Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Language Grooves & Quantum Potentials

Part 29 of Prisoners of the Real

In the Hopi language the distinction between past, present and future simply doesn't exist. Rather than distinguishing between tenses, Hopi concentrates on the validity of a statement – as fact, memory, expectation, or custom. Thus, there's no difference in this language between "he runs," "he is running" and "he ran." All are encompassed by wari, "running occur." An expectation is covered by warinki, roughly translated as "running occur I expect," which covers several tenses.

Hopi provides no general notion of time as a smooth flowing continuum proceeding at a specific rate. Rather than denoting categories of space and time, this language distinguishes the "manifest" – that is, accessibility to the senses – and the "unmanifest," including the future and the mental. Tenses are also irrelevant in Navaho, which instead emphasizes the type of activity.

Indo-European languages deal with both spatial and non-spatial relations through spatial metaphors such as duration, tendency, and intensity. Both a physical item and an idea, for example, can "falter." Balloons "swell," and so do thoughts and emotions. Both a person and a memory can "linger."

In Hopi, on the other hand, psychological metaphors are used to name physical things; the root meaning of "heart," for example, is "think" or "remember." While this language can describe all observable phenomena, the underlying metaphysics is entirely different, reflecting a mystical experience of oneness. Thus, Hopi and other languages provide alternative bases for valid descriptions of the universe without relying on the concepts of time and space.

In general, Indo-European languages obligate their users to distinguish between singular and plural, and to concretize and objectify the abstracts of the world. Reality is perceived as a complex of bodies and substances; non-spatial concepts are forced into binomial formulae. The objectified view of time is central to Newtonian physics, a view Einstein transcended in his theory. Although useful for the recording of history and the keeping of records, the notion of objectified time is oppressive when it promotes the assumption that time can be saved, that it is a finite object that runs out. Europeans, Americans, and the billions who live under the global influence of these languages measure standardized units of time and reward each other for the number of units worked, regardless of the differing subjective time experiences of each person. Unfortunately, this view of time also creates a feeling of monotony, with resultant behavioral effects.

Seeing life as expected and expecting existing patterns to continue leads to the sense that we are trapped. On the other hand, objectifying concepts can be helpful in a variety of creative experiences. In particular, the use of metaphors, through which objective qualities are attributed to subjective experiences, transfers qualities of spatial items to non-spatial concepts.

Or, as Hegel explained, in art the infinite becomes visible.

The importance of Whorf's hypothesis (see part 28) is not only the insight it provides into the diversity of linguistic systems and their impacts on categories of cognition. It also points to the very foundations of human knowledge. According to the classical, absolutist world view, the forms of space and time, and basic categories such as substance and causality, are universal. Physical science has used these categories to develop a system of knowledge that covers all phenomena and mental activities. However, modern science has for some time understood that this view is flawed. Euclidean space is only one form of geometry, and along with Newtonian time, doesn't always apply – particularly at the astronomical and atomic levels.

Time, according to relativity theory, is a coordinate in a four-dimensional system. And solid matter, says atomic physics, is actually a void interwoven by centers of energy. In quantum physics the determinism of classical physics is replaced by indeterminism. Obviously, the old categories have been modified. The absolute has become relative. Growing out of this change in scientific thinking is a realization that concepts concerning human relations and human nature must also be reconsidered.

In the language of the Wintu Indians, form is transient. Nature exists, and human beings can't affect it. They do not "come into being," but rather grow "out of the ground," and can influence their temporary, changing surroundings.

In contrast, English and other similar languages have led to the assumption that humans are separate from their environment, and controlled by external stimuli. The concept of separation from the environment is alien to Wintu, which recognizes individuality only as a manifestation in the consciousness of the speaker. In this world view, the idea of stimulus and response doesn't exist. The world is a mass in which each particular shares the qualities of the whole.

Ironically, the process of ever-increasing abstraction in the exact sciences is bringing us toward a sense of reality and the world quite consistent with the assumptions of Wintu and other non-European languages. Developments in many fields, all running in the same basic direction, are moving beyond the immediate sensory present into a region where the fundamental connections between all living things can at last be seen. A sense is emerging that life on Earth represents a unity, that damage at one point can have effects everywhere else, and that we are all responsible.

