Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Dreaming. 1860. J. Israels

You’re out driving, and there’s a cop car at the side of the road. He’s pulled someone over and is serving them a ticket. You cruise past, glance through your passenger window, and the scene triggers a flash-back to last night’s dream – the same type of cop car, glimpsed through the passenger side window. So you think: that’s a neat coincidence. Right?

It wasn’t exactly the same situation. In the dream, you were parked, and the cop car pulled alongside, and the cop said: “You don’t mind if I park here, do you, sir?” But you were definitely looking at this same kind of cop car, through the passenger side window. And if things had happened the other way around, say you’d seen the cop car, and then the next night it had popped up in your dreams, you’d know where the dream had borrowed it from. But as things stand, it was just a coincidence. Anything else, and the dream had seen your future. And that’s not possible. Is it?

So then, some nights later, you dream you’re out in a part of the countryside you’ve not been to for years. It’s not an extraordinary dream – just your usual muddle of inside out and back to front stuff, the one thing bleeding into the other, and no particularly coherent narrative. Then you wake, and you reach for the phone, and you read the blogs you follow, and a guy has posted a piece on that same part of the countryside, which triggers the memory of the dream, and you think: that’s odd. Another coincidence? Sure. Or maybe you caught a glimpse of that blog before you slept, and you just forgot. Because anything else is impossible. Right?

So then you dream you’re talking to a notorious world leader in your back garden – like you do – but you’re struggling to understand what he’s saying, and you’re worried he’ll think you’re a bit numb, but you can’t help it because he’s contorting the upper left side of his lip in the most peculiar way, which distorts his speech. The next evening you decide to check out a film on Netflix, in which it turns out the lead man is portrayed with a hair lip, which has the same way of moving as in the dream. It breaks the dream, so to speak, brings back the memory of it. Another coincidence? Startling one too, this. Or maybe you caught a trailer for the film before you slept, and you just forgot.

These are all dreams I’ve collected over the last few weeks. And the question arises: how many dreams like that does it take, before the only reasonable conclusion you can come to is that your dreams are indeed previsioning little bits of your future? The thing to note is the banal nature of the images, and the fact we’re seeing in the dream what we will see, ourselves, at a point in our own future. We’re not talking about any dramatic premonition of calamity. Nor are we claiming any paranormal faculty. It seems to be the normal way the mind – any mind, your mind, my mind – Hoovers up observed events and regurgitates them in distorted form, in dreams. It’s just that the dreams seem to have access to events you haven’t observed yet. Only by habitual observation of the visual details of your dreams do you realise it. And who’s crazy enough to do that?

Isolated instances can perhaps be dismissed as coincidence, but the longer we pay attention to our dreams, and the more hits we score, the less likely coincidence becomes. Of course, if you’re of a materialist, reductionist mindset, no matter how many dreams you have, you’ll still call it a coincidence, or you’ll swerve your dreams altogether, believing them to be nonsense anyway, so the problem will not arise for you.

Others have written at length on this phenomenon, namely J W Dunne, J B Priestly and more recently Gary Lachman. Tentative explanations involve additional levels of consciousness, each with its own time reference. I can’t say for sure if this is right, but it does make a kind of sense. Let’s say, as a working hypothesis, it’s plausible, but it also strikes me that, even when science means well by the unknown, it comes across as being somewhat primitive in its toolkit.

So if we are indeed opening a crack in time by paying attention to our dreams, we have to accept there are no definitive explanations about what’s going on. There are only more questions. What draws us forward are the tantalising hints at unexplored human potential. We’ve been a long time evolving, but there’s nothing to say we’re yet done adapting to our environment, even as we shape it. In this light, precognitive dreaming might be a thing we’re evolving towards, an evolutionary mutation still looking for an advantage in the world we’re creating. Or maybe such precognition was an advantage in our hunter-gatherer past, say, warning of the bear we were to encounter in the woods next day, and which risked killing us. But now it’s a faculty that’s atrophied for want of use, like one’s appendix, or coccyx. Still, there are plenty of dangers facing us in the contemporary world, yet my dreams seem more concerned with quirky art-house details than risks to life and limb – so maybe that’s not its function at all. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Philosophers paint such a gloomy picture of the human condition, the existentialists having concluded we’re just an accident of nature, and better off adjusting to that fact, than hanging on for something transcendent, or for hints of meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe. Given the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one can hardly blame them for reaching such a bleak conclusion. Nor is the twenty-first shaping up to be any better. But I think nature has left enough clues in the shadows to hint at a path, which has the potential to lead us from the dark forest the philosophers have abandoned us in. I am confident we are more than we seem, and that there is more to the world, to its space and time.

Then again, before we set foot down this path, we must be sure what beckons is not simply a will-o’-the-wisp, leading us to drown in a bog of groundless speculation. Maybe there is a rational explanation for that cop car, the country roads, and the hare lip, one that doesn’t sound even more far-fetched than the suggestion we sometimes see our future. Selective bias and coincidence are the usual explainaways. Belief in the paranormal is another, as it’s highly correlated with a propensity towards selective bias and outright self-delusion. Still, none of these ring true to me, in this insance, but then I suppose they wouldn’t. From your own perspective, of course, the obvious explainaway is that Dunne, Priestly, Lachman, and me, we’re all making it up, that we story tellers are simply looking for attention, or to fill column space on an otherwise dull day.

