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Archive for January, 2013


the voice of the soil
was but a dance in my head
the day you died
twice i looked after you
and hoped the world might stop
how could it go on like that
not knowing your life
the way i did



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One of humanity’s favorite myths is the story of the do-over. You know what I mean. Stories about reincarnation, Karmic repetition, the gates of St. Peter, the Elysian fields, the Grey Havens, all that jazz… Our desire of course is noble….we want to get it right! …. To get life right…. It seems to me that our awareness of this as an intellecutual, but not physical, possibility is one of the things that tortures us most of all.


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Do you believe in cause and effect? Then you must believe in God, which is the cause of everything. Do you believe we can know anything? Then you must believe in the soul, which can only know what it already knows. To pass from ignorance to knowledge is as incomprehensible as the notion of something from nothing.

Of course we philosophers understand the intellectual dishonesty which just occurred. We understand the physicist studying her meters and gauges is studying nothing more than that. We understand that the search for knowledge never ends up where it’s going; that the search is all and the destination nothing. We understand that the everything that God is the cause of does not in fact exist, because to exist is to be capable of being doubted and one cannot doubt the existence of everything. But we accept the fictions that are necessary to save us from utter nihilism.

Or do we? Can we not also see those fictions themselves as stages on life’s way? Contingent amusements that can stand to be stripped away, just as the child strips away their own playthings, lovingly setting them aside in boxes, kept perhaps for a time in the attic, but then given away when the house is sold, or left behind for someone else’s joyful discovery.


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One of the recurrent themes in Tolkien’s mythology is the idea of invisibility. On the one hand the ring of power confers mechanical invisibility which is the power to disappear from the world and thereby increase control over the world. This is the artificial invisibility of technology that points towards the world as standing reserve laid open for manipulation and impersonal transformation by an invisible puppet master. On the other hand we can also note the more naturalistic invisibility of creatures like the hobbits who tread so lightly that they often are not heard (and thus make perfect thieves in the night), and men like Aragorn, who utilize the cunning and skill of their communities to remain hidden until the opportune moment. Aragorn and the hobbits represent Tolkien’s idea of skillful invisibility. It is the invisibility of communal talent and connection to the natural world. Far from seeing the world as standing reserve to be transformed and shaped at will, the naturalistic approaches see the world as ally, as resource, as partner, perhaps even as lover. Remember that scene upon Cerin Amroth when Frodo and Aragorn, caught up in the sublime beauty of the place, together share a vision of the heart of Elvendom and Aragorn’s true love? No ring of invisibility could ever replace for them the incredible surrender of their passion in that moment. This, then, is why Frodo and Aragorn can both withstand the power of the ring in ways that other men and hobbits cannot (remember that Gollum was of a race related to the hobbits). They replace the invisibility of individual, selfish power and technology with the invisibility of surrender to something more beautiful than ourselves. And so in Lórien must our hearts dwell ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we tread, you and I.

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What I regret most about my life is loneliness: the inability to fit in with anyone (or any-ones). Yet I also wonder—couldn’t I learn to live in that loneliness, spinning off the light like a pebble in the wind, whirling and dancing my own way to my end. Is the lonely, solitary life the same as the wasted life. What’s the matter here.



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Driving down the highway today I realized another example of the rule governed / rule described dialectic. While I was driving, I was faced with a very common physics problem. I was attempting to pass a car in the lane to my right, and suddenly faced with a car in front of me in my own lane and forced to make a decision whether to accelerate or fall back. Was there enough space between me and the car in front of me to make safe acceleration and moving over into the other lane in front of the car next to me possible? At first I thought there was but as I hit the accelerator and moved ahead, I experiencing a slight twisting sensation somewhere in my mid-section and as I continued to accelerate the feeling got more and more intense. Clearly I was not going to make it. I backed off and feel behind, choosing instead to go around in back of the car I had been attempting to pass. Was my behavior rule governed or only rule described? Well, certainly I was following a rudimentary rule like “don’t do something stupid to get yourself killed,” or “don’t take unnecessary risks by passing to close to them at highway speeds.” However what rule specifically was I following when I made the actual decision to not pass the car on my right due to not having enough space in front of me? Did I stop and actually measure the distances and speeds involved, taking into account my engine strength and Newton’s second law of motion that force is equal to the time derivative of momentum? As a matter of fact, I can tell you that I did not. So what rule specifically was I following? In fact, none at all. In fact what was happening was that based on a specific learning history I simply responded to the available discriminative cues and engaged in a behavior that has a long history of being rewarded in the past (i.e. with life and continued driving privileges!).

My point is that when authors like Chomsky or Plato or Freud argue for a special unconscious rule following capacity, they are proposing a model that just does not explain all the data available to us. And that is the fact that we rarely ever follow rules! At least not in the sense that I’ve defined rule following, which is the conscious manipulation of data based on an explicit model of equivalences specified by either formal mathematical or formal logical relations. This is not to say that I don’t think people follow rules when they learn new languages, practice new skills, or are confronted with novel experiences (like traffic tickets or accidents!) but merely to observe that for the vast majority of the time when I’m engage in routine daily activities, rule following (at least conscious rule following) plays no role whatsoever. It’s a situation exactly like deciding whether to pass another car on the freeway with no knowledge whatsoever of the logical variables contained in the laws of physics. Of course, once one takes rule following unconscious, as many authors do, one can justify almost anything at all.


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It seems to me that many intellectual errors can be corrected by understanding the difference between rule governing and rule describing. Do we assume that a phenomenon is rule governed simply because it is (as far as we know) adequately rule described? This was a question that took center stage for 19th century Europe. They noticed several things. The first was the degree to which human history could be rule described. The second was the degree to which our thoughts, feelings and experiences were to large extent (and this contradicted the wisdom of the ancients) involuntary. The entire surprising thing was that volition, and hence meaning, could vanish in an instant. How could this be? How shocking to wake up one morning and discover that the meaning of the world was suddenly gone. Nihilism’s plenitude is now fairly routine, but how devastating was it to those who first discovered it and wondered to themselves, “how did we get here?” Letting the days go by sometimes without even a word or a pause I wonder do we advance more by the chance of law, or taint of freedom, in every event?

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