The outline of a new and holistic world view can already be seen. As quantum theory suggests, mind – the participator – formulates the proposition from which matter is derived. Energy manifests itself as transient particles, material forms which can't be isolated from the wholeness of the entire universe. In addition, individual universe constructions form each other, each connected to all others in constantly changing patterns. It is a self-organizing process, beginningless and endless.

As startling as this may sound, scientific discoveries suggest that all possible histories of the universe occur and interfere with each other. Regions of constructive interference, the path along which we can move with least disturbance, provide the "classical" history of the universe as we know it in our usual states of consciousness. But as Einstein realized and Wheeler subsequently stated, there is one more question: why does any individual particle jump into the instantaneous world line at a particular space-time coordinate? It's a question that physics alone cannot answer.

The notion of quantum probability, however, does suggest a source: the will of the participator, expressed through creative ideas. All conscious systems, regardless of their location, contribute to the total quantum potential. The character of each event is a gestalt property of the wholeness of the universe. The volitional activity may be either active or passive. According to psychic research, sets of subjective states are linked with changes in the pattern of behavior in the body. Passive volitional states may even reach outside the body, impressing a coherent pattern on the movement of elementary particles.

Such revolutionary ideas suggest a gradual coming together of two distinct and, until very recently, apparently opposite views of reality. As the physicist Wolfgang Pauli once noted, both views have been vital to the history of human thought, though no genuine reality corresponds to either. One is the idea of an objective world, pursuing its course in space and time independently of any observing subject. This, of course, is the view of most modern science. The other is the idea of the subject, experiencing the unity of the world without the limitation of objective reality. This is the view of much Asian mysticism.

In the 20th Century we moved from the pure scientific view to a point somewhere between the two, realizing along the way that our language may be holding us back. To continue the search, language itself will have to change.

Note: Thanks to Jo Schneiderman for assistance with comparative linguistic analysis.

Next: Rediscovering Dionysus

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Language of Uncertainty

Part 28 of Prisoners of the Real

As harbingers of a new and more holistic consciousness, speculation in reporting, prose and fiction – all creative challenges to the dogmatic fallacy of a rationalism that confuses theories with clear and irreformable laws – help to replace "objectivity" with "relativity" in social thought.

Until recently physics, the natural sciences and, to a large extent, the behavioral sciences have restricted our vision to space-time concepts. In particular, the comprehension of all relations through the exclusive use of space concepts has manifested itself in our destructive materialism. But Albert Einstein's development of the special and general theory of relativity raised questions concerning the elimination of the psychical element, reasserting the observer's "frame of reference" and redefining the world as a four-dimensional continuum in which the absolute character of time, central to classical mechanics, gives way to the space-time continuum.

Since Einstein's breakthrough the scientific community has been rocked by a variety of new theories involving space-time possibilities, fundamental energies, self-organizing biogravitational fields, and the relation of consciousness to gravity. Perhaps the most revolutionary of the new theories is that consciousness is the hidden variable in the structure of matter itself. Relativity theory and quantum mechanics have thus brought science back to ideas explored two thousand years ago by Parmenides, and subsequently refined by the philosophy of Berkeley, the astronomy of James Jeans, and the work of Whitehead. The ultimate basis of being, they imply, is not sensory material but rather an ideal principle of form.

Along with the return of the doctrine of harmony, the boundary between the observer and the observed has been profoundly altered. The theory of relativity ushered in a fresh understanding of the structure of space and time; more recently, quantum theory has revealed that every measurement in the atomic field requires an act of intervention.

The implications of this new view of reality are extraordinary: quantum theory has established that the process of conceiving any experiment is an experience of an observer who is also a participant, inseparable from the world in which the experiment occurs. Anticipating Heisenberg's "uncertainly principle" more than a decade before immutable facts were replaced by mere possibilities, Alfred North Whitehead noted that each entity originates by including "a transcendent universe of other things." In the 1970s quantum physicist John Wheeler further developed this notion of unity and interconnection. The laws of energy conservation are not immutable, he found; instead, the point-like events of space-time spontaneously break down. Wheeler's "mutability principle," which transcended the conventional laws of physics, led him to conclude that, "There may be no such thing as the glittering central mechanism of the universe."