That’s fine, until you have such a dream yourself, and then you cannot help but wonder.

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Lochan na Eala

After so long hankering for broader travels, these pandemic years, and for the Romantic, I have decided to bring my travels to romantic lands closer to home. Today, then, we venture from my doorstep, to the small lake that is once more appearing on the Lancashire plain, and which I have today named Lochan na Eala. It means Lake of the Swans. I admit it’s an unlikely name to find on the maps of west of Lancashire, but then this place is not to be found on any maps at all.

In summer, it dries to a puddle, so cannot be said to exist, and therefore does not require a name. But over the course of winter it swells to such a proportion it looks embarrassed without one, so I have named it, because the migrating swans have found it, and they seem to like it, and “Swan Lake”, though more prosaic, and “English” and obvious, lacks the romance of a thing that is not always there. One needs the Celtic, bardic tongue, when it comes to dealing with the more subtle levels of reality.

The farmer has tried to drain it by digging a ditch, but the cause is more elemental, this being a general rise in the water table, and what looks like the slow return of the area to wetland. As I understand it, it’s part of the Environment Agency’s planned flood management programme for my locale, this inundation of natural flood planes. I was there some weeks ago, and had noted its return. In the near future, I suppose, it will become permanent, and named officially but, until then, Lochan na Eala it is, or at least it is for me.

So far, the day has not gone well, and we are in need of a change of scene. My good lady’s pipe has been put out by early morning leaks to the media we are to lead the world in rendering Covid endemic in the population. Free lateral flow tests are to end, and no further booster programs are under consideration. The reports are now disowned, but there is a rule of thumb which states one should never believe a rumour until it has been officially denied.

True or not, my good lady has eased her despair with an overly aggressive cleaning of the oven. This has caused the glass to pop out of the door, so we are currently without an oven. The glass was only glued in, and I think I might be able to repair it with a suitable adhesive, so have ordered special oven-door-glue from the aptly named oven-door-glue company. We now await the good graces of the postman, and the goddess of good fortune.

We’ve had a murky few days, and they’ve kept me indoors. I’ve passed the time reading Gary Lachman’s “Secret History of Consciousness”, which is a look at the nature of consciousness, and the ways in which we have come to approach it, over time. It’s rather a tour-de force, building a persuasive argument from the erudite blocks of the more obscure literature, both psychological and, for want of a better word, the theosophical. It’s making sense of other works I have read, but which proved rather heavy going at the time.

One of the remarkable things he describes is the theory of how we represent reality, that what we see is not what is truly there, that our concepts effectively boot up from different levels of the unconscious mind, whose origins lie in deeper, older parts of the brain. We have only to back-track a little in order to see the world in a radically different way. I remember coming round from being gassed by the dentist, as a child, and the way my return to waking reality was presaged by something I can only describe as abstract. At the time, it was explained away as an effect of the gas, nothing more, but I have always wondered about it.

None of this helped, of course, when I was considering the ugly fact of a broken oven door. Indeed, for a time, I was at a loss. The literature may have explained my dilemma in philosophical or neurological language, in addition to my own more prosaic terminology, but it could not help find a supplier for high-temperature adhesive that stood a cat in hell’s chance of working. Like everything else, that was down to Dr Google. The lesson here is that such explorations of the inner universe are all well and good, but whatever our reality is, it makes a good show of presenting a hard and uncompromising face, that if we have a purpose at all, part of it must be to manage the problems it presents us with first, before taking off on flights of fancy – alluring though those fancies may be.

Anyway, it’s rather a cold day, grey this morning, but forecast to break into sunny spells, later on – much later by the looks of it. Indeed, it’s only a few hours before dusk, now, and I’m half-hearted, setting out, having procrastinated most of the day away. But you never know, we may just catch a nice sunset at the last minute.

I am often dismayed by the two-dimensional emptiness of the Lancashire plain, which, these days, I call home. There are just a few trees that excite the senses by their near alien three-dimensional presence, but which would not be noticed anywhere else. The rest of it is reedy ditches and hawthorn hedgerows, and vast fields of black earth. The appearance of a lake is something of a revelation then.

Lachman speaks of an evolution of consciousness, that there is evidence our forbears saw the world in a radically different way, being barely self-conscious at all, but more intimately connected, as a collective, with their reality, which is internally, mind generated. Our evolution into fully self-aware beings came at the cost of a sense of separation, of alienation from the world, one he argues we have compensated for by mostly violent means. These are speculative ideas, but not implausible. The next phase is a level of consciousness that reconnects with that earlier phase, so we remain self-conscious, calculating beings, but also once more fully connected with the reality we represent. At this point we will be able to see, or rather experience, various levels, and various modes of being. This stage is a long way off, and we may of course extinct ourselves before we get there. If we do, by the same reasoning, the world itself too, as we know it, will also cease to exist, so the burden of responsibility is heavy.

The Romantics were on the right path, using the imagination to explore their inner worlds, and the qualitative nature of experience. But many went mad, since reality itself refused to bend to their will; it remained ugly and inconvenient. It was their oven-door moment, and Dr Google had not been invented to provide a source of glue. All of this might be idle speculation, and of only passing interest, but others have wondered and felt strange things, intimations of other levels of reality, as have I.

