The Course of Empire

March 4th, 2012   by   Andrew

Instead of putting up a TED talk this Sunday, I want to look at art.

1. The Savage State

The English-born American artist Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848) is known for his landscapes and initiating an art movement known as the Hudson River School. The movement was influenced by Romanticism, known for its dislike of aristocracy and the over-rationalization of the Enlightenment. Romantics considered strong emotion as the authentic source of aesthetic experiences. Cole and his own art movement shared a love and respect for the American landscape with writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

The website Explore Thomas Cole has an informative, interactive guide to his paintings. I particularly liked the Decode feature, which gave more information on several features of each painting. Please check it out.

Cole has a series of paintings called The Course of Empire. The first one, above, is a scene depicting life before the beginnings of empire. Elements of nature are dominating the scene, such as the mountain with a boulder at its peak and the looming clouds filling the sky.

The second painting has clearer skies and the mountain with the boulder is not as central.

2.. The Arcadian or Pastoral State 


3. The Consummation of Empire 

People and activity dominate the scene now. The mountain and boulder hardly even make it in the scene.

4. Destruction


5. Desolation

Cole’s intentions, influences, personal beliefs, and message are all obvious (or, at least present). His five paintings express a pattern of the growth and decline of civilizations. From our collective knowledge today, we can look back and point to reasons for the growth and decline of empires in our history. However, none of those awe-inspiring empires were able to escape the decline and diffusion of their power while it was happening. None of them had the power to change and halt the pattern. Denial didn’t help. Belief in continued growth didn’t help either.

With the amount  of information available now, and the number of people networked together, do you think we could find a better answer to this pattern than Destruction and Desolation? Or should we just accept it is the way of things?

Which painting speaks to you the most?

What do you think?

The Narrative Fallacy Revisited

February 19th, 2012   by   Andrew

Part of the series God: From Magic to Motivation

I started the last post with this quote:

The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.
~ Albert Bartlett

Nassim Taleb has identified a similar but more general shortcoming in the human race:

We favor the visible, the embedded, the personal, the narrated, and the tangible; we scorn the abstract. Everything good (aesthetics, ethics) and wrong (Fooled by Randomness) with us seems to flow from it.

Historically, we have tried to use things such as narratives to explain abstract ideas. Arguments have been made that religious stories should be understood metaphorically and not literally, for example. Such arguments have not always been convincing to the larger audience.

I’ve had many students that were not turned on by math. It can be a real struggle to get them interested. Some of the first advice I ever got as a teacher was something like, “Keep it visual, keep it hands-on, and try to connect it to something in your student’s world.” In other words, serve the shortcoming.

At this time in our growth, however, I think there is something emerging that seems to directly fight the shortcomings that Bartlett and Taleb identify. There is a group of people that  favor the abstract and scorn the narrated. I don’t know what this group thinks of the myth of growth, but they might have new and interesting solutions to the problems growth can bring, and the problems of religion too.

Lawrence Krauss, in a discussion panel on a radio show, said that some research suggests, “the only way to really change people’s minds is to confront them directly with their wrong misconceptions, and lead them to an internal contradiction so that they discover that for themselves.”  (I don’t remember whose link I followed, but thank you!)

This is a tough choice, to perpetually face up to what’s wrong, internally and socially, but people are making this choice. People are trying to lead their lives by willingly facing up to contradiction, inconsistency and personal inability. I think people are consciously choosing to fight the narrative fallacy, and deliberately choosing the hard, slow road of rational thought as an “aesthetic” (guiding principles for the appreciation of things like beauty and ethics).

In an earlier post, I tried to make a fun, rough, short list of possible tenets for this supposed “new worldview”. This time I think I want to put them in the form of questions. Do you try to live by any of these “new aesthetics”? *

Do you like to measure things? Do you trust numerical data over anecdotal data, and even try to consciously maintain skepticism over anecdotal evidence for things?

Do you think having multiple sources of information is better than having one source of information? Are you skeptical of authoritative sources unless they have been rigorously tested?