Quantum theories represent a dramatic conceptual leap in the exact sciences, moving humanity toward a new synthesis of science, philosophy, and spirituality. We are rediscovering that mind is essential. It is both creator of matter and a function of it. As Wheeler conceived it, the universe may be continuously "brought into being" through the vital act of participation. This new concept, Wheeler noted, "strikes down the term 'observer' of classical theory, the man (sic)who stands safely behind the thick glass wall, and watches what goes on without taking part. It can't be done, quantum mechanics says."

The concept of relativity has also led to a revolutionary new concept of culture and language. It begins with the understanding that knowledge categories depend not only on biological factors and absolute knowledge but also on cultural factors. And culture in turn is interrelated with language, whose latent content is the intuitive science of experience.

According to Edward Sapir, whose linguistic research profoundly influenced the study of indigenous cultures, "human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society." In other words, language is not an incidental means of solving problems in "the real world." Instead, that world is "unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group." According to Sapir, "We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation."

Sapir defined linguistic expression as a self-contained creative symbolic organization that refers both to non-linguistically acquired experiences and to experiences defined through the formal completeness of the language and "our unconscious projection of its explicit expectations into the field of experience." Each newly acquired word is immediately categorized through the pre-existing linguistic organization. Categories such as plurality and singularity, mass and individual, subject and object, at first derived from experience, are later imposed upon experience through the linguistic system.

Most linguistic communication, in fact, is not the result of thought but rather experience in the symbolic mode of expression through habitual language grooves. Put another way, experience is not so much linguistically determined as habituated through the process of bundling together groups of experiences and giving them the same name.

Based on Sapir's theories, Benjamin Lee Whorf subsequently developed the hypothesis that "linguistic patterns themselves determine what the individual perceives in this world and how he thinks about it. Since these patterns vary widely, the modes of thinking and perceiving in groups utilizing different linguistic systems will result in basically different world views." Whorf’s hypothesis refutes the idea that everyone uses the same physical evidence to create the same picture of the universe. On the contrary, Whorf argued, it is our language rather than nature that suggests how we organize the spread and flow of events.

In English and other Indo-European languages, for example, sentences are a combination of parts, basic grammatical units such as nouns, adjectives and verbs. Each one can be separated from its properties and can involve active or passive behavior. This is fundamental to occidental thinking, the basis of our division of matter and form, as well as mass and energy in physics. In contrast, Indian languages such as Hopi or Nootka don't have parts of speech or separate subjects and predicates. Events are signified as a whole. Rather than saying that "a tree fell," Hopi use a single term, "fell (occurred)."

Looking deeper, English nouns referring to physical things are either individual or mass. An individual noun is one that can be defined by a concrete outline – a bottle, for example. When a mass noun such as water has an indefinite boundary, it must often be defined through an individual noun that denotes a body type or a boundary – for instance, a glass of water or a stick of wood. The definition of mass nouns can be further clarified as substances. But substances can't be discussed in an individual sense. Thus, in dealing with commonly used mass nouns, most Indo-European languages require definitions involving a 'formless' item plus a 'form.'

Plurality in numbers is described in two ways – the real and the imaginary. English conceives of 'ten cats' as a real plural. 'Ten minutes' is also real. Imaginary plurals, on the other hand, are based on the concept of cyclicity. Time is always manifested as a cycle – a day, a month, a year, and so on, and each cycle is a single object, pluralized on this basis. Although awareness of time is immediate and subjective, the habitual grooves of these languages transform the experience into something quite different. A length of time is seen as a series of quantities, like a grove of trees. Whorf called the quantifying of imaginary elements – things that aren't concrete – "objectification."