One of the writers Lachman quotes is the Russian philosopher, P D Ouspensky, who describes an experience he had in 1908, while on a ship, crossing the Sea of Marmora, and how, for a moment, he became everything he was looking at. So profound an experience this was, he spent the rest of his life trying to explain it. It’s the clearest account of a similar experience I had in the Newlands Valley, twenty years, ago, but could not articulate so well as he. Such a thing becomes your life’s work, whether you’re up to it or not. He was. I’m not, so why that doorway opened a crack for me, I’ll never know, since there is, I fear, so little I can do with it, except wonder.

Anyway, here we are, the lovely Lochan na Eala. Just a short stretch of the legs. And what’s this? The sun makes an unexpected, last minute appearance as the sky opens. Nice that. It seems there may once have been a time, like Ouspensky, when I remembered I was it – I mean all of this. And if that’s true, then, whatever we choose to call it, so are you.

Thanks for listening.

Play me out:

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Not being a fan of horror movies, I’ve not spent much time thinking about zombies. But in this book the authors present a convincing argument that, in fact, the zombie genre is the underlying myth of our times.

The zombie first appears in western popular culture around 1920, and has seen an exponential rise ever since. Of the 600 zombie movies ever made, over half have been made in the last decade. The prevalence of the genre is hard to miss and crosses platforms easily from print to film to video games. But whatever the platform there are characteristics of the zombie that do not change, which suggests something deeper is at play – that the zombie is a symbolic representation, a thing of mythic importance, a monster rising from the depths of its creator – us -and saying something about the state of our collective psyche.

Zombies eat brains, but are themselves without mind. And no matter how many brains they eat, they gain no wisdom, yet continue mindlessly consuming. To kill a zombie you have to destroy its brain, or rather, in order to prevent the zombie eating your brain and rendering you mindless, you have to destroy its empty mindedness. So here’s a clue that what we’re talking about is ourselves; we are the zombies, we are the walking dead.

We zombies have no sense of home, no coherent language, we shuffle en-masse, but with no real aim. We are hideously ugly, a decaying parody of, and an insult to, the human forms we possess. Though we gather in large numbers, we have no community, no culture to nourish the spirit, no purpose other than to eat, to consume mindlessly. We do not co-operate with one another, we employ no particular strategy in the pursuit of our mindless aims. When faced with the very real danger of our own elimination, we take no evasive action. We simply haven’t the sense to care one way or the other.

Another curious fact is the zombie is never named as such in the stories. Only we, the viewer, know its name. The human protagonists are prey to their own whims and inevitably fall foul of the contagion. One by one, they become zombified. They never say: oh, right, they’re zombies, here’s what we need to do.

To follow the genre’s usual mythic narrative, we, the non-zombies, seek refuge with others of our kind, in fortified surroundings, and from where we blast away at the brain-dead with whatever weapons come to hand. But, in spite of our best efforts at cooperation, there’s always a falling out into irreconcilable factions that work against one another. Then there’s a weakness in the defences, a door unlocked, a window left open that lets the zombies in. Significantly, say the authors, there is never a happy ending, no superhero, no super-technology, no God-sent zombie-killing virus to the rescue.

But here’s the thing: the zombie is not evil. It just does what it does, mindlessly, without malice. It’s not dead, but not entirely alive either, and to be touched by one is to become a zombie yourself. They are existentially terrifying. But more, the undead nature of the zombie, and its links to the apocalypse, say the authors, are a reference to our rejection and perversion of the Christian myth. As Nietzsche wrote towards the end of the nineteenth century, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him,” then a short time later, the zombies (us, denuded of something vital) appear in the culture.

This is a short book, scholarly in nature, but I found it deeply interesting, accessible and very readable. Since reading it, I am seeing zombies everywhere, in the news, on social media, on the street, infecting others with their mindlessness. While it is significant, the loss of any spiritual dimension to the culture, the breakdown of organised religions – i.e. traditional, institutional beliefs in a “God” archetype – are also considered culturally inevitable. Religious attendance in the west is inversely correlated with the rise of the zombie. But equally, our search for an alternative “secular” spirituality won’t work, those on offer being too small and fragmented. Attempts by the state to usurp the function of religion, by substituting political and social ideologies like Marxism and Fascism, it’s to be hoped are experiments we can avoid repeating.

Just as the zombie myth does not offer any hope of salvation, neither do the authors at this stage offer any solution to the crisis of meaninglessness in our times. However, it at least enables us to get a handle on the nature of the problem, perhaps with a view to an intelligent attack at some point in the future, and this will be the subject of a future book.

Speaking of John Vervaeke, for anyone working through his “Meaning Crisis” lecture series on Youtube – in my humble opinion, one of the best things on there at the moment – I’ve found “Zombies in Western Culture” a good introduction to his thinking.

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philosophersWe start with Nietzsche and a few pop quotes, like: “god is dead” and “I am dynamite”. I don’t understand him, so I go back to his influences, namely Schopenhauer. But I don’t understand him either – plus he’s deeply morose and repulsively nihilistic. So I go back to Kant. Kant’s a bit more optimistic, but he’s also a life-time’s study. Even the Kant scholars are still arguing over what he wrote, and you’d think they would have settled him by now. So I step back to Aristotle, but I’m in a bit of a muddle, so rather than stepping back in time even more to Plato, I take a breath. Maybe philosophy’s not my thing at all.