Do you scorn supernatural explanations and even have an emotional reaction against them (They’re not even wrong)? Do you favor rational processes and have an emotional appreciation for them? (I think Taleb once said of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene that it read like mathematics. He was complimenting Dawkins on the elegance of the writing.)

Have you ever changed your mind on something because of logical conclusions? Do you value rationalism, even at the high cost of letting go of some personal motivations?

Do you believe competence should be the measure of vocational positions and social positions?

Not everyone does hold to these kinds of views, or at least cannot consistently. Some are trying to, though.

What do you think?

- – -

* I don’t really think this is ‘new’ but I think it can be thought of as an aesthetic. I’m trying to suggest a significant number of people do share these values now, making them a shared, collective commitment to act in a certain way.

Link to the radio program: Can Science shape Human Values? And Should it? with Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Simon Blackburn

Another Look at God

September 3rd, 2011   by   Andrew

Chapter 12 of the series Myths and Dragons

1My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
3 things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us. ~ Psalm 78


Here’s my dragon.

I have found a description of god that appeals to me. It fits, I believe, with our understanding of gods, with how we want them to work, and yet it requires no appeals to anything silly.


My dragon has three problems.

1. It undermines the only premise in the My Theology we play with on this site. If mythology, and storytelling, teaches us anything, it’s that we should not trust what we know as being complete, but instead face the unknown as the disciplined, serving hero, letting the unknown be in charge. And here I go wrecking even my own basic premise! Argh. I guess premises are made to be broken.

2. The vocabulary is hopelessly high-minded and academic. It is too complex to be of any use when actually talking to people. So, it can be dismissed fairly easily. Why give it the time of day, or any consideration at all, if it doesn’t appeal directly to you?

3. It is not tied to any particular or specific culture. So the usual problems remain. Why would you pay attention to anything that doesn’t fit with your personal worldview, especially if you already have things figured out? (Oh, right… because what you don’t know is the very thing that could bring down the walls around you…)

I’d like to try to find a simpler way of saying this, so I’m asking for your help, nudging readers. Are you up for the challenge of making the complex and high-minded simple and accessible? Or, temporarily adopting something that might not fit with your reality?

[emphasis in the passage is my own]

We can separate a thing from the implication of the thing, because we are students and beneficiaries of empirical thinking and experimental method. We can remove attribution of motive and affective power from the “Object,” and leave it standing in its purely sensory and consensual aspect; can distinguish between what is us and what is world. The pre-experimental mind could not (cannot) do this, at least not consistently; could not reliably discriminate between the object and its effect on behavior. It is that object and effect which, in totality, constitute a god (more accurately, it is a class of objects and their effects that constitute a god.)

A god constitutes the manner in which a group or family of stimuli of isomorphic motivational significance reveals itself to or grips the collective, communicated imagination of a given culture. Such a representation is a peculiar mix of psychological and sociological phenomena and objective “fact” – an undifferentiated mix of subject and object (of emotion and sensory experience), transpersonal in nature (as it is historically elaborated “construction” and shared imaginative experience). The primitive deity nonetheless serves as accurate representation of the ground of being, however, because it is affect and subjectivity as well as pure object (before the two are properly distilled or separated)—because it is primordial experience, rather than the mere primordial thing.

…gods should therefore be regarded as the embodiment (what is understood, or expressed, or partially known) of the transpersonal intrapsychic phenomena that give rise to human motivation, as well as those aspects of the objective world that activate those intrapsychic systems. (Jordan Peterson)

What do you think?

Accurate? Meaningful? Measurable? (And no one is going to buy it, I’d bet…)

Here’s my challenge to you –

1. come at this with fresh, unassuming eyes.

2. think about the above description and try to find a way to say it so that anyone who hears it can understand it.

I hope you take on this challenge.

Below, in white text, I’ve included my attempt. It’s still too long. Please make your attempt at the challenge first before highlighting my hidden text.

