Stephen Hawking is a remarkable person whom I’ve known for 40 years, and for that reason any oracular statement he makes gets exaggerated publicity. I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic … I would support peaceful co-existence between religion and science because they concern different domains … Anyone who takes theology seriously knows that it’s not a matter of using it to explain things that scientists are mystified by.
— Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal & Past President of the Royal Society, “We shouldn’t attach any weight to what Hawking says about God,” The Independent, September 27, 2010
The web-magazine io9 recently posted a list by the futurist author George Dvorsky on “9 Historical Figures Who May Have Predicted Our Future,” and if you had the opportunity to read some of my recent comments on cultural amnesia (“Haunted by Our Amnesia” and “Connecticut Vampires in a Naive Skeptic’s Court“), you might have an inkling as to what I’m going to point out regarding not just one or two of the figures listed, but the majority of them.
Yes, these prophets of scientific progress were each in their own way connected to those streams of thought which are often relegated to the status of “pseudo-science” or, as the enthusiastic (but often illiterate and condescending) debunking crowd affectionately calls it, “woo.” This is made evident in the very first person that Dvorsky lists: Robert Boyle. After listing Boyle’s scientific accomplishments, he adds the caveat, “Not bad for a pre-Enlightenment thinker surrounded by magical and superstitious beliefs.” However, let’s pause here and reflect on the fact that Boyle was a dedicated alchemist.
Alchemy, cosmism, Freemasonry, and evolutionary mysticism all find their way into Dvorsky’s list, but is not to say that those listed were exemplars of the weaker strains of these philosophies and worldviews, which rightfully draw the ire of serious thinkers. On the contrary, these figures mark the exception, where science, philosophy, and often theology commingle in such a way as to transmute reality and open up possibilities that fundamentalists in any of these areas are not capable of accessing. Read the rest of this entry
It’s amazing what you don’t learn in school. Even more so, it’s amazing how much “common knowledge” has absolutely nothing to do with the actual facts. I’m not talking about folk wisdom here but the assumptions that the majority of supposed experts cling to when discussing the reality that underlies our common lives.
Mitch Horowitz, Editor in Chief of Tarcher/Penguin, has been working for several years to mitigate some of the amnesia that has arisen around our collective history. In his book Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, he exposes a few of the forgotten influences that have shaped the American consciousness, from former Vice President Henry Wallace’s engagement with the Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich to the fact that the very materially minded Mohandas Gandhi’s engagement with the Bhagavad Gita was influenced by his relationship to the Theosophical Society in the U.K.
In an article for The Wall Street Journal on filmmaker Vikram Gandhi’s recent documentary Kumaré, Horowitz outlines the process that slowly softens these facts until they become part of the culture: Read the rest of this entry
Let us ask the Apostle Paul, that vessel of election, in what activity he saw the armies of the Cherubim engaged when he was rapt into the third heaven. He will answer, according to the interpretation of Dionysius, that he saw them first being purified, then illuminated, and finally made perfect.
We, therefore, imitating the life of the Cherubim here on earth, by refraining the impulses of our passions through moral science, by dissipating the darkness of reason by dialectic — thus washing away, so to speak, the filth of ignorance and vice — may likewise purify our souls, so that the passions may never run rampant, nor reason, lacking restraint, range beyond its natural limits.
Then may we suffuse our purified souls with the light of natural philosophy, bringing it to final perfection by the knowledge of divine things.
– Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. A. Robert Caponigri
Published in 1486, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man has been seen as a “manifesto of the Renaissance,” a flower of the humanistic spirit. And yet today’s humanists would be put off by its language, which is filtered through mysticism and Biblical rhetoric and symbols. Ironically, the Catholic authorities of its time similarly disliked it, but for opposite reasons, finding the piece to be not only heretical for its deviation from Catholic Christian orthodoxy but also “inflamatory,” with the potential to encourage and foster further heresies.
We find a similar discordance with our contemporary concept of the humanistic endeavor in the work of the psychologist William James. Presenting a counterpoint to the mechanistic theories of the 19th century, a large part of the work he did with the Society for Psychical Research was focused on exploring such issues as survival after bodily death and other phenomena that, in the past, had been rooted in a purely religious context. It was James’s study of the world’s religions that led him to create a humanistic alternative based on the possibility that proper scientific analysis of extraordinary experiences would lead to a profound picture of reality that went far beyond the things to which mechanistic theories were willing to grant credence. Yet today’s humanism vilifies James’s investigation of such phenomena.
Some years ago I started telling the students in my literature and writing classes that language has an alchemical power. I usually do this when we’re studying poetry, although I have applied the idea to prose as well.