The philosophers are certainly a breed apart. They don’t seem to add much to the ordinary life, but if you’re at all interested in what life’s about you can’t avoid them. They’re about “epistemology”, which is the theory of knowledge, and how we know things. And they’re about “ontology” which is the theory being, or meaning. They use a lot of other unfamiliar words as well, and when they run out of actual words, they make words up. Then they all have their take on “ethics” – that’s to say, how should we behave towards one another, and what is “good”?

They approach all this through logic. The Kantians tell us the faculties we’re born with are linked to what is knowable, and this comes out in language. So, by a process that resembles a cross between a word game, and basic algebra, they arrive at a story about what it means to be alive. More than that they try to get a handle on what it is we are alive in. I mean the universe – the nature of it, the nature of space and time, and being – in other words a creation story.

So it’s a big subject, but to the layman it’s difficult, or at least to me it is. Or maybe I’m too set in my ways now to squish my calcifying brain into a new way of thinking. I’m just this old engineer, steeped in deterministic ideas. I’ve always known they’re an incomplete model of the universe, because my teachers told me so. But they work at a practical level, so we use them to do things. And I’ve really liked being an engineer. We put a man on the moon – well not me – I was only nine at the time, but you know what I mean? There’s something satisfying about doing things, making things. As for proving something you can neither see nor touch, like the philosophers do, nor use in the process of making things, or doing things,… what’s the point of that? Well, it’s interesting. And if I have to wait another lifetime to be a philosopher, then so be it, and for now I’ll just skim this stuff, pick up what bits I can and make do.

If we skim Kant, we get the idea we can’t grasp the true nature of reality at all. All we’ve got are our senses, and a mind that’s structured in a certain way to intuit the universe. We can see things as they appear to us, but not how those things are in themselves. But the most challenging idea of all is what Kant says about space and time. He plays his word-game and deduces that space and time drop out of the equation altogether. They’re part of the perceptual toolkit we’re born with, which means we can never get a handle on the way things are when we’re not looking. This is not to say the world is an illusion. It’s just that the way we see it is the only way we can see it, while its true nature is hidden and unknowable.

This sounds like the opening of Dao De Jing, written in China two thousand years before Kant. It says what we can see and touch and put names to is not the same as the essence of those things in themselves. Chinese ideas were floating around in Europe at the time Kant was writing. They’re sophisticated philosophies because the Chinese got themselves organized into a literate culture early on. But to the semi-theocratic west, these were pagan ideas and it was dangerous for philosophers to make too much of them.

Still, I think it’s an important thing to know, this link, that two cultures, isolated, and thousands of years apart could come up with the same basic idea. It suggests they might have been on to something. But its also frustrating I’ve not the nous to make any more headway with it than that. I did try reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” once. I wanted to understand it, word for word, like I once understood fluid dynamics. But I couldn’t follow it in any meaningful depth. I was probably in my late thirties then, and no point trying again now.

Carl Jung read it when he was seventeen. He’d read Schopenhauer’s “Will and Representation” too. He understood both well enough to think he’d spotted a flaw in Schopenhauer’s reasoning. It’s schoolboys of that calibre who grow to influence in the world of thought. All laymen like me can do is hold on to their coat-tails, hoping for a line or two of poetry that will stick and sum things up for us.

Most of us don’t bother of course, and are no more enlightened in the philosophical intricacies than mud. Or maybe the essence of life and living are so obvious anyway, we don’t need to learn it from the philosophers, or perhaps it just doesn’t matter. Or should we be content to leave it to those cleverer than we are to make a difference in the world? But when you look at the way the west is disintegrating – our leadership and our key institutions – and how China has undergone repeated convulsions down the centuries, finally to evolve into an authoritarian techno-surveillance state, you wonder if more of us, east and west, shouldn’t be making a better effort with those philosophers after all.

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lancashire plainIt’s a strange thing. Having loved the hills and mountains all my life, I’ve spent most of my life actually living on the flat, among the potatoes of the Lancashire plain. Here, the sky has a crushing quality that seems to laugh at the transcendence of spirit even the most modest of hills affords. On the mountain top, we are giants. On the plain we are small, and made to feel it.

Here the earth had become a factory for the intensive cultivation of vegetables, vast rectangles of land, tilled by machines and, when not under crop, the soil looks tired. It is puddled and bleak in winter and in summer it is dry and cracked and dusty, the whole of it is criss-crossed by stagnant sluices, and the high, strutting march of crackling power lines. For me, even during the most golden of golden hours, it lacks poetry.

So why am I still here?

Well, sometimes the practicalities of life leave us no choice. But it’s also one of life’s axioms that we are born within limits. And it is those limits that define us by providing the energy we need to live.


Arthur Schopenauer 1788-1860

I’m dipping in and out of the philosophers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche at the moment. Their world-view is impressively bleak. I’m sure it’s only a mark of my own ignorance to say so, but I am reluctant to take such profoundly miserable men at their word. Life is pointless, says Schopenhauer. It is nothing but nature eating itself. True, says Nietzsche. If we can’t laugh at it, we should jump off a cliff and thereby deny it the satisfaction of our own suffering!

Not exactly promising, is it? Except, although there might not seem at first glance to be an inch of poetry anywhere here, the poetry comes anyway. And it’s not altogether bleak. Why not? Is there something wrong with me? Does it only betray my philosophical illiteracy that I am not more of an old sour-puss, like them?