Indo-European languages also objectify phases of cycles such as summer and winter, using the binomial formula of formless item plus form in most cases. Phase nouns occur within the generalized concept of time, and can be either individual or mass, either "a summer" or simply "summer." However, if it wasn't objectified, summer would be a subjective experience of cyclic phase similar to an earlier phase in the ever-becoming-later continuum. Therefore, a binomial formula is used to apply the concept of formless and form to the idea of time. Summer becomes a quantity of time, and is itself a quantity – two summers, or a day of summer.

The verbal tense system of European languages further influences and emphasizes thinking about time. Past, present and future are visualized as points on a line of time. This concept is inconsistent, however, with the experience of time as a totality of consciousness felt as either earlier or later in the ever-becoming later continuum. Sensations, all those things experienced immediately, are called the present. The world of memory is called the past. And the realm of uncertainty, hope and foresight is known as the future. The present tense has another function as well, the "nomic." This deals with generalized statements of truth, such as, "We see with our eyes."

Next: Language Grooves & Quantum Potentials

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

Monday, February 15, 2010

Navigating Post-Modern Uncertainty

Part 2 of
Media, Democracy & the Post-Modern Age

Every year, Project Censored issues a list of the top stories that have been downplayed by most of the media. In 2000, some of the underreported news that made their Top Ten included how pharmaceutical companies put profits before health needs (still true), the destruction of Kurdish villages with US weapons (now we’re doing damage in Pakistan), environmental racism in Louisiana (that was five years before Katrina), and US plans to militarize space in defiance on international law (a story still being missed). But despite the success of many alternative outlets in breaking news the “big” media ignore, nagging questions remain.

Peter Arnett, a former CNN reporter being honored that year for an article on reduced foreign media coverage, posed it this way: “We’ve had what might constitute new revelations today,” he said. “But even if the alternative press as a whole took on these stories, would it be enough?”

It’s a disquieting question. And the same one could be asked about progressive movements in general. If various coalitions and alliances actually joined forces to challenge corporate power and capitalism itself, would it be enough to usher in some “real change?”

In the past, progressive attempts to control concentrated wealth and widen democratic participation through national action have met with limited success. During the early 20th Century, reforms addressed workers’ rights, monopoly excesses, political corruption, uncontrolled development, and the devastating impacts of the early industrial era. But most of the efforts quelled popular discontent rather than producing basic changes. The resulting reforms were largely co-opted by business groups to serve their long-range interests. Rather than leading the country toward a form of social transformation, progressivism may have helped head it off.

One of the underlying conundrums is how to make powerful institutions accountable – and to whom. Following progressive logic, real change involves, at the very least, stronger government intervention. But if the goal is to control mega-corporations that transcend national boundaries, competing with some national governments and dominating others, in the end even national level reform won’t cut it.

Progressives obviously don’t want corporate-dominated institutions running the world. But what’s the alternative? Will job creation, stronger enforcement and more accountability be enough, or does the current international order need to be completely overhauled and replaced? And if so, with what?

The United Nations could be made stronger, but this Cold War creation was flawed from the start, and has been marginalized and manipulated for more than half a century. The times cry out for more radical ideas, something like a global parliament, which is somehow linked to communities. This sounds utopian – or frightening, depending on your level of paranoia. But if the Corporate World Order inflicts much more damage it may start to look attractive. And if social and economic justice is truly the driving force of progressive politics, how far is it to an agenda for change that fundamentally challenges market control and links the global with the local? After all, one of the movement’s slogans is “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

The trouble is, there is no magical formula for effective democracy, and even if there was, most people are no longer optimistic, or even very hopeful about where the world is heading to put their faith in such grand plans.

In the so-called “modern era,” things basically made sense. Despite any temporary setbacks, technical dangers or threatening dictators most people believed in the possibility of a better future, changing the world that was changing us. But now we live in a “post-modern” world. And although it’s not a totally negative place, it emphasizes uncertainty, spectacle, and even the chaotic.

The term “post-modern” first came into use after World War II, referring to literature and art that took modern forms to their extremes. Since then, it has evolved into a general attitude toward society. Characterized by skepticism, it forces “authorities” and “their” institutions to defend themselves against charges that they are no longer relevant – or are just plain ignorant. On the plus side, that attitude helped bring down the Berlin Wall and has sometimes put experts and leaders in the hot seat. However, it also tends to challenge any strongly held belief.