Here is my attempt to make this description a little more accessible. And yes, I do borrow from Shakespeare to start. It fits with some of the themes of this series and I needed a boost, some help. Hey, did you write a comment yet? Did you even try? You better not be highlighting this without doing your part!

If all the world’s a stage then the subjective players play their parts, hopefully, to the best of their abilities, knowledge and passion. But just as an actor has to ask herself, “What’s my motivation?” I ask you “What’s your god?” And to find a god worthy of worship is to find a motivation worth being ruled by, a compulsion to trust and even act upon.

So, let’s look at some of the characteristics of gods but in terms of human motivation:

A god is an inny as much as an outy – a motivation can be both subjective and objective without cutting them or separating them. A god can be found within individuals as much as outside of individuals. A god is also physical material as much as abstract ideas. Whatever moves a person to action.

A god can be practically anything we have a relationship with – it is transpersonal, just as history and culture and even heirlooms can be transpersonal. There are emotional bonds and shared motivations that produce the relationship.

A god is a source – A god is like the mountain that makes us stand in awe, the wellspring of water that we need to sustain our lives, the psychological framework that we use to understand or rationalize our feelings or behavior, and the ground of being that makes up the complex and only partially known natural world. This possibly “ultimate” source, however, need no will or agency in the sense that we understand these words. It can be filled with “objective” objects that we are subjectively motivated to react to.

A god compels us act – the ‘existence’ of a god must have implications for behavior, otherwise it isn’t a god. Even if it is only what some might consider a projection (and therefore ‘not real’ in the sense of the supposed objective reality) we are compelled to act due to our experiences and our desires to have experiences. For example, in our children we see gods that must be served. They need to be brought up properly and given every opportunity to flourish. We worship and challenge our children and make sacrifices to them constantly, a relationship that sounds awfully similar to a relationship with a god. It has been said that we were created in order to serve the gods who, first of all, needed to be fed and clothed. (Eliade)

A god is the conscious or unconscious “embodying” of our motivations for actions, especially from the vantage point of subjective experience. So, any examination into a god is similar to the question, “What will I be ruled by?” or “What makes me act?” This might begin to explain why people want their god to be all-loving, all-seeing, and all-powerful. That is the ultimate combination for what your own behavior should be motivated by, is it not? What should our motivations spring from if not some source (within us or outside of us) that takes part in an attitude of compassion, knowledge and ability- yet another abstract but inspirational trinity.

And how do you not have a god? I don’t know. Resist anything you feel compelled to do? Refuse to participate in experience? Pop the cultural bubbles? Maybe it’s simpler than that.

Separate objects from their meaning. But keep in mind that even doubt and even process can be turned into gods, if this description of the nature of gods has any accuracy to it at all. And whatever significance you use to separate objects may still be placing meaning upon those separated objects.

[I'm not really happy with my explanation here. I think I might try to get back to this, simplify it and shorten it. I believe it can be done.]

If you meet your worldview on the road, kill it!

May 25th, 2011   by   Andrew

[Something I wrote a while ago, but never published and never really got back to fully. But since I haven't been posting much lately, we'll let this one out of the cage. In a strange way, it's about dragons, which is going to be my next theme (Dragons and Mythology, really)... that is, if I ever get my head back into this place.]

The Freshly Pressed of WordPress served up a post by Sarah Lacey about Peter Thiel and the problem of bubbles.

We’ve had an equities bubble, a tech bubble, a housing bubble, and even a too-big-to-fail bubble. And Peter Thiel thinks we are cruising along nicely to the next big bubble – conspicuously expensive education.

His focus is business, entrepreneurs, and economics. However, his wording really caught my attention because I thought it could have a lot of implications for religion, philosophy, beliefs and reason.

A true bubble is when something is over-valued and intensely believed. Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”

Some people spend a lot of energy trying to convince the world there is no Santa Claus. Meanwhile, Santa checks in with the air force officials on December 24th every year to make sure his flight route is secure.

Surely there’s a better way to understand all this.

Do we have an idea bubble? A thinking bubble?