Of course, when I do travel out a bit, get among the hills, the effect is more profound for my having been starved between-times of the sublime. I would like to think that if I lived among the hills, I would never tire of them, but I know that’s not so. I would always find something was in limited supply. A decent shop, a better Internet connection. And then the broad horizon and the humbling sky of the Lancashire Plain.


Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900

As the dam limits the progress of the river, it raises the water and gives a head of energy. This enables useful work, it fuels purpose. Even the gods understand this, and envy the limiting full-stop of our mortality. Why? For the intensity of experience it grants our lives. The secret is finding a balance. We seek a dynamic sweet-spot somewhere between that which crushes us, and that which bleeds us back into the hedonistic void.

To live, of course, is to suffer. Whether we turn that to positive use, or we just moan about, is up to us. The Buddhists are the experts at dealing with suffering, but their language is often times difficult. I fear we lay readers of Buddhism risk a simplistic interpretation of it – something about attaining a state of mind whereby we do not care about anything. But not to care is to lack energy for life. So why be alive?

“Living in the moment” is another lazy new-age trope, one I am also guilty of spouting from time to time. It suggests disregarding the future, including the bus that’s about to run us over. So before we settle into the present moment, we should take stock. We should change what is sensible to change, what can be changed, like avoiding that bus. As for what we cannot change, we seek a way of not minding it, for only then can we abide serenely in the ‘is’-ness of life.

Knowing what is sensible to change though is tricky, isn’t it? Do we change our car because it’s knackered, or because we’re bored with it? If the car is knackered but we have no money to change it, how do we not mind it? And what about my dilemma of living on the plain but craving the mountains?

I suppose if we want a thing, and cannot explain why, it’s wiser not to make an issue of it because change is unlikely to please us for very long. But if we need a thing, like we need a cat to keep away mice, and we can articulate that need without using the word “want”, then it has some utility, because one’s craving doesn’t come into it. Craving satisfaction rather suggests we are lacking a more useful purpose. In identifying craving, we can then choose to deny it, and pick up our purpose instead.

I understand “purpose” in creative terms as “the work”, the book, the poetry, the formulation of the idea. But without energy it doesn’t move. We become listless, becalmed like a sailboat without wind. We can lose our energy anywhere, whenever we succumb to craving what we think we lack. Similarly, we can find it anywhere – among the high places, or down among those potatoes of the Lancashire Plain. It’s just a question of knowing not so much where, but how to look.

So, Schopenhauer: austere, other worldly and profoundly pessimistic. And Nietzsche: bombastic, rude, and ready to have a pop at anything he doesn’t like, which is just about everything. I’m sure they have a point, and could easily embarrass me out of home-spun delusions, but I don’t suppose they were writing for me. And maybe that’s a good thing, that I’m not a philosopher, I mean. Otherwise, from time to time, I’d have nothing to smile, or write, about.


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It’s one of the great philosophical puzzles of all time: given a square of a certain area, how do you construct from it a circle of equal area using only compass and line? The truth is you can’t. This was proven by Ferdinand von Lindeman in 1882, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying, even to the present day, the reason being it’s more than a geometrical puzzle.

Philosophically, we think of the earth and all things in it as the square, or the plane of existence, while the circle represents the whole, the unity, or heaven. And while geometry can measure out most things, the one thing it cannot do is provide a construction that derives heaven from the profane dimensions of the earth. The nub of the problem lies in the strangeness of Pi.

At first glance Pi is a beguilingly simple number, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Divide the circumference by the diameter and you get 3.14159,… etc. The problem is “etc” is currently up to thirteen trillion places, and counting. The more we chase it, the further away it gets from us.

We assume from the evidence so far that Pi is an infinite and non repeating series, a transcendental number. It cannot be derived exactly by ratio, or by formula which means you can’t get to a circle equal in area to a given square, either by line and compass, or by supercomputer.

Or can you? Is there no intersection of line that gives us the radius of that circle? Can we not project it from the walls of the square? Might it not lie in inscribed circles? Can we get at it by projecting points of tangency? How about introducing other squares formed in harmonic series from the root square? Can we get projections from them?

Well,… no. Not exactly.

There are some very good approximations which the old philosophers must have had high hopes for when working within the accuracies permitted by actual line and compass. It’s only when we use computer aided design we get to zoom in and these constructions reveal their flaws. Then we stare through the gaps, not into the infinite void of Heaven, but at our own imperfections.

In my current work in progress, a guy drives himself nuts trying to square the circle. He represents the worst of our egoic tendencies, and he just can’t let it go even though it reduces him from a respected intellectual to the level of a suicidal crank. But he’s since had his revenge on me by having me fall under the spell of the conundrum myself. Yes, I know it’s impossible, but there’s still something beguiling about those approximations, at least to someone who grew up on Euclid and worked for a time on a drawing board with compass and line. I still have those compasses, forty years old now, and rendered obsolete some time around 1985 but there’s a definite beauty to them, also a creative potential, so I like to keep them clean out of respect, even though I rarely actually use them.

I stumbled across the approximation shown above, not with compasses, but with LibreCAD. I’m sure other would-be philosophers have found it too – I mean it’s hardly subtle. Indeed it’s a very simple and elegant construction that gives an answer accurate to within 0.13% of area. That sounds pretty good, but if you play the sums backwards, it yields an equivalent for Pi that’s only correct to the first two decimal places, so we’re a long way from attaining philosophical, spiritual or even just plain old mathematical transcendence.