Self-conscious and often self-contradictory, post-modernists believe that truth is merely a perspective and nothing should be taken too seriously. The characteristic expression is irony, emphasizing the doubleness in whatever is expressed. A favorite grammatical device is quotation marks, reinforcing the idea that the words don’t mean what they seem. This expresses the defensive cultural logic of late-capitalism, and plays well into the schemes of media and political demagogues.

Faced with machines that have made life more complicated, a vast amount of unsettling information, and an overwhelming variety of “choices,” it’s hardly surprising that people, especially the young, are no longer impressed with much of anything. Their favorite books often revel in this sensibility and abandon the grand narrative approach once standard in novels. Although most movies still rely on the old linear formula – the hero overcoming obstacles to reach an obvious goal – few people really believe in that. Real life is so much more ambiguous and complex.

At its extreme this new awareness leads to disillusionment, nihilism, and a disabling narcissism that favors fads and power over ethics and any ideology. These days narcissism no longer applies to “beautiful people” who relate only to their own images. They may also be pseudo-intellectuals, calculating promoters, or self-absorbed rebels. Even more unsettling, narcissists are ideally suited for success and power – callous and superficial climbers all too willing to sell themselves. In post-modern society, self-promotion is the ultimate form of work. It’s a state of affairs that could catapult someone like Sarah Palin into power.

The central institutions of post-modern civilization are, of course, the electronic media, which promote both chronic tension and cynical detachment. Most advertising suggests that appearances are what matter, while the shows wedged between them reinforce ironic distance, often winking at us that it’s all a put-on. And the news? Endless, ephemeral facts. But enduring truth? That’s the last thing we expect.

Meanwhile, for all its benefits, the “blogosphere” is largely accelerating social fragmentation. Many blogs and Websites attract only like-minded people, creating a self-segregated news and information environment that serves the interests of extremists. It’s not so different from the partisanship that characterized the press in the early 19th Century. Truth and facts are becoming debatable notions. This makes it far more difficult for people to reach agreement or even have a civil discussion, and easier for opportunists to ignore or distort reality for the sake of pushing initiatives based on convenience or special interests.

The result has been a loss of faith in almost everything, and an escapist mentality rooted in the belief that no meaningful change is possible. Popular culture feeds on this attitude, encouraging excess and striking poses while confusing commitment with fanaticism.

That said, the news isn’t all bad. Along with skepticism comes a re-awakened concern about the human spiritual condition and the planet’s health. The idea that “rational planning” provides all the answers is no longer convincing, gone with notions such as “bigger is better” and nature is merely a resource to be conquered and exploited.

In economics, the rigid approach to production known as Fordism, named for the man who brought us the assembly line and mass production using interchangeable parts, has given way to a more flexible, eclectic system emphasizing innovation and a post-industrial compression of time and space. The view that corporations and the global economy are only parts of a whole planetary system is gaining traction. As with most post-modern developments, however, there is a double edge. Re-engineering economics and work could lead to more worker-owned businesses, a renewed sense of community and environmental responsibility, and a groundswell against corporation domination. But it may simultaneously increase instability, turning even more people into contingent workers.

Commenting on the implications, former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy once noted that post-modernism favors “fuzzy logic” and subjective impressions over rational arguments and clear thinking. It recognizes no absolutes, just degrees and disposable attitudes. “This predicament is not altogether reassuring,” he concluded, “as it may lead us to a state of ‘entropy,’ i.e., of randomness, chaos and disorder, with little basis for optimism as to what may result.”

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Evolutionary Cycles

Part 26 of Prisoners of the Real

Can spiritual regeneration begin as destructive rationality reaches its apex? If so, we’ve come to the end of a cycle that is consistent with the observations of science. 

In biological, psychological and social systems, the interactions between elements gradually decrease. The primary state of unity — call it an intuitive or subconscious collective phase — splits into independent causal chains. This "progressive segregation" is accompanied by an increase in complexity, and is followed closely by the mechanization of various functions.