What I mean is, this crap that’s going on in our heads, this push to get things right, to figure s%$# out, to hold the magic lens that solves out all the world, to wield the mighty tool that ruins all adversaries… history is showing us, again and again, that all our precious beliefs and ideas are over-valued. All of culture is temporary, an illusion to keep the dragon of chaos far enough away so we feel secure and safe. Those intensely-held beliefs are all being questioned, and all can fall under examination. And all we are left with is each other.

And yet, we can renew ourselves, and our communities, and each other, when we face our problems openly.

Maybe it’s time we leashed ideas much more securely than we have ever done before. Tie them down. All ideas. Throw out all the models, or at least quarantine them so as to restrict their consequences.

Can we start with what is, instead of what’s in our heads? Can we examine our actions, instead of our justifications? Can we ever make our ideas quiet, make them servants to the world, so as to never give them the authority they so treasure?

Even if we could, I fear the consequences… but I can imagine…

What do you think? What bubble do you over-value or intensely believe in? And what would you do if it popped? I ask because more than likely it’s gonna happen, or it already has, to every one of us.

Thanks goes out to Sarah Lacey for her post.

Metaphors Gone Wrong, But They Feel so Right

April 13th, 2011   by   Andrew

Alchemy is a fascinating example of how the pre-experimental mind perceived the world. Alchemists were strange. Not only were they absorbed with the pursuit of turning base metals into gold, but they thought a similar transformation could happen even within themselves. Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most incredible, rational minds this earth has ever produced, spent the last decades of his career working on these alchemical pursuits.

The alchemist, like most of the population before our experimental time, didn’t see a world of objective things. Everything, literally everything, was caught up in a moral game. There was no real distinction between what was being acted on and the thing doing the acting. The ritual created the right environment for bringing about a desired outcome. Here is an example:

… [the alchemist believes]the grafting of a branch of a lemon tree on to a laurel or olive tree would produce very small lemons, the size of olives. But [the alchemist] makes it clear that the graft could succeed only if it was performed in the ritual manner and at a certain conjunction of the sun and moon… The branch to be grafted must be held in the hands of a very beautiful maiden, while a man is having shameful and unnatural sexual intercourse with her; during coitus the girl grafts the branch onto the tree. The significance is clear: in order to ensure an “unnatural” union in the vegetable world an unnatural sexual union between human beings was necessary.(1)

Wild, eh? This seems too strange to us today. We know, empirically, this makes no sense at all. And in the long history of alchemy, no one ever found a reliable, consistent way to turn base metals into gold (or to graft a lemon branch onto an olive tree, for that matter). How could anyone ever think like this, and continue to think like this for years and years?

This is a type of metaphorical thinking  –  associating different ‘unnatural’ unions because of some similar, although maybe not related, ‘natures’.

Action came before the reason, and action was example for the reason.

When Newton published his laws of motion, critics claimed he was studying the occult and appealing to demonic ‘forces’. But, his laws held firm despite whatever devils may have hidden within. The laws worked. Action matched reason when Newton started with the action and let it show him the reason.

So surely, no one could be so naive today, could they? No one would associate things based on coincidental similarities now. We couldn’t put the dressing-up of a ritual before the reason for doing something, could we? Aren’t we too rational for all that now?

Well, let’s get out of the orchard and move to the modern-day gym:

Let’s say you go to the gym in the morning. But before you go, you make sure you’re wearing your favorite pants and matching sweatshirt. Both have a big Nike logo on display. And you stop at the store to get your favorite energy drink, the one that’s endorsed by your favorite athlete.
When you hit the treadmill, you turn on the little tv attached to the machine and find your favorite celebrity on a talk show. You might think about how you would look in their outfit. Maybe if you stick to it, you just might have their body soon, too. And when the program turns to commercials, you see your favorite athlete gulp down your favorite energy drink, and you think you could do with a refreshment yourself. You take a drink. And so you embody and reflect and become a mirror of what you see, and what you think you are, or who you want to be.