What all this has to say about the human condition is that, at our worst, we can be self destructively pedantic in our quest for perfection, while at our pragmatic best we recognise a good approximation serves equally well.

This one’s a bit better – 3 decimal places:


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pince nez

When we write online, we are like birds calling in the wilderness so our own kind will know us. But we should be careful not to go more than half way towards meeting whatever approaches as a result, and be prepared to withdraw at once if what we have attracted seeks to take advantage. There seems to be no way of inviting exclusively those birds of a feather without automatically attracting the wrong sort as well: the predators.

When we call into the wilderness, we tag our writings so others who share our ideas might find us. But the predators take those tags as indicative of our habit and try to hit us with some sort of service. But I am from the Old Testament era of the Internet, a time when its promise loomed large, and it had more to offer than mere shopping. Therefore I find the predators annoying in their crassness and think their growing domination and their souring of this wonderful mind-space space an utter abomination.

In response to the last blog I have received advice on how to make money online, was offered beauty products, lifestyle advice from teenagers, and budgeting advice from spivs. There were also genuine responses, easily discerned from the fake, and as ever I thank those most valued birds of a feather for being the icing on the cake of my wordsmithing. But in general, our bird-calls mainly flag our position to the hunters who ready their guns seeking to fell the money from our pockets. And in hardening myself against predators, in learning to evade them, I find I mistrust every advert that comes my way online because I suspect I have been clumsily profiled. I resent it and find it creepy. As a self-publisher though I have no choice but to operate in this territory. I suppose then I’ve become quite the snob, seeking kinship exclusively with my own kind while being infuriated to a comical degree when the predators hear my call and respond by showering me with their shite.  Those Victorian men of letters, contributing piffle to “Blackwoods” never had this problem.

As a young engineer, many years ago now, finding my feet in a huge and, at times, terrifying manufactory, I once had the privilege of working with a crusty old curmudgeon in whom I confided my utter bewilderment at the oftentimes Byzantine processes required to achieve the simplest of things, also the long hours we spent in meetings, discussing ‘policy’ without actually achieving anything. And he told me that in engineering, all there really is is cutting metal, that the rest is bullshit, that we should never lose sight of that one key fact, then all would be well – at least with us – and we would not go crazy.

It was good advice, advice that has served me well, and which can be applied metaphorically and usefully to many areas of life outside the metal-cutting business. But in a society that has de-industrialised it has also become impossible not to conclude all there seems to be left now is the bullshit, and no more so than with the online world where nothing tangible ever existed in the first place.

It’s therefore disappointing when you put up a piece of work to which most of the responses are from snake-oil entrepreneurs. It’s not disappointment that so few birds of a feather hear my call, more perhaps that there seem to be so few genuine wild birds of any feather out there at all. It’s as well then that of all the species, I am the least gregarious, and therefore well suited to the environment, happiest in small company. I am an albatross perhaps, or a stormy petrel.

It’s a very big ocean we are crossing, and meaningful encounters are  naturally rare. True, the ocean has also become a sterile environment, thick with dross and boiling with fatuous nitrates, a fact we birds of a feather recognise only by our detachment from it and we lament its loss. Everyone down there is trying to profit at the expense of everyone else, it is a place of predators and prey  like worms in a bucket where everything is a baited hook, and even imaginary concepts like “lifestyle” have their price-tag.

We follow the styles of the celebrities, ape the decor of their homes, dress the way they dress, even pretend we are celebrities ourselves with our Insta-profiles. I suppose I’m no different. It’s just that my styles are a couple of hundred years out of date. I am all frock-coat and pince-nez. I am a pocket-watch and leather-bound journal, grimacing at modernity.

Krishnamurti had much to say about such faulty thinking. Basically, he said, the world was never in trouble before we came along, and even we were fine until we started over-thinking everything, that it is our oftentimes corrupt thought, our ground-level delusions that are at the root of all suffering. It begins with thinking, and ends with killing. So, dear snake-oil entrepreneur, before you respond this time with your spam you should take time to read what I’ve written, observe the tag-traps I have set for you, then you’d realise your hits on me only become a part of the meta-structure of the very thing I’m getting at, and it’s thus I profit instead from your avarice.

But each to their own. So you keep your nose to the ground, Mr Entrepreneur, sniffing out your grubby coin, always an eye for the easy buck, weighted by your  petty ambition, while we true birds of a feather spread our wings and soar.


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mariaThe paradox of human life is the evidence of its apparent pointlessness juxtaposed with our innate sense of infinite self worth. We are each placed at the very centre of our universe, yet we are able to make very little difference to it, and instead seem more often the victim of mischance or the misdeed of others. Thus, at times, we feel acutely vulnerable, afraid of injury or even annihilation.

We also find ourselves in a world pre-made by our collective forebears, a machine of rules, ideas and interactions whose mechanism is so complex it beggars all understanding, but whose purpose is more clearly the distribution of money and power – power over others, from whom the more powerful might extract money. Thus the machine defines its only measure of self-worth: money and power. The more you have the more successful you are. That the weak starve and whither is irrelevant. The machine must discard them. It has no choice. We are complicit in this inhumanity because of a self inflicted fallacy that it’s not our problem, or that somehow we cannot afford it, that there is not enough money for everyone born today to be allowed to live out the full span of their natural lives.