But progressive mechanization results in a loss of the ability to regulate the system as a whole. Different processes continue irrespective on each other, leading to impoverishment and eventual deterioration of performance. At the same time centralization commences. The system becomes more indivisible, and is subordinated under dominant parts. In social systems, at first these are individuals — charismatic leaders, monarchs, presidents and so forth. Later they are structures.

As the next stage — democratization — begins, the arrangement of structures determines process so that certain results are achieved. Eventually, direction through the structure of mechanisms leads to degeneration – known as entropy, or to regeneration – the birth of a new intuitive collective.

1. In visual terms, the cycle begins with a circle, the symbol for a system, or in religious terms, "being without beginning or end." Within the system are a number of equipotential parts; for example, the human being in a state of nature prior to association through a social contract. In such a state of undifferentiated wholeness, the collective acts as one. Imagine a group of strangers who find themselves in an enclosed space. Before speaking, they are a group of equals, like newborns unaware of the separation between themselves.

2. But awareness of self within a situation results in segregation, differentiation of parts, and clustering into subordinate circles. In embryonic development, the organism passes from equipotentiality to a sum of regions that grow independently. In social systems, this is the tribal stage, the point at which permeable boundaries are established. Labor is divided, associations are formed, and specialization of functions emerges. It's still possible to survive outside of association, however, existing on the fringes or moving between groups.

3. Increased complexity eventually leads to both mechanization and subordination under dominant parts. The community becomes a city, then a State, and leaders emerge. For social systems this is a time of development, exploration and individuation. Boundaries harden and existence outside now segregated units becomes more difficult. Each group becomes unified and indivisible. At the global level, this is the era of nation-states, technological development, and rivalry between increasingly rigid systems. Those who choose to live outside the society of their birth are seen as eccentrics, hermits, or outsiders. Within each society, despite technological innovations providing the illusion of omniscience, individuals can see less and less of the whole.

4. The last stage begins with democratization, the embrace of dictators and an increased reliance on structures that have been put in place during the earlier stages. The need for certain products and outcomes is assumed, and the demands of structures require a decrease in equifinality as the basis for regulation. In other words, rules can rarely be broken, except by elites, since maintenance of the system requires general discipline and obedience. 

Democratization also diffuses dominant leadership values to the masses, who surrender the final remnants of sovereignty in return for individual and collective security. Structure becomes independent of human control, and is unknown as a whole.

As this period of progressive autonomy reaches its climax, mechanization leads to a further loss of ability to effectively regulate. In response, the structure expands its scope to include virtually all sub-units. It has become almost impossible to survive outside this fully rigidified system. Total systemic interdependence has turned participation into a requirement. This stage also emphasizes pragmatism and triage. Unnecessary parts — those that don't adequately contribute to the whole — are discarded. The "spaceship" becomes a lifeboat in which the main requirement is functionality within structural limits, usually defined in purely material terms.

At this stage in the evolution of human society, with inequality, social impoverishment, ecological damage, and violence reaching epic proportions, the structures built to hold back chaos have become suffocating and intolerable for the many. The Great Whale, the bureaucratic way of life, has swallowed almost everyone, and is in the process of making a hell of Earth.

On the other hand, it also is beginning to create space for the emergence of a form of intuitive consciousness, a return to whole behaviors. In other words, there is time for “rational” beings to become what they are not, moving from routines and specialist strategies to ideals and generalist plans. Arrogant dragons can turn into something other than a herd of rhinoceros if the creative in us gives way to the receptive.

Humanity confronts an existential choice: extinction or rebirth. Either way, we will ultimately return to the beginning. Considering that, arrogant dragons would be wise to repent.

Next: Reframing Reality

To read other chapters, go to
Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Ballad of Sheriff Joe

Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio does it "his way." Although he has many loyal supporters he is also accused of alleged racial profiling, runs large immigrant sweeps, and operates a huge "tent city" jail. His cops have pepper sprayed protestors, he openly defies the federal government, and, according to some, there's a pattern of retaliation against his critics. The FBI is investigating and a respected prosecutor says the sheriff should be put on trial.

A look at the showdown brewing in Maricopa County.

For other Maverick videos, go to TheVanguardMaverick