This always necessitates a pause to offer a brief explanation of the word “alchemy.” Then, once that’s out of the way, I go on to explain that there’s a positively magical power in language, particularly in the poetic use of it, since language enables each of us to recreate his or her private thoughts and emotions in somebody else’s headspace and heartspace. This is particularly true when it comes to lyric poetry, I explain, because this type of poetry is specifically meant to capture and express the author’s state of mind and mood at a particular moment, and therefore a full understanding of a lyric poem entails not only an intellectual understanding of “what it’s saying” in terms of the words, concepts, and images, but an actual shared feeling with the author. When a lyric poem “works,” it actually recreates the author’s inner state in the reader (or listener, if the poem is spoken aloud), so that the author and reader are vibrating in sympathy, as it were, and the reader doesn’t just understand the poem “from the outside” but divines it “from the inside” by sharing the actual experience that motivated the poet to begin writing. It’s a veritably alchemical moment, since the poet acts as a linguistic alchemist who uses language to transmute the reader’s inner state into something else.
I also point out that the same fundamental idea applies to all types of writing, and this sometimes leads to a brief discussion of basic communication theory, in which I sketch on the chalkboard or dry-erase board the famous diagram showing the basic parts of the communication process: sender, receiver, message, feedback, etc. My undergraduate major was communication, and I studied huge amounts of communication theory during that period, plus I used to teach public speaking, where this model proved extremely useful in helping students to understand what they were trying to accomplish in delivering their speeches (the recreation in their listeners’ minds of the message that they, the speakers, were laboring to present). Sometimes, this foray into communication theory actually helps to clarify and reinforce the point.
Of course, I don’t always get all of that properly said in class. The above description is a kind of idealized version of what I’d like to say. Sometimes it comes out better and sometimes worse, depending on the specific tone of the interaction I’m having with the specific group of students at the time. But the students never fail to find it interesting, and I never fail to find something interesting in their responses. I often use Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening” (which is both a lyric poem and a narrative poem, and is quite dear to me) to illustrate the point, and the alchemical explanation seems to help a lot of students gain a better grasp of what Frost’s poem is getting at with its apotheosis of a wintry longing for silence, solitude, and ultimate rest.
(By way of interjection, I recognize that this explanation of poetry’s and language’s effect extends well beyond the boundaries of literature alone, and has resonances with and implications for art as a whole, and also for lots of other things. In fact, see below.)
I bring all of this up at my blog right now because I just came from reading an interesting review of, or actually a kind of roadmap to, a new book titled What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science, edited by Max Brockman. The review is titled “Top scientists predict the future of science” and was written for New Scientist online by Amanda Gefter. The book itself, as described by Gefter with the help of the book’s jacket copy, is a “captivating collection of essays, written by ‘rising stars in their respective disciplines: those who, in their research, are tackling some of science’s toughest questions and raising new ones.’ The result is a medley of big ideas on topics ranging from cosmology and climate change, to morality and cognitive enhancement.”
What really caught my attention and reminded me of my alchemical explanation of poetry is Gefter’s tracing of the book’s focus on language and social interaction and the way these have probably exerted a decisive influence upon the evolution of the human species and therefore human civilization. The ideas she shares from the book’s assembled authors ping on my fascination with the alchemy of language in manifold ways.
We are a social species, and we have our brains to thank. As Harvard University neuroscientist Jason Mitchell writes: “The most dramatic innovation introduced with the rollout of our species is not the prowess of individual minds, but the ability to harness that power across many individuals.” Language allows us to do this in an unprecedented way — it serves as a vehicle for transferring one’s own mental states into another’s mind.
Or how about this:
We also connect to other minds via mirror neurons — those copycat brain cells that echo other people’s actions and emotions from within the confines of our own skulls. Mirror neurons allow us to learn from one another’s experiences and to see the world through foreign eyes — a neurological feat that seems to lie at the basis of so much of what it is to be human. Through mirror neurons, “our experiences fuse into the joint pool of knowledge that we call culture,” writes neuroscientist Christian Keysers of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. “With the advent of language, books and television, this sharing becomes global, allowing us to exchange experiences across time and space.”
Color me fascinated. I have my doubts about whether these thoughts would prove interesting to most of my students, but they certainly grab me, and do so strongly enough that I may find it necessary to acquire and read this book, if only to revel in its confirmation of my own Beautiful Mind.
(That last comment is intended as ironic, by the way, a fact which I hasten to point out in case its tonal-alchemical intent went over like an untransmuted lead balloon.)