We’ve refined our associations very well. We’ve been trained well. And in no way has this stopped us from copying our heroes, imitating the stories important to us and reflecting the values of our surrounding culture. We are still living in narrative, with only short appeals to how rational we have become. But all the more now, we are the ones being acted upon. And our actions demonstrate what we value. How do we distinguish between the thing being acted upon and the thing doing the acting?

We associate and we participate long before we ever articulate or rationalize what we are doing. I think we need to address this part of our ‘being’ before we throw out all our rituals on one hand or continue to accept them as true on the other.  Let’s focus on our connections, on our actions, before we pit faith against reason, as though they were some pair of hostile brothers, intent on each other’s destruction.

What do you think?

- – -

1. Information on Newton comes from the internetting (apparently, this pillar of modern science got the nickname “last of the magicians” because of his occult interests. Hmm.

2.  Eliade, Mircea.  A History of Religious ideas

3. The underlying ideas for this post are pretty much all from Jordan Peterson.

Metaphorical and Literal Understanding – in Diagrams

April 8th, 2011   by   Andrew

One of my teachers at teacher’s college loved to say, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” She wasn’t a neurologist, but she was excited about research on “brain wiring”, and how she could work that new information into teaching.

I don’t know what Robert Sapolsky would think about my teacher’s saying, but it’s good place to start exploring the difference between being literal and being metaphorical. Literal thinking and metaphorical thinking are often considered polarized. Two very different animals, in a sense. But, both play a part in how we understand things. I would also suggest they are extremely powerful if they can be used together. So the purpose of this post, and maybe a few following posts, is to get neurons firing together that don’t normally fire together, in a sense.

Below is a diagram. For now, I’ve dubbed it the Spectrum of Understanding (mostly because I thought it sounded cool, but if you have a better title for it, please share). I’ve tried to map denotation and connotation in relation to precision and accuracy.

Denotation is literal. It is direct and explicit. It works by isolation. Very powerful in terms of cutting up and separating things for study and examination. Much of how we know the world  is dependent on denotation.

Connotation is metaphorical. It tends to be more implicit and creative. It works by association. Very powerful in terms of gluing ideas together for further action. Much of how we act depends on connotation.

The ’person’ on there is a point of reference, an idea. That point of reference, or any idea, can be moved left or right depending on how you want to understand the idea.

Precision and accuracy are very important in measurement and must be understood as separate concepts. Below are some diagrams to demonstrate their use.

Precision is about details in information. If I were to say I have some money in my wallet, the information is not very precise. If I were to say I have 124 dollars in bills and 69 cents in coins, the information becomes more precise.

Accuracy is about the ability of a measurement to match up with what is being measured. Does the measurement conform to the fact, or the thing? Is the measured value very close to the true value? (the word ‘true’ might make some people wrinkle up their nose at this point, so that’s why it’s in italics). If I have no money in my wallet at all, for example, then both statements from above are terribly inaccurate.

It might be best to think of the Spectrum of Understanding diagram in three dimensions. In a sense, we can look down through the ‘pipe’ from either end and examine how an idea ‘holds up’. Does an idea remain consistent and coherent from either viewpoint?

Does this make sense so far? What do you think?

Below are some historical representations of the Spectrum of Understanding diagram. For now, these broad historical generalizations are what could be called “Pre-Experimental” (pre-1500s, let’s say?) and “Experimental” (1500s – today, let’s say?). By all means, please play with these titles and come up with better ones, or imagine other constructions of the diagram. (Note – I meant to keep the ‘person’ in the middle as a sort of reference point. If this is unclear, please tell me so I can redo the diagrams and line things up better.)

In Pre-Experimental time, generally speaking, we didn’t know much about the specific details of things, compared to what we know now. As a result, there was less understanding through denotation. Less precision. Connotation was fairly rich and heavy.

In Experimental time, our knowledge of the specific details of things has greatly improved. As a result, we now have a rich understanding of things through denotation. More precision. Connotation, however, has been playing a game of catch-up. In the present day, our knowledge of the specific details of things is growing exponentially.

Ok. So, what do you think? Are these diagrams useful? Any suggestions before I go on with other posts?