist independently arrived at his own ideas and had never heard of the former. Wilhelm, thus, concluded that “the truth can be reached from any direction, provided that one digs deep enough.” Oprah’s pathway, her “O”, might open to a world of surfaces, but who is to say that devotees may not ultimately find within it their own true centers?
BONUS: ON THE NATURE OF HORROR
Four days ago we published Richard Gavin’s latest column, “To Suffer This World or Illuminate Another? On the Meanings and Uses of Horror.” It has since spawned a vigorous and fascinating conversation both here and at Thomas Ligotti Online about the philosophical, spiritual, emotional, societal, literary, and artistic meanings and experiences of horror fiction and film. Readers interested in this subject are advised to click through the provided links and catch up on the whole thing, because you’ll find much to fascinate in these unfolding interactions among a literate, thoughtful, and diverse-minded group of horror-fied readers and thinkers.