The bank is empty, the credit card maxed out – these being the simplistic metaphors used by politicians and the plutocratic machine minders to convince us of the need for a nation to “live within its means”, while at the same time facilitating the mass sequestering a nation’s means into the pockets of the predatory super-rich and powerful. Thus the machine mimics crudely the principles of natural selection, the evolutionary survival of the more well adapted being – in the machine’s case, adaptation being predicated purely on ego, cunning and greed. But unlike nature, which favours the proliferation or decline of a species at large, the machine produces only a small percentage of winners.

The rest, the losers can aspire only to the role of robotic serfdom, that is until the machine replaces them with actual robots, more perfect versions of the human being, at least in machine terms, in the way they function, for robots do not aspire to anything better than they are; they do not wonder about their purpose; they are not distracted by emotion, by cold, by hunger, by danger, by love. They do not require healthcare. We see now why the development of robots are so important to the machine – they are the perfect player in the “world-as-machine”, mirroring its deadness, a dead facsimile of a being for a dead world.

There was a picture in the newspapers this week of a gold plated super car. I mean, why settle for paint, when you can afford gold? The gold plated super-car is remarkably conspicuous. It is also a grotesquely apposite symbol of the end game of the world-construct as a money-game, when in those same cities we find broken and discarded people sleeping in doorways. But this is only to be expected since such mass economic casualties are written in to the machine’s code as a perfectly acceptable consequence.

As the machine automates its functions and increasingly delegates the human tasks to its robotic serfs, it is inevitable, according to machine logic, more of us will be discarded this way. And, since compassion is not a phenomenon that arises from machines, human beings who are not favoured among the rich and powerful cannot help but fare badly.

For all the shouting in this seemingly endless election season, I see no political solution to the machine’s excesses. The radical, humanistic policies necessary for averting such a grim, inhuman future are shredded daily by a psychological warfare of algorithmically targeted media falsehoods, ensuring our votes are for ever cast in the direction that is killing us.We cannot help ourselves. The machine has entered our blood, our bodies, our brains via the proxy devices we clutch daily to our bosoms, and through them it has infested us with its virulent nihilistic memes.

It is not unexpected, for it is a very ancient and human, and accurate observation that all things tend towards excess. They also contain within them the seeds of their own destruction, and the longer a thing stands, the greater the excesses it achieves, the more sudden and violent its downfall. The machine has facilitated an excess of inequality greater than the world has ever known. It is beyond obscenity, beyond systemic correction, beyond control, but will decay of its own accord, and I am not assured it will pass peacefully.

We cannot prepare for it, other than to make sure we are not so identified with the machine we are damaged by its disintegration. Materially of course, we will indeed be damaged – jobs, savings, welfare, all will be hit. But this is not our life. The machine world, though it seems all encompassing, is only the situation we exist in. Mentally, emotionally, life is elsewhere. It is in the stillness of our souls, it is to exist, to co-exist and to nurture both one’s own potential, and that of others. But the potential to what? What is the truest measure of doing well in the world? Is it really no more than a gold plated motor car? Is that the best we can aspire to?

When, in the near future, a robot looks upon the stars at night, it will do so only in terms of quantifiable data. How many stars? What type of star? It cannot transcend the data and be moved by the vision. The vision, the faculty of “being moved” is something distinctly human, born of the emotion and the imagination. It is a thing of the moment, a connection with that which is great and Godlike in all of us. So, if the world seems unrelentingly bleak and fractious and febrile right now, perhaps that’s because it is, and it remains so because we have lost the ability to imagine it any other way.

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philosophersWhat do we really know for sure? When it comes to defining the nature of reality there’s actually very little we can be sure of at all. I can even view my surroundings right now, and my presence in them as a dream, indeed I might as well for it’s impossible to prove things are otherwise. Even when I suffer I might be dreaming my suffering, and in the presence of others, I might be dreaming their presence. And the facts of the world, the laws by which it is governed may simply be the facts as I have invented them in the dream of the world, from the rising and the setting of the sun, to the swirl of atoms. As for the laws of physics not yet discovered, perhaps I merely invent them as I go along.

We learn from dreaming how malleable facts can be. The preposterous becomes true, not merely because we allow ourselves to believe it is so, but because the entire dream paradigm endorses it as such and so it becomes, at least within the bounding conditions of the dream, a verifiable fact. Often I will dream I have dreamed a dream before and only on waking realise the deceit, that I have not dreamed it before, that it was only a fact of the dream and only upon attaining an external perspective, by waking, do I realise the dream’s false nature.

Similarly in order to realise our false perceptions of the waking world, we must gain an external perspective, for only then might we know it for the illusion it either is, or is not. You might think this is impossible, that we are too firmly embedded in life in order to see our life in the third person. However, by a process of contemplation we can loosen our grip and achieve a somewhat abstract focus upon the world, sufficient to realise the only thing we can be certain of is the fact of our consciousness.

We are conscious.

There,… it’s a start.

And having realised it, there is a stage further we can go, already implied by the realisation, and this involves the realisation we are conscious of our consciousness, that we are self aware, and self reflective, and then it is only one more step to the realisation we can observe our thoughts as we think them, that we can become aware of ourselves thinking, that we are not in fact our thoughts, that another presence altogether is responsible for that sense of self awareness.

And this is who we really are.

This is a pivotal realisation for a human being, one that marks a separation of the true self, this sense of self awareness, from the thinking or the false self.

That we are not our thoughts.

Thinking does not reveal the underlying truth of anything. On those occasions when the mind approaches an axiomatic truth, it is noted how sophistication falls away, that insight is achieved
more by observation without judgement, and in stillness. In such moments truth is revealed as plain as a key, and truth is what lies behind the door it spontaneously unlocks, and is felt in the feeling tones of the experience.

In this way we come to realise there can be more truth in the fall of light upon a pebble than in the liturgy of all religions, and in the whole of poetry; it depends how you view it and where your heart is at the time. At all other times it’s just a pebble. Purple prose will not convey its essence, for the longer a name and the more adjectives and metaphor we deploy in its description, the less resemblance it bears to any truth we might have felt. Nor does the truth bear with it any sense of urgency. It does not hurry us along to some imagined goal. It does not speak of time running out. It does not measure or judge, but possess instead a spaciousness and a love in which to rest, unquestioning in the peacefulness of true insight.

Anything else is just the noise of the world.

So, what do we know for sure? Not much. But then we don’t need to know much to be certain of the single most important thing in the world. Indeed for that we don’t need to know anything at all.

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I CHingThe notion of a life’s path is central to ideas of human development, be they secular or religious. But it’s not obvious what that path is, especially when we can only say we’re on it when we’re not deliberately trying to steer our course. And our Ego likes to steer, likes to gain knowledge, skill, and to compete against other egos in order to secure wealth, power and sex. These are the aphrodisiacs of the material world, a world that divides us, as it did in primitive times, into mere predators and prey. There can be no other way, we’re told – no surviving life without combat. It’s evolution. Simple.

Not true, says the Book of Changes.

The Book of Changes, also known as the I Ching or the Yi Jing, is a strange, beguiling text, evidence of which first appeared in China’s Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BC, though it certainly predates this period. It came to the west in the late 19th century via the translation by James Legge, and largely ignored except as a cultural curiosity, but was taken up by the Jungian psychoanalytical movement on publication of the influential Wilhelm edition in 1929. There have been many editions since the Wilhelm Edition, but none so influential, striking as it did at the heart of European intellectual thought.

It then became a companion to 60’s counterculture, and is still widely used today. While its core structure has remained untouched since antiquity, the language of its interpretation changes to suit whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. I have several versions of it, and wrote my own interpretation, The Hexagrams of the Book of Changes, available here, as a way of furthering my grasp of its curious concepts.

What we normally think of as our life’s path, says the Yi Jing, the path we can see and plot and manage, isn’t really our path at all, but simply our life situation. Our true path is more of an internal journey towards awakening. Our life situation is only relevant to the extent that we are able to adjust our relationship with it in order to prevent it from subverting the more vital inner path. The material world is a world asleep. Hold solely to material values, and you will remain asleep also. To awaken is to realise, viscerally, the deeper nature of reality and our place in it. To this end the Yi Jing is an indispensable guide.

What makes the book unique is its interactive nature. You talk to it. You can ask it things, and it answers. The answers are complex, perceptive, and personal. There’s a lot of debate about exactly who or what it is we talk to when we talk to the Yi Jing. Some deify the book, picturing in their minds the spirit of a wise old sage, like Lao Tzu perhaps, and that’s fine if it’s how you want to see it. But everyone’s relationship with the book is going to be different.

My own feeling is that when we consult the book, we open the way to a deeper part of our selves. We ask our question and are then directed to certain apparently random passages and subtexts, the combination of which forms a narrative for reflection and interpretation. The answers then emerge in our own minds, riding in on a wave of sudden insight. In some sense the book can be seen as an oracle, but this is to seriously underestimate its potential, and for me its real strength lies in its use as a psychological tool, a thing that shakes the unconscious mind in order to release personal insights.

I don’t know how it works, and I no longer think about it. The ego cannot crack it, but neither can the Ego accept the Yi Jing without explanation, so there opens a divide. On the one side we have explanations from devotees of the book that range from the vaguely plausible to the frankly crackpot, and on the other a sour scientistic rejection of the book as merely the work of an emerging, pre-rational culture. Others say we simply read into it whatever we want to hear, and that’s also fine, though this does not explain the fact that if one is open enough, one always rises from the Yi Jing knowing or feeling something one did not know or feel before. Another of its useful characteristics is that it will never shy away from telling us what we don’t want to hear. It’s not an easy book to know, certainly not without devoting time to developing a relationship with it, and many may find it simply impenetrable, banal, or even repulsive.

When I read back to my earliest conversations with the Yi Jing, I come across as a very different person, my questions very much concerned with my place in the world: job, relationships, house, kids, cars, holidays, financial ups and downs, struggles for publication,… and the answers read like repeated attempts to make me see I had the whole world upside down, that actually, none of it mattered, that the confusion and the frustration we so often feel in life is based on faulty thinking, our anxieties arising purely from a resistance to events over which we have no control.

While we have no choice, as beings in flesh, but to operate at the material level of reality, the Yi Jing tells us we should always do so in cognizance of the inherent limitations of material being, and in the knowledge that a greater understanding of the meaning of “being” comes from exploring the shifting patterns of our inner selves. As a guide to such things, I have found the Yi Jing is without parallel and is one of the most insightful guides to life ever conceived.

Not bad for a book coming to us from our Neolithic past.

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